Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief
T. F. Rigelhof
by Gilbert W. Purdy
F Rigelhof introduces his book Nothing Sacred with a description
cult massacre, near
in 1994, Cardinal Law’s resignation in 2002, a stroke Rigelhof himself
suffered in 2003, and a reference to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions.
He informs the reader that, unlike Rousseau, he makes no claims
to originality — the primary reason Rousseau gave to justify writing
an autobiography — and his point is well taken.
has written an earlier book, A Blue Boy in a Black Dress (1995),
which sold out its first printing and which “may or may not be the
Canadian classic some have said it is, but [
] is very difficult to obtain and commands a substantial price on
the rare book market…”. The
book was also autobiographical, also included his experiences as a
Catholic altar boy.
the intervening time, since the earlier volume appeared, the Catholic
Church has begun to endure its deeply saddening sexual abuse scandal.
As a result of this chronological inconvenience, the book made no
observations on the matter. Having
written a book on a young boy and the Catholic Church, he has since been
repeatedly asked, in light of present revelations, if he had ever been
abused. Although his
previous publisher never saw fit to issue a second printing, the
feedback the author has received convinces him that there is an audience
for another go.
then, Rigelhof has, after a fashion, done his market research.
His topic, it tells him, is timely and gripping.
There is only one problem: he was never sexually abused.
His complaints against the Catholic Church — inasmuch as he had
any, to speak of — are not at all the stuff of scandal, not highly
dramatic. He may have been
propositioned once by a priest in a Catholic high school that he did not
wish to attend. The
one Jesuit teacher who he liked at the school felt he was mistaken, or
even lying, and he marched off to get drunk.
That is the whole of it. He
left the church because he wanted to be free of the harsh discipline of
the seminary. He wanted to
did his father ever abuse him. The
elder Rigelhof was, however, a Catholic, a parent and an adult: all
groups which discouraged the author from being himself and launched him
on an unnatural path which ended in drinking binges and regurgitation
when infuriated and which nearly ended in suicide at a young age.
Like at least half of the teenagers in the world, he didn’t
much like his father. Like
some, his father died before he grew out of being a teenager and the
matter was left unresolved. A
selective, but nonetheless interminable, rendition of his childhood
suggests that Father replaced father, as it were.
a result of all of this, while the portraits T. F. Rigelhof draws, in Nothing
Sacred, of the priests he knew at any length, are quite positive, he
is regularly having to remind the reader that his own much more minor
personal complaints were being rejected by a community, it would later
be revealed, of specious pederasts and their apologists.
To his credit, he is honest about the parish priest who arranged
for him to attend various Catholic schools on scholarship:
words could be cruel and his manner mean, and he was probably as much
loathed as loved, but Father Walt never allowed any priest in his
parish to physically or verbally abuse any altar boy without facing
his wrath. Or to grow so
friendly as to give a hug. If
it happened once, it never happened a second time.
Not on his watch.
seminarians, however, who may have been homosexual, are close enough to
the issue that they must be pressed into service:
knew that overt homosexual acts could be punished by immediate
expulsion. Even so, a few
seminarians weren’t circumspect about their attraction to other men.
They found things to do in small groups that seemed innocuous
but provided lots of opportunities for pairings and privacy.…
A group that went on excursions to study the architecture and
furnishings of local churches was also reputed to be inordinately fond
of Judy Garland movies and wearing women’s silk underwear.
author, having so little material to work with, is making the best he
can of what lies at hand: the reader is informed that there are closet
homosexuals in the church. By
innuendo, then, the roots of abuse begin in the very seed ground of the
not to waste material, he has actually, undeniably been propositioned by
a gay man who left no room for imagination or doubt.
Not being a homosexual, Rigelhof had no interest, of course:
own sexual preferences were well defined.
Like my two friends and most heterosexual males of that age, I
could fall into all sorts of involuntary erotic responses and become
mildly unfocused by sudden flashes of human flesh, especially female
cleavages fore and aft…. I
found (and find) women of every complexion and colouration attractive.
the proposition came at a health club suggested to him by a priest, the
offer itself came from an army officer.
The author presumably being in favor of gays in the military, the
officer provides no grist for his mill.
Never again, however, will he think that a priest who suggests a
health club is innocent in his intentions.
and again, Rigelhof is faced with an authorial dilemma.
