Spy Wednesday Reflection: The Sins of the Clergy

Wednesday of Holy Week is traditionally called “Spy Wednesday” since it is this day when Judas conspired with the Temple Leadership to hand Jesus over. He would accomplish his task the evening of the next day, but today he makes arrangements to hand Jesus over and is paid.

One way to reflect on this terrible sin is to reflect that Judas was among the first priests called by Jesus. We see in the call of the Apostles the establishment of the ministerial priesthood. Jesus called these men to lead his Church and minister in his name. But one of these priests went wrong, terribly wrong, and turned against the very one he should have proclaimed.

Among the other “first priests” we also see great weaknesses evident. Peter in weakness denied Jesus, though he repented later. All the others except John fled at the time of the passion. And so here we see the “sins of the clergy” made manifest. Christ did not call perfect men. He promised to protect his Church from officially teaching error but this does not mean that there is no sin in the Church and among those who are called to lead. The story of Judas shows that even among those who were called, one went terribly wrong.

In recent years there has been much focus on the sins of Catholic Priests who went terribly wrong and sexually abused the young. The vast majority of priests have never done such things, but those who did so inflicted great harm.

There are other sins of the clergy that have nothing to do with sexuality that may also have caused great harm. Maybe it was an insensitive remark. Perhaps it was the failure of a priest to respond at a critical moment such as a hospital visit. Whatever it might be that has caused you harm or alienation, please don’t give up on God or the on the Church. If a priest or Church leader has caused you grief or to feel alienated please know that there are other priests, deacons, and lay leaders who stand ready to hear your concerns and offer healing. Let the healing begin. Ask among your Catholic family and friends for recommendations about helpful and sensitive priests or Church leaders who can listen to your concerns, address them where possible, and offer another opportunity for the Church to reach out to you with love.

On this “Spy Wednesday” pray especially for priests. We carry the treasure of our priesthood in earthen vessels. As human beings we struggle with our own issues. We have many good days and some less than stellar moments too. The vast majority of Priests are good men, though sinners, who strive to do their very best. But some among us have sinned greatly and caused harm to the Body of Christ, as did Judas. Some of us may have caused harm to you. Please accept an invitation to begin anew.

If you have stayed away through some hurt or harm caused by any leader of the Church, strive on this “Spy Wednesday” to still find Christ where he is found. Among sinners and saints too, in the Church he founded: Perfect in her beauty as the Bride of Christ but consisting of members who are still “on the way” to holiness.

As usual, after all my verbiage, a music video offers this message better than I ever could. Allow this powerful video to move you if you have ever been hurt or know someone who has.

The Role of the Clergy in Elections – Limits and Principles

We have just completed an election cycle and experienced yet another tidal change in the political realm. On this blog as well as others there are frequent comments that express frustration with the clergy that we are not more directive in how and for whom to vote. The most common frustration expressed here has been that priests and bishops do not directly say to the faithful that they cannot, in good conscience vote for any candidate who is pro-choice. Every now and then a certain priest may be quoted to this effect and he is either praised as a hero or excoriated as a partisan tool, out of his boundaries.

What is the right and prudent thing for a priest to do in these matters, particularly as elections come and go? I would like to explore the question by making reference to an important source document that sets forth some criteria. The document is Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion  by [then] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The document, really a memo, to the Bishops  is not meant to specifically address how priests should handle the issue of elections. Rather it’s main focus is to address the worthiness to receive Holy Communion and how Bishops and pastors should handle the problem of Catholic legislators who vote to fund abortion. Nevertheless it gives some principles that can be applied to elections as well. Let’s review some of the principles set forth in that document.

