Peter Manseau Interview


The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son

Peter Manseau

A Conversation With the Author

1. Your previous book, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible*, is an exploration of the varieties of faith and faithlessness in America. The word “heresy” comes from a Greek word that means “to choose.” Do you think that the choices your parents made makes them heretics? How would you define heresy in the twenty-first century?
In some ways heresy is a very flexible idea; it contains the notion that, insofar as we all choose aspects of our religious practice, or lack thereof, we are all heretics, in a way. It was this flexibility which Killing the Buddha tried to examine and, by showing the huge variety of belief and nonbelief that make up the communal spiritual life of our nation, I think the book did a good job of presenting heresy—religious choice—as something worthy of praise. In the Catholic context, however, heresy is more technical. It is a question not just of choices being made but the particulars of those choices. On the day of my parents’ wedding, my father insisted that he was not a heretic, and he holds the same opinion today. Technically, he is right: the rule of celibacy is not a dogma of the church; it is not a tenet of faith but a discipline required by some but not all members of the community of belief. To oppose such a discipline, my father would insist, is not to challenge the faith but merely one of its regulations. However, in the larger sense, in the sense that to challenge celibacy is to challenge the power structure of the church, I do think my parents are heretics of a sort. And I am proud of them for it.

2. In Vows you tell the hilarious and poignant story of being deemed a “special case” by your CCD teacher. Do you still feel that you occupy an ambiguous place within the faith? How, if at all, has writing this book affected your own religious identification?
A child’s faith is for the most part an extension of his parents’ faith, and so the ambiguity I felt was mainly my parents’ as well. As I grew up and came to have a better sense of myself and how I felt toward the faith, my ambivalence faded. If pushed, I consider myself Catholic now, but that is only in the way that I consider myself Irish or French—the Catholic Church is where my people come from. Like a lot of people raised as Catholics, I don’t go to mass regularly and I am unlikely to start any time soon. I did more often before I wrote the book, so perhaps learning and telling my parents’ story had something to do with my current non-observance. Like my well meaning CCD teacher all those years ago, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has a long way to go before it acknowledges its history and comes to terms with the many ways it has hurt those who belong to it. Until then, I will maintain a writerly distance.

3. Do you believe in having, as you once uttered the word, a “Vo Ca Tion”? Were you in any way “driven” to write Vows? Do you think that most writers experience some sort of “calling”?

I do, but not in the way my parents thought of the word. A calling is not so much the hearing of a divine voice but the result of a lifetime of accumulated influences. In some ways it might have been inevitable that I would end up interested in the kinds of stories I’m moved to write. I grew up around people who took faith seriously, who recognized that beliefs have the power to hurt and heal. That I now feel compelled to tell stories about such people may be a religious calling, or it may be basic psychology—we spend our adult lives answering the questions posed by childhood. If the latter is the case I feel lucky, blessed perhaps, that the questions of faith I learned when I was a child seem to have answers that speak to those whose lives are very different from my own. If all of that amounts to a vocation, then I would say I have one. Like my parents’ vocations, however, it is likely to change and grow as I do.

4. If you had known your mother’s secret before setting out to write Vows, how different might this book have been?

My mother’s secret emerges slowly throughout Vows and is not fully revealed until the last few chapters. This reflects fairly well how I came to know it myself. Had I known more from the start, I think I might have put it more at the forefront of the story, rather than lurking in the background, waiting to be revealed. I’m glad I did not know everything about my parents from the outset. Not knowing, I think, added to the sense of discovery that to me is the heart of the book.

5. Your parents married in the 1960s, after the reforms of Vatican II, with high hopes for further changes in their church. Do you think in your lifetime you’ll live to see an ordained married priest? An openly gay priest? A dogmatic shift on such issues as celibacy, contraception, and abortion?

Yes, I think in my lifetime the Catholic Church will allow married men to be priests. However, this should not be taken to mean the church will liberalize in any grand way. The Catholic Church as it exists today will never validate sex outside of marriage, nor will it consecrate same sex marriages, which means we will not see openly and actively gay priests. Nor will the Catholic Church as it exists today ordain women. If it eventually allows married priests it will be only because it has no choice, given the growing number of Catholics worldwide and the shrinking number of priests. I do not think this will be the start of a dogmatic shift. The celibate power structure will remain and married priests who wish to serve them will do so without making too many waves. The larger questions raised by the issues surrounding celibacy will only be addressed when the church thoroughly reexamines its ideas about sexuality and the human body generally. Given how long it took the Vatican to pardon Galileo, I don’t think we should expect the church to embrace new ideas any time soon.

