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 Volume 1.8  This View’s Column April 1, 2002 


Wolves in Shepherd’s Clothing

Perfidious Priests and What Must Be Done About Them (Part Four)


“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do. Then the word of the Lord came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will repent of the evil that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will repent of the good which I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: “Thus says the Lord, Behold, I am shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Return, every one from his evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”’” (Jeremiah 18:1-12 RSV)

Some Spots of High Ground in the Morass

The news, which I have been reviewing extensively, is not all bad.

I mentioned last time how Archbishop Elden Curtiss, of Omaha, wrote scolding letters to two parishioners of the archdiocese, after each had written to a local secular newspaper criticizing how the archbishop had handled two cases of clerical misbehavior. I was happy to learn that Curtiss has since apologized to the two, as reported in the Omaha World-Herald, Mar. 25:

Archbishop Elden Curtiss announced Monday [Mar. 25] that he is apologizing for his written rebukes of two Roman Catholic parishioners who publicly criticized his decision to reassign a priest who had viewed Internet child pornography. “I am sorry that my previous letter to you was interpreted as being demeaning or even insulting,” Curtiss wrote to Frank Ayers and Jeanne Bast. “I never meant it to be such.” When informed of the apology, which Curtiss said he mailed Saturday, Ayers said it was not necessary for the archbishop to apologize directly to him, “but I do definitely accept it.”

“I will continue to pray for our church leadership and for Father (Robert) Allgaier and most definitely for Archbishop Elden Curtiss in these most difficult times,” Ayers said. Bast said she is glad the archbishop wrote. “I thank him and I accept his apology,” she said, “and I will continue to pray for Father Allgaier and the church.” .... Curtiss also attempted to explain his previous letters to Ayers and Bast. He said his earlier letters expressed his private frustration that a fellow Catholic “would be so negative about the accusations leveled against a young priest without knowing all the facts of the case; and negative against me without knowing the process I was following with professional advice.”

And my own bishop, Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, has been singled out as an outstanding example of how cases of clerical sexual abuse ought to be handled, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mar. 29, which begins with a quotation from Wuerl’s homily at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, the previous day:

“What has led us to where we are today in the scandal around a number of priests who have abused minors is not so much the abhorrence of the moral failure itself but, added to it, the sense of failure on the part of church leadership to respond adequately to this sin, which is also a crime.” Wuerl did not speak of his own track record, which is widely regarded as one of the best. A current editorial in the Jesuit magazine America, which urged the bishops to make a public act of penance, singled Wuerl out for his refusal to reinstate a pedophile when the Vatican’s highest court ordered him to do so in 1993. Wuerl has said that he has never knowingly returned a child molester to ministry.

Yesterday, however, he tried to explain that bishops who returned child molesters to parishes years ago did not act out of malice. Twenty years ago society did not recognize that the desire for sexual contact with minors was a psychological compulsion, so bishops treated it as they would any other moral problem requiring repentance and forgiveness, Wuerl said. He continued that his own perspective on the issue changed during his first months as bishop, when he met the young victims of three priests, their parents and the traumatized people of the parishes where the abuse had taken place. “While a bishop must consult with his staff representing many disciplines, legal, financial, canonical and pastoral, he must always respond as a pastor. ... The first obligation of a pastor is the care of those entrusted to his care.”

Wuerl is not the only bishop who has dealt appropriately with these situations, acting primarily as a pastor of both clergy and laity. Of course not. But, as in every other area of life, those who have botched up the job get the headlines: bishops and priests who serve well and faithfully don’t warrant much attention from the media, just as bad parents or physicians or police officers make the news while good parents and physicians and police officers go largely unrecognized.

I would like to single out one priest for special recognition, but unfortunately I cannot name him nor give but a few details: I cannot find the documentation that I thought I had saved. He eventually found himself physically attracted to younger people, and succumbed to the temptation several times. When he finally realized that he would never be able to trust himself around young people again, he resigned the sacred ministry and retired to live a solitary life in a lonely cabin in the woods, in reparation, and he resolved never to be alone with a teenager again. I think his case of self-aware self-sacrifice is a heroic example of courage, of which there are far too few in this whole sorry mess.

A Few Caveats

One sentence quoted above may have come as a big surprise: “A current editorial in the Jesuit magazine America, which urged the bishops to make a public act of penance, singled Wuerl out for his refusal to reinstate a pedophile when the Vatican’s highest court ordered him to do so in 1993.” After reading, for weeks, of how this or that bishop is removing this or that priest from his position because of sexual involvement with young people, one may wonder how Church courts may be involved. Does not the bishop have the right to place, or remove, a priest from a given position? Yes. And no. For priests have rights, too, and especially a priest who is a pastor.

