We may not have seen anything quite like this since Europe in the eighteenth century. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is the by now familiar circumstance where a bishop is charged with mishandling the case of a priest charged with the sexual abuse of minors some ten years ago. The bishop is said to have sent him away for treatment, was assured by experts that he was no longer a danger to minors, and appointed him pastor of a parish. The earlier allegations were not reported to civil authorities. Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma immediately declared himself outraged, saying this is precisely the kind of episcopal misbehavior that the Dallas meeting of bishops last June promised to stop. As governor, Keating is the chief law enforcement officer of the state. As head of the national review board authorized by Dallas, Keating is the chief enforcement officer of the bishops zero tolerance policy. With respect to episcopal misconduct, Frank Keating is in the curious position of being the chief executive officer of both Church and state. Thats the kind of thing we have not seen for a very long time.
In Austria it was called Josephinism, after Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who, under Enlightenment influence more radical than Gallicanism in France, basically took over the Church in order to correct abuses. The policy in Austria lasted until 1850. For two centuries, and throughout a large part of Europe, the Catholic Church engaged in a turbulent, and finally successful, struggle to secure its freedom to govern itself. That great victory was won under the banner of libertas ecclesiae . America is not Europe, and Frank Keating is not Joseph II. Observers with a sense of history and some grasp of the department of theology called ecclesiology, however, may discern interesting similarities.
The embarrassing pusillanimity of the bishops in Dallas, discussed in the last issue, is likely to produce other troubling consequences. Already lay agitations-directed by familiar dissenters who are now joined by some of the confusedly angry faithful-are newly energized in a campaign to democratize the Church along the lines of Protestant denominationalism based on congregational government. While trying to build a national movement, and doing so with some success, the epicenter of this effort is Boston, where leaders are working with the professional agitators (they consider the term a compliment) associated with the Industrial Areas Foundation, or IAF. (For a reflection on the goals and tactics of IAF, see The Uses of Confrontation, Public Square, April.)
While worried about some unanticipated repercussions, many bishops may feel gratified that the Dallas exercise in damage control, choreographed by hired public relations experts, has taken the scandal off the front pages. Not off all the front pages, to be sure. To get your mornings off to a stomach-churning start, you can click on www.poynter.org for a daily listing of scandal-related stories in papers around the country. But after Dallas it is not the story it was. For the time being. According to the count of the Boston Globe , it was the second most heavily reported story of the past year, next only to September 11 and the war on terrorism. It will almost certainly pick up again. Hundreds of civil and criminal cases go to court in the months ahead. They involve some very big defendants, such as the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which may soon challenge Massachusetts for the title of trial lawyers paradise. It continues to be more than possible that in the next year we will see a bishop or two, or more, in jail.
In the last issue, I described how the bishops, in what can only be called their fearful abdication of responsibility at Dallas, managed to sin against both mercy and justice. One reporter quipped that the headline following the Dallas meeting should have read, Bishops Do What We Told Them to Do. That, unfortunately, would have been accurate enough. Under a relentless media assault, they hastily abandoned the native language and practice of the Church of Christ for the alien vocabulary of zero tolerance and one strike and youre out. Already more than two hundred priests have reportedly been removed from ministry on the basis of claims, frequently vague and unsubstantiated, about something they did, usually in the distant past. I have received a surprising number of messages from readers protesting my argument for mercy and justice, especially my argument for mercy. Dont I know that Jesus said such scoundrels should have a millstone put around their neck and be tossed into the sea? Yes, I know. So maybe we should pass a law that anyone charged with the sexual abuse of minors is to be promptly drowned?
Of course there must be zero tolerance of sexual abuse. How many times does that have to be said? As John Paul told the cardinals and bishops in their April meeting in Rome, people who would harm the young have no place in the priesthood or any other ministry of the Church. Period.
Even if a once wayward priest poses no danger to children, it would seem that there are some offenses so heinous, so repugnant to common sensibilities, that if committed only once, and no matter how long ago, they would preclude the exercise of ministry. The priest is an icon who acts in the person of Christ. If, for instance, it was publically known that a priest had, no matter how long ago, sodomized a ten-year-old boy, that icon is irreparably shattered in the perception of most of the faithful. Ontologically, of course, he remains a priest forever. He may be a forgiven sinner and, transformed by grace, even a saint, and there are many good things he can do in service to Christ and his Church. But the egregiousness of his offense is an insurmountable obstacle to his effectively representing, in the eyes of the faithful, the priesthood of Christ. In the above instance and perhaps in others-homicide, dealing in drugs, or abetting an abortion-the icon is in terms of ministerial effectiveness, although not in sacramental reality, irreparably shattered. One can argue that this should not be the case. Against the Donatists, St. Augustine argued for the continuing ministry of those who had committed the ultimate offense of denying Christ in times of persecution. But then there are times when an argument aimed at magnifying grace results only in magnifying scandal. This is such a time.
