There was no Catholic school in the rural area where we lived in the 1930s, so on Saturday mornings my mother took me to the nearest Catholic church. Nuns were brought in to teach us catechism.
They dressed mainly in black with some white around their faces. Their faces and hands were all that showed. They taught us in groups scattered within the dim church. One Saturday, our young nun gingerly mentioned adultery. And she earnestly warned us not to look at ourselves when we took baths.
If I ever get psychoanalyzed, the analyst will probably ask why I still remember that warning so clearly after more than 70 years.
I guess the young nun was trying to reinforce our modesty and shame, if we had any. And if we didn’t, she probably hoped to plant some. Shame is one of the most powerful tools human tribes have for regulating their members.
Shame can restrict many of our strong, sometimes dangerous urges, such as selfishness, anger and sexual desires. But gradually, since the 1930s, many of us have become ashamed of our shame. We’re afraid that feeling shame is old-fashioned, chicken or square.
And some of shame’s main enforcers have let it down. Consider Cardinal Roger M. Mahony. He retired almost two years ago after 25 years as archbishop of Los Angeles. Court papers released this week say he aided priests to avoid criminal and court action after they were accused of sexual child abuse.
In 2007, the Los Angeles Archdiocese agreed to a $660 million settlement with more than 500 abuse victims. Archdiocese lawyers then tried for years to keep the archdiocese personnel files secret, but they lost.
The files include a letter from Cardinal Mahony telling a priest, who was accused of sexually abusing 20 boys, to stay in New Mexico to avoid criminal and civil action.
This disgraceful tragedy proves the power of shame. The cardinal apparently worried more about the shame of bad publicity for his diocese than about the danger of the abusers harming other children.
Since the 1930s, shame has taken a beating. The movies and television continuously tell us naughty is fun, shame is a wet blanket. Does anybody try to keep children from watching shows loaded with violence and promiscuity anymore? Does anybody say “promiscuity” anymore?
Most kids these days know stuff only police lieutenants knew when I was a teenager.
And read the headlines: “Sex is major reason military commanders are fired, data show,” or “Gibson aide back in wake of affair.”
As the song says, “Everyone knows anything goes.” And that’s a shame.