Faith, Jennifer Haigh's new novel, is about the past decade's crisis in the Catholic church involving priests who abuse children. Haigh is a superb writer, and I have been a big fan of her previous novels, including Mrs. Kimble, The Condition, and Baker Towers. I think highly of her writing in this book, too, but am conflicted about the story she tells.
I'm wary of giving away too much of a complicated plot, so I'll simply say that the narrative involves a priest who is accused of abusing a young boy whom he had come to know through the boy's mother and grandmother. But the whole story isn't known to the authorities. Nor is it immediately known to the priest's family members, some of whom crumble under the news that the priest might be one of the church's pedophiles.
The characters are vivid and the plot is engaging. But what makes me uneasy is this book's blithe explanation for the accusation in this case. Surely it is the case that some of the priests around the country -- indeed, throughout the world! -- who have been accused of abuse are innocent of the charges, victims of unscrupulous people looking to make a profit from salacious accusations. But it's also surely the case that such cases constitute a small minority of the whole. As much as I admire Haigh's skills as a writer, I really dislike what she has done with this story.
In interview notes on the Amazon website, Haigh says: "I was raised in a Catholic family, spent twelve years in parochial schools and had extremely fond memories of my interactions with Catholic clergy. It’s no exaggeration to say that nuns and priests were the heroes of my childhood." That's quite apparent from her book. It's too bad that, instead of offering up a story, as she did, that delivers an unexpected explanation for this one case of fictional abuse, Haigh didn't train her formidable powers of observation at the members of the church hierarchy, whose corruption and evil should put them in an even hotter place in hell than that reserved for the child predators they enabled.
To be fair to Haigh, I read this book in the week following the latest absurdity involving the Catholic Church. I'm referring to this widely reported news item:
A five-year study commissioned by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops to provide a definitive answer to what caused the church’s sexual abuse crisis has concluded that neither the all-male celibate priesthood nor homosexuality were to blame.
Instead, the report says, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed amid the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s.
There you go! There's a reasonable explanation for you: the Sixties are to blame! Never mind that clergy of other denominations and faiths also went through the 1960s and 1970s without being turned into pedophiles.
Whatever the explanation for the extraordinary concentration of this problem among Catholic clergy, there is no denying that an equally egregious crime was its cover-up by bishops, cardinals, and other people high up in the Catholic hierarchy. And THAT is a problem of institutional culture. The Catholic church is a morally bankrupt institution that is based on a culture of secrecy and deceit. I know this all too well from my own observation of the Catholic institutions in which I have worked most of my adult life. Leaders of Catholic institutions tend to be secretive, duplicitous, and protective of their own power and that of others around them. They're abusive toward those without power. They pay lip service to Christian virtues but violate them constantly in their day-to-day interactions with others.
I was interested to find my view affirmed recently by Rev. Bob Hoatson, a Catholic priest who is co-founder of an organization called Road to Recovery, which provides support to victims of sexual abuse. He is also a survivor of sexual abuse himself. Recently, interviewed on National Public Radio about the bishops' report that shifted blame outside the church, placing it on the looseness of the Sixties and Seventies, Hoatson said:
This report does not get to the heart of the issue, and the heart of the issue is deceit, cover-up, silence, secrecy and an internal culture that doesn't let anybody else in.
He's right. Dead right. And Haigh comes close to acknowledging as much in her novel at the end when she alludes to the secrecy, cowardice, and perfidy of Cardinal Bernard Law and his coterie of mitered enablers in place when the Boston scandal exploded.
So, Haigh's novel is well done and it addresses an important contemporary social problem. But in my view it trivializes the problem by offering a benign -- even romantic! -- explanation for what happened in this fictional case, and fails to grapple head-on with an even more serious problem in the Catholic church, a problem that will exist long after the abuse crisis fades from the news. Still, this is a novel, not a nonfiction analysis of the church and its problems, so it would be unfair to judge Haigh's work on anything but her writerly craft. She's a master. ★★★★☆