  1. Abortion is a very grave evil. The document states The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin…..there is a “grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. […] In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law or vote for it’” ( E.V., 73). Christians have a “grave obligation of conscience not to cooperate formally in practices which, even if permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to God’s law. (WTRHC, # 2)
  2. Abortion has a higher priority than many other issues – The document states, Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC # 3).
  3. Direct or formal cooperation in the evil of Abortion excludes one from receiving Holy Communion– Direct or formal participation in abortion would involve things like performing an abortion, procuring an abortion, paying for an abortion, directly advising and assisting one to seek an abortion and providing information, transportation, etc.,  providing other resources for the abortion to take place such as the owners of a clinic providing space, and so forth. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger also defined the following as direct or formal cooperation in abortion: consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws (WTRHC # 5). Hence Politicians who do this are formally cooperating in abortion and are excluded from receiving Holy Communion according to the memo. The document instructs the pastor of such legislators and others who formally cooperate in the evil of abortion to instruct them to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until such time as they repent or their formal cooperation in this grave evil. Surely such counseling should include pastoral dimensions wherein the pastor teaches from Scripture that the unworthy reception of Communion not only is of no avail but actually brings further condemnation upon the unworthy recipient  (1 Cor 11:29). Salutary reminders of final judgment and the strong likelihood of Hell are also called for in a matter this serious. Pastors have this duty if they become aware of any Catholic who is involved in formal cooperation with the grave evil of abortion or euthanasia. They have the duty to exhort such individuals to immediate and complete repentance in order to save their souls. Surely there will also be the need for compassion especially in the cases of women and others who have felt compelled to seek abortion under various forms of duress. The Sacrament of Confession is surely and generously offered to all who seek mercy and have repented. Additionally, Pastors have the duty to remind all Catholics about mortal sin in general and the need for worthy reception of Communion.

But what of those Catholics who vote for pro-choice politicians? Are they also guilty of formal or direct cooperation in the evil of abortion? The document has this to say:

A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons (WTRC – Concluding note).

Hence a priest is not permitted, per se, to conclude that all his parishioners who vote for pro-choice candidates are in sin for doing so and/or are unworthy to receive Holy Communion. There could be certain cases, as then Cardinal Ratzinger describes, wherein the pro-choice position was the reason that candidate got their vote, but this is not always or even usually the case. Most vote for a particular candidate for a whole host of reasons. One of those reasons, cannot be the candidate’s stand supporting abortion. Their vote must be based on other “proportionate” reasons. This notation in the document seems to yield some principles related to elections and the clergy’s role in preparing the faithful.

  1. A pastor, directly stating to his people that they should not for “Candidate A” may be going too far. Note that the document states that it is possible for Catholics to have proportionate reasons to vote for Candidate A even if he is pro-choice. While many of us may find this odious and could never even think of voting for such a candidate it does seem that then-Cardinal Ratizinger indicates such circumstances can prevail. Since the faithful have this freedom to exercise their judgment in this regard, it seems that the clergy should not usurp their judgment utterly by absolutely excluding certain, even pro-choice candidates.
  2. The determination of “proportionate reasons” is a matter involving prudential judgment . There may be legitimate differences among Catholics as to what those “proportionate” reasons might be. Some respect for the fact that these are prudential judgments is called for. Catholics may often have vigorous debates about proper priorities in voting but the document does not etch in stone what a “proportionate reason” is or is not. Hence debate should involve some mutual respect for the nature of prudential judgment. Many of us who are strongly pro-life cannot imagine any reason to vote for a pro-choice candidate of any party, ever. And yet there are issues that evoke passion and concern for others (while not excluding abortion) such as questions of war and peace, economic policy that includes justice for the poor, affordable housing, immigrant issues, responsible fiscal policy, and so forth. Like it or not, the document permits some considerations of other issues as long as they are proportionate.
  3. The Clergy must help the faithful make proper judgments and understand what is meant by proportionate reasons.  Prudential judgments require a well formed conscience. Teaching the faithful is an important role that Bishops, priests and deacons must  fulfill. Helping Catholics assess priorities and be well informed on all the moral and social issues is an essential and on-going work, not just at election time, but throughout the year.
  4. As stated in the document and quoted above, abortion and euthanasia have an important priority: Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia (WTRHC  # 3). This is for the reasons stated there. Hence it does not seem wrong for the clergy to give special emphasis to the evil of Abortion and also Euthanasia as they instruct the faithful in what it means to have proportionate reasons. At the same time these two central, moral issues of our day should not entirely eclipse other important issues either.  Other moral issues such as same sex-“Marriage,” and social matters such as justice for the poor and immigrants, fair labor laws, affordable housing, educational reform and so forth are also important aspects of Catholic teaching that cannot wholly be neglected or set aside.

