The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (3 of 12)
The Church, Part 2: “The Habit Covers a Multitude of Sins”6
I trace the emergence of depression to a day in my third year of high school when my confessor Father Alexander — who was weak in zoology as well as pastoral theology, I would later understand — withheld God’s forgiveness from me. Although I had followed his instructions to participate in Mass and confession more often, I had continued to “abuse” myself. “That’s disgusting,” he said in the confessional. “Not even the animals do that. You come in here every week and confess the same mortal sin. [Mortal means soul-damning; I’ll discuss that further in a sidebar.] Absolution requires a sincere intention to reform: clearly, you have no such intention. I will not absolve you until you’ve stopped committing that sin, and I forbid you to seek absolution from another priest.”
The result of that abortive confession was relentless self-loathing and fear of hell as I amassed mortal sins. Despite the shame and dread, I was unable to stop “committing that sin.” Further, my transgressions now included weekly sacrilege: not wanting my parents to know of my sinfulness, I continued to receive communion when they took me to Mass on Sundays; each reception while unshriven was yet another grievous sin. God had called me to his holy priesthood, and this was my response? During that time, I wrote a short poem to express my state of mind. I called it “Prison of Vice.”
How long must I bear
This filthy place?
Must I hide here forever?
There must be sunlight somewhere,
And fresh air; I know it.
But will I ever
Find the courage to break free,
To regain my lost humanity
And get out of this loathsome place?
It is surely significant that I can type those lines from memory over half a century later. Back then, I couldn’t see that “Prison of Catholicism” would have been a better title, that I was bound by what William Blake called “mind-forg’d manacles.”7 The Church had convinced me that the sickness was in my own failure to love and obey God.
After months of despair, I revealed my situation to a young teacher whom I felt I could trust. I’ll call him Father X. “Ninety-eight out of a hundred males do that,” Father X said of the behavior I’d thought depraved, “and the other two are liars.” I was stunned.
Saying that Father Alexander must have misunderstood a settled matter of moral theology, Father X then explained the doctrine of “habitual sin.” When a person repeats a grievously sinful act so often that it becomes a fixed habit, he told me, that person is no longer able to consent fully to that act and is, therefore, no longer committing mortal sin. (The person may be committing “venial” sin, but such minor offenses do not damn the soul to hell and need not be confessed.) I just needed to confess the sin of allowing the habit to develop, he said; ongoing instances of a habitual act were not seriously sinful, and they were probably not sinful at all if the person regretted the habit, as I did. I formally confessed, and he absolved me. No longer damned and no longer doomed to repeatedly re-damn myself, I felt weightless with relief.
Although the doctrine of habitual sin was wondrously convenient, it was well-established in Catholic moral teaching. Here is an excerpt from a 1956 article in a Catholic journal of theology:
Moral theology admits that the habit of sin, considered in itself, may be and often is completely sinless. Even when a habit of sin has been contracted deliberately and sinfully, once the habitual sinner repents of the sin involved in contracting the habit and sincerely resolves to use efficacious means to correct the habit, the habit itself is considered involuntary and sinless. This means that, hereafter, and as long as he remains in the same good dispositions, the individual acts placed under the influence of habit are no longer attributed to him in causa. This means, further, that the formal guilt of any future individual acts, placed under the influence of the acquired habit, must be judged from the individual acts themselves, i.e., according to the amount of effective control he was able to exercise in each instance, considering all the internal and external circumstances of the act.
This is a commonplace of moral theology. It is emphasized here because when the priest meets a habitual sinner, either in or out of the confessional, he is dealing generally with a sinner who sincerely repents of his acquired habit and is willing to use the necessary means to correct his habit of sin.8
It may have been a commonplace among moral theologians, but I suspect that most Catholics would be as surprised to learn of it as I was. It may be too dangerous a doctrine to be widely propagated.