My objection, and the objection of many others, is to an ill-considered and hastily enacted policy that violates justice by making a law of retroactive application, by removing the presumption of innocence, and by denying due process to the accused. The same policy, in direct contradiction to the Popes direction in the April meeting, violates the fundamental teaching and experience of the Church with respect to forgiveness, conversion, repentance, and amendment of life. The bishops in Dallas called it a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It is that, in part. In larger part, it is a tactic for getting the bishops off the media hook. Temporary escape is purchased at the high price of scapegoating priests to whom the bishops are called to be fathers, and of resigning a large part of their apostolic responsibility for governing the Church. The bishop is charged with the discipline and care of his priests. Abandoning their care cannot be the right answer to having failed in their discipline. At the time, many bishops said they were voting for the Dallas plan with an uneasy conscience. I expect the more reflective among them are now having long and troubled second thoughts.
The Missing Gospel
In all this, there is shame upon shame. I believe future historians will record that the greatest shame of Dallas is that-when it came to the crunch in a time of crisis, when the eyes of the world were upon the Church in a way truly unprecedented-the leaders of the Church failed to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ. The failure was in both words and actions, inviting the inference that, in the real world of public relations and damage control, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not relevant. The great issues before the bishops were sin and grace, justice and mercy, and the call to faithful discipleship. They are issues about which the Church of Jesus Christ presumably has a distinctive way of speaking and acting. They are not issues of great concern to most people in the media, but they are the issues that ought to be of greatest concern to the Church. That did not appear to be the case, and some may pardonably conclude that it did not appear to be the case because it was not the case. The media precipitated Dallas, the media intimidated Dallas, the media controlled Dallas. The bishops did what they were told.
Consider again the definition of sexual abuse that the bishops borrowed from their episcopal brothers in Canada, who in recent years have had even greater troubles over raging sexual malfeasance: Sexual abuse includes contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult. A child is abused whether or not this activity involves explicit force, whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not it is initiated by the child, and whether or not there is discernible harmful outcome.
There are certified experts who claim that one out of four girls and one out of six boys are sexually abused, usually by an adult family member or relative. By the Canadian definition, that seems plausible. There are also experts who agree with radical feminists that a majority of American women have been raped at some point in their lives, whether they know it or not. That, too, is plausible, if one employs an expansive enough definition of rape. The key phrase in the Canadian rule is sexual gratification. But who is to say whether sexual gratification is involved, however subliminally? It is a deeply dumbed-down psychology or moral theology that would deny the pervasiveness of the erotic in human interactions. The unlimited elasticity of the Canadian rule is such that a substantial minority, if not a majority, of adults might be deemed guilty of sexual abuse. Almost all the current scandals, however, have to do with sexual acts between adult men and postpubescent or older teenage boys. It should not be necessary to give graphic descriptions of what is meant by sexual acts. They are what sensible people mean by sexual abuse, for which, they rightly insist, there must be zero tolerance.
Consider this application of the Canadian rule. Almost twenty years ago a priest in the midwest was ministering to a family whose father had just died. The fourteen-year-old daughter was utterly distraught, sobbing that God did not care. The priest, with the mother present, held the girl in his arms, assuring her, It isnt true. God loves you. The Church loves you. I love you. I expect every priest or minister has done that more than once. As have doctors, teachers, fathers, uncles, and innumerable others in similar circumstances. They are comforting, they are caring, they are trying to help. The girl in question has subsequently led a most unhappy life, with two divorces, multiple affairs, and a serious drug problem. She has now charged the priest with sexual abuse, citing that embrace of almost twenty years ago. The priest, a beloved parish pastor, has been publicly shamed and removed from ministry, for the rest of his life. The bishop says he acted reluctantly, But Dallas gave me no choice. In other words, Dallas made me do it. Such is the product of panic.
