Monday, March 21, 2011

What's wrong with Catholic celebrity?

Sorry for the late blogging--Monday, and all that.

Our diocese participates in a vocational prayer program that many other dioceses around the country have also adopted. It's called the Chalice Program, and the idea is simple:
What is the Chalice Program?

Many parishes throughout the diocese have implemented the Chalice Program to encourage families to pray for religious vocations. A chalice (or another symbol) is presented to a volunteer family at each weekend liturgy for the family to display in their home while offering prayers for vocations throughout the week. The family brings back the chalice the next weekend when they attend Mass, and the chalice is presented to another family.
There is a special prayer for vocations which accompanies this parish program. In our parish, the prayer for vocations reads as follows:
Lord, guide all who are seeking You. May Your Spirit direct all who are called to a religious vocation and strengthen those who have committed themselves to priesthood or religious life. Inspire men and women to serve Your Church, and keep us all in Your grace. Amen.
Yesterday our family received the chalice and took it home in its special box to place it in a place of prominence so we would remember to pray for vocations. That place is on top of the computer armoire where I am sitting right now as I write this; not only is it a central spot in our living room, but has the added advantage of being one of the handful of places Smidge, our auxiliary back-up cat, has not been able to reach by jumping or climbing.

I was thinking about our participation in this program as the story about Father Corapi broke this weekend. My reaction to the story has been much like that of Mark Shea: we don't really know what is going on, it's not our business to interfere in an investigation either by being outraged that the investigation is taking place, or by being outraged by the mere existence of accusations, and the proper response to the whole thing is simply prayer for all concerned. I myself have never heard Fr. Corapi speak, nor watched him on television, nor heard him on the radio, nor read any of his writings--I truly know nothing about him other than that he is very popular. That popularity, on the one hand, is producing some people who are heaping scorn and anger on his accuser and on those responsible for his suspension during this investigation (despite the fact that this is pretty much standard procedure even for lay people accused of harassment or some such thing, and thus not all that horrifying), and on the other, people who are pointing to his popularity and the trappings of fame as proof that there's probably something behind the charges.

Neither of those responses are valuable. If anything, though, they are both driven by our culture of celebrity, by our tendency, in America, to become fiercely partisan over our movie stars and sports figures and politicians, to defend hotly the ones we personally like or approve of and to rejoice in the downfall of the ones we don't like at all.

Translated to the Catholic sphere, we've become rather enamored of the idea of turning some of our religious figures into celebrities in their own rights. We like the idea of the famous priest, the monk we've seen on TV (and not the crime-solving fictional layman character, either), the nun whose order is known for its humble holiness so much so that it's become a sort of brand identity for the convent or order; we even like the idea of lay Catholic cult figures, the rock-stars of the pro-life community, the "in" crowd of the Catholic blogosphere, the Catholic homeschooling guru or the popular author of "keeping it real" vocation-of-motherhood books aimed at Catholic moms from the boardroom to the playground to the kitchen-table school.

We like fame, we Americans. We like celebrity. But the danger of insisting that our favorite Catholic figures be celebrities is that we end up trying to turn holiness into one of those "set-apart" things that we like about celebrities. It's the Catholic version of being able to get reservations at swanky restaurants at the last minute or being given bucketloads of free stuff in exchange for endorsements: holiness is seen as one of the "perks" of being a Catholic celebrity, a quality that both elevates certain well-known Catholics to celebrity status and proves that they're worthy of that status in the first place.

There are tons of things that are wrong with this view. The most obvious is that holiness is a call for everyone, not just for the people who make it big in the relatively small Catholic pond. Another is that assuming the Catholic celebrities we like are already holy diminishes them a little as people, making us incapable of seeing them as capable of struggle, pain, suffering, temptation, and sin--which they are, as we all are.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of viewing holiness as a sort of perk of Catholic celebrity is that we reduce holiness to an outward quality, a thing discernible by how well someone writes or speaks or inspires or challenges or converts others, a quality that automatically follows words like "orthodox" or "reverent" or "inspirational" or "on fire."

