“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying to him. “I forgive you, don’t worry.” It was a weird ambush of intense guilt and apology, and it was the wrong place and time—but the thing was, I really did forgive him. My life had moved on, and things were better. It felt good to get the apology and—as it always does—even better to forgive him. He’d done a terrible thing, but he’d done what he could to make it right. I held nothing against him, and I still don’t.
This piece by Elizabeth Bruenig about a rape in her hometown high school is “devastating.” She’s right. It’s about Amber Wyatt, a cheerleader who says she was raped in 2006 by two athletes who drove her away from a party. She reported the rape to adults that night, and to the police the next day. But the boys got away with it, in part, Bruenig argues, because society turned against Amber Wyatt.
Here’s an important part of the story Bruenig tells. It happened a decade earlier in the same town — Arlington, Texas:
On Sept. 13, 1996, a 16-year-old junior at Arlington High School was allegedly sexually assaulted at a party while she was drunk. According to contemporaneous news reports, she alleged that dozens of her peers stood by as others assaulted her with a condom-topped broomstick, exposed their genitals and urinated on her. The girl was hospitalized, but no sexual assault charges were filed against her assailants. The town helped see to that.
Police interviewed some 35 students after the incident; none supported the girl’s allegations. Coupled with the victim’s broken memory, this meant police were never able to bring any perpetrator to justice for the sexual assault. Instead, police issued simple assault and disorderly conduct citations to a smattering of teens who had been at the party, a light reprimand given the circumstances. Nonetheless, some parents resented even those meager reprisals.
The parents’ objections might have remained at the muted level of privileged suburbanites grousing over traffic tickets had it not been for Lynn Hale, then superintendent of the Arlington Independent School District, who took it upon herself to try to prevent another such episode.
Less than two weeks after the girl’s report, Hale told a reporter from the Dallas Morning News that she wasn’t convinced the district was “implementing the appropriate consequences . . . for students who drink.” And she followed through, instituting a district-wide policy under which any student caught at a location where alcohol or drugs were being used would be banned from extracurricular activities for the entire school year, regardless of whether police cited them for use.
Parents revolted. Seven families of students affected by the policy filed suit, and in January 1997, a local judge invited them to debate the policy with members of the school board. After meeting with the students and their parents and considering the arguments of the school board and its attorney, the judge, saying he was speaking “as a parent,” thanked Hale for her attempt to do something — anything — about the problem. And then the judge effectively overturned Hale’s policy, reinstating some 20 students to their extracurricular activities.
Hale didn’t remain in her post much longer to see what would become of the phenomenon she had observed and tried to halt. By the summer of 1998, she had already been replaced as superintendent by Mac Bernd, who eased the anti-drinking policy to include a penalty of just six weeks for first-time offenders. “I have a somewhat jaundiced view of how much control we do have over teenagers,” Bernd, several years retired, told me in 2015 in an Arlington restaurant lined with framed drawings of Texas college and high school mascots. He wanted to preserve, Bernd said, “an opportunity for redemption.”
It’s impossible to know whether Hale’s tougher policy would have given pause to anyone present at the 2006 party that Wyatt attended. For a deterrent to be effective, consequences must seem real. And it’s easy to see how, with Hale’s rule a vanquished memory and the case that sparked it an item of urban legend, a pair of Arlington teenagers with ample opportunity and bad intentions might have reasonably concluded no harm would come to them should they wantonly violate rules, policies or people. They would have been exactly right.
That passage is superficially ancillary to the story Bruenig tells, which involves Wyatt’s rape in 2006. (And it really was rape: the medical evidence was entirely consistent with violent sexual encounter with a woman too drunk to consent.) But it’s actually key to the heart of the Wyatt tale, which is summed up here:
For Pam Millican, the mother of two Martin cheerleaders, Wyatt’s case became an eerie and unsettling cautionary tale. “What really ticked me off is the herd mentality of everybody,” Millican said in an interview this April, “of the cheerleaders and football players and all those queen bees and wannabes who basically sided with the football players and said that, oh, she wanted it, and it was consensual.”
Even adults in Arlington tuned on Wyatt. She became a scapegoat who had to be destroyed to return peace to the community. It was she who accused these two popular athletes, and brought this curse onto the community.
There was no indictment of these boys, despite the physical evidence. They never had to answer for their alleged actions. Amber Wyatt spiraled into depression and drug abuse. She overdosed once, and spent time in ICU. Bruenig updates her readers on where Wyatt is today.
Please read the whole thing. It’s extraordinary.
Of course this appears while we’re all at each other’s throats over Brett Kavanaugh and the allegations against him. It’s important to remember that Amber Wyatt wasn’t just assaulted, she was actually violently raped. There is — or was, until it was destroyed in 2009 — medical evidence to that effect. It would be unjust to somehow transfer rage at the injustice of Wyatt’s case to Kavanaugh — to scapegoat him because some SOB has to pay for what was done to Amber Wyatt. Kavanaugh should be judged on the facts of his own case.
Still, it is important to think, and think deeply, about how we deal with issues like this. Scapegoating is part of the human condition. When the UVA fraternity rape story came out in Rolling Stone, I was eager to believe it because it resonated with my own biases about college fraternities. Of course the story was a destructive hoax. If Brett Kavanaugh is not guilty of this allegation, then whether or not he is confirmed, he will have had his reputation shredded in public, and will never escape the cloud. There are plenty of people who are just certain that he’s guilty, because he’s an upperclass white male, and they know how upperclass white men are. There are also people who are certain that he’s not guilty, because the Left hates white men, and will stop at nothing to bring him down.
People will go along with the crowd, and facts be damned. This is not a left or a right wing thing. It’s not a white or black thing, or a male or female thing. It’s how we are. It’s the human stain.
Bruenig offers this thought:
It’s obvious that vulnerability will elicit viciousness from predators. But then there are the rest of us — the cast of Arlingtonians beginning with midnight partygoers and ending with high school rumor-listeners who, with honorable exceptions, ridiculed Wyatt at worst and ignored her at best. Wyatt’s story calls on us to inquire: What motivates otherwise ordinary people to abandon all pretense of mercy when faced with the abject need for it?
This passage made me think about a girl I’m going to call Marla. If you come from my town, and you were in high school in the first half of the 1980s, you’ll probably recognize her. She was younger than I was. I didn’t really know her. But I know that she was targeted by the same gang of cool kids — the queen bees, especially; the female bullies were the most vicious — that targeted me, and others. Marla got it far worse than anybody else. She was thin, and came from a social background that made her vulnerable. Her parents were working class religious folks. Nothing wrong with them at all, but they weren’t socially prominent; they were on the margins, and so was she.
For whatever reason, the queen bees and their circle identified her as weak, and were merciless. They made up a demeaning name for her, and taunted her constantly. She was younger than most of them, but it didn’t matter. She was weak, and therefore despicable in their eyes.
One day, I was sitting on a school bus outside the high school, waiting for the driver to come so we could go on a field trip. A boy in Marla’s class unwrapped a coat hanger and stretched it out full-length. Then he came at Marla with it. She was sitting in the seat in front of me. He mocked her, and tried to poke her in the eye. She ducked her head and covered her eyes, but he wouldn’t quit. A couple of guys stood behind him, egging him on.
This, to a thin, defenseless girl.
I sat right behind her, and wanted to defend her, but I was too cowardly. I just put my head down, afraid that if I did the right thing, they would turn on me. They would have, too, and I would have had my ass kicked. So, gutless, I turned my head and hoped the driver would come and make them stop.
I had to put up with bullying from that crowd for two years, until I could get the hell out of town. Marla suffered it for at least four years — and again, she had it much worse than I did, and, to my knowledge, worse than anybody else those SOBs tormented. I don’t have any reason to believe the bullying was physical (or sexual), but it was emotional and psychological, and it was savage.
How did she endure it? I have no idea. I looked her up just now, and found her on Facebook. She’s beautiful. She’s married now, but I don’t know any other information about her, because you have to be her friend to find out more. I don’t much use Facebook, and haven’t accepted new friend requests for years. The deeper truth is that I don’t want to be her Facebook friend because I’m ashamed of myself for not standing up for her that day on the bus. She might not remember that moment — God knows she had so many just like it — but I do, because I knew it was a test of my courage and decency, and I failed. I pretty much used her as a shield. If they take Marla, they’ll leave me alone.
I said here the other day that this crowd assaulted me in a hotel room on a beach trip, and tried to humiliate me in a sexual way — and the chaperones on that trip, eager to be cool moms, stepped over me, held down on the floor, to get out of that room. That was the event that started two years of casual bullying. I’m not friends with any of those people now, though when I moved back to my hometown, I made a deliberate choice not to dwell on any of that if I saw them. That whole experience deeply formed me — made me someone who has a profound suspicion of the crowd, and contemptuous of authorities who have the power to bring about justice, but are too cowardly to use it.
(To be honest: My subsequent experience as an adult has forced me to confront the “crowd” inside myself. And let’s face it, I would not be all that surprised if I were to be confronted by someone today who told me that when we were in school, I bullied them, and hurt them terribly. I never intimidated anyone physically, but I have a sharp wit and a vicious tongue. In my childhood, I teased my younger sister a lot. She was unkind and unjust to me in our adulthood, but I certainly laid the groundwork for it in our childhood, when I was mean to her just for meanness’ sake. The human stain.)
I still could not see the justification for using what those kids did to me in high school, or to Marla, as a reason to deny them something like a judgeship. I didn’t follow closely the lives of that crowd, but it’s my impression that none of them turned into monsters in adulthood. Junior high and high school is a terrible time, and as unpleasant as ninth and tenth grade were for me, I just don’t have it in me to carry around anger over it. Now, if I had been beaten up, or, God forbid, raped, that would be a different story. If either of the boys who raped Amber Wyatt and got away with it ever get nominated for a public office, I hope she comes at them with both barrels.
What do we do with situations that fall somewhere between minor (but still traumatic) examples of sexualized violence like what happened to me, and full-blown rape for which there is clear evidence, like what happened to Amber Wyatt? How do we think about them, think through them? How do we guard ourselves from falling into scapegoating on either side?
What is just?
What if it were your daughter? What if it were your son?
What kind of teenage violence is forgivable, in terms of public redemption? What must we forgive for the sake of living together in peace? What must we refuse to forgive for the sake of living together in justice?
For what it’s worth, I had a conversation with a very kind and intelligent young woman sitting next to me on the flight to Dallas. She is married, from the look of it in her early 30s, and a mother. She is also a Christian. She struck up a conversation with me after spotting the St. Benedict medal sticker on my laptop.
She mentioned that she grew more serious about her faith after she gained sobriety at age 26. Listening to her talk about her life before sobriety, and after, really impressed me about her maturity, especially her humility.
I told her that I had never become an alcoholic, but that I definitely had a preoccupation with drinking from about age 17 until I moved away from south Louisiana in my mid-20s. It was just part of the culture back then. I was convicted at age 18 of drunk driving, as a college freshman, and after that just walked to the bar to hang with my buddies and get hammered.
This wasn’t just a male thing. It was high school and college women too. The drinking age here in the 1980s was 18, and most people drank. A lot. And we did what teenagers do when they get hammered: had sex, or made fools of ourselves trying.
I asked my seatmate what she thought of the Kavanaugh thing, in light of her drinking experience.
She told me that she supported him. She told me that she behaved with enormous personal recklessness when she was that age, because of her drinking. Today it pains her to think about how she lived, but she believes that she has to own that as part of her recovery. She told me that when it comes to sex, teenagers have bad judgment even when sober. Add heavy drinking to the mix, and bad things are bound to happen.
“I would hate to be judged now for the things I did when I was 17 and drunk,” she said. The experience of hitting bottom, finding sobriety, and growing in the love of her supportive husband, taught her a lot about mercy, she explained.
Her experience has caused her and her husband to rethink how they are going to raise their children to think about alcohol, sex, and social settings. She said, for example, that based on their experience, they don’t want their sons being part of college fraternities — this, because of the heavy drinking and the sex. These were costly lessons to learn, she said, but she added that she’s glad she learned them, and came through to the light.
I offer that for what it’s worth. I mentioned recently in this space that I watched “National Lampoon’s Animal House” with my college freshman son just before we moved him in to the dorm. I hadn’t seen it since I was in college, and boy, was I shocked by a scene in which one of the frat guys gets in bed with a naked drunk girl, who passes out before they have sex. He struggles to figure out whether or not he should have sex with her, even though she’s out cold. This is played for laughs, with a devil sitting on one shoulder, and an angel on the other.
It’s not funny. But in 1978, when the movie came out, that was hilarious. I was in college from 1985-89, and the general cultural sensibility was far more like “Animal House” than it is like today. High school and college kids who got loaded did it mostly to get rid of our inhibitions and have sex. You’d better believe that my memories of drinking culture back then has strongly affected the way I am raising my kids. Things have changed, and changed mostly for the better.
I could have killed somebody driving drunk at age 18. I spent the night in jail, and man, did that ever rock my world. The only thing that set me apart from most of my friends back then was that I got caught, and they didn’t. Maybe that conviction — which was expunged from my record after I completed all the stuff the judge required me to do — should have disqualified me from a judgeship, or the Supreme Court. I don’t think so. One of my good friends from back then is a judge now, and I can tell you that she partied as hard as any of us. I’m sure she’s a great judge. I would not be surprised if her experiences from those days taught her something about justice, mercy, and how to find the balance between them.