I realize this post will spur a great deal of controversy. But I have tried to stick to the document written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. That document could not be clearer that abortion is a grave moral evil and that Bishops and Pastors have serious obligations to warn the faithful that any advocacy or funding of this evil, is direct, formal cooperation. It is a grave sin and excludes one from Communion. At the same time the document respects the prudential judgment that is involved in voting and distinguishes that act from direct or formal cooperation in abortion.  This is what the document actually says. Hence, I invite your comments but encourage you to tie them back to the actual contents of the memo from then-Cardinal Ratzinger. We may all have certain wishes as to what the document should say, but in the end it says what it says. I am especially interested in your thoughts as to what priests can or can’t do in the close vicinity to actual election day, given what this document has to say.

As for me, I cannot believe that our country ever came to the place where candidates proudly run under the banner of supporting legal abortion. Something is deeply wrong with us and I pray that this great scourge will end. I don’t think any Catholic can steer clear of how very grave the sin of abortion is. While the document leaves open the notion of  proportionate reasons, it seems clear that the horrible gravity of this crime must weigh very heavily in any moral reasoning surrounding the question of proportionate reasons to vote for pro-choice candidates. There is a judgment upon this land for what we are permitting and we have every obligation to be clear what side we are on and fight to end this scourge.

On the Silence of Pastors and a Call to Prayer

One of the more consistent concerns I hear expressed here on the blog about priests and bishops is the problem of too much silence from us. There seems to be quite a hunger from many of you to hear from us more cogently and consistently on matters of the faith, moral law, and the cultural breakdown. There is frustration that more is not said about critical matters.

Although I know of many heroic exceptions to this problem I will admit that the big picture does no always look too pretty. Too many Catholic preachers are content to speak in abstractions and generalities and fear offending with too many specifics. This has meant that important moral issues go unaddressed and that the faith has been poorly handed on for many decades now.

That said I also want to express a little frustration from the clergy side of the equation. While it is true that many people want us to say many things about many issues they still want Mass to be out in 45 minutes and the sermon to be 7-10 minutes. This presents a challenge in covering all the many issues of our day and it seems a little more time has to be taken to effectively address matters of the faith and the meltdown of our culture. Seven minutes a week to hand on the faith compared to dozens of hours per day of  exposure to worldly influence is hardly a good balance. I am not asking for interminable sermons but we do have to have more time thatn merely to present a “thought for the week” if we are going to win this battle.

But I’d like to get out of the way and let a Saint speak on this matter of the silence of pastors and ask your prayers for all our Catholic clergy as you read this instruction of Pope St. Gregory the Great to his Clergy. These writings are excerpted from two sources: Pastoral Rule Book 2.4; and Homily. 17.3 and 14.  The boldface introductory phrase is mine otherwise all the indented text is his:

Discretion is good, fearful silence is not – A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service. Otherwise he may say what he should not or be silent when he should speak. Indiscreet speech may lead men into error and an imprudent silence may leave in error those who could have been taught. Pastors who lack foresight hesitate to say openly what is right because they fear losing the favor of men. As the voice of truth tells us, such leaders are not zealous pastors who protect their flocks, rather they are like mercenaries who flee by taking refuge in silence when the wolf appears.

Silent Pastors are dumb dogs who leave the flock unprotected – The Lord reproaches them through the prophet: They are dumb dogs that cannot bark (Is 56:10). On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord (Ez 13:15). To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defence of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right. When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel.

