Cabbages and kings

For a few months before I left my previous job, lines from Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter” kept playing over and over in my head. As Tweedledum and Tweedledee tell Alice,

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

Kevin Smith, in his hilarious and highly irreverent film “Dogma,” uses the central character of Loki to offer the suggestion that the verses are an indictment of organized religion and that religion disingenuously leads followers to self-destruction.

I don’t agree with that assessment of organized religion, or of that interpretation of the verses. But I did think it was interesting that those were the lines niggling at me each time I began to assess the need for a job change — and the fact that I worked for the Catholic Church, surely one of the world’s largest organized religions.

When the topic of clergy abuse arises — as it invariably seems to at any family or social gathering I attend — people often ask me how I managed to spend 24 years working for various Catholic dioceses. My answer is always the same: my faith has little or nothing to do with the institutional church and everything to do with the beliefs of Christianity.

If we place our faith in men and institutions, we are always disapppointed.

And disappointed I was over the years. When more news of abuse in Philadelphia broke out earlier this year, my head spun. How much longer will we continue to see this? The worse part about Philly was, of course, the sexual abuse, but the abuse of power was right up there with it.

As one longtime Catholic journalist friend told me when I announced my decision to leave the diocese where I’d worked for 18 years, “You do know by now it’s not about sexism, right? It’s purely about clericalism.”

That’s been a major cause of crises in the church for well over 1,000 years, and I fear it’s not changing as quickly as it should have. We spend four or more years telling seminarians how wonderful they are, how much of a sacrifice they are making, how noble is their calling, how they are a symbol of God for people — and then we wonder why they believe us? And why some of them then live like they are above human law and morality?

That’s not to say I haven’t known some amazing priests in my life. I count both Cardinals John O’Connor and Joseph Bernardin as major influences on my spiritual views. I only met Bernardin a couple of times, but O’Connor was an amazing man whom I loved dearly. He walked the talk. Longtime cardinal secretaries “Unky Chunky” McDonough and current Archbishop Ed O’Brien are up there, too, as are a handful of good men doing work in parishes and schools with little recognition or praise.

And missionaries? They’re the closest thing to saints I’ve seen. I witnessed Jesuits Kevin Flaherty and the late Kevin Gallagher giving their lives to the people of the slums of Peru, as do so many other unnamed men and women in the missions, whether lay, ordained, religious.

So that’s why I’m still a faith-filled person, despite some crappy personal experiences with the institutional church and its leaders.

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.


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