I’m not saying this to dismiss the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. My point is that it’s not as cut-and-dried as many people seem to think. A recovering alcoholic young woman a generation behind me is more unconflicted in her support of him than I am, because she was a 17-year-old drunk who changed, and she sees no evidence that Brett Kavanaugh, even if he is guilty of that teenage sexual assault, went on to do it again.
I just want to add that to the mix. Strong takes welcome, but be civil.
Nice words from the Vatican journalist Sandro Magister this morning. I have admired him for years, and regret that I didn’t have the chance to meet him in Rome. He writes:
That “The Benedict Option” is truly “the most important religious book of the decade” — as David Brooks predicted in the “New York Times” — is now beyond a doubt, seeing how the discussion it has generated has come to involve even the highest levels of the Catholic Church.
In presenting this book last week in the chamber of deputies of the Italian republic, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Joseph Ratzinger’s secretary before and after his resignation from the papacy, in fact did not hesitate to bring to the field the two most recent popes, because – he said – “even Benedict XVI from the moment of his resignation conceived of himself as an elderly monk who feels it his duty to dedicate himself above all to prayer for Mother Church, for his successor Francis and for the Petrine ministry instituted by Christ himself.”
Of course, the Benedict of the “option” – in the book by the American former Catholic and now Orthodox Rod Dreher – is not pope Ratzinger, but Saint Benedict of Norcia, the great monk of the fifth and sixth centuries who gave rise to a formidable rebirth of Christian faith and culture in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Roman empire. But the other Benedict, the pope, evoked precisely that rebirth in his memorable address – absolutely worth rereading – of September 12, 2008 in Paris, at the Collège des Bernardins, essentially proposing that the Catholics of today take up and bring to life again the lesson of that great Benedictine monasticism, at the present juncture of civilization:
“Quaerere Deum” [“Seek God”]
Magister goes on to contrast the way BXVI treasured monasticism with the hostility Pope Francis shows to it. I forget who it was the other day — an Australian bishop, I seem to recall — but someone on Twitter praised Pope Francis’s comment in Palermo that mass should never last longer than 40 minutes. The tweeter said that this is a welcome Jesuit observation; Benedictines are welcome to their longer liturgies, but Jesuits know that there is work to do in the world.
What a shame. The Benedictine charism knows that there must be balance between ora (prayer) and labora (work). Our work in the world as Christians will lose its meaning and focus.
Unfortunately, Magister repeats the canard that The Benedict Option calls for Christians to head for the hills and withdraw from any engagement with the world. A priest at the oratory in Genoa said to me that he has no idea why people keep saying that. “It’s obvious that they haven’t read the book,” he observed. Well, I’m pretty sure Magister read the book. He may not remember it well, and was misled by the remarks others made recently in Rome.
On the flight back from Italy yesterday, I read the 1996 book-length interview with Cardinal Ratzinger, titled Salt Of The Earth. It’s incredible, and confirmed to me that Benedict XVI really was (and is) a prophetic figure. It’s probably better for me that I had not read this interview before writing my own book, else it would have been an even more Ratzingerian project. I’m going to do a separate post on Salt later today, but for now, I want to quote this passage, with reference to the question of withdrawal:
No one can be a Christian alone; being a Christian means a communion of wayfarers. Even a hermit belongs to a wayfaring community and is sustained by it. For this reason it must be the Church’s concern to create pilgrim communities. The social culture of Europe and America no longer offers these wayfaring communities. This brings us back to the previous question about how the Church will live i this increasingly dechristianized society. It will have to form new ways of pilgrim fellowship; communities will have to shape each other more intensely by supporting each other and living in the faith.
The mere social environment is no longer sufficient today; we can no longer take for granted a universal Christian atmosphere. Christians must therefore really support one another. And here there are, in fact, already other forms, “movements” of various kinds, which help to form pilgrim communities. A renewal of the catechumenate is indispensable. This makes it possible to receive training in and knowledge of Christianity Close association with monastic communities will certainly be one way t have an experience of the Christian reality. In other words, if society in its totality is no longer a Christian environment, just as it was not in the first four or five centuries, the Church herself must form cells in which mutual support and a common journey, and thus the great vital milieu of the Church in miniature, can be experienced and put into practice.
[Seewald:] … How are these active communities going to be shaped? Can we also imagine Christian kibbutzim in Germany?
Why not? We will have to see how things turn out. I think it would be misguided, indeed, presumptuous, to design now a more or less finished model of the Church of tomorrow, which more clearly than today, will be a Church of a minority. But I think that many people will more or less rely on her, who will somehow, and from the outside, as it were, share her inner life. Despite all the changes that we can expect, I am convinced that the parish will remain the essential cell of community life. But it will be scarcely possible to keep up the entire parish system as it now exists a system that by the way, is of rather recent date. We will have to learn how to come together, and that will be an enrichment. Just as almost always in history there are also groups that are held together through a specific charism, through the personality of a founder, through a specific spiritual way. Fruitful exchange between parishes and “movements” is necessary: the movement needs the connection with the parish so as not to become sectarian; the parish needs “movements” in order not to ossify. [Emphasis mine — RD] Even now new forms of consecrated life are forming in the midst of the world. Anyone who looks at what is happening can find an astonishing diversity of Christian forms of life today, in which the Church of tomorrow is already very clearly among us.
There are a number of passages like that. In it, the future Benedict XVI very clearly says that we must create smaller communities for the sake of preserving and passing on a living faith in a post-Christian age, but also insists that these communities must not be cut off from the mainstream, for to do so risks falling into extremism and error. This is exactly what I believe and write about in The Benedict Option!
I keep talking about the Tipi Loschi community as an ideal example because they really are “in the world, but not of the world,” and in a really fruitful, joy-filled way. I spent my last couple of days in Italy with three young Italian couples who are trying to find their way toward building a Benedict Option fellowship together. They all attend their ordinary parish, but find that they want and need more in their Christian journey, and are attempting to do what Cardinal Ratzinger suggested — this, not INSTEAD OF life in their parish, but IN ADDITION TO that life.
I’ll write more on this later today. Salt Of The Earth truly is an extraordinary book. Much of its content is specifically Catholic, but Cardinal Ratzinger’s assessment of what it means to be a Christian in a post-Christian world is highly relevant to all of us. He is a man of such great hope and faith. I cannot think of a single churchman whom I admire and cherish more.
Finally on this point, an Italian friend sent me this excerpt from a recent interview with Cardinal Angelo Scola, the former Archbishop of Milan. Here is the Google Translate version:
There are those who, to safeguard what you call” conscience supported by faith “, has launched the so-called” Benedict option “. It is the idea theorized by the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and more recently by the American journalist Rod Dreher, that is to say small communities inside which faith is preserved as the only form of resistance to general drift. What do you think?
I think that these communities are providential if they remain connected to the existing realities of the Church, especially where they still have popular and vital roots. In fact today, in many parts of the world, there are already small groups, but also large movements with hundreds of thousands of adherents, who witness the beauty of the Christian faith and develop a personal and family lifestyle that goes against the current. It is necessary to encourage the grafting of these new shoots in the old trunk of the Church for a rebirth of Christianity.
If instead the “Benedict Option” is thought of as a new model that must replace the current one, considered outdated and inadequate, then we are facing a serious mistake. If this were the vision of the authors, we should no longer worry about the great organization of the Church in general but build small communities that resist the barbarism of our time. If this were indeed so, we would be faced with a project of self-isolation which is the negation of the essence of Christianity.
I hope Cardinal Scola will read my book — the Italian version is the No. 1 bestseller in the Roman Catholicism category on Amazon Italy — so he will see that I am not talking about the Ben Op as a replacement for anything, but rather a strategy for living out the truth of Christianity more effectively in a dechristianized civilization. The Ben Op will look different for Catholics than for Protestants and Orthodox, and it will even look different depending on the local needs of various Catholic communities. What works for the people of San Benedetto del Tronto will not necessarily work for, say, the small group of families in Brianza. That’s okay, that’s normal! The point is to face the Rule of St. Benedict, and the example of monks, and to think creatively about how to incorporate their spirituality, and their spiritual discipline, into our lives, so as to deepen the interior experience of Jesus Christ, and to build out from our renewed hearts and minds the kinds of structures that serve as an “ark” within which the faithful can ride out this great flood, and take on more refugees caught in the storm.
UPDATE: James C. found the tweet:
As I write this, I’m over the north Atlantic, headed home from nine days in Italy. My heart is filled to overflowing, and I’m coming home with more confidence than ever in the Benedict Option idea. It’s all because of the people I met in Italy.
In Dante’s Commedia, Hell — the Inferno — is a place of total isolation, where the souls of the damned are alone forever with their sins. Dante was a Catholic, and really did believe in Hell, but it’s also the case that Dante’s Inferno represents life on earth as lived by those who are consumed by self-worship.
Purgatory — part two of the poem — symbolizes life in the Church. That is, Purgatorio is the journey of the redeemed in this life, as they make their way towards heaven. They have been saved by the grace of God, but still have to struggle against tendencies to sin. They are all moving forwards together, and help each other along the way. Purgatorio is where human community is rebuilt from the ruins of radical isolation. The redeemed know where they are headed, and are committed in love to helping each other get there.
For me, these last nine days in Italy have been a Purgatorio in this upbuilding sense. I have made new friends and renewed old friendships. Everywhere I went, I met and spent time with Christians who are on the same pilgrim’s road that I’m walking. Simply being with them, laughing, eating, drinking, talking — it meant more to me than I can say. One of my greatest weaknesses, as my confessors could tell you, is that I spend too much time in my head. Not these past nine days, though. I was with people who loved me, and who allowed me to love them back. The sense of harmony, of wholeness, was so — I don’t quite know how to put this, but I found it healing, because it was balm for the sense of isolation I too often feel.
On Sunday, my friend Giuseppe Scalas, who comments on this blog, picked me up at my hotel. He planned to take me to the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, but we ended up getting lost trying to find the Sicilian pastry shop where we were supposed to pick up desserts for the picnic later. By the time we got our bearings in this unfamiliar part of Milan, it was really too late for liturgy. We met up with Giuseppe’s wife, mother, and children, and drove out to Brianza, in the countryside east of Milan, for an afternoon with young Italian Catholic families interested in the Benedict Option.
Our hosts were Giovanni and Alice Zennaro. Giovanni and his nine-month-old son Pietro (above) greeted us, and soon enough I had a cold Birra Nursia in my hand. This was a reunion for Giovanni and me. We first met last summer in San Benedetto del Tronto, and then spent a couple of hours in Norcia. Here I am a year ago with Giovanni and his dear friend Stefano Schileo:
On Sunday, Stefano and his wife Alessandra were there, as were other Catholic couples. We feasted. Oh, did we ever! Here, for example, is a view from my “table” as I stood in the backyard eating mushroom risotto:
I brought an unofficial Louisiana flag as a gift for the Zennaros. Giovanni hung it from the balcony overlooking the wine grapes.
After much eating of Sicilian pastry, around four, a priest, Don Luigi, came down from his nearby hermitage to say mass in the Zennaros’ living room. Don Luigi offered the mass for the healing of Giovanni Pellei, a teenager from the Tipi Loschi community who is fighting cancer. Most of these Christians have never met Giovanni, but there we all were praying for that sweet boy and his family.
Stefano and Giovanni (at right) chanted the liturgical prayers in Latin. I had once learned these prayers — the Credo, the Gloria, the Pater Noster — in Latin, and found that most of it came back to me. With my eyes closed, the men’s chanting resounding off the tile floors, it was easy to imagine that one was at Norcia. The room filled with the presence of angels, or so it seemed to me.
In the Archdiocese of Milan, the church celebrates the Ambrosian Rite, after its beloved fourth-century bishop, St. Ambrose. You can see the saint’s remains under the altar at the Church of St. Ambrogio in Milan. I visited there and prayed last year, with James C. The bishop is the one wearing the mitre:
Here was the Old Testament reading from the Ambrosian Rite on Sunday:
The prophet was speaking of redemption to come upon the land “upright rule” — that is, a life ordered by the will of God. A chill ran down my spine when Giovanni showed me this. We had all gathered to talk about the Benedict Option, and about our efforts to discern what it means for us in this time and place. That reading felt like a meaningful coincidence.
Dusk fell, and the Scalases returned to Milan. The only ones who remained were the Zennaros, the Schileos, and their friends Raffaele and Chiara, whose last name I can’t remember. About a year ago, these three couples came up with a plan to start a small Ben Op community in which their families would live near each other, and support each other in prayer and, well, life. It hasn’t yet come to fruition for various reasons, none more affecting than the death of Stefano and Alessandra’s newborn daughter Clarissa.
Clarissa was born healthy, but in the birth process acquired a bacterial infection. At little Pietro Zennaro’s baptism, word went out over text that things were very serious at the hospital with Clarissa. A few days later, she was dead. Here is a photo taken during her five days on this earth:
“Now we have someone to pray for us in heaven,” her father said.
