Jeremiah Was A Downer
Responding responsibly to today’s crisis also means not fouling our own nest by denying all the good things that are underway in U.S. Catholicism, the living parts of which have embraced the New Evangelization and rejected Catholic Lite as an evangelical strategy. Shrill voices venting ideological spleen by decrying the entire American Catholic scene are demoralizing; they may unwittingly give the Evil One cheap victories. Truly righteous anger is focused anger, not online click-bait.
To which a friend snarks:
“So why doesn’t Jeremiah write about all the good things going on in Israel? His shrill clickbaity denunciations sure give easy victories to the Evil One.”
Why is it “ventilating ideological spleen” for Catholics to cry to heaven for justice and reform, in the face of an episcopate that has allowed this cancer to metastasize in the Church? That’s outrageous. This column is the equivalent of saying, “On the other hand, Mrs. Kennedy, you have to admit that Dallas has a lot going for it.”
I got the same kind of line from Richard John Neuhaus back in 2002, when he would phone me at National Review and order me to calm down and quit writing so angrily about the bishops’ corruption. I was undermining the bishops’ authority, he would say. He told me that I was putting at risk the Church’s ability to govern itself. And so forth. Mind you, I had a lot of admiration for Father Neuhaus, but what became very clear to me, very quickly, was that he saw the scandal through the eyes of the institution, and only that.
I got to know Damon Linker that spring. He was at the time editor of First Things; his epic falling-out with Neuhaus would come later. He phoned me and asked me to have lunch with him. I’d never met him, and took the opportunity. Over the meal, he told me he was having a terrible time at the magazine over the scandal. He said that as a Catholic father, it was killing him to sit there in editorial board meetings and listen to Neuhaus and others talk about the scandal as if the laity and their children were marginal figures. I figured that this is what happens when your world is that of cardinals, bishops, eminent theologians and other intellectuals. You forget about the mom and dad in the suburbs, struggling to raise Catholic kids.
It’s hard to think about the New Evangelization when you are confronted with the fact that an archbishop made it all the way to the rank of cardinal — and indeed became arguably the most powerful American cardinal — even though it was widely known within Church circles that he sexually harassed seminarians. I don’t know George Weigel — I met him once, but that’s it — but I find it impossible to believe that he had no knowledge of McCarrick’s corruption. What did he do with that knowledge? Is there any American Catholic layman who could more easily have doors opened for him in the Vatican than the biographer of John Paul II? Assuming that he knew about McCarrick, did he ever try to pressure Rome on the McCarrick case? If not, why not? If he knew about McCarrick, and knew that Rome was not going to act against him, why did he stay silent?
People like Neuhaus and Weigel were and are institutionalists to the core. I get that, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be. Any reform movement needs both insiders and outsiders working together for the common good. It’s certainly fair to ask, though: what good has the “focused anger” that George Weigel demands of the Catholic laity done to reform the sexual corruption within the Catholic clergy and episcopate? I’m not asking in a trolling way. Again, in our time, it’s hard to think of a more influential American layman within the institutions of Catholic power than George Weigel. Whatever he was doing quietly to clean up the mess was not working.
Who is he to tell laity infuriated by the scandal that it is their anger, and not the failures of the bishops and the leadership elites in the Church, that is “fouling the nest”? How out of touch can you be? If saying “dammit, we are sick and tired of bishops covering up for these perverts, including each other, and lying to us about it, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore” is a manifestation of “ideology,” well, then, that flawed way of trying to face up to the actual crisis in the Church and force change is preferable to whatever it was that Weigel has been doing all this time.
In his First Things piece today, Weigel writes:
Denying the reality of intrinsically evil acts helped create a dynamic of license in which abusive clergy gave themselves passes on other issues. Authentic reform now means restoring the moral foundations of Catholicism. Thus it is imperative that both Rome and the U.S. bishops reaffirm the reality of intrinsically evil acts as taught by the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
Seriously? This is sterile intellectualism. Nobody needs to see the Bishop of Rome or any other bishop raise their hands and say that buggering boys is intrinsically evil. People need to see bishops and even cardinals losing their jobs and going off to monasteries to live the rest of their lives in prayer and penance. For starters.
That will almost certainly mean responsible laity helping good bishops call their less-than-effective or less-than-honest brother-bishops to their duty when necessary. Bishops should welcome such help, not resist it; lay Catholics must understand that bishops are the bottom line of Church governance.
“Less-than-effective or less-than-honest brother-bishops”? Why is it so hard to speak bluntly? Who talks with such punch-pulling delicacy in the face of these new outrages? Well, Cardinal Wuerl, for one, who at around the 1:30 mark in his recent marshmallowy interview with Father Rosica, characterized the McCarrick scandal as an example of “when a bishop isn’t as faithful as he needs to be.”