Silent Pastors are false prophets – Therefore, the Lord again says to his unfaithful people: Your prophets saw false and foolish visions and did not point out your wickedness, that you might repent of your sins (Lam 2:14). …The word of God accuses them of seeing false visions because they are afraid to reproach men for their faults and thereby lull the evildoer with an empty promise of safety. Because they fear reproach, they keep silent and fail to point out the sinner’s wrongdoing.

Scripture says the Clergy must Speak…..Paul says of the bishop: He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9). For the same reason God tells us through Malachi: The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts (Mal 2:7). …..

Every Priest Must Preach – Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows. If, then, a priest does not know how to preach, what kind of cry can such a dumb herald utter? It was to bring this home that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of tongues on the first pastors (Acts 2:3), for he causes those whom he has filled, to speak out spontaneously.

The People must pray for the clergy – Beloved brothers, consider what has been said: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest (Matt 9:38). Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge.

Poor preaching is not ONLY the fault of the clergy – For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly. With reference to the wickedness of the preacher, the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (Psalm 50:16) And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house (Ez 3:26). He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth.

It is not for us to assign the full blame – It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock.

Many clergy are not only silent or poor preachers, they are absorbed in worldly matters – There is something else about the life of the shepherds, dearest brothers, which discourages me greatly. But lest what I claim should seem unjust to anyone, I accuse myself of the very same thing, although I fall into it unwillingly – compelled by the urgency of these barbarous times. I speak of our absorption in external affairs; we accept the duties of office, but by our actions we show that we are attentive to other things. We abandon the ministry of preaching and, in my opinion, are called bishops to our detriment, for we retain the honourable office but fail to practice the virtues proper to it. Those who have been entrusted to us abandon God, and we are silent. They fall into sin, and we do not extend a hand of rebuke. But how can we who neglect ourselves be able to correct someone else? We are wrapped up in worldly concerns, and the more we devote ourselves to external things, the more insensitive we become in spirit….They made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept (Song 1:6). We are set to guard the vineyards but do not guard our own, for we get involved in irrelevant pursuits and neglect the performance of our ministry. 

Pray, Pray Pray! Well you know what you need to do. Pray for us who are clergy and leaders. An old saying is true, corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst) or again, I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered (Matt 26:31). It is easy to criticize the clergy and well we deserve some of it. But realize this too, Satan has targeted the clergy, your bishop and your priests. It is easier for him to knock out the leaders than to go after the whole flock. Hence he targets bishops, priests and deacons. Send up your prayers as a hedge of protection around us. Pray for clergy who have become distracted and worldly. Pray for clergy who fear man more than God. Pray for clergy who have fallen under the burden of office. Pray for clergy who have been deceived by the evil one. Pray, pray, pray!

Pope Gregory’s feast isn’t until next week but here is an anticpation of it:

Is Sexual Abuse a Catholic Problem Only? (or) How Spotlights Leave Many Other Things in Darkness.

Recent revelations of clergy sex abuse cases here and abroad have caused great distress among the people of God. There is simply no excuse for such offenses that can satisfy, and there should not be. The crime is bad enough but further charges of cover up cause even more distress and anger.

But while the Church remains in the media focus, questions should also arise in the minds of all observers.

  1. Is the Church the only place where such things take place?
  2. Are the Church and Catholic Clergy worse offenders than, say, non-Catholic denominations and clergy, or public schools, or sports teams, scouting and the like?
  3. Are celibate Catholic clergy more likely to offend than married men?
  4. Are Catholic settings more dangerous for children than non Catholic or secular ones?

Many have quickly (and I would say unfairly) concluded that the answers to questions like these would generally be “yes.” For them this is a reason to stay away from Church. Or,  for those who dislike and distrust the Church it helps them to become even more hardened in their aversion. But are all these charges against the Church fair? Are there no distinctions to be made? Is the exclusive focus on things Catholic appropriate?

