Faith by Jennifer Haigh
In her most recent novel, Haigh tackles yet another dysfunctional family, this time with more serious overtones. She takes for her subject a priest accused of the worst sort of misconduct, set against the backdrop of the Boston Catholic archdiocese's recent (and sometimes, seemingly, ongoing) sex scandal. Sheila McGann, the prodigal daughter from a blue collar Irish Catholic family, reluctantly narrates the story of her older brother, Father Art McGann, a loner since childhood and the apple of their undemonstrative mother's eye. Unlike some writers, who might be tempted to sensationalize such a story, Haigh treats her subjects with directness, empathy and respect, bringing to light the complications and tragedies that emerge when long-suppressed secrets are revealed. Once I began this story, every moment I spent not reading it felt wasted.
A bit of background about me and my coming to read this book: Even though I have read two of Haigh's previous books and thought them excellent (you can read one mini-review of The Condition here), I was not at first very interested in picking up this book because of the subject matter. I didn't want to read a sensationalist account nor an apologia for the church. But then my Harper sales rep, Anne DeCourcey, sent me a link to other bookseller early reviews of Faith (the book releases in May) and I gave in, picking up the ARC that she had sent me some time ago.
I am an avowed agnostic, but I was raised in the Episcopal tradition and I attended Catholic school for grades one-four until I moved from Wisconsin to Mississippi. My mom hails from a large, blue collar, Irish Catholic family (she became an Episcopalian after her divorce) and one of my uncles was a Jesuit. I remember, like the narrator Sheila McGann, having a crush on the young priest who taught religion class, and feeling somewhat in awe of him. My classmates and I even played at being priests during recess. Though it has been a few decades now, I am pretty well-steeped in Catholic traditions and rites.
As an adult I moved to Massachusetts where I now live and where Roman Catholics are among the largest groups of church goers. And so it was that when the huge scandal broke out in Boston of the sex abuse that the Archdiocese was aware of these abuses and not *really* doing much to correct them, I was, like most of the world, shocked and appalled, but there was a personal note to my outcry. Because it is, of course, much more difficult to forgive of wrongdoing the person you trusted most to protect you.
I think the Catholic church has quite a lot to answer for in terms of the devastation, cruelty, and harsh regimes that it has visited on its believers since its inception, and I don't lose sight of that. But unfortunately I think that the multitude of good that it has done for the people of the world too often gets overlooked--as one bumper sticker says, Thank God for Liberation Theology.