Saturday, April 24, 2010


April 22, 2010

Last week a friend forwarded me an e-mail forwarded to him from another friend to whom it had been forwarded. “Jewish Sam Miller on Catholics” was the title, and under it, “Excerpt from an article written by non-Catholic Sam Miller, a prominent Cleveland Jewish businessman.”
“Why would newspapers carry on a vendetta against one of the most important institutions that we have today in the United States, namely the Catholic Church?” the excerpt began, followed by a list of statistics on how many children Catholic schools educate, how many people Catholic hospitals serve, and how much money Catholic organizations save the American taxpayer.
“But the press is vindictive and trying to totally denigrate in every way the Catholic Church in this country,” the piece continued, followed by more claimed statistics, among them that “12% of the 300 Protestant clergy surveyed admitted to sexual intercourse with a parishioner; 38% acknowledged other inappropriate sexual contact in a study by the United Methodist Church. Meanwhile, 1.7% of the Catholic clergy has been found guilty of pedophilia. 10% of the Protestant ministers have been found guilty of pedophilia. This is not a Catholic Problem.”
Finally: “The agony that Catholics have felt and suffered is not necessarily the fault of the Church.... Walk with your shoulders high and your head higher. Be a proud member of the most important non-governmental agency in the United States.”
General skepticism of the truth of forwarded e-mails is always advisable, and some fact-checking before re-forwarding them or writing about them is definitely recommended. In this case, an internet search for “Sam Miller Cleveland” turned up several references to Miller, a controversial 88-year-old board member of Forest City Enterprises, the megalith real-estate development company based in Cleveland, and promoter of Jewish and Catholic causes. It also turned up dozens of Catholic-oriented sites and blogs quoting from and commenting on Miller’s alleged words taken, some of them stated, from a 2008 speech to the City Club of Cleveland. What appears to be the full text, a six-page PDF file, is posted on the Knights of Malta website,
Though this document presents some positive proposals for interfaith cooperation in confronting sexual abuse, much of it is an unrestrained rant against the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other papers, and their “kangaroo journalists ..., Catholics or ex-Catholics who have been denied something they wanted from the Church and are on a mission of vengeance.” Anybody about to push the FW button should think twice, especially about the accuracy of those numbers on sexual abuse among Protestants.
On a related theme from a mainline source, the April 15 issue of the liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter, columnist Melissa Musick Nussbaum seeks to redirect the press to more pressing problems. After supplying her own set of statistics on media attention to sexual-abuse cases (those by the Hare Krishna sect and at an Episcopalian-run school in South Carolina have been largely ignored, as has the dramatic drop in abuse claims against priests over the last two decades), she suggests that reporters delve into more recent and even more shocking ones, such as the findings of a U.S. Justice Department investigation issued in January that “an estimated 10.3 percent of youth in state and large non-state [juvenile] facilities report experiencing one or more incidents of sexual abuse involving facility staff annually.”
“The fire is out in one house but still raging in the house down the block,” she writes; it’s “the present emergency” that should be the focus of the news.
Is the press out to get the Catholic Church? Despite these facts and factoids, I don’t think that’s the specific goal. There has not been widespread bias against Catholics, either in the media or in American culture at large, since John Kennedy dispelled it by example 50 years ago. Instead, what reporters are going after today is what reporters are always going after, the man-bites-dog story. Nussbaum is right: “Hare Krishnas and Episcopalians don’t summon the same rich associations as Roman Catholic clergy.” Priests are unique because of their promise of celibacy and because of the mysterious spiritual powers of their office, both enduringly fascinating to the public at large. The ethical bar for Catholic priests is thus much higher than for officials in other institutions, religious or secular, and failing to jump it makes much better news.
On the political level, there are the tantalizing prospects of the cover-up, irresistible to the investigative reporter. Watergate or Toyota, Pentagon or pope, it’s pretty much the same: the thrill of the hunt, and the singular pleasure of bringing down the high and mighty.
Miller in his alleged speech makes an arguable point in contrasting the many good works of the institutional Church with the relatively few numbers of predatory priests. But writing in the April 18 edition of Miller’s despised New York Times, the intrepid investigative columnist Nicholas Kristof, who received a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for his first-hand accounts of the Darfur genocide, makes perhaps a more arguable point in contrasting the Catholicism of Rome to the Catholicism of the trenches, “the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy ... obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice” versus “the Church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children.”
Negligence of the hierarchical Church, bashed; praise for the Church of the people, unabashed. That’s a fairly fair assessment.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


