Bill Cosby is not a Catholic, so what does he have to do with the Catholic Church?
To answer that question, I am going to bring in Plato, Socrates, St. Bernadette and the now obscure comedian Professor Irwin Corey (pictured below).
It all began early this morning, when I woke up angry.
I was at the Super Eight in Higginsville, Missouri, which is bad enough, but the only reason I had spent the night there was that my wife had insisted that I not try to make it all the way home after last night’s show. I’m on the road every weekend, performing shows for one of my two theatrical companies, Upstage Productions or Theater of the Word Incorporated, and this weekend was no exception, featuring three performances in two days, with 14 hours of driving and 1,000 miles round trip in the car, along with my acting partner Maria Romine. My wife Karen remained at home, but insisted that I not try to push myself and make it all the way back to St. Louis after our Saturday night show in Kansas City. So, like a good husband, I did what my wife back home told me to do, and Maria and I got two rooms at the Super Eight in Higginsville, where I promptly fell asleep on Saturday night. But a crack of thunder woke me up Sunday morning at 5:45 am.
We’ve been having torrential downpours all spring and summer in Missouri (last month was the wettest June on record in St. Louis), and the storms are often so violent and the rainfall so heavy that it’s hazardous to drive – especially on the interstate. “If we had simply gone home last night we would have avoided this!” I said to myself as the rain began to pour. The radar on my phone showed lots of oranges and reds between Higginsville and home, and you don’t want to drive through the oranges or reds. But God has a plan for everything, so I decided that we’d roll with it (as the thunder rolls). “If we leave Higginsville by 7:00 am, we’ll make the Latin Mass in O’Fallon by 10:00, and even Confession, which begins at 9:30,” I said to myself, and texted this plan to my actress Maria, who was undoubtedly just getting up in her room down the hall.
Now, I’m not a big Latin Mass fan per se. What I seek are reverent Masses, in whatever language or form. I choose Latin when I can because Latin Masses are almost always reverent. But I’m on the road about fifty weekends out of the year, and fulfilling my Sunday obligation (with Maria, who is, like me, a Catholic convert) can be a real challenge. It’s always easy to find the nearest Catholic Church (with the help of masstimes.org), but finding a Mass that doesn’t ruin my day is not easy. I freely admit that attending an irreverent Mass should not necessarily be a near occasion of sin, making me curse under my breath and despise my neighbor in the next pew over, and that if I were a better Christian I could be more tolerant of what we experience on the road, but we experience some real horrors. And sometimes the Masses we attend are not merely irreverent but downright sacrilegious.
Just two weeks ago we were in Georgia, in a posh suburb of Atlanta, and the nearest Catholic Church looked more like the clubhouse at the opulent, sprawling country club than it did a place of worship. It was Sunday, though, so we in went anyway. In the sanctuary before Mass, everybody was buzzing – laughing, chatting, shouting to one another from across the nave – a real party atmosphere. The priest, whom I’ll call Father Glad Hand, was “working the room”. He was in his snazzy green vestments going from one pew to the next, loudly greeting his buds, talking to people privately in a loud enough voice so that everyone could hear him from one end of the church to the other. “Hey, Jim! How ya doin’ pal? How’s that rash? Did the medication help? Hey, Janet! You’re lookin’ spiffy today! How’s your golf game holdin’ up?” Then Mass began and it only got worse. The homily was all about how God loves us and forgives our sins and we should volunteer more at church. It included a demeaning interactive element. “Who knows who the first pope was? Anybody? Peter, that’s right! Say, you people are not as stupid as you look!” Laughter. Interactive nonsense throughout the homily, with Father asking questions and forcing the “audience” to give answers, kind of like Trivia Night. This whole schtick was for some reason making the Church Ladies in attendance giddy with admiration for Father and his charming uninspired normal-guy ways, looking resplendent in his glowing green vestments as he performed a kind of stand up routine, motivational speech, and TED talk in front of us. Lots of giggling and gushing from the Church Lady crowd. I kept looking at the floor so as not to make direct eye contact with him. Father Glad Hand ended the homily with a kind of flourish that insisted how much God loves us and how great we are and how the sign-up sheet is in the back. Strong applause. He manages to work them so that they always applaud his homilies, you can tell. We said the creed, a few prayers and then the woman at the piano, the cantor in her blue jumper, a few of the ushers, Father Glad Hand and some of the middle-aged wives in the house all began to belt out, “You satisfy the hungry heart, with gift of finest wheat!” My stomach almost revolted. And these people are having abortions, using contraception, and cheating on their taxes as much as any atheist on the street, that much we know for sure.
