Chaucer’s Answer to Catholic Corruption


Like many, I have been appalled at the non-stop stories of abuse coming out of the Catholic Church and depressed by the Church’s response.  The latest egregious example of the latter is the pope’s personal preacher comparing newspaper accusations of the pope to the persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust.

Calling Geoffrey Chaucer, to come riding to the rescue.  Hang on a moment and I’ll explain how he can help.

First, however, let me say that I agree with liberal columnist (and Catholic) E. J. Dionne, who says that the church should stop acting out of bureaucratic and institutional self preservation and instead dedicate itself to spiritual transformation.  Live as if you truly believe in contrition, repentance, and absolution.  Instead of worrying about lawsuits, worry about the victims of your priests.  If you went easy on bishops who tried to push the whole thing under the rug, confess that you did so.  If you told bishops to act this way, confess it.  After all, the issue is not damage control.  The issue is getting right with God. 

As far as I can tell, however, there is little likelihood that this will happen.  Instead, the Church has gone on the attack.  For a long time now, the official Catholic Church seems to be more interested in cracking down upon dissent within the institution than in engaging in soul searching.  In this country we’ve heard more about disciplining outspoken nuns and liberal theologians and pro-choice Catholic politicians than institutional self-examination.

Are there any glimmers of light for Catholics?

Does it help to say that the Catholic Church has been screwing up for a long time?  New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tells the following story to make this point:

During a frustrating argument with a Roman Catholic cardinal, Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly burst out: “Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?” The cardinal, the anecdote goes, responded ruefully: “Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.”

Here’s how Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, provides us with two responses.  First of all, he uses ironic humor (a bit like the Colbert Report does) to skewer corrupt church men and women, pretending to praise when in fact he’s undermining. There is the monk, a “manly man” who loves horseback riding, hunting and eating and who considers monastic discipline as “nat worth an oystre.”  There is the friar, a man who has turned absolution into a profitable money-making enterprise and who (in chilling anticipation of today’s abuse) uses his position of power to seduce young women.  (The naïve narrator of Canterbury Tales commends him for finding husbands for various young women—but these are probably women that he has impregnated.)  The prioress is a hypocrite who makes claims to be a delicate lady but in fact has enormous appetites. The pardoner is a con man that passes off sheep bones as saints’ relics and rakes in big bucks by selling papal pardons.  Chaucer’s narrator seems to praise them all, even as the descriptions of them expose them for what they really are like.

He  also abandons irony to indicate that the church still has people like the parson, a truly good man who lives in poverty and puts the needs of his parishioners above all.

He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Christes gospel trewely [faithfully] wolde preche
His parisshens devoutly wold he teche
Benigne he was, and wonder [wonderfully] diligent
And in adversitee ful pacient . . .

Although he has a large parish, he is constantly on his feet, in rain and shine, visiting even those sick and unfortunate in the outermost reaches. It may be the law of the land that he curse people for not paying their tithes, but he would rather help them out with his own small resources.  He first lives the Christian life and then teaches it, figuring that if he does not, then people will be led astray.

And this figure [metaphor] he added eek thereto:
That if gold ruste, what shal iren do?
For if a preest be foul, on whome we truste,
No wonder is a lewed [uneducated] men to ruste.
And shame it is, if a preest take keep [heed],
A shiten [befouled] shepherede and a clene sheep.
Wel oughte a preest ensample for to yive
By his clennesse how that his sheep sholde live.

The parson does not behave like others, renting out his parish and going to the city, where a churchman could make a lot more money.  His style is gentle but stern.  On the one hand, he seeks

      to drawnen folk to hevene by fairnesse
By good ensample—that was his bisinesse.

However, if someone proves obstinate, it doesn’t matter whether he is “of heigh or lowe estat.”  He is not reluctant to chastise those in powerful positions if they deserve it.  “A better preest,” Chaucer concludes, “I trowe [believe] ther nowher noon is,” and then,

But Cristes lore [teaching] and his Apostles twelve
He taughte, but first he folwed it himselve.

Religion has always been saved, and sometimes reformed, by those who focused first and foremost on our relationship with God.   

Granted, it’s never been easy.  Because touching the divine opens us up, it leaves us vulnerable to scoundrels who swoop in to take advantage.  Some of these people have been molesters, some church bureaucrats more interested in control than contrition.  The light invariably calls forth the darkness. 

But if almost 2000 years of people twisting Christianity to suit their egotistical ends has not succeeded in killing it, then there must be something more there. That something more is what inspires the parson.  So Catholics, don’t panic. This pope won’t destroy the church.  God is bigger than he is.

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  1. Julia
    Posted April 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Maybe indifference will kill the church. And Islam. And we will end up with pure materialism?

    But that kind of darkness doesn’t last in the face of human caring.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted April 5, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I see you pouring out your soul to the community, including to our church, and it strikes me that materialism doesn’t stand a chance. It can make a lot of noise and cause disruption. But it’s not built for the long haul.


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