June 30, 2009

What Michael Jackson Can Teach Us About the Catholic Church

SANTA MARIA, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:   (FILE PHOTO)...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

From what I have seen on CNN lately, the death of Michael Jackson appears to be the story of the year. I watched with a sense of building disgust as they rolled out some "singer-songwriter" I didn't recognize and asked her about Jackson's message. In what just has to be a new low point for CNN, she replied, "Well, I did not know him personally, but..." and then proceeded to offer up some drivel about his message to the world. That was when I turned off the TV, picked up The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, and went to bed to read until I fell asleep. I now believe that there is at least one lesson we should take from Jackson's life, and it involves the Catholic Church.

Those of us who remember the birth of MTV remember what Jackson did for the network and for popular music itself. Along with everyone I knew at the time, I had a copy of Thriller and listened to it constantly. I tuned in to see Jackson during his various appearances at award shows, his videos, etc. He was so damn cool.

I had absolutely no interest in post-Thriller Jackson. As I grew older, my tastes in music changed. None of his newer stuff seemed as good, and I recognized that it would never compare. I came to regard him as someone with amazing dance moves whose music I didn't particularly care for.

And then came the cosmetic surgery, the sham marriage, the oddity of Neverland, and eventually the allegations of child sexual abuse. Jackson was widely regarded as a freak by everyone I knew long before reports of sexually inappropriate behavior surfaced. I mean, he changed his skin color and transformed from a good-looking guy all the girls liked to a monster. He was the butt of endless jokes.

When the allegations of child molestation surfaced, Jackson did himself no favors by insisting that there was nothing wrong with him sleeping with young boys. Everyone I knew assumed that he was guilty but predicted that he would buy his way out of it. I agreed.

Jackson and the Catholic Church

Jackson offers us a simple but important lesson about the Catholic Church. Remember the media's coverage of Jackson's trial on sexual abuse charges? Remember how strange it seemed that there were hordes of fans out there supporting him? He hadn't had a decent album in years and was widely ridiculed, but there they were.

I vividly remember street interviews with these fans. It was clear that they were simply not willing to believe that Jackson could have messed with little boys. Even if he had been convicted, they would have continued to support him. What was wrong with these people?

When one looks at this chapter of Jackson's life, the unavoidable question is why any self-respecting parent would have allowed his or her young son to have contact with Jackson. Sure, some suspected that he was essentially renting the boys. But I'm not sure he would have had to. I think he was placed on such a pedestal by some of these fans that they would have done anything for him.

When we look at the widespread abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church, it feels familiar. It feels like Jackson all over again. These priests are on pedestals as well, surrounded by a different sort of fan but still one who believes that their priest would never do such a thing.

There is nothing wrong with admiration or respect, but the sort of hero worship we saw with Jackson and continue to see among Catholics and their clergy is disconcerting. When we give in to such feelings, we lower our defenses and become increasingly vulnerable to exploitation.

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