Though the Church is not a government (in which there may be checks and balances between branches), theology, practice, and law have developed in response to varying circumstances over the centuries to hinder the abuse of autocratic authority. One of the developments is the recognition that a parish pastor has a right to a stable ministry: neither he nor his parish and parishioners is well-served if he is subject to removal willy-nilly by the bishop. (There are situations, however, in which a pastor may be appointed for a limited “term of office”.) Though a bishop may suspend a priest from exercising his ministry if he thinks there is just cause, he cannot do so indefinitely if the priest objects: there may very well be a trial, which may very well result in appeals. An entire section of the 1983 Code of Canon Law deals with The Procedure for Removal or Transfer of Parish Priests. (There are also “administrative acts” that can be employed, but I know little about them.)

Similarly, theologians who have been lawfully appointed or elected to certain positions are not necessarily subject to removal summarily by higher authority, even in the case of obvious, perhaps even deliberate, error. (My remarks earlier on the bishops’ failure to discipline theologians in the wake of the promulgation of Humanae Vitae unintentionally implied otherwise.) Again, procedures have been established over the centuries to protect the freedom of legitimate theological speculation and development. (See Canon 218.)

Indeed, one of the complaints raised by bishops at Vatican II was that, in the preceding 100 years or so, progressive theologians were sometimes silenced by Rome without a real chance to defend their positions. The pendulum, as the saying goes, has now swung too far the other way.

One of the reasons that actions against an accused priest (or theologian, for that matter) must be taken with care is that an accusation is not a conviction. Ironically, this point came up in an essay, Mar. 29, on media bias, by Dr. David Stolinsky, a retired teaching-physician who writes on social and political issues:

The same paper [the Los Angeles Times], like most papers, takes great care to refer to anyone who has not yet been convicted of a crime as an “alleged” or “accused” murderer or rapist. This wording avoids lawsuits, and more importantly, it follows the American tradition that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. So why is it that this paper began a story about child abuse in the Catholic Church with the front-page headline “Mahony Won’t Name Abusers.” Not one of these priests had been charged with a crime, much less convicted, or their names would already be a matter of public record. But those Cardinal Mahony didn’t name were not referred to as “alleged” abusers. Somehow the fear of lawsuits, and the devotion to civil liberties, were forgotten in the rush to condemn the Catholic Church — and, by extension, Christianity in general. Accused murderers and rapists in jail awaiting trial are “alleged,” but priests not formally charged with anything are “abusers.” How inconsistent. But how revealing.

Stolinsky notes, too, another peculiar aspect of reporting about the current scandal:

Also revealing is the fact that the kids allegedly abused are referred to as “victims,” “accusers,” “teens,” “youths,” and other terms that leave us to guess their sex. The word “boys” is rarely used. If the sex of the alleged victims had been reported, we could judge the truth of the claim that 90 percent of them were boys. But as it is, we can only wonder whether that claim is correct. And we can wonder whether the reluctance to report the sex of the victims is due to a reluctance to offend gays. Perhaps the 90 percent figure is incorrect. Perhaps there is no bias in favor of the gay agenda. But the incomplete reporting lends credence to our suspicions. Can’t reporters and editors see this? Or don’t they care?

(No, they can’t see it.)

Comedian Jackie Mason, with Raoul Felder, is another voice for restraint when considering accusations, in a Washington Times essay, Mar. 29:

When there is an allegation of child abuse made against a member of the clergy, logically there are but three possibilities: The allegation is true; the allegation is knowingly false and made for the possibility of financial gain; the allegation is in fact false, but the accusers believe it to be true. Yes, Virginia, believe it or not, there are people who would make false allegations for profit. To these people, the Catholic Church in America represents a seemingly bottomless pocket. Additionally, there is a perception that the church would pay off on even a false claim. With lawyers working on contingencies, it is a no-lose situation for an individual who wakes up one morning and decides he or she was abused by a priest 30 years ago....

The church should be held to no greater or lesser standard than should any citizen or other responsible entity. If there is a sexual harassment allegation by an employee against General Motors, General Motors investigates that allegation. If the harassment rises to the point where force or a criminal act is clearly involved, General Motors or any other organization in a similar situation should rightfully direct and assist the complainant in going to the criminal justice system for aid. However, for the Catholic Church, as suggested, to immediately report every complaint to the authorities, on a presumptively guilty basis, puts the accused in an impossible position, and places the church in harm’s way in terms of civil litigation, if the accusation is later determined to be unfounded. The Catholic Church is an institution that represents the core beliefs of, and is the moral compass for, tens of millions of people. It is not only unfair, it is unwise, to undermine this relationship by a response more visceral than thoughtful.