We should know, we who are familiar with the Gospels, how wrong that is, how possible it is for a charlatan, a fraud, a hypocrite to appear orthodox, reverent, inspirational, or even on fire for God. Jesus confronted such people frequently--they were the Pharisees, who made such a show of their religious observances that ordinary people looked up to them as if they were holiness-celebrities, people who had it all right and had figured it out, people who were conferring honor upon God instead of it being the other way around by their demeanor and habits. Inside, of course, they were what Our Lord called rotting sepulchers--full of deeply ingrained sins, bad habits, contemptible practices--people, that is, like us.

The truth of the matter is that we can't tell how holy someone is from the outside. We simply can't. We don't know whether someone is a troubadour for God or a noisy gong, a clanging symbol--not until they've left this life, and the Church has examined their lives and declared some of them saints. Only then can we call them "holy" and know that this is the simple truth.

That is why it is appropriate to pray for priests, for nuns, for bishops, for cardinals, for the pope himself. That is why it is appropriate to pray humbly for each other, regardless of our status or lack thereof in the Catholic celebrity world. A vocation is not a guarantee of holiness; gifts of teaching or preaching are not guarantees of holiness; dedicated lives of service are not guarantees of holiness--nothing, in fact, that we can see from the outside of a man is a guarantee that he is holy. Only God, who sees the heart, really knows.

15 comments:

Rebecca in CA said...

Red, I am not so much outraged as disturbed by the method of the proceedings--Fr. Corapi himself has expressed chagrin over how this is being handled and I think with good reason. He seems to be being treated as guilty until proven innocent, before anyone has even looked into whether these charges ought to be taken seriously or not--some radio stations are leaving off airing his talks, just in case he is guilty--this is the immediate effect of a single letter written by a single person.

I personally am not big into celebrities, Catholic or not; I rarely listen to Catholic radio, but I definitely have from what I know of him formed an opinion of his moral character, I admire him and listen to what he has to say not just because of his rhetorical skills but because I think he has a really good heart, and I will stick to that unless there is some compelling evidence otherwise. I think most of us, before Mother Teresa's death, did hold strongly that she was a very good woman, and would have simply not taken seriously some random accusation against her unless it were shown to have a basis in reality. I know it is not my place to judge souls the way God does or even a priest needs to, but we do make judgments about people's goodness and sincerity in order to choose our teachers, etc., and I don't think it's out of place to do so. That being said, my only words about this, apart from this post, were to post on Fr. Corapi's facebook wall that we will be praying for him in our daily Rosary, and then doing so.

Red Cardigan said...

Rebecca, I do have to disagree just a little. His order has made the decision to investigate. While they are doing that, the media outlets where Fr. Corapi is featured have to decide: do they act as though nothing is happening, do they pull his programs for the time being, or...what, exactly?

Suppose a popular news anchor on a TV news program were accused in writing by an employee of what amounts to sexual harassment. Is the TV station who employs him going to keep him on the air while an investigation is underway? Even if everyone at the station believes the accusations are false and that the employee has an axe to grind, no, the TV station will probably ask the anchor to take a leave of absence while the investigation process goes forward.

The choice to reveal the situation was Father Corapi's, after all. He may have had excellent reasons for releasing a statement--perhaps he was worried that his supporters would think he was seriously ill again if he was not visible for a while and had to cancel engagements. But the fact remains that no one would know about the existence of the letter or the accusations without Fr.'s decision to speak about it.

Again, I know nothing about Fr. Corapi and have never heard him speak. What I do know is that in this situation he is being treated exactly the same way a lay person would be treated if accused of sexual harassment in most circumstances. If the charges are truly baseless and easily refuted (e.g., the accuser supplied dates and times on which Fr. was not even in the same state as those he was alleged to have had inappropriate contact with, etc.) then I am sure his exoneration will be speedy and publicized to the fullest extent.

Red Cardigan said...

