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Brendan Kiely: A Question of Belief

April 12, 2011

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By **Brendan Kiely**

Brendan Kiely.JPGMy parents sent me to a parochial school north of Boston, a choice that, in hindsight, I believe is the best gift they have ever given me. While there, I studied religion, ethics, and social justice, as all students did, and I formed a set of beliefs highly influenced by my Jesuit teachers. I learned from them and from my peers, a generation of young Catholics, that there is no replacement for honesty, compassion, critical thinking, self-reflection, and the strength to admit you are wrong and re-evaluate how to proceed. My actions, I was taught, had consequences, and the convictions of my beliefs motivated those actions—therefore my beliefs had a powerful effect on the world and the people in my life.

To make the transition from student to adult I had to decide first what I believed. I felt inspired, and I know many of my peers and classmates did too. But what now, I ask my former classmates, do we believe? What effect do we want to have on the world today?

In his April 11th full-page advertisement in the New York Times, Bill Donohue, The President of the Catholic League, shifts the culpability for the harmful abuse of young people from the Catholic Church to the homosexual community. “The issue is homosexuality,” Donohue says, “not pedophilia.” It is an immoral argument with a tone of fear-mongering as its subtext—it suggests that “homosexuality” is the root cause of the widespread abuse in the Catholic Church.

The problem with the argument is not with the figures he uses to try to argue that most priests are innocent, but with the beliefs that form the premise of his pursuit of a defense. To fill a full page in the New York Times with data in an argument that is fundamentally about belief misses the point. Donohue uses the data to suggest that priests are being wrongfully accused and slandered but the figures he rolls out do not tell the story, nor do they address the real problems: the beliefs the church holds as core tenets, a hostility towards homosexuality, and the belief that the institution of the Catholic Church is more important than the individuals who were harmed within it.

I will not believe in an institution that attacks groups of people under the name of faith in the face of equity.

Catholics like Donohue have boxed themselves into a corner. They can’t really offer the mea culpa that is required of them, because to do so would be to admit the fallacy and immorality of their beliefs—and then where would Catholicism be?

The problem with Donohue’s argument is what he believes: firstly, that homosexuality is a problem. Homosexuality is not a problem—it is a part of the very character of many Americans and people around the world. An institution that publicly threatens homosexuals by encouraging a culture of fear with regard to their sexuality is a morally unsound institution.

Secondly, it is the magnitude of the cover-up, the belief of Catholics like Donohue that the Church will only survive if it rebuffs all calls for radical institutional change. Donohue is tired of Catholic-baiting. He thinks it is an outrage that a “stranger” would walk up to Archbishop Timothy Dolan and say, “I can’t look at you or at any other priest without thinking of a sexual abuser.” But the image of the Catholic Church in the media isn’t a smear campaign, it is a conversation about the moral foundation of the Catholic Church, a conversation that needs to continue.

Nine years of media coverage that challenges that institution does not suffice as atonement, understanding and transparency, and it does not justify a total silencing of the cultural conversation and debate about the place of prejudicial beliefs and institutional malfeasance in a democratic society. That would be like white people in America saying there has been enough talk about institutional racism and there is no need to further discuss its effect on contemporary society—that is a fundamentally immoral belief and a culturally corrosive stand to take in contemporary America.

So I ask my peers, the young Catholics I grew up with, the ones I admired in class for their dedication to justice, to compassion, to social action: what do you believe?

I will not believe in an institution that attacks groups of people under the name of faith in the face of equity. I will support institutions that strive to empower the underprivileged and the disenfranchised, as the Jesuits taught me. I will support individuals who will not make excuses, but will clearly and in direct language admit their wrongs and continue to do so, as I was taught was the power of the sacrament of confession. I will do my part to continue the conversation so that the voices of those afraid to speak might find a safe space in which to say something.

To all the young Catholics of my generation, all my former classmates, what do you expect of your institution and how will you define your role as a member of it?

This isn’t a question to be answered with figures and statistics: it is a question of what you believe.

Copyright 2011 Brendan Kiely

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Brendan Kiely will receive his MFA in creative writing from The City College of New York this May. He is an educator and administrator for an independent school in Manhattan. His thesis, a novel called The Gospel of Winter, is set in Catholic Connecticut.

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