At any rate, a Mass like that is just the sort of thing I’d like to avoid.
Now on Saturday morning, less than twenty-four hours prior, I had performed as J.R.R. Tolkien at the Eighth Day Institute Inklings Festival in Wichita, which was a fantastic event in a beautiful modern Eastern Orthodox church. My performance was very well received, and before we had to leave to drive to Kansas City and do our evening show there, Maria and I were able to stay and hear a great lecture by Dr. Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University, who spoke on Tolkien and Lewis, and who did so with simplicity, delight, enthusiasm and what I would call a keen ecumenical fervor. He not only discussed J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, but the Ancient Pagans as well, and examined the whole question of Virtue and what has become of it. One of Markos’ best observations was,
Everyone knows that schools today are no longer teaching virtue. But that’s not true. If they really had given up teaching any virtue, we would be better off. As it is, they’re teaching substitute virtues, like tolerance and environmentalism. Don’t get me wrong. Tolerance and respect for the environment are indeed virtues, but in our modern schools they are truncated, cut off from the full hierarchy of virtue. And so, today you’ll find many a young man who will say, “Sure, I sleep around, but I recycle my cans.”
And this made me think of Plato’s Symposium and how it’s recently been sticking in my gullet.
But Plato and Aristotle and Lewis and Tolkien had faded from my mind by six in the morning at the Super Eight in Higginsville, so I decided to read a few news items on my computer and then get ready to brave the storms and head to Latin Mass and then home.
And suddenly there was Bill Cosby. At the top of the news. Right on my computer screen.
The New York Times has attained a deposition Cosby gave ten years ago, in a lawsuit filed by one of his alleged victims. The headline, “Bill Cosby, in Deposition, said Drugs and Fame Helped Him Seduce Women” hardly begins to tell the story.
Cosby has denied drugging women and then sexually assaulting them, but he admits in this deposition that he acquired (illegally) Quaaludes that he intended to give to women, and what he admits beyond this is almost as bad. Cosby admits to being a serial adulterer, and details the Machiavellian techniques he used to seduce young women, who were looking to him to “mentor” them and help their show business or modeling careers. The low point is when Cosby describes how he asked one of the young women he was targeting about her father’s cancer – not because he was concerned, but because he would use similar means to get women to open up to him emotionally, from which vantage point he would – so to speak – move in for the kill. He also describes how he would dump women when through with them – “moving on,” as he calls it.
And here’s the thing. We conservatives often get mad at liberals for lots of reasons – but sometimes the libs have it right. For instance, while the attempt to reject Clarence Thomas from the Supreme Court was a political charade orchestrated by the liberals, nonetheless the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill hearings brought to light a real problem – Sexual Harassment. Before Clarence Thomas, it was simply taken for granted that attractive young women in the workplace would be harassed by men, including by those in positions of power over them. And while “political correctness” gets on everybody’s nerves, nonetheless, our society has grown in virtue now that it has become very clear that using power to gain sex, especially when someone’s job is on the line, is a sin. We don’t call it a “sin”; but lawyers sue when it happens, which makes it taboo. These days, the definition of “sin” is “doing something that could get you sued”. So avoiding such consequences may not be “virtue”, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Likewise, the bishops in the Catholic Church who, for decades, enabled and covered up for the abuse of minors have been forced to change their ways (or at least to pretend to change their ways) for fear of lawsuits. Not only can God bring good out of evil, He can also use lawyers to do His will! Which is pretty amazing, if you think about it.
Will the Cosby case lead our society to a similar awakening? After all, guys have done what Bill Cosby has admitted to doing for years, if not forever. Certainly, most men would never actually drug a woman to lower her resistance or render her unconscious so that he could sexually assault her, but most men (who are on the prowl) would do pretty much everything else Cosby describes.