One other point: you wrote, "He seems to be being treated as guilty until proven innocent, before anyone has even looked into whether these charges ought to be taken seriously or not--..." Many people have written something like this, but again, it is his order, the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) which has made the decision to investigate and presumably to place Father on administrative leave while the investigation proceeds. To say that the order is treating him as guilty until proven innocent or that they are taking seriously a letter which ought to be brushed aside is to malign the order a little, I think (though not intentionally on your part, of course). Having a sister in a religious order myself, I would say that the relationship between a religious sister, brother or priest and the order they belong to is very much like the relationship of a family. If SOLT is a good order (and I know nothing that suggests otherwise) their decision to investigate is simply the required response to serious written allegations of inappropriate conduct, and not motivated by malice or directed by those wishing to harm Father Corapi personally. We should try to keep that in mind, I think.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

I really can't believe that people are outraged by the way this is being handled. For years following "The Great Scandal" all we have heard is people complaining how the Church authorities did NOTHING. Now that the pendulum has swung and the Church authorities are trying to be more active, people are complaining because well, he's one of the good ones so it's not fair! I guess they only want the bishops and abbots to get rid of the "bad ones" but how will they know if a priest is good or bad until after an investigation? For years, they just quietly took the evidence that was presented to them, didn't take it seriously, shoved it in a file and moved Fr. Whackadoo somewhere else. That wasn't good enough! Now, they are being cautious and careful and taking seriously every allegation until it is proven true or false and that's not good enough either.

If Fr. Corapi is innocent then a thorough investigation will bring that to light in a most conclusive way and the only people who will look sideways at him will be those people who have an axe to grind with Church authorities anyway. Does he feel persecuted by the way this leave of absence appears to the general public? I'm sure he does. But Our Lord suffered unfairness and persecution, many saints suffered unfairness and persecution in this world and isn't persecution something Christians are supposed to kind of expect?

As far as removing his radio and television speeches, well, they are a form of himself (digitally recorded), so if he is on leave, then all forms of him should be considered "on leave" as well. If we choose to believe the best and not the worst, then we can change the perception that he is guilty until proven innocent. I don't mean rushing to proclaim his innocence! I think the Maciel and Euteneuer enthusiasts have proven what folly that is. But frankly, the only other way for the authorities to respond is the way they have responded in the past which resulted in no end of problems. What would people have them do instead?

Rebecca in CA said...

I'd like to remind you though that the allegations have nothing to do with abuse of minors...and I guess all I'm saying is that it would make sense, to me, to do a quiet investigation into whether the allegations might have any basis before putting someone on administrative leave, taking him off the air, etc.

I don't think it is maligning the order to disagree with their method. I don't think Fr. Corapi is maligning his order by making the statement he has made. The fact is that it *is* a very damaging thing (yes, he is the one who revealed the reason, but the fact is that to be put on "administrative leave" is in itself an implication and how would it look for him to be silent?)...the fact that we're sitting here considering, well, even the greatest speakers can fall sometimes; don't be too sure...all of that is so damaging of a reputation. I would think that the order ought quietly to investigate whether the allegations are worthy of being taken seriously at all before allowing one of its members' reputations to be compromised.

What was horrifying about the sex scandal was that things simply were not investigated, or were not taken very seriously even when found to be true, and were covered up--and above all that these were crimes which were committed upon children.

Red Cardigan said...

Rebecca, let me ask you one question: why are you certain that the order did not first quietly investigate to see whether the allegations had any basis before proceeding?

I think it is quite likely that they did! Fr. Corapi has, from what others have said (I don't know myself), said or implied that he's been the target of false charges before. Since we've never heard about any of those, and he's never been placed on leave, presumably the order in those situations *did* quietly investigate, see immediately that the charges were obvious falsehoods, and move on.

In this case I think that since an employee is involved the charges are at least going to appear credible (e.g., dates, times, etc.). But having ascertained that--quietly, as you said--they have no choice but to proceed with an investigation/administrative leave approach.