April 15, 2010

In 1902, Alfred Loisy, a French priest and biblical scholar, wrote with evident disillusionment: "Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, and what arrived was the Church."
What would/does Jesus think of what became of his utopian religious vision over the centuries?
To Jesus, the Kingdom of God would turn all conventional kingdoms on their heads. His Kingdom would belong to the poor and the meek. It would have no armies. Its leaders would be servants, getting down on their knees to wash their followers' grimy feet. There would be no priestly class; every believer would have unmediated access to God through Jesus. Complicated religious rituals would be replaced by the simple sharing of bread and wine in memory of him. Mountains of rules and regulations would be supplanted by one great law of love.
It was, I guess, a bit much to ask, even from God himself.
Within a hundred years of Jesus' death, the small communities of believers began taking on the characteristics of "organized religion." By the time the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476, Christianity was so organized it took over the reins of government as well.
What had arrived was the Church, complete with lands and armies and a rigid hierarchical structure and a mediating priesthood and elaborate rituals — in so many ways the very things Jesus found as obstacles, not vehicles, to God.
Power corrupts, and Church history is replete with the misdeeds of popes, bishops, abbots, and priests. All seven of the Deadly Sins — pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth — were committed with abandon by wanton ecclesiastical potentates. Yet to the pure of heart, the Church in its essence was still the living Body of Christ on earth, a precious treasure held in vessels of clay. It was, to extend Luther's phrase beyond the individual, simul justa et peccator, saved and sinner at once. People like Francis of Assisi in the 13th century looked to the almost-forgotten Jesus of the Gospels and embraced his example of poverty, simplicity, and humble service while remaining faithful to a hierarchy they saw as authentic dispensers of grace, despite disgrace. In so doing, they shamed a corrupt institution into righting itself again and again: Ecclesia semper reformanda.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther, in reaction to egregious abuses of power emanating from Rome, rejected the institution itself, asserting that salvation comes not through priest and sacrament but sola fide, by personal faith alone. The Protestant Reformation was not so much a reformation as a revolution, a definitive break from a religious structure that had remained virtually intact for over a millennium. Protestant denominations simplified both governance and worship, modeling their communities on the ones closest to Jesus' own time, as described in the New Testament.
Yet despite these massive defections, the Roman Catholic Church survived. The question at hand is whether it will survive the priest-pedophile scandal of today.
There are reasons to think it will not, at least in its present form.
From the cultural standpoint alone, there are increasing numbers of people in the Western world, especially among the young, who believe in and pray to God but have little use for religious doctrine and practice. A recent Pew poll found that only 18% of Americans under age 30 who identify themselves as affiliated with a particular faith regularly attend its services; for them, religion is primarily personal. Given those statistics, sustaining any mainline church will become hard to do, scandal or no scandal.
Specific to practicing Catholics, there are many whose notions about religious authority have been demythologized by the scandals. In times past, Catholics overwhelmingly believed that priest, bishop, and pope were by their ordination channels of grace regardless of their sins. Today they subject their clergy to what Marxists of beloved memory called the "hermeneutic of suspicion," critically judging them by their merits, not their office. Whereas Catholics used to respect their priests because they were priests, they now give priests respect only if they've earned it.
The attitude of unwavering obedience by Catholics to religious authority is still prevalent in developing countries, which is why hierarchies there have so far been able to keep the lid on their own scandals. But once the hermeneutic of suspicion begins to take hold, those lids too will blow, just as surely as in the United States and Europe.
What may come of all this is a Catholic Church so weakened by distrust that it will have to reorganize itself on a less hierarchical, more egalitarian model: another Reformation, but this time from within.
Among the weeds and briars of the institutional Church, seeds of the Kingdom of God may be, as Jesus once put it, growing secretly.