Stefano explained to me that Clarissa’s death had hit them very hard, and caused them to wonder what God’s providence really was for Alessandra and him, and their friends. They are still discerning. Stefano said that if it had not been for their faith, and for the bond of faith, hope, and love they share with the others in that room, he and Alessandra don’t know how they would have made it through that crisis.
Stefano said — and the others agreed — that they are all trying to live through the mystery of Clarissa’s death, and what it all means for their fellowship and their hopes and dreams for the future together. Stefano spoke with such strength and serenity, as his wife looked on with quiet solidarity. I thought, These are good people, people of rock-solid faith. I want to be like them.
Baby Pietro the Christmas Ham bounced merrily for a bit, but then it was time for sleep.
I went to bed at the Zennaros’ guest room that night, wondering what I had done to be blessed by the friendship of such people. But then, I had similar thoughts every day of this Italy trip.
The next morning I joined Giovanni and Alice as they said their morning prayers.
Giovanni and I then packed my bags into his Subaru Forester, and set out for Genoa, by way of Montevecchia, a hillside village you can see from the Zennaros’ window. Don Luigi lives there as a hermit, caring for the church.
It turns out that one of Italy’s best gelaterias, Montebianco, is in that town. As luck would have it, the owners happened to be in on Monday morning opening up. Giovanni and Alice used to live in the apartment above Montebianco, so this was a reunion for him and the owners, Walter and Marinella Stuerz. The Stuerzes normally don’t open the shop until the afternoon, but they made an exception so their American visitor could taste their gelato, which had won Italy’s championship several times.
Afterwards, it was up to the church with Don Luigi, and these glorious views of the surrounding countryside.
The hermit walked us back to our car, and off we went to Milan for lunch, and then motored southwest to Genoa. Along the way, Giovanni talked about how many parishes and dioceses in Europe find they have lots of buildings, and don’t know what to do with them. He said he hopes that some will offer them to small fellowships of Catholics — families and singles both — who want to build community together. What a great idea!
Genoa was to be the final stop on my Italian tour. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the Archbishop of Genoa, is a fan of The Benedict Option, and bought 200 copies of the Italian translation for his priests. He invited me to come give a talk before heading back to the US, and I happily accepted. Unfortunately he had business in Rome, so I wasn’t able to meet him.
An irrepressibly joyful Catholic bookseller named Luca was our guide in town. Because traffic was bad on the way into the city — the recent catastrophic bridge collapse had an effect — we didn’t have time to do more than have a quick tour around the cathedral, which celebrates its 900th anniversary this year. My talk was in the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in central Genoa.
Lo and behold, the oratory was standing room only! So many people came out to hear my speech, and the panel discussion! If you had told me three decades ago that one day, I would be sitting in a Baroque church in Genoa — or anywhere, frankly — talking openly about the Gospel, I would have though you’d lost your mind. But it happened. And I was able to speak with such passion not only because I believe this stuff, but because I had spent the past eight days in the company of other people who believe it too. I had heard Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the personal secretary of Benedict XVI, say to a crowd in Rome that my analysis of the Church’s crisis is spot-on, and that my book offers real hope and real inspiration. All these new friends helped me to believe in my message, but more than that, to believe more strongly in Jesus Christ. I found myself sitting in front of the crowded church in Genoa thinking, “What would Marco Sermarini say in a place like this?” And I did my best to imitate him.
After the talk and book-signing, Don Mauro gave Giovanni and me a quick tour of the church itself. It was a Baroque jewel box. Even more impressive to me was Don Mauro. We stood in the sacristy having a short chat, but we spoke of forgiveness and hope and Don Mauro’s love for the priesthood, even though his late father didn’t understand it. It was one of those “heart speaks to heart” moments that I had so often in Italy: when so much more is communicated than the information embedded in the words.
Giovanni and I had one last meal together at an ordinary restaurant near my airport hotel. This is the bruschetta. It was nothing special, I guess, for Italians, but a restaurant in the US that served something this delicious would be one of the best in town.
After a farewell at my hotel, Giovanni drove off into the night, and I went upstairs for only a few hours’ sleep before having to wake up and get over to the airport. Now I’m just crossing into North America on the flight home. I checked Twitter just now, and found this:
“Look at how silent I am in the face of demands for… disclosure about how I govern the Church in regards to abusers. I am so very silent. Silent like our Lord. Come hear my next homily on my Christ-like silence.” https://t.co/endmv4R5hS
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) September 18, 2018
For once, the pontiff’s self-destructive self-pity and vanity made me smile. The tall trees will come down with a great fall, but in the wasteland that is our post-Christian civilization, I know where to find the believers who live in peace, without fear. in houses that are a quiet resting place. I have just spent eight days blessed by their company and encouraged — greatly encouraged — by their example. Something is dying, yes, but something new is also being born. These faithful young Christian men and women who live by an upright rule are planting seed by all the waters.
Go thou and do likewise.
UPDATE: On the flight home, I read Salt Of The Earth, the 1996 book-length interview that journalist Peter Seewald did with then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It’s incredible. I wish I had read it before I wrote The Benedict Option. It would have clarified so many things. No wonder Archbishop Gänswein loved my book.
But I am quite sure that the Church will not lack creative energies even in the future. Think of late antiquity, where Saint Benedict probably wasn’t noticed at all. He was also a dropout who came from the noble Roman society and did something bizarre, something that then later turned out to be the “ark on which the West survived.” And in this sense, I think that today there are Christians who drop out of this strange consensus of modern existence, who attempt new forms of life. To be sure, they don’t receive any public notice, but they are doing something that really points to the future.
I’m at the airport in Milan, and will be leaving soon for the US. I am beyond ready to see my family, but I dread coming back to the idiotic sh*tstorm that is American public life. This Kavanaugh thing is off the charts.
I have been abroad for the past nine days. What I know about the accusation is from this Washington Post interview with Christine Blasey Ford, the accuser. If it’s true, it’s obviously horrible what drunken teenager Brett Kavanaugh did to her. She believes it was attempted rape.
But how can we know if it really happened? Ford says she told no one until the disclosed it to a therapist in 2012 — 30 years after the alleged incident. Kavanaugh denies it happened. How can we determine the truth of the matter after all these years?
Even if it happened as she says, should that kind of thing — as vile as it was — disqualify Kavanaugh? Maybe so, but this is by no means obvious to me. I am only a couple of years younger than Kavanaugh, and I was part of a heavy teenage drinking culture. I am certain that I never did anything like that — though maybe I did, and was too drunk to recall — but when I think about how much my crowd (boys and girls both) drank, and how stupid we got with sexual behavior under the influence, I am ashamed.
I remember one girl in my social circles who became a different person when she drank. It was Jekyll-Hyde stuff. When drunk, she was incredibly aggressive, sexually — and boys took advantage of that. I remember once being in a movie theater with her. She got very aggressive with a stranger she had just met, and when a couple of us tried to rescue her from herself, she became incredibly angry with us, and made a scene.
She was a really good person, but she could not handle alcohol. Few, if any of us, could. We were learning how to drink, and used alcohol to help us get over our anxieties about social relationships, especially sex. In my own case, my public high school drunkenness did not involve sexual escapades — I tried, but the amount of liquor it took for me to overcome my shyness also knocked me out. When I look back on it, it’s almost a miracle that nothing bad happened. The drinking age back then was 18 in Louisiana, and it was very, very easy to get booze. Unhappy memories of my own high school and college drinking affected the way I raised, and am raising, my own kids to think about alcohol.
I think we should be reluctant to hold teenage behavior against adults 35 years after the fact. I thought yesterday about a time when I was 15 — same age as Ford at the time of her alleged attack — and a group of 17 year old boys held me down in a hotel room on a school beach trip, and tried to take my pants off. Nobody was drunk; they were trying to impress their girlfriends, who were looking on. The two adult chaperones stepped over me, lying on the floor, pinned by the boys, to escape the room. The boys eventually let me up without taking my pants off, and I ran out.
That event lasted maybe one minute, but it affected the rest of my life. I never thought of it as sexual assault, until a few years ago, when, recalling to a friend how much that event affected my outlook on life, she said, “That was sexual assault. It was sexualized. They tried to take your pants off to humiliate you sexually.” Well, I guess so. I can see that, though we can at least say that it was in a murky zone. Anyway, it changed the way I saw the world. It made me very hostile to bullies. It has as much to do with anything else about why the anger in me burned so hot during the 2002-06 Catholic sex abuse scandal that it consumed my Catholic faith. What those boys did was not innocent. They couldn’t even claim alcohol as a contributing factor.
And yet, if one of those boys were nominated for high public office, I wouldn’t say a word about it. They never apologized, but the truth is, they probably remember none of it. Had they raped me, or crossed a line into what would obviously be sexual assault, I would of course feel very differently. Certainly that room was full of witnesses, and I could name six of them right now. Still, I can’t see the justice in using that event when we were all teenagers and using it to destroy a man’s career. If some of you would like to help me see the justice in doing so, I’m all ears. Seriously, help me to see what you see in the Kavanaugh thing. Because I don’t see how a 17-year-old drunken idiot pawing at a teenage girl tells us anything determinative about the character of a 53-year-old man up for a judgeship.
The #MeToo predators did it more than once. Again, I’m not up on all the reporting, but I have not seen that Kavanaugh has had any more reports of this kind of behavior. In fact, a number of women who have known him as an adult for years report that he has behaved as a considerate gentleman. For all we know now, if he did what he is accused of doing, it was a one-off, done in a moment of extreme drunkenness, when he was 17 years old.
Again: maybe that is disqualifying. I don’t see it, but I could be wrong. What ticks me off is that, judging from the social media conversation, to question whether or not it is disqualifying makes you an abetter of rape.
Here in Italy, I’ve had a number of conversations about the priest sex abuse scandal in the US. My position has been that it’s a very, very big deal, and ought to be treated as such. Many (though by no means all) Italians think we Americans are being puritanical about it. It’s not that they approve of clerical sexual misbehavior, it’s that they are not as scandalized by it. I think they ought to be. (Unlike the Kavanaugh case, these events involve unambiguous sexual assault, committed by adult men.) We have had frank but civil exchanges. We can talk about it without either of us assuming the other side is a monster.
I dipped briefly into Twitter and saw that I had become Harvey Himmlerstein for suggesting that the way people behave in high school, especially under the influence of drugs or alcohol, should not be a determinative factor in taking public office decades later. Someone said, “I hope you don’t have a daughter.”
I do have a daughter, and any body who had treated her like that would have had hell to pay from me … if she had told me about it at the time. If Kavanaugh did it, he ought to have had his ass whipped. But Ford did not inform her folks. See, I also have sons, and I shudder to think what a teenage drunken encounter gone bad might do to their lives over three decades later, if somebody dredged it up. Or what a mere uncorroborated allegation of an unwanted sexual encounter might do to them. I had a bad breakup once in college with a girl who was unstable and manipulative. What if she came out today and said oh, by the way, back in the mid-1980s, Rod Dreher tried to rape me? After all this time, how would I prove my innocence?
That said, I find it difficult to imagine why Ford would make all of this up. To me, the more difficult question is to what extent we are fair to hold a 17 year old morally responsible for an act like the one alleged (which was not rape; at worst, it was attempted rape — and this is a distinction with a difference). I think Mona Charen makes sense here:
There is also the question of responsibility. Is 17 too young to be held accountable for such behavior? It’s a close call, but in the end, it’s a question of character. It’s possible to imagine a 17-year-old behaving like a lout and then regretting it deeply and becoming a pillar of society. And it’s possible that a teenaged abuser was just getting started on a career of assault.
Kavanaugh issued a blanket denial: “This is a completely false accusation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes — to her or anyone.” If he’s innocent, that’s obviously right and necessary. If he were guilty, and reformed, the awful act itself might be forgivable, if he acknowledged guilt. And if, God forbid, he’s lying, his entire reputation as a man of integrity totters.
This is why it’s crucial to see whether this accusation is a one-off or part of a pattern. Everything we know about Kavanaugh — from his friends, colleagues, students, and community — suggests that he is not just a good guy, but an extraordinarily generous and upright person. He coaches girls’ basketball. He volunteers at homeless shelters. He’s a good husband. He tutors needy kids. He does minority outreach for law-school students. He attends church.
Maybe it’s all a charade, but we should be loath to draw that conclusion without at least one more woman stepping up to recount a similar experience. Absent that, his whole adult life tips the scales far more than one uncorroborated accusation.
Anyway, what I hate is that we can’t talk about this stuff without being called a HATER WHO LOVES RAPEYNESS. Europeans really cannot figure out what they hell is going on in US popular culture. I found myself at a bar the other night with an American academic who was in town. He talked with me and a couple of Italians about American academic culture, and how terrifying it had become because you were just one accusation away — no matter how bizarre — from losing your job. Cultural politics have made professional life unbearable. The stories he told made me loath to consider the possibility that my own children — especially my sons — might go into academic life. You can be utterly destroyed on the basis of an accusation — if, that is, you belong to a despised class, and your accuser belongs to a favored one.
I am glad that Ford will have a chance to speak her mind, and that Kavanaugh will have the opportunity to defend himself. But I think this will only make things worse for all of us. If Kavanaugh gets a Senate vote, and prevails, he will forever be tainted as a Supreme Court justice. If he is forced to withdraw (that is, without further evidence against him emerging), or is voted down, he will become a martyr to many, and will, as the Wall Street Journal editorial page said, legitimize “weaponizing every sexual assault allegation no matter the evidence.”