As of this writing, the report is that more than two hundred of the 46,000 priests in the country have been removed from ministry. It is possible that many, perhaps most, of them should be removed, but the worry about justice grows, and is evident across the usual divides. Well before Dallas, the leftist National Catholic Reporter saw what was coming and editorialized, Now, under the hot, bright lights of the East Coast media, church authorities look bewildered and panicked as they attempt to show they are dealing with the issue in solid fashion. Where they once shielded priests, they now feel compelled to rush to the other extreme, providing no access to due process for them either in the Church or the courts. Why are you so concerned for the abusers rather than the victims? a reader writes. That quite completely misses the point. There is no rather than. Our concern must be for the boys (and, as sometimes happens, the girls) who are abused, for they are the most vulnerable members of the flock. And for the abusers, who continue to be brothers in Christ. And for the innocent who are falsely accused. All of which is to say that our concern must be for the integrity of the Church as it is constituted by, and accountable to, Christ. Admittedly, attending to all these concerns at the same time is no easy task. The dismal failure of Dallas must not be accepted as the last word. The bishops, who are chiefly responsible for the crisis and for its resolution, must find a better way.
Almost unmentioned in the public discussion to date is what will happen with offending priests in religious orders. About one-third of the priests in the U.S. are members of religious orders, many of them working in parishes and other pastoral ministries. The superiors of the orders were not party to the Dallas deal, and it is clear that most of them will not go along with it. It is no secret that some orders have a much higher incidence of homosexual priests, and possibly a higher incidence of sexual abuse, than is the case among diocesan clergy. (The best estimate seems to be that one to two percent of all priests are likely abusers.) Viewed more positively, orders typically have a greater sense of solidarity with, and responsibility for, their weaker brethren. Unlike diocesan clergy, members of orders take a vow of poverty and most of them are totally dependent upon their community, also economically. The superiors will not adopt a rule of one strike and youre out, and they have the opportunity to demonstrate to the bishops that there is a better way-a way that combines justice, mercy, and zero tolerance of abuse.
All Our Children
The eminent lay moral theologian Germain Grisez wrote a long and thoughtful memorandum for the bishops prior to Dallas. If it was read, it had little effect. The crisis that began in January 2002 is not about sexual abuse, Grisez wrote. It is about some bishops behavior over many years: they tolerated clerical sexual offenses and even seemed to facilitate them, covered them up, made untruthful statements when cases came to light, and persistently evaded their responsibility for what they had done and failed to do . . . . The degeneration of priestly fraternity into self-serving clerical solidarity and the prevalence of managerial concerns over authentic pastoral charity are systemic evils.
Grisez notes that lay people expressed puzzlement that bishops did not evidence impassioned outrage when the children of the Church, for whom the bishop is to be a father, were maltreated. He suggests that a false clerical solidarity blinded bishops to the victims. Of course, they were visible, but they were tiny, nebulous, and marginal. Clerical sexual offenders, by contrast, were big, solid, and near the center of the bishops field of vision. This is pathetically illustrated by Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet, Illinois. A lawyer involved reports that during a deposition in a civil law suit, the bishop was asked, If you had a child, wouldnt you be concerned that the priest they were saying Mass with had been convicted of sexually molesting children? The bishop responded, I dont have any children. But of course they are all his children. (One notes that a 1996 pastoral letter issued by the national bishops conference, which was both celebrated and protested for being gay-friendly, was titled Always Our Children .)
In addition to their own national review board, the bishops are now relentlessly monitored by several organizations of victim/survivors. (The play on Holocaust survivor has struck some observers as unseemly.) Nobody should downplay in any way the real wrongs done many years ago, and their possible long-term consequences. Nor should we ignore the fact that these victim organizations are led by activists following a time-honored American tradition of seizing upon a legitimate grievance in order to advance a cause. Every time the Church addresses the issue of sexual abuse-whether it be an individual bishop or the Pope speaking to the World Youth Day in Toronto-reporters reflexively turn to representatives of these victim organizations and ask if they are satisfied. They are not likely to get the answer, Yes, we are satisfied. We are laying off our staff, dismantling our websites, returning millions of dollars in contributions, and congratulating ourselves on a job well done. To say that victim organizations have an institutional interest in keeping the scandal at full boil is not to criticize them. Every such organization has an institutional interest in the grievances that brought it into being. That is as true of the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League as it is of the Catholic League. Moreover, victims are understandably reluctant to surrender their Warhol-apportioned fifteen minutes of fame. Convinced, as many of them are, that what was done to them and others was all-destroying, they feel they have a moral duty to maintain their protest at fever pitch.
