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Confronting Jelly-Spined Bishops

Time for angry Catholic laity to read the riot act to the cowardly episcopate

If you’re looking for a great, well-informed, highly readable critical summary of the Catholic Church crisis, you need to pick up journalist Phil Lawler’s new book, The Smoke Of Satan: How Cowardly Bishops Betrayed Christ, His Church, and the Faithful … And What Can Be Done About It. 

(For those not in the know, the title phrase refers to something Paul VI said in 1972, after the Second Vatican Council — that it seemed to him that “the smoke of Satan” had entered the Catholic Church of that era.)

Here’s a passage condemning “habits” that have “taken deep root within clerical culture”:

One such habit, regrettably quite common in the institutional Church, was and still is the tendency to ignore problems, to dodge responsibility, to pass the buck. Pastors, including bishops, had, over time, developed a penchant for the see-no-evil approach. If they could pretend that a problem did not exist, then they could make excuses for their failure to address that problem: their failure to exercise genuine spiritual leadership. Tragically, those bad habits of the episcopate and clergy were not eliminated.

An analogy is in order here. What would you think of a father who, when he saw signs that his children were headed for trouble, scurried to ensure that he would not be blamed? Suppose he noticed that his teenage son was regularly coming home at night with alcohol on his breath, and he reacted by writing a neat little essay for the local newspaper about the perils of underage drinking. Would you say that father had discharged his parental duties? Would you say that he had shown his love for his won? Of course not!

Pastors, too, have parental duties. A priest acts toward his people as a spiritual father. (Catholics give priests the title, “Father,” in recognition of that special relationship.) The pastor’s task is to care for souls, not to preserve appearances. But in the Church today, the desire to maintain appearances without taking effective action—seeking only what might be described as a sort of ritual purity— too often impels clerics to ignore signs of trouble: to turn a blind eye to obvious difficulties, to sweep problems under rugs, in order to avoid unpleasantness and maintain an untroubled façade.

Lawler, whose Catholicism is unquestionably orthodox, says that John Paul II and Benedict XVI also did this. More:

If Church leaders are prone to overlooking current problems, they are equally likely to downplay past failures. Despite the grave losses that Catholicism has suffered during the past 50 years—the thousands who have left the Church, the families that have broken apart, the priests and religious who have forsaken their vows, the parishes and schools that have been closed—bishops remain reluctant to calculate the total damages and identify the root causes of the disaster.

… But there has never been an honest effort by the hierarchy to make an accounting of what has happened to the Church in the past 50 years.  Instead there has been a concerted effort to ignore the evidence of a spectacular pastoral failure. Mass attendance has plummeted; tens of thousands of priests and religious have abandoned their vocations; the Eucharistic liturgy has become a source of division rather than unity; religious education has been “dumbed down” to the point that few young Catholics can name the Ten Commandments or the seven sacraments; lapsed Catholics now represent the fastest-growing religious cohort in the United States. Still Church leaders speak of “vibrant” communities, placidly ignoring the overwhelming evidence of an unmitigated disaster.

Lawler cuts loose, saying up front and without apology what a lot of orthodox Catholics believe but have been reticent to articulate. He calls the episcopal class traitors. Yes, it’s right there in the title, but he doesn’t mess around in the text, either. If you’re Catholic, or if you simply want to know how the Catholic Church got into this mess, I cannot urge you strongly enough to read Phil Lawler’s powerful, punchy book. It is by far the best guide to this crisis moment in the life of the Catholic Church.

One glaring problem in the Church that the bishops cannot find the courage to face directly is the homosexualization of the priesthood. Father Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest who recently retired as a Catholic University of America sociology professor, recently released a report on clerical homosexuality and its connection to the abuse scandal. National Catholic Register did an interview with him, excerpts of which are here:

It is probably safe to say that your report is going to spark some controversy. Why do you feel that this type of study is so long overdue?

There is a widespread denial of any possible negative effects of homosexual activity or any findings that might not be benign for homosexual persons in the scholarly realm. And I think that, to some extent, that’s true for the scholarly work that’s been done on Catholic clergy sex abuse. There’s not been a willingness to confront the evidence on this topic, and I don’t know if I want to speculate further than that.

Do we have clerics who just don’t want to see or don’t want to know that we may have embedded homosexual activity among priests that’s wreaking harm in some ways to the Church? That may be the case. We have found in the last six months that there’s a possibility that bishops have not pursued a wide knowledge on this topic.