ON THE OTHER HAND, I think this piece by Caitlin Flanagan, who endured as a teenage girl what Ford says she endured, is provocative and challenging. It ends like this:
But if Ford’s story is true, Brett Kavanaugh never apologized. He never tried to make amends, never took responsibility for what he did. In my case, the near-rape—as awful as it was at the time and in its immediate aftermath—didn’t cause any lasting damage. But by Ford’s account, Kavanaugh’s acts did cause lasting damage, and he has done nothing at all to try to make that right. And that is why the mistake of a 17-year-old kid still matters. The least we should do is put this confirmation on hold until we can learn more about what happened. If it’s not true, Kavanaugh should be confirmed without a cloud of suspicion. If it is true, we’ll have to decide whether you get to attack a girl, show no remorse, and eventually become a Supreme Court justice. My own inclination is: No.
I need to think about what she’s saying here — and whether or not it can be assumed that Kavanaugh even remembers what happened. When I was his age, it was fairly common for my friends — again, males and females — to drink to the point of not remembering what we did. Dude, you were so wasted last night, do you remember that you …? I think it is possible that Brett Kavanaugh did it, and was enough of an asshole to know that he did it, and not to apologize. I think it is possible that he did it, and had no memory of it, because he was blind drunk.
I have supported here in this space the #MeToo movement, and longtime readers know that accountability for sexual abuse means a lot to me. I think Donald Trump is a pig for the way he treats women. Prior to this, I had no strong feelings about the Kavanaugh nomination one way or the other. For all that, and whatever the truth, nothing good will come out of this. We will all end up hating each other more intensely. You can count on it.
Finally, read Megan McArdle. Excerpts:
One way out of the dilemma is to say that whatever happened that night, a Supreme Court nomination should not be derailed by a teenage boy’s behavior some 35 years ago. This argument has real merit, not because sexual assault is all right if you’re 17, but because people do change, and a decent society recognizes that. In the case of minors, whose brains aren’t fully formed, I especially believe in radical forgiveness and radical redemption. Yes, even for terrible crimes — forgiving crimes “except the really bad ones” isn’t forgiveness, it’s an admission that you didn’t care that much in the first place. If you truly believe, as I do, that no one’s character should be summed up by the worst thing they ever did, then people who have atoned and lived honorably for decades should be readmitted to society in full good standing — including even admission to the highest court of the land.
And yet, if Kavanaugh did what he stands accused of, he hasn’t paid his debt. That insults both the suffering of his victim and the majesty of the law. And if he has truly forgotten doing a terrible thing, he’s no longer even capable of forming the sincere repentance necessary for redemption.
Moreover, my views on criminal justice are a micro-minority position, and the democratic legitimacy of this appointment matters. Installing Kavanaugh with the allegations unresolved would further corrode an already tattered civic fabric.
Unfortunately, with the midterms almost upon us, there is now no path to an outcome that both sides see as legitimate. Democrats can insist that the revelation of Ford’s story was not exquisitely timed to exactly the moment when it became impossible to confirm a different nominee before the elections. But they are in essentially the same position as Kavanaugh: Even if they are telling the truth, they have no way to provide convincing proof.
Let me know what you think. Help me make my mind up. Anybody who writes viciously, no matter which side you’re on, won’t get published. Let’s talk about this, not yell at each other.
I’m writing you from over the north Atlantic, having remembered that I’m on a Boeing Dreamliner, and can connect to the Internet. I can’t quit thinking about this Kavanaugh thing. As Douthat points out in his conversation with Bruni, if Kavanaugh had ‘fessed up to having made a sloppy, drunken pass, and said Ford mistook his intentions, and that he is very sorry, that would have been one thing. He said it didn’t happen at all (though of course he might not remember it). That raises the stakes.
Let’s have a thought experiment. I think we can all agree that if BK had raped Ford, even as an older teenager, that would be disqualifying. But that raises a question: what kinds of teenage crimes would be disqualifying for a SCOTUS nominee? What if BK had severely beaten another teenage boy in a fight, and put him in the hospital? What if BK had committed arson, or some other severe form of vandalism?
Are there some crimes short of murder in which age is a mitigating factor in how we judge the criminal years later? If BK stood credibly accused of having been a 17 year old child molester, there’s no way I’d be comfortable with him on the Supreme Court. So why is it less troubling to me to think of a credibly accused 17 year old boy who sexually assaulted a girl (though, crucially, no sex actually occurred) sitting on the Supreme Court at 53? Is it because I cannot imagine the kind of mind that would sexually desire a child, but having been a 17 year old who drank heavily at times, I can imagine being in a situation in which ordinary teenage lust, one’s normal restraints dissolved by booze, goes too far?
Again: help me think through this. If Kavanaugh ends up withdrawing, or is voted down, it’s not going to be the end of the world. But we should all be very concerned about the kind of precedent this sets for teenagers and their futures. If Kavanaugh treated Ford like this, he escaped justice at the time. But it is not clear to me that justice would be served by his nomination going down 35 years later over it.
I could be wrong.
UPDATE.2: A good comment by reader Joan:
Thanks for the thoughtful column. I am a liberal feminist and was molested at age 12. Nonetheless, this raises serious concerns for me about what I regard as a fundamental premise: that juvenile offenders get the chance to turn their lives around (assuming he did this). Granted he did not pay the price for this action, but the victim did not come forward. I did. My mother insisted that I do so to protect other kids. I was interrogated by the police (this is eons ago); I had to identify the man; I had to appear in court and be cross examined. If the victim had come forward, it is more than likely the case would have been settled down to a non-felony and the record sealed. There were no bruises (in all likelihood), no semen, no eyewitness who wasn’t drunk etc. I am now related to a kid, who because of one drinking incident (also sealed), is trying valiantly to turn his life around and that sealed record and his privacy are being threatened. And that is horrifying to me. This seems to put that principle in jeopardy. I want kids to have that chance. The statute of limitations is also important because of the vagaries of memory — hers is a recovered memory; his may be a wiped-by-alcohol memory. I don’t believe that we destroy an otherwise decent life (in so far as it can be judged) on a case that would never see a court at this point in time. Are there any circumstances in which this would be heard in a court of law today? Additionally, I will say that I support the me-too movement; I was one of the first women on Wall Street; I know the price that many of us have paid. But I am not comfortable – at all – with this. I may change my mind as this evolves. But thank you again for a thoughtful and thorough column.
From a lecture delivered by Abbot Michael John Zielinski at a Benedict Option conference in Italy. The Italian original is here, and can be listened to in Italian in the video above. Below, the English translation, via Google:
And now what do we do?
It is the question that I often hear even among my monks, even priests and some bishops. In the statistics, however, lay young and old among those who ask will be in the first place.
And now what do we do? One of the answers, with due reservations, could be the book released March 14, 2017, The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. A book starring in numerous conference debates, and described by David Brooks of the New York Times as the most prominent and most discussed religious book of the decade.
It presents itself to readers as a strategic proposal to help Christians find their identity and live their faith in Jesus Christ as is offered to us by the Rule of St. Benedict.
And here I would like to underline the importance that this book gives about the necessary fidelity to the evangelical following of Jesus Christ and to the novelties of forms that this fidelity creates and offers in all times.
The Benedict Option is a proposal to intentionally live Christian life in the Western world that is now an antagonist of Christianity.
In a world rooted in an ethical relativism and religious syncretism, Rod Dreher turns to Benedict of Norcia and to the Holy Rule written by him. While Saint Benedict is the blessed hope, the option we find in the book’s title allows Dreher to enter into a debate of great responsibility towards the human person and the times we live. In fact, reading the criticisms made by the director of Civiltà Cattolica, I ask myself: in a modern vision where freedom is transformed into a capacity and possibility to choose, why is this possibility denied to those who try to resist the modernity? The Benedict Option is in no way a form of vocational propaganda to become a Benedictine monk.
On the contrary, it is a call to all Christians to want to put into practice their fidelity to the spirit of discipleship, forming a new and vibrant counterculture by cultivating a series of practices, and creating small communities that are the reflection of a Christianity that is realized as a path of intelligence — intelligent freedom, not fleeing from the world, but with great devotion in the spirit of thanksgiving. They know that they are called in a responsible way to work with evangelical audacity in a project of a new evangelization in the world.
If anything, the idea of a community is not so much the question of a building or even a monastery, but as St. Benedict says, it is a way of life. This path to life, this path of freedom, however, requires different virtues such as order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, balance and above all discretion. Only those who are blinded by some ideological vision that unfortunately in many parts of Europe has meant the end of the Church can say that the Benedict Option is an escape from the world.
… Monasticism is the response that the Holy Spirit gives to the world, but also to the same Church that has made too many compromises. It is the quest to renew this countercultural anti-conformist spirit in order to rediscover and live the Christian form, which is waiting to be renewed and revolutionized again through a return to a Christian journey. This is the most authentic and sincere hope for the reform of the Church.
These are hard times, the night is deep , but it is only when it is dark that the first light can be seen.
I challenge anyone who says that Christianity has not lost its moral strength and credibility in the West, thus giving space to a culture that is openly anti-Christian. Even pastry chefs are not left alone. It is good to ask whether, by agreeing to the politically correct culture of this culture, we are also contributing to the suicide of man.
Dear ones, man will never reach perfection except through grace. We see with the naked eye the tragedy of this humanism without God that grows more and more every day. I wish the Church was done with the presumed prophets and cloister-communist teachers and even less catho-fascists, but I hope for Catholics of the Roman Church who opt freely for following Christ.
In the rule of St. Benedict presented by the option, Benedict presents himself in a truly revolutionary way as a valid guide for the laity, both in private and professional life in a flat world where the gaze is totally horizontal. In the coming years we can not exclude even physical persecution. Christian schools will begin to be attacked, as are hospitals and all other Catholic and Christian institutions. Slowly, as we enter an increasingly obscure age, our task is to seek forms and strategies that allow us to be and remain Christians. That new Pentecost announced in January 1959, by St. John XXIII has not yet arrived in the churches,
Despite this , we also know that it will have to continue to celebrate by awaiting the sacred hope when a new era will be born. I do not think we are at the end of the world, but I certainly believe that we are at the end of a world. From the joys and hopes, from the sadness and the anguish of these years, a peaceful and pacifying voice has been raised every now and then, but at this time there is something that does not come back.
Something went wrong and many are desperate. As a monk, I know that solitude and silence are the means to draw the highest of humanity’s pure goals: a great gift, a beautiful gift and a true gift, indeed the only gift that the Church is able to offer the world today and to God always. And here the cell and book are not an escape from the world, but rather places created and donated for those who truly love the world.
“I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.” — Cardinal Donald Wuerl, August 8.
After new sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests and criticism of Pope Francis’ leadership on the issue, his favorability in the US has dropped substantially in a new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS.
Only half of Americans — 48% — say they have a favorable view of the Pope, down from two-thirds who said the same in January 2017 and 72% who said so in December 2013, a few months after he was first elevated to the position.
… Specifically among US Catholics, his ratings have fallen from 83% favorability a year and a half ago to 63% now — a 20-point drop.
The Roman pontiff is not a politician. He doesn’t live or die professionally by poll numbers (and in any case, Pope Benedict XVI’s numbers were even lower in 2010). But this is still a big deal. Team Francis — in the Vatican and elsewhere — keep insisting that this is just a political thing, and that the Viganò charges have been discredited (they haven’t), so all is well, let’s move on and talk about what really matters: the environment and immigration.
The pontiff’s credibility really is in free fall. With each passing day of stonewalling, he makes it that much harder to climb out of this hole.
And the state grand juries around the US have barely gotten started.
As I wrap up my book tour in Italy, I regret that I was not able to get up to Norcia to visit the monks. Tonight I am staying with a young Catholic family that has been greatly blessed by their friendship with the Norcia monks. The father of this household has even become a Benedictine oblate. So many Italians I’ve met look to the Monks of Norcia as a stronghold of true faith and stability in this difficult time in the Catholic Church’s life.
Then it hit me: so many of you US Catholic readers have expressed either in comments or in private emails to me your determination to withhold donations from your local diocese for a time, in protest of the bishops’ behavior in the abuse scandal. You know, though, that you have to tithe. God expects it, and it’s the right thing to do.
Why not tithe to the monks of Norcia? As you’ll recall, their monastery crumbled in the 2016 earthquake. They have relocated to the mountainside near the town, and are working on a permanent home there. They intend to build an earthquake-proof cloister. From their latest fundraising letter:
The Monks of Norcia Foundation, a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt organization, has already received donations and pledges toward the building project, but still has a long way to go to reach the goal. For their part, the monks are also contributing to the funds needed to build through the profits earned from Birra Nursia sales and royalties from their 2015 music album “Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia.” We need 1 million euros to raise the frame and infrastructure of the new monastery building, which will be equipped to house at least 30 monks so that the community can grow.
Seriously, folks, if you are planning to withhold your regular tithe to your diocese for the time being, why not redirect it to the Norcia monks, who are the real deal? They are a light for the whole world. [updated the link to a safe one] Please think about making a donation — or sign up for regular donations. You know how much I care about them, and esteem them. If you want to give confidently to help build a Catholic future you can believe in, the Monks of Norcia need your help.