An Idea With a History
Outrage is both legitimate and necessary, but unbounded outrage lends itself to distortions and hysteria. The understanding of the seriousness of the present crisis should not be muddled by disputes over whether claims of injury are sometimes exaggerated. Of course they are, and not infrequently. Michael Bailey, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has first-hand experience with those abused by priests. The accuser or plaintiff is typically in his thirties or forties and has had a life filled with truancy from school, poor social relations, and erratic employment. In all these cases, writes Bailey, the plaintiff reaches the same conclusion with the help of his therapist or his lawyer: the abuse caused all problems. Healing, he is told, depends on suing. Given the monetary incentives, he complies. But it often turns out that the abuse explanation is filled with holes. The poor school performance predated the abuse. For years before the abuse, he related poorly to his peers. In some cases, the problems the plaintiff attributes to sexual abuse are more plausibly due to nonsexual physical and psychological abuse in his family, or to bad genes. And yet the abuse is singled out as all-explanatory and as a basis for seven-figure awards. This occurs because sexual abuse is sensationalistic, all-explaining, and financially enticing. This itself is a form of exploitation. Unfortunately, the current climate encourages the suspension of any critical scrutiny regarding claims concerning the universal and extreme harmfulness of childhood sexual abuse.
As he undoubtedly knows, Prof. Bailey is on dangerous ground here, making himself a prime target for the charge of blaming the victim. It is a charge that the victim organizations routinely employ. Bailey is trying to counter widespread, and sometimes self-serving, hysteria with a modicum of calm deliberation and simple honesty. In todays climate, to indicate the slightest skepticism about the universal and extreme harmfulness of childhood sexual abuse is also to lay oneself open to the accusation of sympathizing with the homosexual advocates of man-boy love and intergenerational sex. In the case of Prof. Bailey and others who are trying to restore a measure of clear thinking, that is a vile slander that should be forthrightly condemned.
Clear thinking and honesty also requires a word in defense of the bishops, as unpopular as that may be at present. For all that bishops have done wrong, they are usually not wrong when they say that they acted in accord with the expert opinion available at the time. Dr. Joseph Davis, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, reminds us that ideas about the sexual abuse of children have a social history. In the late 1930s and again in the late 1940s, there was intense outrage over a number of highly publicized sex crimes and states passed draconian and ill-defined sexual psychopath laws aimed at predatory sexual offenders. The 1960s brought a campaign against such laws, which was part of a movement against the commitment and forcible treatment of mental patients. In the 1970s, the pendulum was given a swing in the other direction, mainly by feminists leading the anti-rape movement, joined by some child protection advocates. In its extreme form, the anti-rape activists contended that heterosexual intercourse is typically a form of rape, and most women are rape victims whether they realize it or not.
In this everybody-is-a-victim (except white and straight males) ideology, it was argued, writes Davis, that the [1960s] view of the child victim was morally flawed by a victim-blaming approach. Using the model of physical child abuse, which was already established as a social problem, they reframed the victim category as pure victim . . . . Sexual abuse was a thoroughly moral category. It denoted a status of complete ethical innocence for the victim and it indicated injury. To have been sexually abused was to have been psychically harmed as a child, and typically in ways that persist into, and are even magnified in, adulthood. Hence the notion of survivors. This constituted a major change.
In the 1968 case Millard v. Harris, U.S. Judge David Bazelon stated that the confinement of a compulsive exhibitionist was scarcely justified on the grounds of harm because the behavior affected only unusually sensitive women and small children. As late as the mid-seventies, the standard psychiatric textbooks either scarcely mentioned pedophilia or emphasized that it was typically a one-time activity. The second edition of the authoritative Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry has a short section on pedophilia, including this: The pedophile is usually visualized as the monster on the corner who is ready to pick up innocent children . . . . However, by far the greatest amount of pedophilic behavior is in families or among friends and neighbors. Often it is a one-time activity. The 1978 Harvard Guide to Modern Psychiatry does not even mention pedophilia. The much respected priest-psychologist Benjamin Groeschel says that, in all the years he studied psychology in the sixties and seventies, he never once heard the word.