He finds himself praising heterosexual priests and casting mild
aspersions upon homosexuals. Early
on in the abuse scandal, various allied gay and lesbian groups released
statements making it clear that anyone who attempted to make the scandal
into a homosexual problem
would regret it. This was
to be framed as a priestly elite
problem. The target
audience of Nothing Sacred is clearly the adherents of the wider
alliance of secular liberation theologies.
To make matters even worse, this greater alliance is the religion
he left Catholicism for: the religion of being oneself.
His is a ticklish situation, at best, and he does not prove able
to craft any nuanced position in respect of it.
that he doesn’t do his best to be properly offended by priests.
There is, of course, the priest who insidiously suggested the
health club. The priest
dubbed “Father Kitchen” seems impossibly cynical and nosy to young
Rigelhof. But it has to be
admitted that Kitchen was absolutely uncompromising in his ideals.
The last glimpse we get of him, he is giving an object lesson to
an abusive, alcoholic husband that the man is unlikely to forget.
“Father Ogre,” the rector of St. Pius X Seminary, makes life
hell with his unbending adherence to the rules, rules, rules.
But the two meet again after the young seminarian has been years
in the world at large and the older man, no longer rector, seems much
“Father B” there is nothing but praise.
He takes the author under wing at seminary.
After years of hard, honest work, he has his own little room.
It’s nothing much, mind you, but it does have an amenity or
two. From his room, B.
follows the proceedings of the Vatican II council and pours over
theological texts. In
order to balance off the highly favorable review of B., the author
intersperses a commentary on the Catholic system of internal book
author of Nothing Sacred was abused, alright.
Whatever good must be said of these representatives of the
Catholic priesthood, they were preventing him from being himself. They
knew as much and yet they persisted.
He almost killed himself as a result.
Now their church has been revealed for what it really is: a place
of perversion, intolerance and archaic rituals no longer bearing any
positive relationship to the world.
are no longer small groups of illiterate, stateless people living off
the land, surviving by our wits, depending on what women and donkeys
can carry, listening to seers delivering divine messages from out of
the whirling visions that engulf them and passing them off as eternal
truths, and condemning everyone who doesn’t believe as they do.
Having meandered to this tired conclusion, and having dutifully implied
that religion has remained fossilized at this level, Rigelhof proceeds
to expand the reading list he periodically provides the reader.
On top of Rousseau and Thomas Merton, now are added the New
Journalist Tom Wolfe, psychologist Steven Pinker, biologist E. O. Wilson
and a host of authors who have written alternative visions of just who
the historical Jesus of Nazareth might have been.
Tradition and religion have been set aside in favor of the
contemporary and science. Western
internalized authority has been replaced by internalizing the mores of
one’s group and the implications of one’s genetic profile.
The change is indicative and the list would be promising, in its
realm, if it did not come two-thirds the way through a book which can
only be characterized as confused and self-indulgent.
for the final third of the book, it is a desultory grab-bag of barely
connected personal anecdotes and observations on the ascendance of
charismatic religion and on genetics and the cognitive sciences.
This is understood to contextualize and support gay marriage, it
would seem. But soon his
support for gay marriage becomes support for civil unions and gives way
to a closing discussion about the “mounting social and political
chaos” and “[t]he possibility of human devolution” in the world
of this said, the final assessment — inasmuch as there is one — is
not inappropriate. The
author arrives, at last, at the conclusion that:
complex mental processes that have created and continue to sustain
religious beliefs have been wired into our neural apparatus by
thousands of generations and ancestors numbering in the millions.
fundamental nature is a welter of genetically resonant adaptations
suitable for Ice Age hunter-gatherers that are largely archaic and
atrophied in most of our daily circumstances.
assertion, as it turns out, is correct but each is within striking
distance of being a fact.
so many great thinkers, Rousseau was also prone to being wrong in great
ways. It was Jean
Jacques’ observation that man in his natural state is noble and that
society thoroughly corrupts him with perverse demands upon his inherent
gentleness and goodness. It
happens that the secular liberation theologies spoken of earlier are
ineluctably based upon his historical whopper, as is Rigelhof’s
memoir, his self-indulgence in writing it, and his method of reasoning
by saying sort of whatever are sort of the prevailing ideas of his
course this is absolute balderdash.
Not only is man not fundamentally noble but he is not even
fundamentally an Ice Age hunter-gatherer.