Here’s how The Benedict Option ends:
The Benedictine monks of Norcia have become a sign to the world in ways I did not anticipate when I began writing this book. In August 2016, a devastating earthquake shook their region. When the quake hit in the middle of the night, the monks were awake to pray matins, and they fled the monastery for the safety of the open-air piazza.
Father Cassian later reflected that the earthquake symbolized the crumbling of the West’s Christian culture, but that there was a second, hopeful symbol that night. “The second symbol is the gathering of the people around the statue of Saint Benedict in the piazza in order to pray,” he wrote to supporters. “That is the only way to rebuild.”
The tremors left the basilica church too structurally unstable for worship, and most of the monastery uninhabitable. The brothers evacuated the town and moved to their land up the mountainside, just outside the Norcia walls. They pitched tents in the ruins of an older monastery and continued their prayer life, interrupted only by visits to the town to minister to its people.
The monks received distinguished visitors in their exile, including Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi and Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgical office. Cardinal Sarah blessed the monks’ temporary quarters, celebrated mass with them, then told them that their tent monastery “reminds me of Bethlehem, where it all began.”
“I am certain that the future of the Church is in the monasteries,” said the cardinal, “because where prayer is, there is the future.”
Five days later, more earthquakes shook Norcia. The cross atop the basilica’s facade toppled to the ground. And then, early in the morning of Sunday, October 30, the strongest earthquake to hit Italy in thirty years struck, its epicenter just north of the town. The fourteenth-century Basilica of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, fell violently to the ground. Only its facade remained. Not a single church in Norcia remained standing.
With dust still rising from the rubble, Father Basil knelt on the stones of the piazza, facing the ruined basilica, and accompanied by nuns and a few elderly Norcini, including one in a wheelchair, he prayed. Later amateur video posted to YouTube showed Father Basil, Father Benedict, and Father Martin running through the streets of the rubble-strewn town, looking for the dying who needed last rites. By the grace of God, there were none.
Back in America, Father Richard Cipolla, a Catholic priest in Connecticut and an old friend of Father Benedict’s, e-mailed the subprior when he heard the news of the latest quake. “Is there damage? What is going on?” Father Cipolla wrote.
“Yes, damage much worse,” Father Benedict replied. “But we are okay. Much to tell you, but just pray. I am well, and God continues to purify us and bring very good things.”
The next morning, as the sun rose over Norcia, Father Benedict sent a message to the monastery’s friends all over the world. He said that no Norcini had lost their lives in the quake because they had heeded the warnings from the earlier tremors and left town. “[God] spent two months preparing us for the complete destruction of our patron’s church so that when it finally happened we would watch it, in horror but in safety, from atop the town,” the priest-monk wrote.
Father Benedict added, “These are mysteries which will take years—not days or months—to understand.”
Surely that is true. But notice this: the earth moved, and the Basilica of St. Benedict, which had stood firm for many centuries, tumbled to the ground. Only the facade, the mere semblance of a church, remains. Because the monks headed for the hills after the August earthquake, they survived. God preserved them in the holy poverty of their canvas-covered Bethlehem, where they continued to live the Rule in the ancient way, including chanting the Old Mass. Now they can begin rebuilding amid the ruins, their resilient Benedictine faith teaching them to receive this catastrophe as a call to deeper holiness and sacrifice. God willing, new life will one day spring forth from the rubble.
“We pray and watch from the mountainside, thinking of the long three years Saint Benedict spent in the cave before God decided to call him out to become a light to the world,” wrote Father Benedict. “Fiat. Fiat.”
Let it be. Let it be.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
That is good advice — but, dare I suggest, that there are many BenOp communities closer to home that are in more financially precarious states?
If you want to build up the Catholic church in America, how about tithing to your local independent Catholic classical school? For example, as you once wrote:
“They could use your support, and maybe you could use some of what they have to offer…These Christians are visionaries in the same way that St. Benedict and his early monks were visionaries. Much depends on the success of their efforts, and the efforts of those like them all over the West in the sunset of its civilization. These schools are arks, these schools are lighthouses, these schools are sanctuaries from the darkness. Last month, I heard Sen. Ben Sasse tell an audience of Christian philanthropists that they need to put their time and treasure into local institutions and initiatives that help people endure this time of intense disruption. I agree. Support your local classical Christian school, which is keeping alive the cultural memory of Christian civilization.”
The Italian Catholic news site La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana covered my speech at the Lombardy regional government house. Here’s an English version of their report, courtesy of a generous reader with translating skill:
Symposium In Milan With Rod Dreher:
“The Benedict Option” –
An Ark That Is Needed During the Present Deluge
By Benedetta Frigerio
15 September 2018
The Benedict Option was presented yesterday morning [September 14] in Lombardy. The book written by Rod Dreher, the American journalist who converted first to Catholicism and then to Orthodoxy, was correctly defined by the Vice-President of Lombardy as “a splash in the pond” which, already translated into ten languages, has ignited a big debate in the intellectual and ecclesiastical world. So much so that Dreher’s Italian tour has had several stages before arriving in Milan. Perhaps the reason is that The Benedict Option is a book which has the courage to ask the question which the Church herself is struggling to consider: How can a Christian today live and communicate the faith in a world which refuses, when it does not outright hate, the logic by which the Christian wants to conduct his life?
But The Benedict Option is a “splash” above all because it contests the general mainstream of Christianity, which is more concerned with being accepted by the world and dialoguing according to its logic than with preserving itself (that is, preserving the faith). Dreher’s proposal is not based in ideological reasoning but rather in practical proposals which are profoundly Christian, the same practices which lay at the origin of the vocation of the saint who saved Europe from the ruins of the Roman Empire by pulling away from it.
“Saint Benedict,” explained the author to the audience, “fled from Rome because, when he saw that his friends were losing themselves in immorality,” he was such a realist that “he feared losing his soul. And so he fled to the cave of Subiaco, where he spent three years praying, fasting, and reading Scripture,” until God called him back into the world in order to construct a new world, known to us today as the monastery.
Yet the image of the saint painted by Dreher is quite human and not very angelic, so much so that it leads people today to ask themselves the question, does trying to be like Benedict mean becoming someone who fears the world, a Christian who is afraid of losing his soul, a believer who has little optimism, a young person who flees from reality? These are all objections which Dreher has encountered, and which mean that if Benedict was beginning his journey today he would perhaps be defined as a reactionary, a protester, a polarizer, a pessimist, afraid of looking at evil, a misfit (especially because of the strictness of his judgments and of his rule). But, as Dreher rightly noted, “Benedict did not do what he did to save the world,” or to save the Church according to some kind of strategic-political project for evangelization. No, he did it to save himself, his “relationship with God,” not scandalized by his own humanity but rather having a healthy fear of his own fragility and aware of his need to live in a context where he would not lose his soul. It was only as a result of this that he found himself surrounded by people asking to live like him, according to norms and a logic completely opposed to the world. He even attracted the barbarian peoples, who saw in his radical style of Christian living the possibility of a better life for themselves.
Dreher rightly noted that Christians today need to be concerned with the faith itself before they become concerned with changing the world. In fact, the journalist asked, “How can we offer to the world something which we no longer possess ourselves?” In short, Christian judgment and identity, a communal life rooted in the sacraments, prayer, and the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church are so challenged by the world in which believers find themselves today that they no longer know them or live them. And, even more so, when they do not know them they struggle to hand them on their children.
Dreher illustrated his point by referring to a 2016 survey by Franco Garelli which shows that among young Italians who are nominally Catholic, only 13% regularly participate at Sunday Mass, while among committed Catholic families, only one in five succeeds in transmitting the faith to their children. Why? Because “alone it is impossible to resist the deluge which is coming.”
This deluge however, which is being announced by many signs (“do you not know how to read the signs of the times?”), is often minimized by “our leaders (both lay and ecclesiastical), who tell us that everything is fine and to remain calm.” But the water is rising, and if we do not build the ark, sooner or later we will drown. On the other hand, it was the Lord himself who asked Noah to make the ark and to abandon the world in order to save himself and so save the world.
Also Father Cassian, a Benedictine monk of Norcia, told the future author of the book that “if Christians do not adhere in some way to the Benedict Option,” that is, if they do not concern themselves with building an ark, “they will not be able to resist the darkness which is coming.”
But if this choice is to be not merely a human project but truly something of God (a response to His call), how is it to be realized? Benedict shows the way in his call for begging and prayer, thanks to which he was able to hear “the voice of God” and thus do his will. At the same time, the Benedict Option is not a utopia but a desire, which ought to be conceived first and foremost as a prayer and at the same time as a form of life which is already being lived out: “In my book I describe experiences such as that of the “Tipi Loschi” who live at San Benedetto del Tronto, who pray together, eat together, form their children together at a parent-run school, assist the poor….” This way of living, Dreher makes a point of specifying, cannot be that of a Church which gathers the wounded and gives them “a pill which covers over their evil without healing it: if one truly desires to be healed one must decide to undergo an operation, which implies a painful process.”
Dreher’s own conversion began upon hearing the teaching of John Paul II on sexuality, “which made me understand that I was not living according to the will of God.” When he was converted, he began to pray according to a rule in his house with his children, to reduce the amount of TV they watched, and to prohibit them from the use of social media, because Saint Benedict, in order to live in the world but not be of the world, chose God by renouncing forms of life which would have distracted him from God’s presence.
In summary, Dreher explained, his book gives guidelines which exactly follow the Rule of Saint Benedict as it was conceived for lay people: “We must become small creative communities, living a more monastic life, increasing our prayer and praying during everything we do, recovering a profound relationship with God so that the rule will not be emptied of its contents, living in community because we are not able to survive alone, refusing to serve the dictatorship of relativism and of gender ideology, educating our children according to the tradition of the Church.”
It is clear, Dreher affirmed, that the spiritual battle required of a Christian today is enormous, as he recalled a conversation he had a few days ago with a priest who is an exorcist: “He said to me, ‘I became convinced of the Benedict Option during my ministry. If an exorcist does not live a life of prayer and of profound devotion to God, he will become confused by the power of the devil, he will lose the vision of God and of what is good and evil.’ For this reason, we must spend more time in prayer and formation and in community, otherwise we will not be able to stand.
But there is a quotation, reported by the journalist, which confirms that what he describes is not just his imagining but something which is really happening and which is the future of the Church. It is a quote from the young priest Joseph Ratzinger in a 1969 interview with a German radio station, in which he said prophetically: “To me it seems certain that very difficult times are in store for the Church. Her real crisis is only just beginning….From the crisis of today a Church will emerge which will have lost much. She will become small, and she will have to begin again more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit the buildings she built during times of prosperity. She will rebuild beginning with small groups, with movements and with a minority which will return faith to the center of the experience. She will be a more spiritual Church….The people who will live in a totally programmed world will live in an unspeakable loneliness. If they will have completely lost the sense of God, they will also feel all the horror of their poverty. And they will then discover the small communities of believers as something totally new…as something that gives them hope for themselves.”
But Joseph Ratzinger, recalled Dreher, also added that this hope “will not reside in those who try eagerly to adapt themselves to the fashions of the moment and to coin catchy slogans, but rather in the saints, who are capable of seeing further than others because they are turned towards God.” Not mere optimists, therefore, but people who are full of hope just as Saint Benedict was, “and perhaps some of you are called to do this.”
Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino
American readers, I encourage you to bookmark La Nuova BQ for updated news and commentary about the Catholic Church in Italy. It’s a conservative site with a fresh, lively perspective. If you browse with Chrome, you can have articles translated on the spot. My Italian friends say that La Nuova BQ is one of the best, most reliable Church journalism sources in the country.
I am coming to the end of this exhilarating, exhausting Italian book tour. I wish I could find the right words to say how much it has meant to me to be here, and to have made such great new friends. Today I had a private lunch with Father Julián Carrón, the worldwide head of Communion and Liberation, and a couple of other folks from CL. It was off the record, so I can’t tell you anything about it, but I can say that it was a rich and satisfying time. With Father Carrón, I met a Christian man with an open mind and open heart. It’s a gift in these times. I’ve spent a lot of time on this trip with CL members, and have been impressed by how much they care for each other, and for the faith. There is a lot of overlap between CL’s way of living out the faith, and my ideas in The Benedict Option. My sense is that the major difference is that I am inclined to be more sharp-edged about facing the world. But that’s just an impression.
The photo above is a parking-lot confessional my publicist Marco and I ran across on our way to a late afternoon event at a bookstore. Isn’t that great? That Dominican was standing around eager to hear the confessions of sinners. The sign says, “Christ comes to bring us mercy.”
At the bookstore, I spoke with about 25 folks who came to ask questions and talk about The Benedict Option (or rather, L’Opzione Benedetto,, which is now Amazon Italy’s No. 1 seller in Christianity & Church History category, and the No. 2 seller in the Roman Catholicism category). It was a great discussion. I find that things go best when I speak concretely about the Ben Op. People still struggle with the concept that I’m not talking about heading for the hills. The more I talk about the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic community in San Benedetto del Tronto, the more success I have explaining what the Benedict Option can look like. Federica Sermarini, the wife of Marco, once told me that the Christians of her community can be open to the world “because we know who we are.”