But now everybody knows that pedophilia is an incurable disease, that the diseased are incorrigible predators, and that there is no such thing as a one-time offense. That is where the pendulum of established opinion is this season. With respect to many, if not most, of the scandals that have come to public attention recently, the fact is that bishops were acting reasonably and responsibly on the expert opinion of the time. This is not to say that bishops were not complicit in the various wrongs mentioned by Grisez above, but they should not be blamed for believing the certified experts who denied the universal and extreme harmfulness of childhood sexual abuse and the inevitability of recidivism among offenders. In many cases, bishops undoubtedly acted in good faith. (Although, then as now, they acted in uncritical obeisance to psychological expertise. See the discussion of the triumph of the therapeutic in the Public Square of the June/July issue.) In many cases the bishops also acted in good faith, if mistakenly, in paying hush money, which is more accurately described as conditioning an out of court settlement upon a confidentiality agreement-an everyday practice in the corporate, medical, and other worlds. In many cases, too, they acted in good faith in reassigning priests who, they were expertly assured, had been cured. In many cases.
The Dallas Morning News examined available records on the 194 dioceses of the country and concluded that two-thirds of the bishops heading them have been involved in the practices now, in retrospect, so roundly condemned. That retrospective judgment is, I believe, unfair. It is the case that some bishops have committed heinous acts that are both gravely sinful and seriously criminal. Some of them facilitated or covered up such acts committed by others. A few of these bishops have resigned and I expect more will. It appears that most bishops failed to respond pastorally to those who were abused. It is the case that many, if not most, bishops have been complicit in tolerating or fostering widespread and institutionalized dissent from the Churchs teaching, including the Churchs teaching on sexuality, and especially on homosexuality. The result is an ambiance of moral laxity and infidelity without which the present crisis could not have happened. And it is the case that at Dallas the overwhelming majority of bishops-only thirteen voted no-adopted a course of action that is, I am convinced, incompatible with justice, mercy, and pastoral responsibility, and that has severely confused and crippled the exercise of the apostolic office to which they are ordained.
What the Bishops Have Created
This brings us back to Governor Keating and the National Review Board. It has twelve members with a core group of four. The much respected Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard, was asked to serve on the board. She declined, explaining her reasons in a memorandum which I cite with permission. In the memorandum, Prof. Glendon expresses her concern about a number of public and injudicious statements by Keating creating the impression that bishops will be held accountable to lay people and otherwise confusing the distinction between advice and governance. In fact, Keating has been reported as saying, Martin Luther was right, although it is not clear exactly what he thought Luther was right about. He has also said that it is the job of his board to root out corrupt bishops. On the very public op-ed page of the New York Times he wrote, I envision the commission as apart from the conference of bishops, answering first of all to the laity we represent. We will coordinate with local parish and diocesan councils to ensure that the voice of the laity is heard.
In fact, the National Review Board was created by the bishops and its members are appointed by the bishops, with the mandate to monitor diocesan compliance with the charter adopted at Dallas and report its findings to the conference of bishops. It is from beginning to end, at least on paper, an instrument of the bishops conference, designed to do what the bishops believe they are not trusted to do, and apparently do not trust themselves to do. At least that is how it was in its beginning; how it will end nobody knows. The bishops have put themselves in the bind of creating a board that is to serve them but may well turn against them, and, if they are perceived as trying to control the board, a new media firestorm is a certainty. In any event, and contra Keating, the board is in no way apart from the bishops, nor is it to be the voice of the laity, competing with activist groups such as The Voice of the Faithful whose denominational rallying cry is Take back our church!-forgetting that the Church is not ours but Christs, and Catholics believe that Christ intended that it be governed by bishops.
Acquiescing in the judgment that they are not morally credible, the bishops cast about for leadership that is held in highest public esteem. As odd as it may seem, they decided that politicians and lawyers fit the bill. In addition to Keating, there is Robert Bennett, champion of Bill Clinton in his battle against charges of low crimes and misdemeanors. As Prof. Glendon notes, Bennett has no conspicuous record of devotion to the Catholic cause. Then there is Leon Panetta, Bill Clintons chief of staff and aggressive defender of abortion on demand, including partial-birth abortion. Other appointments are similarly dubious, along with one or two of real credibility, and a handful of unknowns.
Oh, yes, there is Michael Bland, a psychiatrist, former priest, and victim of childhood abuse. The victim organizations, interestingly, are on record as protesting Blands inclusion because, despite his experience of abuse, he is still an observant Catholic. The mark of being authentically concerned about abuse, we are given to understand, is that one is alienated from the Church. Governor Keating says that Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, had suggested a larger board that would include non-Catholics. We felt it was important that the Catholic Church-and one out of four Americans is a Catholic-heal itself and not call upon outsiders to do so, said Keating. The members of the board will be Catholic, even if, in some cases, marginally or dissentingly so.