A Few Bits of Anti-Catholic Bias in Mainstream Media

Just as it would be unwise to accept at face value every accusation of priestly misconduct, so is it unwise to accept at face value every report in the mainstream media. A recent news article, and two opinion pieces, especially caught my attention.

An article in the Boston Globe, Mar. 24, reported the following:

Thomas Blanchette, another man who alleges that [Rev. Joseph E.] Birmingham molested him in the 1960s, said he approached [Cardinal Bernard] Law at Birmingham’s funeral in 1989 and told him about the abuse. Blanchette said Law silently prayed for him, but then instructed him to keep the information secret.

“He laid his hands on my head for two or three minutes,” Blanchette, who said his four brothers were also molested by Birmingham, said of Law. “And then he said this: ‘I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.’ And that just burned me big-time. ... I didn’t ask him to hear my confession. I went there to inform him.”

“I bind you by the power of the confessional....” Ooooh. It sounds so mysterious... so ominous... so awful.... I’m sure non-Catholics must be wondering what it means. Catholics must be wondering what it means, too. Because there is no such thing. It sounds, to me, like something out of the wackier fantasies of somebody like Charles Chiniquy. The Boston Globe, though, prints it without a second thought: had they investigated, just a little, they would have had to leave it out.

An essay by somebody named Johanna McGeary, in Time, Mar. 24, contains the following remarkable passage:

The Roman Catholic Church is a stern hierarchy that has always kept its deliberations secret, policed itself and issued orders from the top. An obedient priest moves up in power by keeping his head down, winning rewards for bureaucratic skills and strict orthodoxy. When Cardinals are created, they take a vow before the Pope to “keep in confidence anything that, if revealed, would cause a scandal or harm to the church.” When it came to sex abuse, the Vatican essentially told bishops, You’re on your own. But if saving the church from scandal was literally a cardinal virtue, then the bishops of America’s 194 dioceses who had direct responsibility for priestly misconduct would make it their first principle. Better by far never to let the public know.

Let’s pass by the astonishing notion that “strict orthodoxy” is required for a priest to “move up in power” in the Catholic Church in the USA. (One need read no further to understand that the writer is quite clueless.)

What caught my attention was the equally astonishing notion that a cardinal takes a vow to “keep in confidence anything that, if revealed, would cause a scandal or harm to the church.” I would not waste either McGeary’s time or mine to ask her for a citation. But I had seen that little bit of fantasy related elsewhere, too, as fact, so I thought that I should point it out.

Finally, a column by one Michael Kramer in the New York Daily News, Mar. 24, relates a quite fanciful “history” of mandatory celibacy:

Ending celibacy wouldn’t be heresy: A married priesthood was the original and traditional Catholic condition for more than 12 centuries. Until they were forced to choose between their families and the priesthood in 1139, many Catholic clerics, including 39 Popes, were married. It’s crucial to understand that embracing celibacy did not reflect some purer interpretation of God’s will. In fact, it was mostly about money. A string of worldly medieval Popes had gradually worked to impose mandatory celibacy on the priesthood to increase their political power and enrich the church’s coffers. Married priests quite naturally left their holdings to their heirs. The Popes wanted those riches for the church — and Innocent II got the job done for good when the 2nd Lateran Council ended optional celibacy in 1139.

Actually, what really is “crucial to understand” is that Kramer’s “history” is almost entirely wrong, except for names and dates. This made-up history — this fundamentally anti-Catholic history — is so commonplace, though, historian Philip Jenkins (whose book was quoted at length in Part One) published an article in the Washington Post, Mar. 31, to set the record straight:

The notion that mandatory celibacy wasn’t imposed until the 12th century, stated as “fact,” seems quite damning to the church’s insistence on the practice. If true, modern Catholics would be insisting on an innovation that has been around for less than half of the history of Christianity, one that dates to the Middle Ages, a period that enjoys a dreadful reputation in modern thought. Through guilt by association, celibacy seems to be linked in many people’s minds with such horrors as witch-burning, the Inquisition and the Crusades. Worst of all, the reasons often cited for the invention of celibacy are not even spiritual, but rather involve land rights. According to a scholarly myth widely held among historians, the church was just trying to ensure that the children of priests could not become legitimate heirs to church land. Literally, according to this story, the modern Catholic Church is keeping alive a survival of feudal times.

This pseudo-history is wrong at almost every point. Mandatory celibacy goes much further back than Medieval times, if not quite to the days of the apostles. Priestly celibacy was the usual expectation in the West by late Roman times, say the 4th century, and Medieval statements on the subject were just reasserting discipline that had collapsed temporarily in times of war and social chaos. Of course we can find married priests throughout the Middle Ages, just as we can find priests committing molestation today, but that does not mean that, in either case, they were acting with church approval.

