by Peter Byrne
"Watch that smile, he warned himself, or she'll take it for carnal."
—Father Burner in Prince of Darkness."Archbishop McQuaid's conclusion that Fr Edmondus's actions [he abused little girls] arose merely from a wonderment about the female anatomy is risible."
—2009 Irish Commission of Enquiry.
(Swans - September 6, 2010) J.F. Powers castrated the Devil in his story collection The Prince of Darkness. Father Burner, the comic stand-in for Satan, hasn't got the sex drive of an amoeba. He acquired his nickname by spending too much time in his darkroom developing film. But the inept Burner is only the first in a long line of the author's neutered clerics. How did it happen that Powers lumbered them with every Pecksniffian vice but left them as unsoiled by lubricity as altar linen washed by nuns?
It was 1947 and Midwestern Catholicism, obese and eager to throw its weight around, lined up behind Cardinal Spellman of New York to fight another good fight. The war just finished had brought prosperity though incidentally sprinkling gold stars for dead servicemen over the prairies. The anti-Communist crusade would be costly only in hot air from the pulpit.
Not without reason Spellman's Manhattan residence was known as "the Powerhouse." His new muscle, acquired schmoozing in the Vatican, had overridden Cardinal O'Connell's judgment on him: "Francis epitomizes what happens to a bookkeeper when you teach him how to read." Spellman was close to Eugenio Pacelli, who accommodated Hitler and became Pius XII. Joe Kennedy Senior was a confidant and Spellman, the "military vicar," would defend Senator Joseph McCarthy's machinations to the very end. Lenny Bruce paid for calling Vietnam "Spelly's War" by a trial for obscenity partly engineered by the Cardinal. When the gravediggers of Queens struck for a pay raise, Spellman called them subversives and recruited strikebreakers.
A hyperactive censor, Spellman, had gone ape over Kathleen Windsor's 1944 novel Forever Amber and the movie dredged from it. Out in the archbishoprics of Chicago or St. Paul and Minneapolis reading figured less. When a local novelist like James T. Farrell came out against the Church and its Irish flying buttresses, the bishops didn't use the blackjack of literary criticism. They simply dismissed the scribbler as an apostate and a patricide. James Farl Powers was something else. No rebel who fled the fold, he was a fly on the cloister wall. From his very first story Powers swamps us with priest-speak and the domestic arrangements of rectories. Some eleven hundred pages later at the end of his last book, the reader finds himself leaving a clerical barbecue that has been fêting a mixed-up priest.
Who knows what went on in J.F. Powers's depths? His daughter tells us he was no mean procrastinator. His hesitancy decked out as a quest for perfection led fatally to a university job. He spent the 1970s and 1980s teaching in a remote corner of remote Minnesota. There was an interval of twenty-six years between his first novel and his second and last. But it's significant that his employer, St. John's University, though progressive and controversial by hayseed standards, was a bulwark of the faith. That had been Powers's way. He first published in the radical and pacifist Catholic Worker of Dorothy Day. He served eighteen months in jail as a conscientious objector during WWII.
In all his writing about the Roman collared, which amounts to nine-tenths of his work, Powers kept clear of the Catholic novel as it was being written elsewhere in the world. There is almost no exploring of metaphysical anguish or spiritual states as in the Frenchmen François Mauriac and Georges Bernanos, or in the Englishman Graham Greene. His characters would have been dumbfounded by the films of Robert Bresson. As one critic put it, Powers doesn't enquire into his priests' relationship with God. The critic could have added that for Powers's men in black it's the relationship with the Church and its house rules that makes for drama.
Born in downstate Illinois and educated in Chicago, Powers is mid-America plain. His priests are homebodies, rectory-bound, and hag-ridden by housekeepers, insistent parishioners, and pastors with low-voltage power. They are winners and losers in a struggle as ruthless as any boardroom's. Powers's sympathy goes to the losers who never muster more defense than a sense of humor. They, we are made to feel, are the truly religious.
Powers was an exquisite writer, with a special gift for the short story. F.W. Dupee said of him: "Each sentence tends to be an event; yet every event, like every firm but fluent sentence, is an open door into the next half-expected, half-shocking encounter." In that first collection, Prince of Darkness, the title story, begins with ironic exchanges after the manner of Stephen Dedalus's barbed conversation in James Joyce's Ulysses and moves on into daydreaming much like Leopold Bloom's in the same book.
Unlike Joyce, however, Powers is no non-serviam or nay-saying renegade. His books could never by any stretch have been considered obscene and pornographic. Joyce broke through Irish Puritanism with an explosion of talent, while Powers despite his talent, never really left it. Rather, he's the troubadour of the asexual. The point is not merely academic, since current reports of the celibate clergy's sex life make us shudder each time we pick up a newspaper. That Powers silenced much about his priests is relevant to independent enquiries into today's scandals. These conclude that pedophile crimes continued because of a refusal to speak out and denounce them. The 2009 Irish report on child abuse had no doubt: "The Dublin Archdiocese's pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets."
Connoisseurs of mediaeval archives are not taken aback. The French historian Jacques Chiffoleau finds that the foundation of the Vatican's present perplexity was laid in the 12th century. It was then canon lawyers established that the crimes of the clergy should be revealed only to confessors and not to the civil arm or general public. In the language of the time: Ecclesia de occultis non iudicat. (As yet Chiffoleau's book has only appeared in Italian: La Chiesa, il segreto e l'obbedienza, il Mulino, Bologna, 2010, ISBN 978-88-15- public or 13673-2, 185 pages, 18 euros.)
