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Four authors, five voices

April 18, 2010 Leave a comment

A delightful afternoon at the Writers & Friends event in the City Hall in Kingston, Ontario — a gathering in support of “Horizons of Friendship,” a Canadian charity working in Central America to overcome poverty and injustice.

Four noted authors are scheduled to speak. An extra highlight is the presence of Sarah Harmer, a singer-songwriter with a cause — she’s worked to protect the Niagara Escarpment.

First up is Erna Paris, author of The Sun Climbs Slow (Knopf Canada), that I reviewed a while ago. She speaks compellingly, describing the struggle to establish the International Criminal Court (supported by almost every nation but the United States) as “a struggle between unchallenged power and the power of law.”

Much of the damage done under the  Bush administration, she adds, “has not been repaired.”

Ian Brown, the Globe and Mail writer whose The Boy in the Moon (Vintage Canada) has won two of Canada’s major non-fiction prizes, delivers a talk filled with mirth, humor and sensitivity. I marvel at how he’s been able to retain such equanimity in the face of the challenge he and his wife have faced. Raising a son with an incredibly rare and disabling genetic mutation has to be an unimaginably harrowing experience.

Yet, Ian finds much that is worthwhile in Walker’s life and talks about what he’s been able to learn from his son, rather than what he has not been able to teach him. This raises again the age-old question – when is life not worth living?

Lawrence Scanlan, the Kingston writer who has organized this event for several years, is a featured author this year for his remarkable book, A Year of Living Generously (Douglas & McIntyre). He examines giving — philanthropy, some call it — from ground level as a volunteer for 12 different organizations, one a month.. I expect this to be one of the most important and widely-read non-fiction books in Canada this year.

How does one make a difference? “What one should not do,” he says, “is nothing.” Skimming through the pages of the copy he signed for us, I settle on his chapter about working with the John Howard Society to assist prisoners confined in Kingston jails. Lawrence is  upset about a lot of what he sees, but especially the federal government’s plan to close prison farms and confine inmates to concrete cells.

Of course, the farms raise food for the prison system and give the prisoners the healthy experience of shared responsibility in caring for other living creatures. Not qualities we’d want them to take back to daily life!

I’m  most struck, however — knocked out, might be a better term — by something Linden MacIntyre says when he talks about his book, The Bishop’s Man (Random House). Scroll below and you’ll see my earlier review.

In writing this award-winning book, MacIntyre drew in part on his experience as a journalist covering unrest in Honduras and other republics in central America. He reported on the murder of priests and nuns who espoused movements for social change.  A leftist priest figures prominently in one section of MacIntyre’s book.

Talking in Kingston, MacIntyre can’t avoid mentioning the sex abuse scandal swirling around the Catholic church. It’s the central theme of The Bishop’s Man. 

And where in history will the current Pope, Benedict XVI, fit?

It won’t be about the sex abuse of thousands of children, MacIntyre says, as grievous at that has been. This Pope’s greater harm is his quelling of the Catholic liberation theology movement, especially in Latin America. Pope Benedict, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith,  made it his business to crush liberal dissent, embrace arch-conservative power, and support brutal regimes.

I ask MacIntyre whether he was raised Catholic. He was, of course. He mentions that in his native Nova Scotia many young men chose the priesthood for economic security. A way to get a job. And he’s not surprised at the prevalence of sexual misbehavior.

Today, MacIntyre describes his religious belief as agnostic.

An afternoon of wisdom and surprise. It doesn’t just happen in Toronto, you know.

Power, truth and the Catholic church

April 9, 2010 Leave a comment

While the gales of scandal buffet the Roman Catholic church, I’ve been reading a timely and provocative novel, Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man (Random House Canada).

The book was a surprise winner of the Giller Prize, Canada’s top literary award. It’s a timely and sensitive work that could only have been written by a journalist of MacIntyre’s stature who has also mastered the structural skills needed to create a fine work of fiction. As a cost-host of CBC’s the fifth estate,  MacIntyre has loads of experience in investigative reporting and it shows in The Bishop’s Man.

MacIntyre tells his story in a leisurely yet engrossing manner as he gives us the first person account of Father Duncan MacAskill, a troubled man who must deal with a troubling subject — child sex abuse by his fellow priests.

Reporting to an insensitive bishop, Father MacAskill becomes known as The Exorcist for his work in rooting out sexually abusive priests — only to see them camouflaged by a church leadership more intent on preserving status than correcting sin. He is exiled to a Latin American outpost where he encounters his own difficult relationships, involving a woman and the death of another priest. Back in Nova Scotia, he is assigned to a parish near his home. There, he must deal with a legacy of sexual abuse as well as his own troubled past and his predilection to alcohol.

The novel’s failure to offer up a resolution to Father MacAskill’s problems troubled me at first. On reflection, I realized that The Bishop’s Man could end no other way. Therein lies the book’s ultimate truth.

As I broke off reading the book to read the accounts of the Vatican’s dismal response to the spreading scandal of sexual abuse within the church,  I was struck with the commonality between them.

The latest round of revelations illustrate again the inevitability of the linkage between power and perversity.  From Pope Benedict’s declaration that he would not be “intimated by petty gossip” to the  likening by his personal preacher to criticism of the church to “the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism,” it can be seen that the Roman Catholic church is still a church in denial.

How could it be any other way? No institution founded on the invincibility of its power can admit to imperfection, especially in matters of faith. Join this with the cult of celibacy — itself a denial of natural human behavior — and the awful matrix is complete.

The righteous anger of Catholic faithful against much of church leadership is understandable but also saddening. Understandable because how else can one respond to such a massive betrayal of trust, other than with anger? Saddening because despite the good works of thousands of church faithful, the dogma of Catholicism offers no resolution to the problem of priestly abuse of children.  Power and perversity are unlikely to be separated. A church more fearful of scandal than of sin will continue to suffer both.