For example, I once had a close friend who was a theater professor at a local college. He had an office in which headshots of dozens of attractive women were posted, covering every inch of every wall. The rumor was that he had slept with every one of these women – that the posting of a headshot was like the etching of another notch in the bedpost. Indeed, once I got to know this man, I discovered that he devoted his entire life to the conquest of women. Seducing attractive and more or less vulnerable women who were half his age was the single thing he put all his life’s energy into. In fact, I once sat in on a class he taught. As the class was ending and the students were leaving he announced (not as a joke), “Anyone who will come up here and French kiss me right now will get an A on her paper!” No one took him up on it.
This was in 1986. He’d never be able to get away with that today. Thank God. Indeed, after Clarence Thomas, by the early 1990’s, this man was forced into early retirement due to complaints that women had begun to lodge against him at his college.
Of course his behavior bothered me, but I was in my 20’s and he was in his 50’s and it didn’t occur to me how really sad this whole situation was – until the day we had lunch in Webster Groves. My friend began talking to a woman sitting at the table next to us, trying to pick her up (which is something he often did). She was an attractive college age woman, but as soon as she started to interact with us, I knew something was wrong. She told us she was a student at Webster University, but she was mad at the administration there because they had placed her on suspension. “All I did was scream at someone in the cafeteria!” she said. “She dropped her knife on the floor, and that really bothered me. So I screamed at her to pick it up. And she gave me a bad look and so I called her names and threatened to kill her. And for that they put me on suspension! I do that all the time, but they’re acting like I’m crazy! They’re telling me I should talk to their counsellor or see a therapist! A therapist! Can you believe it? Sure I’m depressed and some days I can’t get out of bed – but a therapist!!?”
Of course the right thing to do would have been to say, “My dear, I’m sure whoever suspended you at Webster could have treated you better or tried to explain things to you more fully – but you seem unhappy and they’re expressing concern for you and trying to help you. Therapy is not a bad thing.”
But instead, my friend said, “Wow. How awful of them. Can you believe it? I never would put up with that. You’re right to be mad! Those administrators at Webster are awful!”
In other words, “How’s your father’s cancer, honey? Not that I care, I just want to get in your pants.”
But, you see, I’m not one to talk. One of the things that happens to you when you become a middle-aged man, especially if you’re somewhat successful or charming, is that certain young women are indeed attracted to you – for whatever reason. And part of the temptation this involves is the disparity of power and the desire to make use of it. A middle-aged man is always, by his very maturity, in a position of power over a college age woman. This doesn’t mean that young women are necessarily naive or that they don’t set out to seduce older men the same way older men often set out to seduce younger women. Both sexes can and often do use their respective positions of power over the other. But when Eros is about power, about “pressing your advantage”, then love becomes use, and use is the opposite of love.
For Eros, you see, was a god to the Greeks. And Plato’s Symposium is all about this. The Symposium is a glimpse into an ancient drinking party, in which the men decide to give speeches in praise of the god Eros before they get too drunk. And Eros fascinates me, as it did the Greeks, because Eros is more than just erotic desire in the narrow sexual sense. In fact, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has declared (apparently infallibly) through Benedict XVI and his encyclical Deus Caritas Est that Eros and Agape are simply two sides of the same coin, so to speak, that the self-surrendering love of Agape is drained of all its spirit without the upward desire and longing of Eros; while the longing of Eros becomes jealous and self-serving without the sacrificial submission of Agape. Eros without Agape is lust; Agape without Eros is clinical, ineffectual and impersonal. C. S. Lewis spoke of these and the two other classical “loves” in his book The Four Loves.
But the Symposium has been sticking in my maw, and it was Bill Cosby’s deposition that showed me why. Cosby freely admits that he wanted to seduce his victims, but he also claims that he was “mentoring” them. Now, there is indeed room for a kind of “mentoring” in love, perhaps in what could be called Storge-love, or even perhaps in Eros. And I have, myself, had a kind of mentoring relationship with various young women over the years – but I’ve never set out to seduce them sexually, though attraction is sometimes part of the mix. But Bill Cosby’s behavior is simply predatory. Like my college professor friend, he set out to seduce young women and did whatever it took to achieve his goal – period, with, you might say, malice aforethought. And Bill Cosby didn’t “love” his victims in any sense of the word. He wasn’t “mentoring” them or “helping” them or “educating” them. He was simply using them.