Many years later, when my depression began to feel life-threatening, I consulted a psychologist. When I told him about the notion of “completely sinless” habitual sin, he said, “That can’t be right: that would be crazy! I have Catholic friends, and they wouldn’t believe crazy things.” (“But,” I thought, “you wouldn’t call ‘crazy’ the well-known doctrine that a child’s self-pleasuring merits the same eternal punishment as murder?”) I gave him a copy of a book I’d found that made reference to the concept. “It may be crazy,” I said as he read the relevant paragraph, “but it is what they teach.” He nodded, but it was evident that he couldn’t make sense of it. I was not surprised at his response: by then, I was well aware of the fundamental absurdity of the Catholic moral system.
At the time of my confession to Father X, however, the Catholic worldview, its madness cloaked by its universal acceptance in my milieu, was still my normal, unquestioned reality. Disinterested analysis was not a possibility for me then; I would not begin to think critically about religion and ethics until I stepped outside of Catholic culture after high school. Only then would I realize that the doctrine of habitual sin might harbor more than relief for adolescents possessed by hormonal demons. Even so, I did not suspect the depths of depravity that it could rationalize. It was still inconceivable that priests would rape children.
Almost fifty years after my confession to him, Father X was posthumously accused of molesting boys at Archbishop Curley and elsewhere. By that time, the myth of priestly purity had been exploded by the abuse scandal. I saw then the darker possibilities of the habitual sin doctrine — and of that confession, which had taken place not through a screen in a confessional box but face to face in an otherwise empty classroom.
The doctrine could be used to assert not only that “habitual” child abuse would not be sinful, but also that the abuser should not be held responsible for his actions: “Even when a habit of sin has been contracted deliberately, once the habitual sinner repents of the sin involved in contracting the habit and sincerely resolves to use efficacious means to correct the habit, acts placed under the influence of the habit are no longer attributed to him in causa.” That principle, which contrasts with secular law, may help explain the difference between the ecclesiastical and the public and legal perspectives on clerical child abuse. Given his daily prayer and sacrament, a habitually abusive priest — and his bishop or religious superior — could believe that he is already using “efficacious means to correct the habit” and is not, therefore, morally responsible for his raping of children. Perhaps it could even encourage priests — such as Father X, whose tally of male masturbators had not excluded them — to cultivate habits of sin.
Considering the accusations, I must acknowledge the possibility that Father X, seeing that I trusted him with my “sexual problems,” hoped to groom me. If he did, however, he sabotaged himself. His casuistry and absolution made it not only possible but seemingly imperative that I go to seminary, instead of returning to Curley and him, for my senior year. For the time being no longer hopelessly damned, I knew that I must “use the necessary means,” take every available measure, to overcome the vice. To fail to do so would be to fall again into mortal sin. For someone called to the priesthood, seminary life was one such means. Hoping in the curative powers of public commitment, fraternal support, and intense religious practice — that a friar’s habit would help me overcome a bad habit9 — I felt that I must enroll in a seminary without delay.
. “The habit covers a multitude of sins”: an insider joke, a pun on 1 Peter 4:8b (“love covers a multitude of sins”), that I heard from a Franciscan friar at dinner. He was patting his belly at the time.
. William Blake, “London.” In 1948, Allen Ginsberg had a vision or “auditory illumination” of William Blake reading his poems; the experience shaped Ginsberg’s life as a poet. After hearing him speak about that, I developed a keen interest in Blake’s work. (Blake was the originator of a phrase that would become prominent in the hippie culture: “the doors of perception.” See Note 18.)
. Joseph A. Duhamel, “Theological and Psychiatric Aspects of Habitual Sin: Theological Aspects,” Proceedings of the Eleventh Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, 1956. (Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.): http://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/ctsa/article/view/2421.
. Belief in the magical efficacy of the religious habit was instilled in me first of all by nuns at my grade school. It was reinforced and extended by the Carmelite Order, which claimed that in 1251 the Virgin Mary, while holding the scapular of St. Simon Stock’s habit, had said, “Whoever dies wearing this shall not suffer eternal fire”: truly, as The Guidepost would gush, an “astonishing promise of eternal salvation.” The word “habit” is from the Latin habitus, which refers not only to outward appearance but also to inward condition. A Carmelite prayer for investiture of the habit includes this: “May the Lord clothe you a new man, who is created according to God in justice and holiness of truth.” That recalls Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13:14: “Instead, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”