I wish there were more Federica in The Benedict Option. Here’s a passage:
“A dead thing goes with the stream, but only a living thing goes against it,” said G. K. Chesterton.
That quote from The Everlasting Man is the motto of the Scuola libera G. K. Chesterton, the community school of the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic lay community in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy. The school started because Marco Sermarini and his wife Federica had the courage of their countercultural Christian convictions.
Almost a decade ago Marco and Federica began to worry that the state schools and the local Catholic high school would undermine the work of Christian formation that their children received at home and within the Tipi Loschi community.
In June 2008, Marco heard a lecture by Father Ian Boyd, an American priest and Chesterton expert visiting Italy. Father Boyd said that the problem we face today is standardization by low standards. What’s more, people have no time to do creative things—but they must make time, because going with the mainstream means spiritual death.
When he returned home, Marco told his wife they had to start a school. They had three months to do it. “Many people thought I was crazy, and maybe I am, but we started on the fifteenth of September,” Marco said. They had four students, two of them Sermarini children. Today there are seventy students in both a middle school and a high school.
The success of the Chesterton school inspired the Tipi Loschi to dream big. “When we discovered that we could do one strange thing, we started to think about how many things we could do in an unconventional way,” says Sermarini. “We knew that we couldn’t live a regular life with a Christian coating, but had to change the roots.”
Going against Italy’s educational stream, the Tipi Loschi found not only success with their school but inspiration to be countercultural Christians in many other ways.
“Many times in this life you will think it’s impossible to have any other kind of order,” he continues. “But if you start changing things, and moving things where they are meant to be, and if you put God over all of it, then you will be amazed by how many things fall into place.”
After the bookstore event, I went shopping for my wife, then ate a pizza, then had gelato, and ended up having a late drink with Giuseppe Scalas, a longtime reader of and commenter on this blog. When I got back to the hotel room, I saw that Marco Sermarini had texted me this photo from San Benedetto tonight: all the Tipi Loschi families gathered at their clubhouse, Santa Lucia, made a bonfire, and prayed the rosary together.
That, my friends, is what it means for faithful Catholics to live the Benedict Option. The sheer joy of it…
Tomorrow I’m going to the Orthodox liturgy, then taking the day off to visit friends who are trying to start a Benedict Option community with other Catholic families just outside the city. Then, on Monday, I’m off to Genoa for the final speech of this tour.
You might remember Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. Back in 2002, he said that Jews were partly responsible for the bad press the Catholic Church in the US was getting over priests raping children and the media covering it up.
More recently, Edward Pentin of National Catholic Register reported that Maradiaga’s seminary in Honduras was more or less a gay bathhouse, and that the cardinal’s auxiliary was having sex with seminarians. The auxiliary resigned, but the cardinal furiously denied the report — despite a complaint signed by scores of heterosexual seminarians — and compared Pentin to an assassin.
Now comes news that Maradiaga, chosen by Francis to be part of his nine-member inner circle of advisers, is saying that people ought to leave Uncle Ted McCarrick alone. From Lifesite News:
In an interview published on Wednesday evening by Religion Digital, the religious portal of the Spanish-language news site Periodista Digital, Maradiaga once again strongly criticized Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò for having gone public about McCarrick’s sexual predations and the protection the Cardinal received from the highest spheres in the Vatican, especially since Pope Francis was elected to the See of Peter and trusted the American prelate to help him choose new cardinals for the Church in the USA.
Asked to comment about Viganò’s call on the Pope to resign, Maradiaga answered:
It does not seem correct to me to transform something that is of the private order into bombshell headlines exploding all over the world and whose shrapnel is hurting the faith of many. I think this case of an administrative nature should have been made public in accordance with more serene and objective criteria, not with the negative charge of deeply bitter expressions.
Got it? It’s the news reports about McCarrick’s forcing himself on seminarians that are causing people to suffer in their faith, not what McCarrick actually did.
This man is a top adviser to Pope Francis.
So is this one:
Good morning from Milan. I just finished a late breakfast, and will be headed over soon to have lunch with Julián Carrón, the leader of the Communion & Liberation movement. I’m really looking forward to this lunch, especially because I read Father Carrón’s book, Disarming Beauty, and found many points of convergence with The Benedict Option. On the other hand, I’ve heard that Father C. is critical of the Ben Op on certain points. In any case, it should be a fascinating lunch, and I’m quite blessed to have been invited by such a thoughtful host.
Yesterday in Milan I had a Ben Op event with Bishop Massimo Camisasca. I found him so warm and genuine. I was a little surprised this morning to see an interview with him in Il Foglio that contained this passage (translated by Google):
A few days ago, on 12 September, the tenth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s speech to the Collège des Bernardins in Paris fell, and those words on monasticism and the quaerere Deum , were echoed several times in the comments to the Benedict Option. If Msgr. Gänswein sees a sort of link with Dreher’s theses, Giuliano Ferrara – during the event organized by the Folio on Monday 11 September (which you can see here ) – he expressed some perplexities about it: they are two different things, he said. Does not the experience proposed by the book risk favoring a syndrome of encirclement in cutting the bridges with the world?
The bishop of Reggio Emilia answers: “If you read the Rule of St. Benedict there is no encirclement syndrome. He wanted simply and entirely to live Christianity. Thus St. Augustine, who had previously made his conversion coincide with the monastic choice, which he will try to live even once he has become a bishop. I too think that, in imitation of Benedict, we must build communities with a monastic framework, as I wrote many years ago, making this theme the center of my reflection and of my work over the last thirty years. A community with a monastic structure is not a closed place, which withdraws from the world. If he refuses certain forms of worldly life, he does so precisely because of greater solidarity and closeness to men and women all over the world. If he chooses silence – he adds -, it is not for contempt of the word, but to make disciples of authentic words. If he chooses common life, it is because he believes that we need to heal our divisions. If he chooses a certain distance, a certain virginity, from the frenzy of social networks and the chatter of today, it is because he wants to take care of things that do not pass. If he chooses the communion of goods, it is because he knows that nothing is given to us as ours and everything is for mutual building and for the poor “.
“In other words – continues Msgr. Camisasca – I do not see at all in the experience of what Benedict XVI has called ‘creative minorities’ a withdrawal from the world as a refusal of solidarity with the lives of other men, but on the contrary an even deeper awareness of the dramatic moment we are called to live, experienced with a heart full of light and joy “.
Well, I agree with this. The Ben Op is not a “refusal of solidarity with the lives of other men,” but rather insists that if we are going to join with other men as authentic Christians, then we must bring to that encounter a deep and living faith in Jesus Christ. And, in this post-Christian world, that means that we must be more “contemplative” in the sense of withdrawing from the normal life to live more ascetically and intentionally.
I have one more speech to give in Italy, in Genoa on Monday. I think I’ll write a new one to clarify this point.
Maybe the misunderstanding with Mons. Camiscalca — or not “misunderstanding,” but honest disagreement — comes from the fact that he is a leader of Communion & Liberation, which has a particular philosophical stance. As I understand it, CL is more positively disposed towards the world outside the Christian community than I am, in the Ben Op. I believe that there are clear contradictions between Christianity and “the world” (used in the Biblical sense), and that we Christians have to be clear about those differences, and be prepared to show another way of life to the world. And, if the world chooses to make us suffer hatred, rejection, even persecution, for our beliefs, then we must be prepared for that. This, in fact, is one element of the Benedict Option: to prepare for martyrdom, both white and red.
Anyway, I’ll ask Father Carrón today at lunch. I suspect that lunch will be off the record, so I may not be able to write about it. I will ask him, though. You should know that I’ve met so many CL people here on this trip, and have been extremely impressed by their spirituality and their friendship. There’s no doubt in my mind that CL is a fruitful kind of Benedict Option.
Hate can cause a range of emotional responses, including fear, anger and shock. People experience mental and physical well-being issues such as problems sleeping, depression, anxiety and paranoia. Hate hurts and no-one should have to tolerate it #HateHurtsSY pic.twitter.com/0b0zXn74Ht
— SouthYorkshirePolice (@syptweet) September 10, 2018
Sarah’s haunted face stares out under a red Islamic head-dress in her wedding photo. Beside her, guests eat cake while celebrating the marriage, conducted by the local mosque’s imam at a terraced house in the Home Counties.
Yet Sarah is not a willing bride. She is being made to marry a member of the gang that effectively forced her into sex slavery after abducting her in a Tesco car park in the English suburbs one autumn afternoon. Her captivity lasted for 12 long years.
Within minutes of her wedding picture being taken, the white English girl was pushed upstairs into a bedroom and raped by her new husband, a man she had set eyes on for the first time only half an hour earlier.
It was just one of the unimaginable torments Sarah endured after she was kidnapped as a shy 15-year-old. She had never had a boyfriend. She was studying at college, hoping to train as a midwife.
Sarah’s story is described by House of Lords crossbencher Baroness Caroline Cox, who has taken up her case, as the most serious example of sex grooming yet to emerge in this country.
‘I know Sarah and her family,’ explains Baroness Cox. ‘Every sex grooming case is terrible. But the length and cruelty of her abduction make it the worst I have known.’
Sarah’s abuse went on while her distraught family’s pleas for help were, they insist, ignored by a police force that refused even to list her as missing.
Her family were forced to keep up the search for her on their own after she failed to return from Tesco.
‘The police kept saying leave it a few days, she’ll come back,’ says her mother Janet today. ‘But she never did.’
Sarah was snatched five years before the scandal of sexual abuse of young white girls by street grooming gangs was first revealed in 2010, after investigations by the Daily Mail and later by the Government.
The all-pervading culture of political correctness at the time of her abduction meant the gangs, often of Pakistani-British heritage, were ignored by police forces that were terrified of being called racist if they pursued them.
Read the whole thing. But don’t tell anybody about it, not if you live in South Yorkshire. You might be reported to the police.
I have been in Italy one week, and have had countless rich, stimulating conversations with Italian Catholic friends. Yet I find that I struggle to convey the gravity of the scandal roiling the US Catholic Church. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to many folks here. Some think it’s nothing more than a political attack on Pope Francis. Others agree that it’s bad, but they say the Church has always been corrupt to a certain degree, and don’t grasp why Americans are so worked up about it.
“The thing you have to understand about Italians,” said a journalist friend today, “is that we think the Church has always been there, and always will be. And we think that the Pope is usually right, whoever he is. It’s our natural stance.”
(Mind you, he wasn’t justifying it, only explaining to me why there is so much resistance here to the idea that this current scandal is a Very Big Deal.)
Well, I wish I could print out Jonathan V. Last’s new piece in the Weekly Standard and hand out copies to every Italian Catholic I meet who is interested in talking about the scandal — and even those who aren’t (because it truly is a Very Big Deal). This is the best piece I’ve yet read summarizing the situation and delineating its stakes. It is a lucid review of what we know about the scandal, and what it means. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Last sums up the McCarrick situation thus:
If true, this would mean that we have one cardinal who was a sanctioned sexual predator, (at least) one cardinal who turned a blind eye to this man’s crimes as they were happening within his jurisdiction, and a pope who didn’t just look the other way but took affirmative steps to help both the criminal and his enabler.
And if all of that is true, well, then what? The potential answers to this question aren’t very nice. They include: schism, the destruction of the papacy, and a long war for the soul of the Catholic church. Because the story of Theodore McCarrick isn’t just a story about sexual abuse. It’s about institutions and power.
Yes, exactly. It is about sex, and it is about money, but at bottom it’s about power, and its abuse. More:
The institutional damage is done not by the abusers but by the structures that cover for them, excuse them, and advance them. Viewed in that way, the damage done to the Catholic church by Cardinal Wuerl—and every other bishop who knew about McCarrick and stayed silent—is several orders of magnitude greater than that done by McCarrick himself.
By way of analogy, consider the dirty cop. About once a week we see evidence of police officers behaving in ways that range from the imprudent to the illegal. It has no doubt been this way since Hammurabi deputized the first lawman. But while individuals might be harmed by rogue cops, the system of law enforcement isn’t jeopardized by police misbehavior. The damage to the system comes when the other mechanisms of law enforcement protect, rather than prosecute, bad cops. If that happens often enough, citizens can eventually decide that the system is broken and take to the ballot box to reform it. The laity have no such recourse with the church.
This point cannot be emphasized strongly enough! People have been saying to me for a dozen years now, “Why did you leave the Catholic Church over pedophile priests? Every church is going to have pedophiles. That doesn’t make the teachings of the Church untrue.”
Yes, I know.
It wasn’t the pedophile priests that did in my faith. It was the bishops who protected them. That is, the men who ran the system were so morally and spiritually corrupt that in most cases they went out of their way to protect pedophile priests at the expense of children and their families. A priest friend back in 2002 told me that it was impossible to understand the sexual abuse scandal apart from a more general crisis in the Catholic Church. For example (he said), bishops protected these pedophile priests in part because they had lost a sense that the Church is supposed to be about something greater than serving the perceived interests of its ruling class (the clergy). The failure to react like any normal human being would to a sin as horrific as child molestation was in part a manifestation of a loss of sense of sin, period. Bishops had come to see themselves primarily as managers of an institution — an institution whose chief goal was its own perpetuation.