Some have called it a cover-up. There’s evidence that there’s a lack of energy or interest in finding out the relation of homosexuality to this activity. I don’t know if I would call it a cover-up. I may have used the word “cover-up” in the paper just to go along with the common term, but it may be if there’s a cover-up that it’s also extended to releasing data about the sex abuse and in authorizing folks to look at it. For example, in the data release to the John Jay Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice — which, by the way, did two wonderful reports on abuse with a lot of very helpful information — the data that the bishops released to them, the diocese was de-identified. They were not able to tell in what diocese the instances of abuse occurred.

If you don’t want to know the answer, you train yourself not to ask the question. More:

It’s almost axiomatic among a number of very prominent figures in the Church that there is no correlation, and they cite the John Jay Report. And then we can add to that anyone who tries to investigate that type of a correlation is often accused of either scapegoating homosexual priests or of outright homophobia. What is your response to that?

I’ve been called homophobic and hateful before for studying these kinds of things. I would say that if it’s a choice between being called homophobic and allowing more young boys to be abused, I would choose to be at risk for being called homophobic.

The question is: Are we on the side of abusers? Are we on the side of victims? I think that the words of Our Lord about the importance of young children and the horribleness of those who would lead such young children astray in my mind outweigh anything that someone could call me. I’m not hateful toward anyone, to my knowledge. … I don’t think that these results in any way imply that homosexual persons are natively inclined or internally inclined to commit abuse at a greater rate than heterosexual persons.

In fact, we know that that’s not the case. Most child abuse that happens in most settings is perpetrated by heterosexual males. It usually in families, and so I don’t think that in any way we can infer these results to something that generally happens with homosexual persons.

I do look at the influence of these homosexual subcultures in seminaries, in encouraging and promoting abuse. And I find that it explains about half of the high correlation of the abuse with the percentage of homosexual priests. So something was going on beyond just mere sexual orientation to encourage this horrible immoral activity that has wrought such harm to so many victims.

My experience in studying homosexuals has been this: that to people who hate the truth, the truth looks like hate.

You mentioned in your research that there is this presence of a homosexual subculture in a lot of U.S. seminaries. And as you’ve also noted, that the John Jay Report was unable to identify specifically which seminaries were particular problem areas for that, what needs to be done in your view with respect to seminaries in order to address this problem, especially given the high likelihood — as we are seeing globally in places like Honduras and elsewhere — that this is an ongoing problem that has yet to be resolved?

Well, the first thing that needs to be done is to stop the denial. We need to recognize that there’s a problem. And the idea that we want to keep from acknowledging that homosexual activity in seminaries or in the priesthood might be related to these kind of harms is really an important first step. The impulse that we don’t want to say anything that might stigmatize homosexual persons is an understandable one. But it has to be weighed against the potential for greater harm for these victims. How many times do we want to go around this block again and keep denying what is becoming increasingly obvious, and taking steps to address it?

Read the whole thing. Father Sullins concludes by saying that:

… generally speaking, the bishops, as a group, cannot be trusted to solve this problem at this point, and that other folks, I think, might be more reliable and more clear about what to do.

The bishops never could be trusted to solve this problem. I told one of them back in 2002 that I wrote the things I did (which offended him) because I didn’t trust the bishops to solve this problem, given that they’ve known all about it since at least 1985, when each of them received a copy of the Doyle-Mouton Report. He told me that if I didn’t trust the bishops, then he didn’t understand why I was still a Catholic — a very revealing remark!

The bishops may be untrustworthy, but they are the only ones with the power to solve the problem. Which is why they need to feel maximal pressure from the laity. Writing in First Things today, Jayd Hendricks, formerly a senior lay bureaucrat within the USCCB, lays it on the line for the bishops in advance of their national meeting. He writes with a courtliness that verges on the obsequious, but my guess is that he knows these men, and probably takes this tone because a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. He writes, in part:

As a former Church bureaucrat, I understand the instinct to do whatever Rome asks. I implore you, nonetheless, to state publicly what most of you know needs to be done so that the corruption within the Church is brought into the light and eradicated. Only if the evil is exposed can the Church be healed. If you do not pursue this course, the faithful will blame you for the next scandal, which is sure to come, and their distrust will surpass that of the present moment. The result will be that more parishes and schools will close, and less charitable work will be available to the poor and the marginalized. Most damaging of all, fewer people will avail themselves of the grace of the sacraments. The losses will be eternal.

In a few days, you will gather in Baltimore for another General Assembly. If you, as a body of bishops, forthrightly speak to the crisis and demand an open investigation—as Cardinal DiNardo did immediately following the news of McCarrick’s crimes—then you will begin to regain the trust of the faithful.