And yet the Symposium is all about such false “mentoring”. Middle aged Greek men in Athens would attempt to seduce teenaged boys, so as to “mentor” them and sodomize them. Much of the Symposium is filled with the praise of Eros in the form of pederasty. It may indeed be true that these man / boy relationships were something other than what we would call them today – homosexual abuse, but it is telling that the climax of the Symposium is the image of Socrates resisting this very kind of relationship. In the Symposium, Alcibiades describes how he pursued and tried to seduce Socrates (though Alcibiades was younger and Socrates older), but even when he managed to spend the night with Socrates, Socrates would never have sex with him. So even in the writings of Plato, who was steeped in a culture that took this perversion for granted, there is a hint that there is something greater and more noble, and that Socrates, in his apparent celibacy from such things, is more true to Eros-as-Love than those honry old homosexual “trolls” who are much more devoted to Eros as erotic “use”.
So far I’ve touched upon Bill Cosby, Plato and Socrates, but I’ve yet to get to St. Bernadette and Professor Irwin Corey. Bear with me.
We left the Super Eight at 7:00 am. By 7:45, outside of Boonville, the rain was torrential. I later learned that over two inches poured down in one hour. It was too bad to drive in. I pulled over to a rest area. “Let’s go to a nearby Mass, since we can’t drive anywhere on the highway,” I said to Maria. “We’ll forget the Latin Mass in O’Fallon and take our chances near here. After Mass, maybe the rain will have passed and we can continue on home.” I pulled up masstimes.org and it showed that we could arrive in time for the 8:30 Mass at a nearby church that happened to be on “Bernadette Road”.
It would take too long to describe how involved St. Bernadette has been in my life and in my apostolate, the Theater of the Word Incorporated. Suffice it to say that when her name pops up, I begin to wonder what she has in store for me.
And what she had in store for me today defies description – and brought my actress Maria to tears.
We made it to the church on Bernadette Road fifteen minutes before Mass began, and the rain was unrelenting. The church was modern but well-done. The crucifix was beautiful. The buzz in the sanctuary was mild. We were all soaking wet. There was no way to get from the parking lot to the pews without getting soaking wet.
And then Father entered.
He looked like Professor Irwin Corey. Like a gay, brain damaged, in-the-closet Professor Irwin Corey.
For those of you who don’t remember Professor Irwin Corey, here’s his website. He is (as of today) a 101-year-old standup comedian who is still performing! He began appearing on television in the 1950’s and had a memorable bit part in the 1970’s B-movie Car Wash. He’s a funny man and he has a good act.
This priest, however … well, he came out before Mass not to “work the room” as Father Glad Hand had done in Georgia two weeks prior, but to do a “warm up”. A “warm up” is what we, in show business, call an opening act that wakes the audience up by telling jokes and getting them in the mood to laugh at the headliner. Father’s “warm up” consisted of him telling jokes about the rain, reading a long list of every single person who would be at the altar, including the two dozen “eucharistic ministers”, the three altar girls, the lectors and the cantor and the piano player, the entire “cast of characters” as it were, as if this really was an Off Broadway show and not the single most serious and important thing any human being can do on any given day. And then he said, “Do we have any visitors here?” And I turned to Maria and said, “Don’t you dare raise your hand.” But lots of folks did, and Father Irwin Corey joked around with everyone who said anything and got everybody else to applaud them, including eliciting hearty applause for the folks who were from the next town over, and who didn’t even look wet. And then he said, “Stand up and greet your neighbors around you!”
And I made a hasty exit.
Again, dear reader, I freely admit that if I were a better Christian, I would be able to put up with this nonsense, or if I were a great Christian (a saint), I would stand up in my pew and loudly denounce such glib garbage in the style of the prophets, for such priests who make of the Mass a light and shallow and insipid thing send a powerful message to their parishioners that it’s all just a smarmy amateur hour and God is nothing to fear. Far from mentoring or educating or guiding their flocks, such shepherds, in their vanity and selfishness, and in one form or another, abuse them, for their own selfish and vain desires. Kind of like Bill Cosby and lots of others. Liturgical abuse is people abuse. Or, as today’s first reading told us,
Woe to the shepherds
who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture,
says the LORD. (Jer. 23:1)
So I endured as much as I could (the homily was unendurable and the Eucharistic Rite was filled with ad libs and phoney emotionalism), but when Maria came out of Mass, I was surprised that she was in tears.