Timothy Radcliff, O.P. the former Master of the Dominican Order has written a thoughtful essay in The Tablet entitled Should I Stay or Should I  Go? I would like to print excerpts here and make my own comments in RED. I encourage you to read the whole article by clicking on the blue title in the previous sentence.

Why stay? First of all, why go? Some people feel that they can no longer remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt and dangerous for children. The suffering of so many children is indeed horrific. They must be our first concern. Nothing that I will write is intended in any way to lessen our horror at the evil of sexual abuse. But the statistics for the US, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, suggest that Catholic clergy do not offend more than the married clergy of other Churches. Some surveys even give a lower level of offence for Catholic priests. They are less likely to offend than lay school teachers, and perhaps half as likely as the general population. Celibacy does not push people to abuse children. The general media present a very myopic picture by focusing almost exclusively on the Catholic Church. Our offenses are real but so are offenses in other sectors which do not make the news. The fact is the sexual abuse of minors is a worldwide problem made even more extreme by the promiscuous and hypersexualized culture in which we live, especially in the West. Children are often sexualized in movies and advertisements. Women for example have  commented extensively on the pages of this blog how hard it is  even to buy modest clothes for their daughters.  Further, children are exposed to sexual imagery far too early. Both adults and children are inundated by sexual imagery and boundaries are very poor in western culture. In the “old days” young people were chaperoned and there was greater emphasis on modesty. We cannot single out the Church. The sexual abuse of minors is a global problem that cuts across every sector and segment of the human family.

 It is simply untrue to imagine that leaving the Church for another denomination would make one’s children safer.  We must face the terrible fact that the abuse of children is widespread in every part of society. To make the Church the scapegoat would be a cover-up.….. (Here too, the Criminal Justice System is also to blame. During the same era of the 1950s-1980s too many sexual predators were let off easy. This included rapists. Even today, there are many egregious sex offenders walking our streets. Many have long track records and yet get out early. Recently,  two women were killed by a sex offender who was out of jail. He had a track record a mile long and yet he walked freely. Why? So if the Church took such things far too lightly that is wrong. But psychologists, therapists, judges and juries also stand accused. The Church has adopted a zero tolerance policy but our criminal justice system still has too many holes. When will attention turn there?).

But what about the Vatican? Pope Benedict has taken a strong line in tackling this issue as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and since becoming Pope. Now the finger is pointed at him….I am morally certain that he bears no blame here. (As the evidence continues to unfold it looks as if Cardinal Ratzinger was one who took this matter more seriously that others and for this reason the matter was remanded to his care. Remember that he had a very strong reputation (and was hated by some for it) of being the enforcer-in-chief!)

It is generally imagined that the Vatican is a vast and efficient organisation. In fact it is tiny. The CDF only employs 45 people, dealing with doctrinal and disciplinary issues for a Church which has 1.3 billion members, 17 per cent of the world’s population, and some 400,000 priests. When I dealt with the CDF as Master of the Dominican Order, it was obvious that they were struggling to cope. Documents slipped through the cracks. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented to me that the staff was simply too small for the job.. People are furious with the Vatican’s failure to open up its files and offer a clear explanation of what happened. Why is it so secretive? Angry and hurt Catholics feel a right to transparent government. I agree. But we must, in justice, understand why the Vatican is so self-protective…..Confidentiality is…a consequence of the Church’s insistence on the right of everyone accused to keep their good name until they are proved to be guilty. This is very hard for our society to understand, whose media destroy people’s reputations without a thought   (Some of the most important work of the Church has to include an expectation of confidentiality. Every day people in my parish tell me of things that are going on in their lives. Many of these things are of a sensitive and personal nature. I have no right to share this  information freely. If there is a serious crime involved and I learn of this matter outside the confessional I do have reporting obligations. But 99.9% of what I am told has nothing to do with crime. As a priest confidentiality, discretion and respect for people’s reputations is paramount. The secrecy of the confessional is absolute. Professional confidentiality while not absolute is expansive and people would never come to me or the Church if they felt that their information would be freely shared or that files with their personal data etc would be freely opened to a nosey media and a demanding state. Covering up a serious crime is a crime. But calling the Church secretive because we do not open our files without limit is unfair. The Church is not secretive. Rather, we are deeply respectful of the privacy and reputation of people who often come to us in their weakness and struggles. A few years ago media and government officials demanded the right to search our priest personnel files without any limits. But that is unjust. I, for example, have never offended sexually. I have never violated my celibate commitment. I have never committed any crime. This is true of almost every priest I have known. It is unfair and unjust to demand that my files be open to anyone who asks. Even though I have nothing to hide, I do have a right to privacy and that my personal files not be opened without warrant. It is the same with my lay employees at the parish and with any other personal information about parishioners).  