And that, too, was being done completely quietly until Fr. Corapi released his statement. Granted, he didn't just want to "disappear" for no apparent reason--but since the person at the center of the investigation is the one who chose to go public I don't think we can slam his order for *not* doing things quietly--they WERE doing things quietly.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

Fr. Corapi is essentially being investigated for possible sexual harrasment and drug use. He is being accused of having a sexual relationship with at least one employee and possible others. That is considered dangerous behavior in the work environment. If a CEO or high level manager of a corporation was being accused of this kind of behavior, he would also be put on leave pending investigation, would be subjected to drug screenings and would probably be required to attend anti-harassment and sensitivity training lectures in his spare time whether he was proven guilty or not. I guess I don't see how Fr. Corapi is being treated any differently.

Rebecca in CA said...

Yeah, if it's true that there was investigation into the allegations previous to this, and the order sees a likelihood of guilt, then I can see your point. If it's not, though; and if it is simply the policy to put someone under administrative leave the instant there is an allegation, which seems to be what Fr. Corapi is saying, that just doesn't seem good. Even if he is not shown to be guilty; there are no other witnesses, etc., if he can't absolutely prove his innocence (and it seems difficult to "prove" you didn't have sex with someone), this is going to have lasting effects.

I really don't know that much about how things go in companies, but it would definitely be news to me if it's true that a single letter would, with no investigation at all, be enough to put someone on leave and require him to attend anti-harrassment and sensitivity training lectures. If that is so, I think it is unfortunate.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

Rebecca,
Think about it this way... "on leave" is not the same as "suspension". Suspension is a disciplinary action that usually results from an investigation. It usually indicates that there is enough information to warrant disciplinary action. A leave of absence is not punitive and maybe not enough people know that. It can be something that is requested by the person taking the leave or something that is asked of the person by their employer. It simply defines the time an "employee" will be away from his job while maintaining his status as an employee. It is during this leave of absence that the investigation will begin or continue depending on when the leave of absence and the investigation were initiated.

Rebecca in CA said...

hmmm...okay, but Fr. Corapi is not viewing "administrative leave" the same way you are describing "leave of absence"...I guess I'm at the end of my knowledge here. I'm open to the possibility that the action was appropriate, but I'm also open to the possibility that it was not, and tending towards taking Fr. Corapi's objections seriously. Mostly though, I'm praying. :)

Rebecca in CA said...

I was just looking at the comments on Mark Shea's blog...have you looked at them? I am finding Richard Comerford's comments pretty compelling.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...

Except that the Regional Superior for the order stated that the administrative leave (which is defined the same as leave of absence) was done in accordance with Canon Law.

Today, as Regional Priest Servant for the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, I have the unhappy responsibility to announce that Father John Corapi, SOLT has been placed on administrative leave from priestly ministry, in accordance to the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church.

Look, I'm praying for the truth to win out, whatever that truth may be and like Erin, I have only a very limited knowledge of Fr. Corapi personally. I just don't see the grave injustice in the way this situation is being dealt with although I can understand Fr. Corapi's frustration with it since he proclaims himself to be innocent. I guess I don't understand everyone else's frustration. The investigation seems to be moving forward and God willing, there will be an answer soon.

Erin said...

Somewhat tangential question--can any of you Cradle Catholics tell me if this is why priests are limited in how many years they can stay at a parish? In order to avoid developing a "cult of celebrity?"

Here in Chicago a popular priest is being asked to transfer after 30 YEARS of service to one parish...a lot of his parishioners are saying that they would simply follow him if he were to be transferred to another parish (instead he is being sent to a high school, I think). I suspect that the (wise, I think) rule is in place in part to avoid situations like this.

I will check back into these comments to see if anyone has answered me! Thanks!

Bathilda said...

Erin, I'm not a cradle catholic, but I think that you are right. We just lost our priest after only nine years, and I adored him. He was the only priest I have known at this parish, as we haven't always lived in this city. It's been really hard getting used to the new ways of our new priests (we are big enough for a pastor and associate pastor). I think that many major denominations do move pastors around. The Catholic Church isn't exclusive in this practice.

Jarnor said...

The nature of humans has as a part of it the need to look to the example of others we respect.

If it's not to people we perceive to be doing good, holy things then it tends towards power, glamor, and wealth.

I'd rather see Catholic celebity looked up to than the Hollywood stars who act like prostitutes.