Allow me also to say as a father that my children need strong ecclesial leadership as they face the strengthening winds of secularism. My wife and I are ardently attempting to hand on to them the faith of the Church. We must and will do more to secure their faith, but without your witness of standing up to misguided ecclesiastical powers, without your fatherly care for the Church and the faithful, I cannot point to Church leadership as a model for their faith. The present moment may not be unique in the life of the Church, but it is unique in my lifetime. I am concerned that the Church’s credibility is being undermined and that those I should most trust to proclaim the Gospel, witness to the faith, and rid the Church of evil may fail to act.

I beg you not to allow fear to rule the day. Please govern as fathers, stay true to Jesus Christ, and proclaim the truth, in season and out of season, regardless of the cost.

This reminds me of one of the most admirable and human responses I’ve ever seen from a layperson, in response to weak-willed bishops. The respondent happens to have been my wife Julie. I’ve told this story here before, but it bears repeating, because it’s exactly the kind of hot, focused anger that fed-up Catholic moms and dads need to make their bishops feel.

Seven or eight years ago, when news got out that the Orthodox Church in America had reassigned sexually untrustworthy clergy that had no business working in parishes, my wife hit the ceiling. She got on a train in Philadelphia, went down to Washington, took a taxi to the front door of the Metropolitan’s residence, was received by him … and proceeded to read him the riot act over it. She told him (by her account, and by his own) that we had lived through this bullshit in the Catholic Church, and it had destroyed our faith. We were not going to let it happen again, not if we had anything to do with it. She told him that there are hundreds, even thousands, of Orthodox mothers like her, who are working hard to raise children in the faith. The bishops ought to be on their side, not on the side of poor, oh-so-pitiful pervert priests.

Then she walked out, went back to the train station, and headed back to Philly. I picked her up downtown after midnight. I was so proud! The metropolitan reversed his policy after that. I don’t know how long it lasted, if it lasted. He didn’t last, alas. Point is, the spines-of-gelatin problem in the episcopal class is by no means limited to the Roman church. Where are the men who fear God more than they fear unpleasant conflict?

It’s never too late to man up and do the right thing. 

Relics of the backbones of contemporary bishops (synchR/Shutterstock)



Here’s a link to the transcript of that 2002 interview. Excerpt:

[McCarrick]: … One of the problems is that most of us thought we were in charge of it seven years ago. Around 1995, when we had problems here in Washington, we went through all the trauma, and we had all our ducks in line; we thought we were fine. And then we found out that some dioceses were not there. Well, we can’t let that happen now. There have to be national standards that every diocese has to accept. We all look to end this, for the sake of the victims, for the sake of the church, the sake of our people.

He was a liar and a fraud then, and he knew that he was a liar and a fraud. A number of bishops knew that McCarrick was a liar and a fraud at the time. I knew it too, but couldn’t report it because none of my sources would go on the record. No bishops called him out.

More from that interview:

Q: Do cardinals’ opinions about how to handle abusive priests differ?

A: Basically, when the Holy Father spoke to us and said that there is no place in the priesthood for anyone who would harm a child or a young person, I think that became the mantra for all of us. From what the Holy Father has said, and from just common sense, with regard to looking at this prospectively, from now on, anyone who would do anything like this would obviously be saying, “I don’t want to be a priest anymore.” If after all we’ve gone through, someone would still violate the kind of relationship we need with children, with young people, that person should be out of the ministry immediately. So looking forward, I think there is no difference of opinion among the cardinals. Or among the bishops. Everyone I’ve spoken to feels anyone who would do this now — after we’ve passed through all this — is either sick, therefore should not be a priest, or defiant, and therefore should not be in the ministry.

So that was Cardinal McCarrick, a moral monster. You want to know why so many Catholic laity distrust the bishops? Re-read that McCarrick interview in light of what we know now. Understand that McCarrick knew he was lying, and that more than a few people, including bishops, knew he was lying.

UPDATE.2: Oh my, what an atomic blast against the bishops from the Catholic Left (a National Catholic Reporter editorial). Some of this I don’t buy, but mostly, it’s solid, and utterly unsparing. A clip:

The point beyond dispute is that we are at a moment in U.S. church history — and perhaps in the history of the global church — without precedent. This is not about debatable matters — celibacy or the filioque clause, or the primacy of Scripture or whether the Earth is the center of the universe or whether women should be allowed ordination or any of the hot button issues that have kept us roiling and at each others’ throats these past decades. This, instead, is about a rot at the heart of the culture entrusted with leadership of the Catholic community. A rot so pervasive that it has touched every aspect of the community’s life, disrupting all of the certainties and presumptions about who we are and who you are that helped hold this community together.