The house is on fire, and these guys are talking about what procedures we should follow when the roof isn’t as cool as it needs to be. Unbelievable. What is it going to take?
UPDATE: Catholic journalist Phil Lawler says that most of the post-Pennsylvania statements by bishops have been good, but at this late date, pointless. Lawler violates the spirit of High Weigelism with this post. Excerpt:
Unfortunately we have heard the apologies and the promises before. The time for strongly worded statements has passed. It is time for action. Urgent action.
Last week a young Catholic woman asked me what our bishops are likely to do. “They’ll meet in November,” I began— and she interrupted with a shout: “In November??!!” She could not believe that, in the midst of this crisis, Church leaders would be content to wait several weeks before doing… anything. I share her frustration. I think Ezekiel shares it, too.
I said above that the time for statements has passed, but that was a slight exaggeration. There are two sorts of statements that a bishop could issue to catch my attention and earn my respect:
- “I recognize that I have betrayed my people and irreparably damaged my credibility as a pastor of souls and a teacher of the faith. I resign.”
- “I have done my best, despite my failings, to fulfill my episcopal duties. But my colleagues, [here supply names], have betrayed their people and irreparably damaged their credibility as pastors of souls and teachers of the faith. I call upon them to resign.
New statements, new policies, new committees, new procedures cannot resolve this problem. If our bishops cannot institute serious reform, then we need new bishops.
UPDATE.2: Erin Manning knocks it out of the park:
“The house is on fire, and these guys are talking about what procedures we should follow when the roof isn’t as cool as it needs to be.”
Not only that, but these are the talking points my fellow Catholics and I are hearing:
1. The house has been on fire before. God always helps us salvage the important stuff so we can rebuild, so what is everyone so worried about?
2. Yes, the roof isn’t as cool as it needs to be. But we shouldn’t point fingers of blame at the priests who set the fires or the bishops who sheltered them without considering the roofers, or the maintenance people, or the people in charge of checking on the roof. After all, we’re all sinners. The people living in the basement and hoping to see daylight someday in spite of all this thick, heavy smoke are just as guilty as the clerics in the penthouses, so we should all fast and pray for a cooler roof.
3. We used to have lots of blazing roof situations. But thanks to our policies and procedures, the roof hardly ever heats up anymore, even when the house is on fire. And can we just agree that “on fire” isn’t the most charitable of terms? The house is facing a mild conflagration challenge, an opportunity to consider our own sins of inflammation.
4. There have always been some priests who, despite everything we’ve done, will be drawn to the sin of arson. We need to have compassion for them, even if we have to ignore the victims as we crawl over the charred bodies of the people who have gotten caught in their unfortunate flames. We should pray for their repentance. Meanwhile, Bishop XYZZY admits that his decades-long strategy of pressuring the fire department to ignore the arson events, of paying out hush money to the burned, and of moving the arsonist from the smoking ruins of one part of the building to another, intact part to give him a fresh start may not have been the best policy. But Bishop XYZZY should not be blamed for this! How could he possibly have guessed that moving Father Flammable from his old wing in the building to the wing that housed the antique weapons, fireworks and gunpowder was a bad idea? Nobody could possibly have guessed that that was a bad move.
5. As everybody knows, when a house is on fire only the weak and treacherous will run outside or shout “Fire!” loudly enough for anybody outside to hear. That shows a terrible lack of trust in the bishops, who are confident that the roof can be cooled without anybody even bothering to extinguish the fire. If the largest fires are contained, it doesn’t really matter if a small fire starts here or there so long as it’s only the lay people’s quarters that end up smoky or damaged. The important thing is to keep the roof cool! The bishops are the ones who sleep immediately below it, and it’s really, really necessary for the well-being of all of the People of God that they sleep well, and are not inconvenienced by hot roofs.
We thought the coverups were over. Then the Pennsylvania grand jury revealed the most skilled conspirator turns out to be Wuerl, who managed his nondisclosure agreements with victims and his predators, according to the report, so well that he got promoted to be the face of the church in the most powerful city in the world. And his boss in Rome wrote a pablum-filled letter on Monday assigning collective responsibility for the crimes and the coverups to everyone.
To be very specific: To hell with that. I didn’t abuse my CCD students (mandatory Saturday or weeknight classes for students attending public schools) when I taught them as a volunteer in the ’80s. I didn’t have a single abusive priest or nun in 12 years of Catholic education. This horror has ownership, and the deed’s many names include Wuerl. And with Monday’s “everybody is to blame” mea non-culpa from Pope Francis, his name is on it too. Wuerl needs to resign. And the church would be better off with two retired popes and a new man absolutely dedicated to supporting the reformers, not suppressing them.