He had already made tremendous strides in order to reach the
hunter-gatherer stage. Man
is fundamentally a slightly upgraded version of his closest genetic
relative from the animal kingdom: the chimpanzee.
Like the chimpanzee, he was amusing, and generally compassionate
to those within his group who obey its mores — particularly its
imperatives of territory and dominance.
But like a chimpanzee, he was also lazy, inattentive, moody,
selfish, randy, a ready thief and liar, and prone to commit vicious
physical attacks when his assessment tells him that he has little to
fear from his potential victim.
man has come to have the complex mental processes Rigelhof attributes to
him. These processes are
decidedly not “wired into [his] neural apparatus”.
During the many tens of thousands of generations which have
passed since man’s path separated from that of the chimpanzee there
has been little change in the structure or size — the circuitry, as it
were — of his brain. Instead,
they are wired into his culture, his collective social brain: a brain
that evolves much more rapidly and is his whole reason for having become
so much more than a chimp. And
it is all resoundingly about learning how not
to be oneself: both the glory and the burden of being human.
rapidly adaptive as culture is, compared to biological evolution,
several million years have nevertheless been involved.
At some point, perhaps as little as 12,000 years ago, languages
began to coalesce and what we presently call culture came into
were vital to the survival of the groups that acquired these languages.
We are left the mnemonic devices they utilized in order to
maintain the vital identity and accumulated skills of the group over
generations: rhythm, consonance, assonance, rhyme, etc.
five thousand years ago the stories began to be “remembered” on clay
tablets, animal skins and papyrus.
Stories repeated for thousands of years were folded into The
Mahabharata, the Bible and the other records we now call
sacred texts. They teach
us, as the storyteller taught his people, what laws and mores were best
adapted to the circumstances of the time and place.
They provide records of medical precautions taken in order to
avoid contagious diseases, healing techniques, military tactics, means
of keeping the group birth rate as high as possible and much more.
Some were so successful that the conditions became possible to
reflect upon still further progress for mankind.
Charity stabilized the group, they realized.
A generalized love among people did so even more.
stories were so exceptionally successful that it has become possible,
over time, for more and more members of the group to join in writing the
greater text should they wish to develop the skills to do so.
This as the demands placed upon the text are ever more complex.
Whether the group will survive the results intact remains, as
with all new adaptations, to be seen.
the process of all of this, we have designed a culture so ubiquitous
that every neural network within it is closely programmed during a
process we call maturation. A
great philosopher might think that the release that comes from going on
vacation to the woods or escaping the city for a rural commune proves
that man is better off without civilization but what success may come of
such actions comes from a neural network programmed with behaviors
millions of years removed from our natural state.
Much to our benefit, we have succeeded to an astonishing degree,
to this point, at not being ourselves.
for the Catholic Church, its present sex scandal does not directly arise
from archaic beliefs, an elitist attitude or even from gay priests.
It arises from priests choosing to be themselves.
The priests in question did not have the good grace to do as T.
F. Rigelhof did when he finally admitted to himself that he preferred to
follow Jean Jacques Rousseau rather than Jesus of Nazareth.
They saw no reason to lose their special opportunities for social
and sexual access by an inconvenient honesty with themselves or others
within their supposed group. The
honor system within which they operated was shot through with
dishonorable and ignoble men that it had developed no tools to deal
with. Therein lies the
single indisputable fault of the church itself: it refuses to admit to
itself that, regardless of all representations to the contrary, its
priests are often not Christian, have no grasp of the most fundamental
tenet of their religion: that man is called upon not to be himself.
F. Rigelhof’s Nothing Sacred can only be recommended, by the
compassionate reviewer, to the author’s family and friends and
especially those friends for whom he so kindly contrived cameo roles in
the book. The author has
mentioned, a number of times, that he has not fully recovered his
capabilities as a writer or a reasoner in the wake of a stroke.
Nevertheless, there are some nicely turned descriptions of life
as a Catholic altar boy in the 1950s and a general sense of what are
some of the issues relating to religion in today’s world.
He could have avoided much that is problematical in his book if
he had chosen to compromise his honesty.
Much to his credit, he did not.
Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in
many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine
(Australia); The Pedestal Magazine; Poetry International
(San Diego State University); Grand Street; SLANT
(University of Central Arkansas); and Eclectica. His Hyperlinked
Online Bibliography appears in the pages of The
Catalyzer Journal. Query to email@example.com.