“Maria, I’m sorry,” I said. “I hope my being upset at Mass and disgusted at the priest didn’t disturb you.”
“It’s not that,” she said. “It’s the Professor!”
“Professor Irwin Corey?” I asked. But Maria didn’t know who he is. “Are you talking about the fact that the priest reminded you of Professor Irwin Corey? Or are you talking about my friend the womanizer, who was a professor at the college before they forced him out?” But she wasn’t thinking of either of them.
“I couldn’t figure out why we were here,” Maria began. “There was no reason for us to be at this Mass, except for all of the coincidences that brought us here – spending the night in Higginsville, not being able to drive any further in that terrible rain.”
“I can’t figure it out, either,” I said. “But I suspect St. Bernadette wanted us here – which means God did, too. And yet, ever since this morning, all I can think of is Bill Cosby and Plato’s Symposium. And I’m not sure how they’re connected to this oddball priest and this unendurable Mass. But what professor are you talking about?”
“Professor Touchy,” she replied. That’s not his real name, but it’s the name I’ll give him.
“Who’s Professor Touchy?” I asked.
“I went to college not on an acting scholarship,” said Maria, my actress, “but on a writing scholarship.”
I never knew that, and I’ve known Maria for almost ten years. “A writing scholarship!” I exclaimed. “I didn’t know you’re a writer!”
“My teachers used to love my writing. But I gave up on it.”
“You gave up on being a writer?” I pressed. “Why?”
“Professor Touchy. He was my freshman writing professor in college. And I hated him! He made us read and write terrible things. Everything I wrote for him, he’d pull me aside and say, ‘Maria, I love what you’re written. It’s filled with sexual overtones!’ And that really disturbed me.”
My friends, Maria Romine is the last person on earth whose writing would be filled with sexual overtones.
She went on. “He was always wanting me to push my sexual content further, to write more sexual material, and to discuss it with him.”
“I see, so he was mentoring you,” I said. “And I mean mentoring in the Bill Cosby / Ancient Greek sense. He was grooming you.”
“He was sexually harassing you.”
“I guess so,” Maria replied. “He used to say the same thing to the other girl students, too.”
“Of course he did,” I said.
She concluded, “I stopped writing, it bothered me so much. I became an acting major.”
“And then that priest came out and he looked just like Professor Touchy! And those horrible jokes, and that dreadful homily, and that terrible Mass – and all the time I was praying, ‘God, why have you brought me here? Is it to pray for these people?’ And then, all of a sudden, I understood why.”
She paused, and then in tears, she continued. “I prayed to God, and He answered me. He said to me, ‘Look at that priest. That’s Professor Touchy. You need to forgive him!’”
She was quiet. The rain was letting up. The dark gray clouds were blowing swiftly here and there.
“Well, Maria,” I said, “God brought you to that Mass, but he also brought me to that Mass. And He put me in the car with you, and He had me read about Bill Cosby this morning, and think about my old college professor womanizing friend, and think about my own dark soul and my own temptations to sin. And at the very least He did all that so that you can hear me say this.”
I paused, gathered my thoughts and continued. “Yes,” I said, “You need to forgive him. You need to forgive Professor Touchy. But you also need to understand fully what he did to you. He victimized you. He abused you – not physically, but psychologically. He tried to take advantage of you. He did what my womanizing friend did, what Bill Cosby did, what the Greeks used to do, what Father Glad Hand and Father Irwin Corey do – he used his position of power to get what he wanted from you and from those under his authority, from those dependent on him, from those more vulnerable and less powerful than he was, from the innocent, from those who look up to him. Forgive him, forgive them all – but know who they are and know what they’re all about. Sometimes we must pray, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Sometimes we must pray, Father, forgive them, though they know exactly what they are doing.”
“Oh,” I added. “And one more thing. You should probably start writing again.”
I drove off toward home.