In making this point about dates, I am not just nitpicking in the worst academic tradition. I am stressing that priestly celibacy is a product of the very early church. Just how early? It was celibate priests and monks who made the final decisions about which books were going to make up the New Testament, and which would be excluded. If, as most Christians believe, the ideas and practices of the early church carry special authority, then we should certainly rank priestly celibacy among these ancient traditions.

So if they were not defending land rights, why did successive popes try to enforce celibacy? Odd as this may seem, the main reason seems to have been the increased frequency of the Eucharist or Mass. Because of the need to focus on spiritual rather than worldly interests, married priests in the 3rd and 4th centuries were supposed to abstain from sex the night before saying Mass. As Mass became a daily ritual, this effectively demanded permanent celibacy. Out of this practical need came a whole theology of self-sacrifice. The idea of celibacy is based less on a fear of sexuality than on a deep respect for its power, and with proper training, a celibate could transform or channel this power into a source of strength. Modern psychologists would later invent the term “sublimation” for this complex process.

(Jenkins, by the way, is an Episcopalian.)

I have decided that it may be very instructive to show that historical documents demonstrate the absolute correctness of Jenkins’ assertion about the main reason for the rise of mandatory clerical celibacy. The Roman tradition of clerical continence (married clergy abstaining from sexual activity) can be traced back, demonstrably, to the end of the fourth century. Indeed, it can be traced back specifically to a decree issued by a small group of African bishops who met in council in June 398 — who themselves were merely handing on (Latin traditio) and reaffirming rules that had come to them from earlier times.

I quote from The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, by Christian Cochini, S.J. Preceding this section, Fr. Cochini relates how the decree has been explicitly cited and quoted by bishops and popes from the fifth century right through the Reformation in support of clerical celibacy:

Here then is the document that was to play such a part in the history of ecclesiastical celibacy:

“Epigonius, Bishop of the Royal Region of Bulla, says: The rule of continence and chastity had been discussed in a previous council. Let it [now] be taught with more emphasis what are the three ranks that, by virtue of their consecration, are under the same obligation of chastity, i.e., the bishop, the priest, and the deacon, and let them be instructed to keep their purity.

“Bishop Genethlius says: As was previously said, it is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e., those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavor to keep.

“The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest, and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from [conjugal intercourse] with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.”

This text is interesting in many respects. Mention is made of the clerics’ wives, and particularly, the wives of the hierarchy’s high-ranking members: bishops, priests, and deacons. Most of those — or at least a large number — were thus bound by marriage. Such men are being asked by the African synod to give up no less than all conjugal intercourse and to observe perfect chastity. Because they are ministers at the service of the divine sacraments, it is deemed that marital life would prevent them from carrying out simpliciter (in all simplicity) their intercessory function. (p. 5)

Clerical celibacy was not an invention of greedy popes in the Middle Ages. But that’s the kind of flat-out nonsense that passes for historical understanding in mainstream media. Clerical celibacy was a practical outgrowth of ecclesiastical tradition and liturgical practice going back to no later than the fourth century — to the days, indeed, when the very canon of Sacred Scripture had not yet been definitively determined.

Justice — even plain and simple honesty — demands that columnists and reporters acknowledge these historical facts, not ignore or distort them.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Support from Likely (and Not So Likely) Sources

In Part Two, I noted the following:

Am I saying that “dissent” from Catholic faith and life caused the outbreak of immoral priests in our midst? No. But there is, indeed, a very good argument to be made that confusion about Church teaching, caused by deliberate and public deception by prominent “Catholic” “theologians”, contributed to the outbreak and “justification” of immoral behavior among Catholics of all stripes.

Catholic scholar Michael Novak wrote about this in a “Good Friday meditation”, Mar. 29:

After a daily diet of sexual-abuse scandals, American Catholics came into Good Friday this year with a new way of observing Lent: mortification, shame, and the bitter herbs of public humiliation. But also with a powerful conviction that “dissent” has failed. Okay, there was a sexual revolution; okay, there is a “new morality.” Problem is, had the old morality been followed, there would be no scandals, which so many now suffer from. Child abuse comes not from celibacy nor vows of chastity. Neither women priests nor married clergy make it go away — just examine the record of churches that have gone that route....