But what about the cover-up within the Church? Have not our bishops been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse? Yes, sometimes. But the great majority of these cases go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when bishops often regarded sexual abuse as a sin rather than also a pathological condition, and when lawyers and psychologists often reassured them that it was safe to reassign priests after treatment. It is unjust to project backwards an awareness of the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse which simply did not exist then

Why go? If it is to find a safer haven, a less corrupt church, then I think that you will be disappointed. I too long for more transparent government, more open debate, but the Church’s secrecy is understandable, and sometimes necessary…. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed [at times] to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning. (Yes, in the end the Church is not a “haven for saints” only but is also a “hospital for sinners.” Many of the Pharisees of Jesus time were scandalized at the company he kept. Jesus said, those who are well do not need a doctor but the sick do, but I have come to call sinners (Mk 2:17). So the Church is a hospital. And what do we find in a hospital? We find care, medicine, treatment, healing and love. But we also find disease, hurt, heartache, pain, and even death. So in the Church is to be observed great holiness, healing, love and beauty. But in the same Church is to be found sin, sorrow, heartache, sinners and other unpleasant matters. Thank God that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brethren and to be found in our company! (Heb 2:11))

So, to be fair there is sin in the Church, and we have handled many disciplinary matters poorly. But again, to be fair, we are not alone in this. The spotlight is on us to be sure. But spotlights have a way of leaving many other things in darkness. There are serious problems elsewhere in our society as regards the sexual abuse of minors. Scrutiny is needed everywhere. For the sins of the Church, Lord have mercy! For the sin of the whole world, Christ have mercy. For the sins of our own hearts, Lord have mercy.

A Reasonably Fair Assessment of the Accusations Against the Pope in the NYT

There is a reasonable and thoughtful Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times that addresses the recent anger directed at the Pope regarding that he allegedly allowed a priest sex-offender to continue in ministry and/or not face punitive action.

We are well aware that enemies of the Church will often make more of evidence than is allowable or even accurate due to their anger and suspicion of the Church. Some charges directed against us are also pure fiction. But it also seems clear to me that all of us in the Church, including the Pope are destined to suffer for the true malfeasance of others. The fact is that were surely Church leaders who have handled this poorly in the past. I would also like to add that there are also countless example of how poorly our judicial system has handled sexual offenders. Recently, two women were murdered by a sexual predator with a very long record. Such offenses are far too common in our country and judges and the criminal justice system seem unwilling or unable to keep truly dangerous offender locked up and/or truly isolated. As usual though, special venom is reserved for the Catholic Church. Be that as it may, we have exercised poor judgement in the past and will continue to experience heightened scrutiny.

Not all of it is fair and it seems clear that our Pope is being accused of things that do not reasonably flow from the evidence. In today’s New York Times (Op-Ed page), Ross Douthat has written a reasonably fair piece on this topic and I’d like to excerpt it here. My own comments are in RED. You can read the full text here: A Time for Contrition

…What the American and Irish churches have endured in the last decade and what German Catholics find themselves enduring today is all part of the same grim story: the exposure, years after the fact, of an appalling period in which the Catholic hierarchy responded to an explosion of priestly sex abuse with cover-ups, evasions and criminal negligence.