I could go on like this on a number of topics. The point is, the Church crisis is, as the kids like to say these days, intersectional. At some juncture, I quit believing that the US bishops, on the whole, cared about anything but protecting themselves. Once I lost that faith, it became hard to hold on to the belief that my eternal salvation depended on maintaining communion with them. I have said before that leaving the Catholic Church was, for me, like being an animal with its leg caught in a trap, who chews off its own limb to escape. From what was I trying to escape? The certainty that there was nothing I or anyone else could do to change things. The bishops were willing to lie to everyone, including themselves, to preserve their power and status. If the Pope wasn’t willing to bring about justice and reform, then it wasn’t going to happen, period. Many of my friends had the inner strength to bear that. I did not. The weight of anger and depression broke me. People who fault me intellectually for losing my faith might as well blame a man with broken legs for dropping out of a marathon.
I don’t want to have those familiar theological arguments again in the comments of this thread. I’m simply trying to amplify the point that J.V. Last makes in his essay: that because the Catholic Church’s ecclesial structure, there is no way for people within it to hold bishops to account. It’s especially a Catholic thing, but not exclusively a Catholic thing. Four years ago, a reader of this blog named Steve Billingsley left this comment on a thread:
I served for a decade as a pastor in the United Methodist Church – whose U.S. membership has declined over 30% in the last 45 years despite a very real and vibrant plurality of theologically orthodox (small “o”) members (and a booming membership in Africa and Central and South America). I served in one of the saner and more healthy regions (Central Texas) and was continually frustrated by the persistent tendency to major on minors and a denominational bureaucracy that was self-indulgent and clueless. (When I left the UMC ministry – my district superintendent told me that he (along with over half of his colleagues) was on anti-depressants and that he suspected that when he retired he wouldn’t need them anymore.)
Understand – I’m not against anti-depressant medication – it can literally be a lifesaver for folks suffering from clinical depression – but he was telling me that his job environment was so toxic that he needed to drug himself to cope (and frankly saw no irony in that fact). This is just symbolic of the denial that so many in leadership in these denominations live in. Our annual conferences were multi-day exercises in self congratulation and furrowed brow deliberation over countless resolutions that accomplished nothing other than solidify the entrenched political power of the denominational apparatchiks. Clueless old-school church politicians fighting over the remaining scraps of organizational power deluding themselves into thinking all is well.
I wouldn’t characterize it as a “liberal” vs “conservative” divide or even simply as orthodoxy vs heresy. It is taking the faith seriously enough to wrestle with serious issues in one’s own life and the life of one’s church and to trust that the faith that was delivered to us by our forebears through centuries of struggles, victories and defeats is not to be lightly cast aside for passing trends and the spirit of the age.
This is pretty close to what I observed among the Catholic bishops. It wasn’t so much that they were evil (though some, like McCarrick, were) as that they just didn’t take things seriously. Maintaining organizational power — now that was something they took very seriously.
I wish to point out yet again historian Barbara Tuchman’s three aspects of why the Renaissance popes lost half of Europe to the Protestant Reformation:
1. obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constituents
2. primacy of self-aggrandizement
3. illusion of invulnerable status
Tuchman said that these are persistent aspects of folly, and recur throughout human institutions. It seems to me, though, that those in religious authority are especially vulnerable to them, because they convince themselves that they are working for God, and so everything they do must be correct because of the fact that they do it.
Back to Last. He writes about the deep confusion with which Francis has governed in his pontificate, and how radical Francis has been, and the long-term consequences of this pope’s actions, for which he refuses to be held accountable in any way (e.g., refusing to acknowledge the dubia, which are the Church’s mechanism for allowing cardinals to compel a pope to clarify things theologically). Last argues that Francis is laying the groundwork for a total renovation of Catholic teachings on marriage, family, and sexuality. And:
Whether or not it’s coincidence, the American bishops in the most jeopardy now—McCarrick, Wuerl, Cupich, Tobin—are also the ones closest to Francis and most supportive of his desire to revolutionize the church.
Last concludes with four options out of this crisis: papal resignation (extremely unlikely, and a bad idea); surrender (shrugging it all off, and thereby letting the wicked triumph); schism (a bad idea); and resistance.
By “resistance,” Last means the laity withholding funds from bishops, and organizing for the long game — like, laying the groundwork for future papacies. That seems to me to be the only reasonable path forward for Catholics, but as Last puts it in this piece, that is a political option (politics being the method by which power is organized and distributed).
The deepest and most necessary form of resistance, though, has to be in the daily lives of the faithful. I conceived The Benedict Option as a project of Christian resistance to post-Christian modernity. It would be necessary for Catholics even if a vigorous Benedict XVI were still on the papal throne. It is necessary for us non-Catholics too. The core problem facing all Christians in the West these days is not primarily political, though politics (in the sense that I indicated in the previous paragraph) are part of it.
But as Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the longtime personal secretary to Benedict XVI, said this week in the Vatican, the gravity of the crisis engulfing the Catholic Church today gives the Benedict Option a certain urgence.
Read the whole thing. I’m not kidding — please, read it. Every word.
I was in a taxi coming back to the hotel from lunch in Milan when an American Catholic friend texted me a link to Last’s piece. I read it in the car, then we continued texting about it. I told my friend that it deeply concerned me that so many Italians — including, of course, within the Vatican — simply do not grasp the seriousness of the moment, and the threat it poses to the stability of the Catholic Church. Many seem to be more afraid of moralism than the self-destruction Wuerl, McCarrick, and Francis are wreaking on the Church. He added:
And of course Ivereigh, Faggioli and others are trying to spin this as an American thing and to quarantine the contagion. We’ll see what happens. It looks like an irresistible force colliding with an immovable object. But when you expand the field of vision from the abuse crisis, narrowly speaking, to the bigger picture as Last has done, its hard to think the irresistible force can ultimately be resisted. There’s something world-historic going on here. And it’s going to be very, very rough.
Yes, it will be. Remember: Father Cassian of the monastery of Norcia said three years ago that Christians who want to make it through the darkness coming upon us with their faith intact had better do the Benedict Option. He couldn’t have foreseen this particular crisis, but now that it’s here, his words have incredible potency.
Finally, I want to share with you a powerful short piece from The Federalist, written by two Protestants who are worried about the Catholic crisis, and who explain why every Christian should be. Excerpt:
It is absolutely essential that Catholics grasp the depth of this crisis. As we have said, we think it will become as severe and as comprehensive as the crisis of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. With remarkable swiftness, Catholicism simply collapsed in what had been Catholic strongholds — most of Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and very nearly France. In recent decades, Catholicism has likewise lost its grip in what had been bastions — like French Canada, Spain, Ireland, and Brazil.
Forty years ago, virtually the entire population of southern Ireland turned out to welcome Pope John Paul II. A few weeks ago, the Irish population essentially shunned the visiting Pope Francis, and the Irish prime minister gave him a stern lecture on his church’s reduced place in that country. What would St. Patrick, who, despite just escaping from slavery in pagan Ireland, returned to the island after hearing the screams of the damned in his dreams, think of the church today?
As goes Ireland, so will go the rest of Roman Catholic Christendom. The church in Germany has been rocked by scandal and there are thousands of known-victims. Already, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is under judgment in Chile, the United States, Australia, France, and Honduras. The crisis has long since gone global.
In fact, as the Catholic scholar Benjamin Wiker has argued, the current crisis is more threatening for the Catholic Church than the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. For one thing, the Reformation began in a society that was still overwhelmingly Christian. Some historians of the pre-Reformation period even argue that Christian piety was deepening and broadening in the run-up to the Reformation, and that the Christian laity was already assuming a more prominent role in managing church affairs (a development greatly accelerated by Lutherans and Calvinists). But the contemporary Western world seems rapidly to be losing whatever residual Christianity was left in it. That makes a Catholic recovery more problematic.
As the authors, Willis L. Krumholz and Robert Delahunty, point out, it simply will not do for Catholics to assume that because the Church has been through something like this before, and survived, that it will do so again. The Church in the West has never faced a crisis like this, precisely because it is happening in a post-Christian culture, and in a media environment in which news travels globally in an instant. Pope Francis’s strategic silence in response to the Viganò testimony might have worked in every previous century, but not this one. Technology, and the change in consciousness that it effects, will not let him get away with it.
And because this scandal is about power, the Church’s leadership cannot forget that the crisis occurs in an age of radical individualism, which is to say, radical democracy. As a cultural and psychological matter, people do not feel bound to remain under the authority of a hierarchy they deem corrupt or in any way unacceptable. Maybe they’re wrong to think that way, but that is what it means to live in modernity. The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor says that we live in “a secular age” not because everyone has left religion behind, but because unlike prior to the Reformation, everyone knows that religion is at some level a choice. Everybody knows people who are not believers, and who seem to be doing okay. There are far, far fewer external boundaries — in law and culture — to keep individuals bound to particular religions, or religious institutions. This is the world we live in.
If you had looked out at, say, the Netherlands in 1955, you would have seen what looked on the surface to be a coherent, vibrant, popular church. And you would have been massively shocked when just a few years later, everything collapsed. Same with Ireland in more recent times. If you think America is an exception to this trend, you are not only wrong, but dangerously wrong.
Archbishop Gänswein used plainly apocalyptic language in his talk in Rome this week. This is a man who, serving Joseph Ratzinger as secretary since 2003, has been at the very summit of the Catholic Church. Now he’s talking soberly about this crisis as being perhaps part of the last and worst trial before the Second Coming.
Think about what that means. Think about the significance of a man who has seen what Georg Gänswein has seen, saying that.
The storm surge has just begun for Catholics. Prepare.
UPDATE: An Italian friend shared with me Father Antonio Spadaro’s tweet, which I’ve reproduced with the translation. You want to know one reason why Pope Francis is badly mishandling the scandal? This genius is one of his top advisors:
UPDATE.2: An Italian-speaking reader writes with a more accurate translation of Spadaro’s tweeet:
The Vigano affair is an internal matter related to the tensions within the Church in the United States. Created by ecclesiastical squabblers, it is a poison produced by a body of political-economic interests who have found in the Church a bogus “moral” refuge. Will we not soon see that the poison kills the diseased body which produced it?
In a couple of my speeches in Italy, I’ve favorably mentioned my old friend Father Joe Wilson, of the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn. He was a source of merriment, consolation, and wise counsel for me when I lived in that fine city. He’s written a fine piece about what it’s like to live this hellish scandal a second time as a Catholic priest. It appears on the site of David Virtue, the Anglican commenter and longtime friend of Father Wilson, who had asked him in an email how he was holding up. Here are parts of the priest’s answer:
So this really is no surprise to me at all. The Church took a wrong turn in the 1960s. The results have been catastrophic. Stubbornly, I would even say psychotically, we insist on ignoring reality and talking incessantly about renewal. Hundreds, literally, of once flourishing Religious communities have faced the fact that their institution is coming in for a sad landing. Dioceses which once ordained classes of thirty or forty priests a year are over the moon today if the Bishop ordains four. The once proud network of Catholic colleges and universities extending across the land is almost completely secularized, the presence of the Religious who founded the schools a dim memory, the students more likely to have seen The Vagina Monologues on campus than taken a course in Catholic Theology. The Catholic divorce rate is indistinguishable from that of society at large; mainstream cultural attitudes towards fornication and homosexuality are frequently encountered among Catholics.
Now, you asked how I personally move forward?
It really is not very difficult. I bless God for a solid Catholic upbringing thanks to good parents and really, really wonderful priest mentors when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in
a house of three Teachers (parents and grandmother), which was like growing up in a library, and encountering and reading Chesterton and Belloc and Mauriac and Cardinal Gibbons and Monsignor Knox as a youth, even before high school. Most importantly, to be raised to live in a relationship with the Lord Jesus, to glimpse the nature of His Church despite the Puff the Magic Dragon spirituality I encountered, to be devoted to His Mother. If you’ve encountered the spiritual works of Dom Columba Marmion, you’re not likely to be too impressed by a paperback about butterflies coming out of cocoons.
Over this past Summer I began with great profit to read systematically through the wonderful writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, a great Doctor of the Church on the sixteenth century. We have spiritual works and many letters of hers, suffused with her lively personality. She founded a reformed branch of the Carmelite Order; her nuns would live very simply in small convents and focus on prayer behind their cloister walls.
She wrote a book on prayer for them called “The Way of Perfection”, and at the beginning of it she says something so pertinent to our situation today that it startled me. Right at the start of the treatise she says to her sisters, Why do you think I founded the Reform? It is because of the state of the Church, those dreadful Lutherans up there in the North who are rejecting the Mass and the authority of the Church, the people who are confused, the courageous priests who are attacking the heresies… Women like us cannot go to the front of the battle lines, but we can found oases where Jesus can find welcome and rest and home in a world which has forgotten Him. And that is what our convents shall be, where we dwell with Him. This from a cloistered nun!