The reason the American Church today stands accused of hypocrisy is that it has been teaching one thing (semper fidelis for two millennia), while in that deeply conflicted generation ordained during the Sixties and Seventies (hit simultaneously by Vatican II and the sexual revolution) a small but significant body of its priests including some bishops has been flagrantly violating that teaching. That traditional teaching holds that our bodies are holy, the temples of the Holy Spirit, the physical manifestation of our personalities and of the graces poured out on us through the sacraments. We are embodied souls; every part is body, every part is soul, there is no dualism here. Our persons have been anointed. Our persons are sacramental. These teachings, exemplified in the life of Christ, are the ground of Catholic thinking both about loving sexuality in marriage and about the fire that gives celibacy its beauty, the purposive struggle for purity of heart. To engage our bodies in sinful acts, which slap the face of God and pierce anew His wounds upon the cross, is a kind of blasphemy. It is a dreadful misuse of sanctified bodies, bodies united in the Eucharist with Christ’s own. These acts wound the holiness of a partner, destroy innocence, breed contempt and anger, awaken hatred for God. They are especially horrible to contemplate when they have injured the unspoiled and trusting young.

How can people who studied long and prayed hard before taking vows turn in such a direction, in some cases habitually and nearly hardened in it, with a full-scale ideology to rationalize it? How can that happen? It could not have happened without a culture of “dissent,” especially regarding the theology of the human body. Its partisans call it “dissent,” which of itself is a healthy thing within a loyal brotherhood, but in its recent American form has been a sullen, silent rebellion, a separation of the heart from the leadership of those popes that followed the greatly loved and much-misinterpreted John XXIII (d. 1963). Paul VI and John Paul II have been the butt of the progressives’ ire. “I think the Church is being governed by thugs,” one Jesuit is quoted as dismissing them. (emphasis added)

Catholic columnist Phil Brennan traces, Mar. 27, the roots of “dissent” back much further — back to the nineteenth century, in fact, and the attempt of one American priest (Isaac Thomas Hecker, founder of the Paulists) to make the Catholic faith more palatable to Americans:

The scandals rocking the Church in America today had their roots in what might be called “Heckerism,” the ideology that gave birth to political correctness in the Church — the doctrine that insists that if a tenet of theology gives offense to anyone it must be either toned down or abandoned....

Slowly, covertly, the cancer variously identified as Americanization or modernism, or simply as heresy, has eaten away at the vitals of the Catholic Church in America. The Church in America that once stood like a rock in the sea of uncertainty, corruption and immorality that is modern secular society — the Church which could claim to be the staunch guardian of the immutable principles of Christianity handed down from the Apostles — has become an instrument of confusion and doubt, a betrayer of its faithful and a haven for the worst kinds of perversion and heresy. (emphasis added)

Recall that, in Part Two, I also asked this:

If professional Catholic theologians and pastors and religious — on the Church’s payroll, at all levels — effectively compromise Catholic faith and life to the point where they are becoming indistinguishable from the prevailing secular milieu, why are these men and women not called subversive traitors and expelled?

According to Cal Thomas, a conservative Protestant columnist, Catholic author Ralph McInerny pegs the rejection by professional Catholic theologians of Humanae Vitae as the beginning of the “modern decline from Catholic orthodoxy”, which I have already identified as the time of the collapse of the “moral authority” of the Catholic bishops in the USA. As Thomas wrote in a column, Mar. 30:

McInerny dates the modern decline from Catholic orthodoxy to 1968 when liberal theologians rejected the pope’s Humanae Vitae, which restated certain boundaries for sexual expression. The “moral theologians” who rejected the document displayed an attitude, says McInerny, which was “antithetical to Christian morality.” His point, and it is a good one, is that the leaders of the Catholic Church in America (and one might also argue the same applies to many Protestant leaders) were compromised because they feared the criticism of the world more than they feared disapproval from God. The same attitude prevails in many churches today.... Too many churches abandon doctrine at the first sign of secular disapproval for fear of being called names and being rejected by the unchurched masses....

Instead of orthodoxy and discipline, some in the Catholic Church and other churches have sought the world’s approval.... What they’ve received in return is corruption in their souls and in their leadership. Too many Catholics, as well as others who call themselves Christians, think they should be able to create God in their image. Catholics want to remain Catholic while at the same time rejecting some of the basic teachings of their church. Can one be a member in good standing of the NAACP if he’s a racist? Whether the issue is divorce, or sexual expression of any and every kind, these theological lone rangers think they are God and get to decide right from wrong.... The best approach to solving the problem of a few priests who prey on minors, and theological liberalism in general, is for the Catholic Church to return to the original rulebook, Scripture, which was written and delivered for the protection and redemption of humanity, and stop listening to the siren call of the world, which is headed in another direction. (emphasis added)

This column will continue next time in The View.

ELC 2002


The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”