Column: Status Ecclesiae

Restoring Credibility

By John Mallon

Inside the Vatican, May 2004

With the release of The Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States, by the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, it is clear that the American bishops have a long way to go to restore their moral credibility. The scandals of 2002 came as a sad confirmation to many of America's most loyal Catholics—those who have come to be known as "orthodox" Catholics. Orthodox Catholics are those who in normal circumstances would be non-hyphenated Catholics, but the prevalence of dissent in the Western Church has necessitated this distinction. They are the Catholics who love the teachings of their Church, love Vatican II, love their bishops and love their priests; but who have been rebuffed and even ridiculed over the past 40 years when they voiced their concerns over abuses in preaching and teaching the faith.

For many orthodox Catholics the scandals of 2002 proved to be a watershed. The thinking was, "My God. For decades I labored under the impression that if I could only bring to the attention of the bishop the abuses in the Church (in liturgy, theology departments, RCIA programs, adult education, Catholic hospitals, parishes, chancery offices) he would do something about it. Now I find that children were molested, he knew, and didn't stop it. Why should I expect him to do anything about dissent?" 

The reluctance, refusal or curious inability of many bishops to exercise their God-given authority in these matters has the orthodox laity utterly baffled. It is not a matter of being harsh, but of exercising what Dietrich von Hildebrand called "The Charitable Anathema." No one wants a "harsh rigidity"—which is not orthodoxy—but we find ourselves in the throes of its opposite: moral chaos resulting from doctrinal laxity. 

In the aftermath of the scandals, many laity have begun to wonder if their bishops are vulnerable to blackmail because of their failure to act in the face of so many abuses. It is simply inexplicable to them. 

Still others think the bishop simply doesn't care.

Some will dispute this—as they did evidence of child abuse—but dissent, as it has entered the everyday life of the Church may be every bit as harmful as sexual abuse because it is a spiritual abuse. It is simply more subtle. Consider the effect of a theology professor scoffing at the Church's moral teachings on sexuality in front of a classroom of students at the height of their sexual powers and attractiveness, eager to find any excuse possible to give in to their urges—or seeking the love and encouragement not to.

Yet, Ex Corde Ecclesiae was greeted with howls as if theologians were being oppressed. In fact, the bishop leading the committee of U.S. bishops on implementing the document made the statement that "the bishop's staff is the staff of a shepherd, not a club." One wonders if that bishop believes in wolves, and how real shepherds used that staff when the wolves showed up. The statement also implies that the errant theologians were the sheep needing protection, while the vulnerable students were apparently forgotten in the equation. 

In an age of AIDS and abortion to be dismissive of Catholic sexual teachings when charged with teaching them to young people is not "academic freedom" it is a lie, grossly irresponsible and criminal negligence. The revelations of 2002 have given a whole new meaning to "wolves in sheep's clothing"—wolves in shepherd's clothing. Or in theologian's clothing.

Still, after ten years of foot-dragging the eventual implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae remains toothless with reports of bishops giving out mandata in blanket fashion without requiring any Oath of Fidelity.

Those who have voiced their concerns to their bishops over dissent and its effects on their children have, more often than not, been treated the same way as those complaining of sexual abuse—dismissively—and when they are persistent, as cranks or pests.

Meanwhile, those of dissident sympathies are given positions of responsibility and honor. Worse, when bishops seek advice and counsel they turn to dissenters. For example, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, editor of Commonweal, and Scott Appleby, a historian from the University of Notre Dame, were selected to address the body of bishops at the famous Dallas meeting of 2002 where the crisis was being addressed. 

Whatever qualities these people may have they Both have long been associated with dissenting movements. Why would the bishops choose to sit at their feet listening while the world looks on? In an article available on the Internet, James Hitchcock, one of the most astute observers of the U.S. Church said, "Appleby bluntly told the bishops to ignore the Holy See in dealing with their problems."

Are dissenters more credible in the minds of U.S. bishops? Why not choose, for example, George Weigel or Mary Ann Glendon to address them? Both are American lay people lauded and respected by the Holy Father himself. Why dissenters? Are orthodox thinkers disqualified? What message does it send? Do the bishops believe dissent holds the key to solving sexual abuse in the Church? Many people more credibly believe dissent is responsible for it.