And there, she draws us right back to the one thing only that is necessary, doesn’t she? We persevere in the place in the vineyard where He had put us, we watch, we pray, and look for the day when He raises up a Dominic, a Francis, a Teresa of Avila, and the renewal begins. We look for holiness, we try to open ourselves to grace, we try to make of ourselves a cloister for Him. The scandalous failure of our leadership really does not surprise me at all; most of our bishops are anything but leaders. When Mass attendance falls from 88% (1965) to perhaps 14% today (and clearly they are doing their damnedest, literally, to drive it lower) and there is no visible sign of concern let alone panic, but a constant chanting of the mantra age of renewal over fifty years; no question raised, Can we have done something wrong???, it’s hard to take them seriously. There is a great gent named Frank Walker who runs the invaluable canon212.com blog, covering the crisis in the Church (a must read every day twice a day at least), who startled me out of my wits recently by quoting something I said in, I think, 2004 in an article: “Watching the bishops’ conference in action is like viewing the film of a train wreck over and over again. With bright-colored clowns hanging out the train windows, waving and blowing kisses. One only wishes one had a tomato.” That about sums it up.
But look at everything I have been given: the grace of Baptism, my daily Mass, the daily Liturgy of the Divine Office, the privilege of absolving sins, knowing the Gospel, preaching the Gospel, pointing the way to the Lord Jesus, encouraging others to strive for the Kingdom, the incredible, astonishing riches of the Catholic spiritual tradition… All of this a gift, given by the Lord Jesus, through His Church. And how often have I read the stories of His saints who lived in troubled times and admired their witness — isn’t it a privilege to live for Jesus in such times?
Well, it looks like we do today. This is not really a surprise at all. And that is why I am prepared. In my left trouser pocket are my rosary beads; in my right cassock pocket, a tomato. Always ready.
Why did I bring Father Wilson up in Italy (including in my speech in front of Archbishop Gänswein? Because of something very wise he once said to me and others gathered in my Brooklyn apartment around the turn of the millennium.
We were having dinner and drinking lots of wine, as we did in those days, and a couple of us guys were doing our usual bitching about how awful the institutional Catholic Church was. The homilies were terrible, the masses were irreverent, parish life was dead, the usual. We were really bad about that back then (and let me warn you: that’s a deadly temptation, to only speak passionately about the Church in griping). Father Wilson could usually be counted on to affirm our whining by offering several actual real-life stories to make the point.
But at some point that night, he said something to us that I’ve never forgotten. Paraphrased, it went something like this:
Guys, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. The Church is just as mediocre as you say. But you are in so much better shape than my parents were. They had to raise me and my sister in the late ’60s and 1970s, when everything had gone to hell after the Council. They knew they couldn’t trust us to the parish. They both worked very hard to form us, and to give us everything we needed to be faithful Catholics. And it worked.
You have the same obligation to yourselves and your children. Thing is, you have it way better than my parents did. You have the Catechism, for one thing. You also have the opportunity to go online and have sent to your front door within a week a library that Thomas Aquinas couldn’t have dreamed of. And on the Internet, you can connect with people all over the country who are facing the same struggles as you, and who might be able to help you.
The point is, you’ve got all you need to compensate for the failures of the institutional Church. You just need to quit complaining and get busy.
I knew instantly that he was right. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t change one bit. When the scandal hit, it was too late.
That advice remains excellent today. The entire way of life of the Tipi Loschi from The Benedict Option is more or less a Father Wilson village. They’re not waiting around for the institutional Church to get its act together before they build an authentic Christian life for themselves. It is a glorious thing to behold. My stars, if I could get Father Wilson and Marco Sermarini together at the same table…
Today I went to the Benedict Option eel factory. No, really, I did.
Eels are plentiful in the Po River delta, on Italy’s northeastern coast. The area around the town of Comacchio is so well-known for eels that Sophia Loren once starred as the title character in The River Lady, an eel-processor in Comacchio:
There’s an old eel processing facility in Comacchio that is used by a Catholic confraternity from Ferrara to run a business helping people who have trouble finding employment elsewhere. They prepare and process eels and anchovies. The confraternity, whose name I now forget, are based in nearby Ferrara, and are close friends of the Tipi Loschi, the Catholic group I profiled in The Benedict Option. In fact, I first met Enrico, above, in San Benedetto del Tronto.
The Ferrara folks invited me to visit them today to see their work, and to talk about the book. Marco Sermarini, Giorgio Pellei, and other Tipi Loschi drove up the coast for the meeting. We had a lunch of eels, anchovies, and these amazing flash-fried tiny fish, which you eat in a cone. So crispy, crunchy, and salty. Here’s Signor Sermarini, the Doge of L’Opzione Benedetto, demonstrating their deliciousness:
You eat them like French fries. Man, were they good.
I spoke to Ivo Džeba, a Croatian journalist who once interviewed me, and who invited me to come to Zagreb when the book is published there in the coming months. (I’d love to!) He and Marco have become friends, and Ivo was planning to head down to San Benedetto to spend some time with the TL, and do a report.
After lunch, I had a wonderful time with about 40 folks from the local confraternity, plus the guests from the Tipi Loschi. The work they do at the eel factory defies the idea that the Benedict Option is only about turning inward. I learned that they saw a need to help people who, for whatever reason, had trouble finding normal jobs. It is an act of service to them. The confraternity also helps there too. The idea is not to get rich, but to live out the virtue of manual labor, in solidarity with the poor.
Here’s their webpage, and a little bit of information about Work & Services, the cooperative (which, by the way, is an official part of Italy’s Slow Food movement):
The social cooperative “Work and Services” arises from the desire to educate on the love for work, through the beauty of reality. The manufacturing of the fishing products of the Comacchio Valleys takes place in the Fires Hall of the Ancient Factory of Marinated, where nowadays as centuries ago, we work the fishes with an old transformation technique – as it has been codified since them on a spit, we roast them in ancient wood-burning chimneys and we wrap them in screen-printed template. we carry this old transformation technique on, as it has been codified since the end of the 1600 in the fishing factories of Comacchio, – and we live this as a chance to welcome the people we meet and remind us that, even in difficult times, life is beautiful.
Here, from their website, is the crew at work in front of the old chimneys in whose hearths they roast the eels:
In our long group conversation, one young man said that he moved to San Benedetto del Tronto to teach physics for a year in the community school, the Scuola Libera G.K. Chesterton, which follows the classical model. I can’t remember his name — I met so many new friends today — but his testimony was so moving that I gave him my email address and asked him to be in touch so I could interview him for this blog. He told me (and the group) that before moving to live in the Tipi Loschi community, his faith was mostly intellectual. Being part of the community, though, broadened and deepened his Christian commitment, and, he said, changed his life for the better. He has found a much closer relationship with Jesus Christ, thanks to the life he was shown in that community.
Marco Sermarini told us all that since he and the Tipi Loschi appeared in The Benedict Option, they have had visitors from all over showing up, wanting to see how they live out their faith. No wonder! They are such an inspiration — and, as I learned today in Comacchio, they aren’t the only ones in Italy living this way. What a total grace God has given me in my life by bringing me in touch with these good people.
Marco is very well aware of the scandals in the Church, and has strong feelings about them. But he insists that all of us believers keep our eyes on the prize of faith, hope, and charity, and in living out the joy of serving Jesus Christ in community. For Marco and his cheerful Chestertonian comrades, these are not abstractions, but what it means to live.
Don’t forget, everybody: this too is the Church!
Here I am with the greatest living Italian, today behind the eel factory in hot, humid Comacchio, which, thanks to the love and fidelity of these dear Catholic friends, is a piece of heaven on earth:
I was on a train in Italy this afternoon when I saw this op-ed from Rick Fitzgibbons, the Philadelphia Catholic psychiatrist, and my jaw dropped open. Here’s a key passage:
Pope Francis on August 20, 2018, stated that “clericalism” was the root cause of the sex abuse crisis in Pennsylvania. He stated:
“Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”
Clericalism has been described elsewhere as a “disordered attitude” toward clergy which often results in an “excessive deference and an assumption of their moral superiority.” Pope Francis has noted that such an attitude can be “fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons.”
Clericalism, however, does not result in a psychological need in a priest for a sexual encounter with another male, especially an adolescent.
The Holy Father did not acknowledge the role of homosexual predation among clergy in the Pennsylvania crisis.
Cardinal Cupich also identified clericalism, not homosexual priests, as the cause of the sexual abuse crisis. Recently, the arrest of two priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago for public lewdness erodes the tag of clericalism.
In my professional opinion, in an effort to deny the role of homosexuality in the sexual abuse crisis, clericalism and availability (the John Jay Report) have been incorrectly identified as major causes. There is no psychological relationship between clericalism, availability and the sexual abuse of youth.
Both these terms manifest an attempt to cover-up the true origins of the abuse crisis.
I completely agree with Fitzgibbons that the role of homosexuality in the priesthood is a massive problem at the heart of the abuse scandal. So why did my jaw drop?
The idea that Dr. Fitzgibbons, of all people, would say that clericalism is not a major cause of the abuse crisis is staggering. In 2002, a source tipped me off that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was a molester of seminarians, and that his molestation widely known. So widely known, in fact, that when there were rumors that John Paul II was going to name McCarrick as Archbishop of Washington (and therefore to the cardinalate), a group of lay Catholics flew to Rome on their own dime to warn the Vatican not to do it. They met with officials of the Curia to tell them that McCarrick molested seminarians, and should not get the red hat.
It didn’t work, obviously.
My source named Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons as one of the Catholics who went on that trip. I phoned Fitzgibbons back then to ask him if it was true. He said:
“If that were true, I wouldn’t tell you, for the same reason Noah’s sons covered their father in his drunkenness.”
In other words, “If it were true, I wouldn’t tell you because I feel obliged to protect the dignity of a cardinal.”
That is clericalism, straight up.
I don’t know if Fitzgibbons went to Rome to report on McCarrick or not. What I do know is that he believed in 2002 that protecting a cardinal was more important than telling the ugly truth about a sexual abuser who wears a red hat.
He may still believe it. I had not been in touch with him since 2002, until the McCarrick news broke this past summer. I e-mailed him to tell him that he should come forward with what he knows. There is no one left to protect. Staying silent means complicity with evil.
I invite Rick Fitzgibbons publicly either to deny unambiguously that he went on that trip to Rome to warn about McCarrick, or to admit it and say what he knew — who he met with, what he told them, and so forth. Jesus has no need of withholding the truth to protect the guilty. It’s time for the faithful to know exactly who is responsible for McCarrick’s rise.
Again: I don’t know if Fitzgibbons went on that trip, and I don’t know the full list of names. But I do know this: if those people had come forward in 2002, when the scandal was breaking nationwide, and said what they knew about McCarrick’s corruption, the Church would have been forced to deal with it then, and would not be going through these even worse agonies today.
Their silence protected a dirty old man who ought not to have been protected. And now it has caused far more damage to the Church’s reputation than it would have done had it come out in 2002. You say clericalism is not a major factor in the abuse crisis? Yes, it is — and Rick Fitzgibbons knows it better than most.
UPDATE: Rick Fitzgibbons comments below, and I answer:
Yes, I know, everyone wants to read the news of the conflict in the Church, but this post is about peace in the Church, among those who share a common confession in Jesus Christ. That is the more important part of my trip here. The greatest blessing of these European book tours has been to meet other Christians who, even if they don’t share all my beliefs about the Benedict Option, do share a common faith in God.
Above is Eduard Habsburg, the Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See, and a Twitter friend. “Next time you’re in Rome, look me up,” he once said. So, I did. We spent a wonderful long morning yesterday in the embassy, talking about the Benedict Option, and, believe it or not, our families. Of all the things he is — an ambassador, a Habsburg, and so forth — it’s clear that the identity that is most important to Eduard Habsburg is “Catholic father.” It was a joy to see him with his kids, and to see the clear love that passes among that family. A happy family is a blessing to everyone. Eduard said at one point that he believes the future of the Church in Europe will be very hard, but that it will depend heavily on happy Catholic families.
Here is Archbishop Zuppi of Bologna, with whom I had a public discussion last night in Bologna. He was kind enough not to point out that I had a piece of escarole on my teeth:
Mons. Zuppi was every bit as gentle as they said he would be. I was told in advance that Zuppi, who is a theological progressive, faced heavy criticism from some progressive Catholics for agreeing to meet me. But he did it anyway, saying he had nothing to fear from dialogue. I was very grateful to him for that, and though I am sure we have significant disagreements, it was good to spend time with this Christian brother.
This is Gabriella, whose last name I don’t know. She was my translator in Bologna. She is a superhero. The event was very difficult for me, but she made it as seamless as possible. Difficult, because I had a clip in my ear in which she was doing simultaneous translation for me of Mons. Zuppi’s Italian comments into English, and — get this — when I spoke, she translated me simultaneously into Italian for the audience, over the loudspeaker. For me, that was really hard, trying to filter out the voice of the Italian woman booming over the loudspeaker, and focus on my words. If I sounded distracted at times, this is why. But Gabriella helped me through this exercise with great gusto and kindness. I am in her debt.
Several kind people came up to me afterward and asked me to sign their copies of L’Opzione Benedetto. One young man, a teacher, said, “When I read this, I knew that I wasn’t alone.” Here are the Ferraresis, from Modena, the parents of the US-based Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi. They brought me a bottle of authentic balsamic vinegar of Modena that they made themselves. Can you believe? This is so precious to me, given how much I love to cook. I told the Ferraresis that their son, who is a friend of mine, is a good man.
“Thank you,” said Mr. Ferraresi, with a twinkle in his eye, “but we hope he is a good Christian.” Perfetto!
What a country, Italy! What a people! Glory to God for them all. I am about to go to Comacchio, to meet with the Tipi Loschi and friends. I’ll report back.