6. You have recently been married, and soon you will become a father. Have you thought about what role religion will play in your family? What is your idea of a good Catholic upbringing today?

It is extremely unlikely that wife my and I will raise our children to be Catholics. I am grateful for the religious upbringing I received as a child, and I would like to pass on a sense of history, belonging, and wonder to my daughter, but the church as it exists today does not speak with immediacy to the concerns of the modern world. Nonetheless, in some ways my parents serve as good role models for how to pass tradition on in turbulent times. When they were newly married, they were unable to practice the faith exactly as they had known it, and so had to invent new ways to feel they were living faithful lives. For very different reasons, I find myself in a similar position. I won’t come to the same conclusions but if there is one thing I have learned from my parents it is that the best way to have a meaningful spiritual life is to remain open to possibilities.

* Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, coauthored by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet, is available in paperback from Free Press.

A Conversation with William and Mary Manseau

1. When Peter announced that he would be writing this book, what was your initial reaction? Were you ready to revisit this chapter in your life story? And now that it’s been told, how does it feel to share it with your readers?

When Peter asked if we would be willing to allow him to write about our experiences, our initial reaction was a cautious yes. Like anyone else we were hesitant to have the private details of our lives made public. Yet we wanted to be supportive of our son. It was a difficult decision for Mary because she knew that if Peter was going to write his story and ours that it had to be the whole story. It would probably have to include some of the more difficult experiences in our lives. We had a lot of anxiety over how it would be received. It will be worth it if it brings readers some new insights into the life of the Church in its current difficulties and also if it helps others who may have had similar experiences.

2. Vows is a memoir about faith—in God, in love, and in one’s self. Do you believe that falling in love requires a leap in faith? Do you believe in destiny?

Mary doesn't know if she believes in destiny. One makes decisions and you live with them and hope for the best. Bill, on the other hand does believe in destiny or as he prefers to call it, divine providence. He believes that our family's story, in God's plan, will help to bring increased health into the Church that he loves.

3. When you learned that Peter had explored the idea of a vocation, how did you feel? Had you ever hoped that one of your children might pursue a life of religious service?

Astonished. I (Bill) think that the best part of the book is Peter's story of his own discernment of his life's direction. I must admit that I have hoped that one of our children might follow a vocation into religious service. Mary, on the other hand, never entertained the same hope for her children. She always wanted them to be loving, caring, and happy people in whatever they chose to do in life.

4. Mrs. Manseau: Father Creighton may not have been duly punished by the courts but do you think the publication of Vows is at least—or at best—a form of poetic justice? Perhaps, in this case, the pen is mightier than the sword?

There is a part of me that regrets that he did not live to see the publication of Vows. Yet I think Fr. Creighton suffered his own personal turmoil because I pursued my case with the archdiocese and the courts.

5. Bernard Law, the late John Geoghan, Paul Shanley—these are a few of the names the world associates with the Church sex-abuse scandal. Dr. Manseau, you knew these men before the headlines. How do you feel about them now: Could you have ever imagined these accusations held against them? And do you think their respective punishments fit the crime?

Cardinal Bernard Law, and Frs. John Geoghan and Paul Shanley were initially good men who were caught each in his own way in the tangled web of a profoundly dysfunctional Church which masquerades as a holy institution but in reality is a very mixed bag which distorts reality. It is no secret to those in the know within the institutional Church and in public authorities that the Church has for many centuries covered up the crimes of its personnel whenever it could lest the people be scandalized. Bernard Law did nothing different from his predecessors. In the seminary we were taught that God's law is higher than civil law and that the Church is a special community, which in some way is above the law. After all, the Church through the centuries of its glory created and installed civil regimes. I feel profound pity for and anger at these men even if they were entranced and rendered witless by their roles in the institutional Church. I feel that it is a disgrace that Cardinal Law has been rewarded with a magnificent church in Rome. It is a disservice to the Church and to him, for it cuts off the possibility of being confronted with the truth and thereby denies the possibility of repentance and renewal.

6. Your marriage was a newsworthy event, and the press was present at your wedding. “Our plans,” Mary told one reporter, “are simply to live happily ever after.” Simply put: Have you fulfilled that objective? And now that Peter has married and a father, do you have any words of advice for him and his family?

A new bride always dreams of living “happily ever after.” We are happy, but that does not mean that we are unlike most families. Along with all the good things—watching our children grow into fine adults, family camping trips, vacations together, and so on—we have had to deal with unemployment, health issues, death in our families, disagreements, disappointments, and other issues known to almost everyone. Our advice to Peter is to keep following his heart and his head. Bill’s mother always said, “Pray as though everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.”