What were the dealings with the flesh of Powers's vast troop of priests? Father Burner, the clerical Prince of Darkness, is typical in that he strives to keep his parishioners, young and old, off his back. He doesn't get on theirs. His is a career quest, obtaining a parish of his own and setting his mother up there as household goddess. Sexually he's zero. The only sign of the itch in the pastor of The Lord's Day is his bullying of the nuns under him. In another story an old friar awards Chastity a capital C and admits it's a battle for young men. But he only dares breathe the word on his deathbed. In The Valiant Woman sex enters exclusively as unfounded gossip. Two uxorious Fathers, henpecked by a housekeeper, discuss the fate of an innocent colleague who took his housekeeper to the movies on Sunday evening and was afterwards accused of "a lot of filth."
In these 570 pages of short stories, all of the priests belong to a third gender, one without genitalia. Powers, so full of irony on their petty snobbery and collusion with mammon, remains a straight-faced Irish Catholic denier in not noticing any carnal skirmishes they may have had. As a writer he was in his prime at mid-century. But the US Conference of Catholic Bishops now admits that 4,392 of its priests had abused children between 1950 and 2002. It reports that one of every ten priests ordained in 1970 was charged as a pedophile by 2002. Our fly on the rectory wall must surely have closed an eye.
The pièce de résistance among the eunuchs is Father Urban, hero of Powers's 1962 novel Morte d'Urban. (It is a very good novel, sustained in its rich texture and full of sharp, sometimes acid observation of America and the Catholic Church of the day.) Urban is a tall, handsome priest of fifty-four who has led something of a worldly life. As a star performer on the preaching circuit, he moved around the country from one good hotel to another. But at other times he lived in austere confinement in all male environments. The novel gives us his inner thoughts.
So what does Urban think about sex? In the 336 pages about the personal and domestic side of the priestly life there's not one reference, not even a vague hint, that such a thing as pedophilia exists. Homosexuals are mentioned only once in a throwaway line about Urban's blunder on one occasion recruiting two for a seminary. In a word, Urban is telling us that within their institutions, their living space, the Catholic clergy is asexual.
And out in the "world," (as ecclesiastic jargon terms the place where we live)? As a performer -- Urban is something of a showboat -- he is not above singling out the attractive women in his audiences. Some of them, at church socials, enchanted by his pious banter and at a marital loose end, develop crushes on him. But he always heroically wards them off with the shield of his vow of celibacy. The trouble is that Powers, so able to pry into inner thoughts on other matters here respects Urban's privacy. If he forgot his vow, would he, could he? We are not told.
The culmination of this sort of encounter involves neurotic Sally. She manages to isolate herself and Urban, along with 114-proof Scotch and foxtrots for the record player, on a deserted island in a Minnesota lake. Urban stands firm, so to speak, on principle, even when Sally strips down to her high heels and suggests a swim. His refusal so enrages her that she goes off in the boat and leaves him marooned. His subsequent swim to shore in the icy water echoes all the masochism saints of legend inflicted on themselves to escape women. But as always Powers refuses to enquire into how Urban's hormones felt about the situation.
They barely have their say in a long, whiskey-induced reverie when he imagines an alternative life for himself. Urban, who for all his piety is steeped in mid-American babbitry, conjures up an alter-ego millionaire with a playboy past, settled down with a wife and children. Significantly, he shows no interest in what would have driven him to impregnate his imaginary mate. Even his alter ego is asexual -- but with children.
Powers told Urban's story in 1962. His only subsequent novel relates the life of another priest, Joe Hackett. Wheat That Springeth Green came out in 1988, but takes place in 1968. Neither Father Joe nor his creator, despite the latter's sex phobia, could evade the new openness of the times. There was a limit to how much even Powers could overlook. After all, he had reared five children and been in close contact with rebellious youth in his teaching job.
As a result Powers's clerics are given their balls back, but under tight authorial control. Joe, only fifteen and still far from the priesthood, has an implausible run of copulation with two neighbors. That will be his ration for life. Years later a non-ordained friend of his circle of priests catches a venereal disease -- from whom we don't know, nor the infector's age or gender. But little Joe's windfall and the joke of innocent priests having to submit to a state health department's medical is the author's bow to 1968. In the rest of the novel's 327 pages some priests leave to marry but there's no whisper of homosexuality, and pedophilia is as absent out there in the chilly rectories of the plains as tropical disease. For Powers, the so-called sexual revolution of those years was strictly heterosexual, never felonious or outside what Catholic theologians like to call "the natural law."
The crimes of today make us reconsider a shade more seriously the lurid anti-clerical writing of the past. Could it be that those penny-a-liners were only righting the balance? False their reports may have been, but they gave private parts back to the celibate in a big way. In the 13th century there were tales of Joan who became pope in drag thanks to her lover, but was undone when she had to interrupt a ritual procession to give birth. No doubt Mathew Lewis's The Monk (1794) was pure fiction. There was no Capuchin equally adept at incest, rape, murder, and every hypocrisy. Maria Monk's (1836) Awful Disclosures of the Hôtel-Dieu Nunnery was certainly fraudulent. The priests who lived next door did not routinely impregnate the nuns and bury their strangled offspring in the convent cellar. But book buyers, though suckers for smut, were not so clueless after all. The Church pretended that its clergy's vow put an end to sex. Facts to the contrary met a blanket denial. Yet any reader who could come up with two bits for a pamphlet knew this was hogwash and sought the real gin.
We don't like to bracket J.F. Powers, admirable writer and radical in his way, with the Church's long history of secrecy and concealment. But despite his own siring of five children and his merciless literary observation, he was an Irish-American Puritan who wouldn't let his imagination into the bedroom.
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