Hitchcock says, "Appleby, without explanation, talked about a gulf between bishops and laity dating back thirty-four years, an obvious reference to the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the prohibition on birth control, as though that prohibition somehow prepared the way for pedophilia or as though permitting birth control would have prevented it." (James Hitchcock, “Policy Equals People: Why the American Church can’t change”

When I was an editor of a diocesan newspaper, my bishop came to me and said the priests wanted more "balance" in the paper, more of other "points of view" —more dissenting views—They objected to my publishing short papal documents and explaining Magisterial teaching. I replied to the bishop that I wasn't interested in "points of view" but the truth of Catholic teaching which I knew the people were hungry for. One could find opposing views to Catholicism everywhere in the secular media, ad nauseam. Besides, I said, the truth is not balanced by error, the truth is in balance all by itself. It is error which introduces the imbalance. 

Among my theologically-trained lay colleagues the attitude has sadly emerged that if you are orthodox and work for a bishop you will either be compromised or traumatized. Some bishops have developed a rueful reputation for being "personally orthodox but..." an expression likening them to Catholic politicians who claim to be "personally opposed to abortion, but..." when they are unable to control their dissident priests and nuns. 

A retired bishop once acknowledged to me it was possible for a dissident clergy to hold the bishop hostage. This is incomprehensible to the lay person who does what the boss says or gets fired. The solution seems simple for the bishop to say, when all reasoning has failed: "Either do as I say or I'm pulling your faculties. Give me the keys and go get a job. If I have to say all your parish Masses myself I will not have this insubordination. It is harming my people."

While things are improving with a new generation of priests who entered the seminary—and miraculously emerged from it—enthused over the Church and her teachings, it cannot be denied that dissent has ruled for the past 35 years in the Church in North America and Europe. Orthodox seminarians have told me they survived the feminism, homosexuality and dissent in the seminary by "submarining it," that is, keeping a low profile and never letting on that they supported the Magisterium until they were ordained. Otherwise they couldn't have gotten through.

How credibility can be restored:

On many fronts the world mocks Catholics for not standing by our principles. Christians will always be mocked, as our Lord was, but in sticking to principle we will at least be respected. Here are a few steps, respectfully offered, whereby the U.S. bishops could restore credibility.

• Enforce Ex Corde Ecclesiae. To the letter. Some tried to have its requirements waived in the United States when in fact the U.S. was where it was most needed and probably among the places the Holy Father had in mind in writing it. "American exceptionalism" would be a travesty in this case.

• Abandon the practice of "shepherding by committee" especially when committee members have agendas other than that of Christ. Christ ordained apostles, not groups of bureaucrats.

• Follow the lead of Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, and others, in barring pro-abortion Catholic politicians from Communion. If the political party currently championing the Culture of Death regains the White House it will be an unmitigated disaster, as abortion and contraception resume flowing out of the United Nations to the developing world on American tax dollars. It is a matter of witness.

• Follow the lead of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, in 1996 in proclaiming that those belonging to groups openly hostile to the Church such as "Call to Action" or "Catholic For a Free Choice" had a given amount of time to break those alliances before incurring excommunication. It is a matter of witness.

• Make the teaching of Humanae Vitae and Natural Family Planning a top priority in the diocese and in every parish requiring it in all marriage preparation programs taught by people who embrace and live it. The abortion problem is one and the same with contraception. They are two sides of the same coin. Contraception is the proven gateway to abortion. The problem of "homosexual unions" is also the result of separating the marital act from procreation. It is a matter of witness.

• Require the Oath of Fidelity of anyone and everyone, religious or lay, in a responsible position in the Church. There is no reason for any Catholic unwilling to take that oath proudly, eagerly and considering it a privilege to do so, to be receiving a paycheck from the Catholic Church. It is a matter of witness.

• Do not, in response to the crisis, implement outrageous programs like the infamous "Talking About Touching" program developed by the Church's sworn enemies, just to show that something has been done. When listening to the laity, listen to the parents—the faithful orthodox parents—not the sexual ideologues. This too is a matter of witness.

I have heard every argument, including from various bishops, about why the above suggestions would not work. I remain unpersuaded. Some may fear that actions like these will "turn people off" to the Church, but evidence shows the opposite is the case. 

When Bishop Bruskewitz made his pronouncement on dissident groups, his office was so filled with bouquets of flowers he could not get into it. 

It is not hyperbole when the Holy Father reminds all Catholics and especially bishops to be prepared for martyrdom. We have been spared thus far, but we cannot expect that to continue as Catholic principles continue to trampled underfoot as they have been—within the Church—for the past 35 years.


Mallon is Contributing Editor for Inside the Vatican