Friday, April 9, 2010


April 1, 2010

It's Holy Week, the most solemn time in the Christian Church's liturgical year. Those who tune in the TV to watch Pope Benedict XVI officiating at those magnificent ceremonies at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome may have some other stray thoughts running in the back of their heads: What did he know? When did he know it? What did he do about it?
These ancient rites commemorating the passion and resurrection of Jesus are in their essence the same as those enacted in Rome for over 1500 years, performed by popes as noble and saintly as Gregory the Great and John XXIII and as smarmy and sinful as the Borgias and Medicis. According to the doctrine of ex opere operato, long ago established to deal with lapsed priests after the Roman persecutions, the moral condition of the presider has no bearing on the efficacy of the act. The validity of a sacrament comes from "the work worked," not from the worthiness of the one working it.
Yet it is the question of worthiness that may bother us as we watch. Benedict — theologian, intellectual, champion of orthodoxy — can hardly be compared with the Medicis, but does he share the guilt of denial in the sexual-abuse scandals that have infected the Catholic Church in the U.S., Europe, and possibly beyond?
The cock crows; is it crowing for him?
The particular scandal that may undermine his papacy goes back to the 1980's, when he was Joseph Ratzinger, archbishop of Munich. Hard on to Holy Week, the New York Times revealed memos and minutes of meetings showing that Ratzinger was aware of if not instrumental in the reinstatement of a pedophile priest in his diocese who continued his abuses and was eventually convicted under civil law. The Times also broke a disturbing story of the abuse of dozens of boys at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee in the 1970's and the inaction by the Vatican office headed by Ratzinger when it was finally brought there by the Milwaukee bishop years after.
The dynamic in these two cases is identical to almost every other one everywhere: Same time-period — late 1960's through mid- 1980's; and same response — the bishop is apparently aware but passive, leaving the disposition of pedophile priests to ecclesiastical bureaucrats who put them into therapy and then reassign them. The pattern was so uniform and so worldwide, despite there being at the time no body of Church law or regulation to refer to, that one can only conclude that it was the product of an insular institutional culture operating out of ignorance, compassion, and fear: ignorance of the intractable nature of pedophilia and the belief that it was a moral rather than a pathological problem, a sin to be absolved and healed by confession and its grace; compassion for a fellow priest and the understandable desire to shield the faithful from scandal; and fear of intrusion by secular authorities into what was seen as an internal matter.
Things are different now. As with the Church's stance on slavery, which throughout much of its history was commonly accepted as a given but is now recognized as appallingly evil, moral acuity develops over time. Pedophile priests were treated with a now-unbelievable institutional blindness to the agony of the victims, de facto aided by a laity fiercely loyal to the institution and unwilling to think the unthinkable, that their pastors could ever do such despicable things.
As with slavery, the unmasking of clergy sexual abuse has led to shamed apologies and reparations for past evils and stringent policies to avoid future ones. To their credit, both the present pope and national conferences of bishops have done admirable work towards these ends. But there remain elements of coverup, reluctance to come completely clean, from certain bishops' stonewalling the release of documents to the pope's own silence about his involvement in the Munich case. It's this lack of "transparency," what writer David Gibson has called "circling the wagons," that is fueling the present furor.
We are not used to popes speaking personally. We see them as icons, not individuals, successors of St. Peter, by whose office the work is worked.
But Peter himself, afraid for his life after his master's arrest, three times denied knowing Jesus. Realizing his betrayal, the Gospels recount, "he went out and wept bitterly." Full disclosure.
No matter how great or how small the culpability, the icon of Peter should do nothing less.