Now the scandal has touched the pope himself. There are two charges against Benedict XVI: first, that he allowed a pedophile priest to return to ministry while archbishop of Munich in 1980; and second, that as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1990s, he failed to defrock a Wisconsin priest who had abused deaf children 30 years before.

The second charge seems unfair. The case was finally forwarded to the Vatican by the archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, more than 20 years after the last allegation of abuse. With the approval of then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s deputy, the statute of limitations was waived and a canonical trial ordered. It was only suspended because the priest was terminally ill; indeed, pretrial proceedings were halted just before he died.

But the first charge is more serious. The Vatican insists that the crucial decision was made without the future pope’s knowledge, but the paper trail suggests that he could have been in the loop. At best, then-Archbishop Ratzinger was negligent. At worst, he enabled further abuse. Charges of the Pope’s negligence may still be premature.

For those of us who admire the pope, either possibility is distressing, but neither should come as a great surprise. The lesson of the American experience, now exhaustively documented, is that almost everyone was complicit in the scandal. From diocese to diocese, the same cover-ups and gross errors of judgment repeated themselves regardless of who found themselves in charge. Neither theology nor geography mattered: the worst offenders were Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles — a conservative and a liberal, on opposite ends of the country. It is appropriate that Mr. Douthat refers to the charges against the Pope as a “possibility” since again, the world will rush to judge, the very thing they often accuse us of. His assessment that no sector of the Church is completely off the hook here is a good one however. We Catholics have often wanted to chalk it all up to one thing or another, the fact is that it is a lot of things that came together in a “perfect storm.” Yes, we embraced too many modern and often sinful notions of human sexuality. But it is also true that a lot of cover-up behavior comes from the “old days” too. Lots of blame to go around really. I would also add however that not everything was due to evil intent. The Church by nature is in the work of healing people. We are on biblical ground as he work for and hope for the healing of even terrible sinners. This is the kind of work we do. But we erred,  for our hopes were not balanced with sobriety and the proper desire to protect the innocent from possible relapse of addicts. Relapse is a reality for many addicts. We cannot allow our hopes to put the vulnerable at risk. This is surely crystal clear today and we emerge from this crisis more sober and clear in our duty to facilitate healing in a way that does not place others at risk.

In reality, the scandal implicates left and right alike. The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.) But it was the church’s conservative instincts — the insistence on institutional loyalty, obedience and the absolute authority of clerics — that allowed the abuse to spread unpunished….. I am glad to finally see somebody in the mainstream culture assign a due share of the responsibility to our sexually immature and decadent culture. This is long overdue. There is some collective responsibility for letting promiscuity  in our culture go unchecked. One of the most reprehensible aspects of or hypersexualized culture is the sexualization of children.

[Pope Benedict has]…. come to grips with the crisis in ways that his predecessor did not: after years of drift and denial under John Paul II, the Vatican has taken vigorous steps to promote zero tolerance, expedite the dismissal of abusive priests and organize investigations that should have happened long ago. Because of Benedict’s recent efforts, and the efforts of clerics and laypeople dating back to the first wave of revelations in the 1980s, Catholics can reasonably hope that the crisis of abuse is a thing of the past. Yes, these facts are being left out of too many current discussions about Pope Benedict.

But the crisis of authority endures. There has been some accountability for the abusers, but not nearly enough for the bishops who enabled them. And now the shadow of past sins threatens to engulf this papacy.

Popes do not resign. But a pope can clean house. And a pope can show contrition, on his own behalf and on behalf of an entire generation of bishops, for what was done and left undone in one of Catholicism’s darkest eras…Pope John Paul was quite well known for publicly admitting and asking forgiveness for some the Church’s past sins. Some critics of his felt at times he went to far and admitted too much, but in the end we do have sins that we can express regret for and thus model true Christian humility and the mandate of the Lord,  who commands us to go first and be reconciled with our brethren if we have wronged them in any way.

This piece is a companion piece I will post for tomorrow (Spy Wednesday). Meanwhile we ought to pray for our Pope who is currently suffering for the sins of many, in and out of the Church.