Was it only a few years ago that the bishops issued a forceful statement that public figures who oppose the Churchs teaching on abortion should not be given a platform or positions of responsibility in church institutions? Now prominent pro-abortionists have been elevated by those same bishops to the position of overseeing the episcopal governance of the Church. We should not be surprised that some pro-life Catholics are saying that, come the crunch, the tactics of public relations trumped the bishops devotion to the gospel of life.
There are other, and very big, problems. Prof. Glendon writes: I think you can see from the foregoing why I fear that the bishops may not have informed themselves adequately concerning whether the members of this important board understand and accept the Churchs basic teachings on ecclesiology, the role of the laity, and human sexuality. I also wonder whether they have carefully considered the likely role of the politicians: they are well-known public figures with ready access to the national media and they are intensely concerned with their public images. Thus the risk that they will wish to cast themselves as policing the Church is high, and may affect their ability to be impartial. Indeed, it is hard to imagine them casting themselves, or allowing themselves to be perceived, as defenders of the Church. That being so, even if my participation were not precluded by other commitments, I would be most hesitant to accept the invitation to serve. I would not only fear that I would be part of a very small and ineffective minority, but that my presence might be used to lend an appearance of diversity, or-even worse-that my membership might lead some people to believe that I approve of activities that may turn out to be harmful to the Church.
At the end of July, the National Review Board met with victim organizations, and that was followed by a press conference with Bishop Gregory. Governor Keating allowed, and Bishop Gregory agreed, that the board was not authorized to discipline or remove bishops directly, but it had other means at its disposal. The board would be making a report on bishops who failed to comply with the Dallas plan, and, as Bishop Gregory put it, No bishop would want to see his name on that list. He expressed his confidence that also those bishops who voted against the plan or abstained on the vote (about 15 percent of the bishops did not vote for it) would comply rather than risk public embarrassment. The media, he noted, would make sure that there would be such embarrassment. Such is the threat by which it is proposed the bishops will rebuild trust in their leadership. ( Websters : blackmail-extortion or coercion by threats esp. of public exposure or criminal prosecution.) So in a time of crisis, who is in charge of the governance of the Catholic Church in the U.S.? Certainly not, or so it seems, the bishops. The National Review Board-responsive to victim activists and representing the voice of the laity-will issue a report card on the bishops, and a bad report will have severe consequences. As with the beginning of the crisis, so now it is structurally entrenched that the final judge and jury are the media. Such is the radical change in status and responsibility of the episcopal office in which the bishops have, knowingly or not, acquiesced. The work of the review board will apparently not be finished when it issues its report card on episcopal behavior. Asked how long the board will stay in business, Gov. Keating indicated that it will be needed as long as it is evident that the bishops are in need of supervision.
In terms of ecclesiastical politics (usually not an edifying subject), the national conference of bishops (USCCB) has much to gain in this arrangement. While it may be surrendering episcopal authority more generally, the conference is gaining a large measure of long-sought power over individual bishops in their dioceses. Going way back to the early years of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, major players in the conference have worked to put it in the position of speaking and legislating for the Church in America. This has been resisted by some bishops who, with the support of Rome, have insisted upon the traditional Catholic teaching that the bishop is the head of the local Church, meaning the diocese. Now, operating through the National Review Board, the bishops conference will, like the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivans Mikado , have a little list with which to bring recalcitrant bishops into line-on the disciplining of clergy and, in principle, on anything else of consequence. How Rome will respond to these dramatic transformations in Catholic ecclesiology is still to be seen. As I discussed in an earlier installment, if Rome vetoes this or other aspects of the Dallas plan, it is possible that the media criticism will be directed away from the American bishops and toward the Vatican, which might suit some bishops just fine. Bishops who make no secret of wanting greater independence from Rome tend to be those who favor expanding the authority of the USCCB, a goal that would be served by cooperating in the portrayal of Rome as using its heavy hand to prevent the American bishops from doing the right thing. Nonetheless, as of this writing there is reason to believe that the Holy See will not accept the Dallas plan as presented. The intention is to work with the U.S. bishops in crafting a response to the crisis that conforms to the requirements of justice and mercy-and, not incidentally, to the Churchs doctrine and discipline. We shall soon see.
The politics of the USCCB and Romes response aside, the consequence of the Dallas plan is that the bishops have in important respects surrendered their office. They have not the right to do that, and they probably did not intend to do that, but they did it. It would appear that there is not in the American episcopate anyone with the stature-or, if anyone has the stature, then the inclination or courage-to call them back to the exercise of the responsibilities for which they were called by God, ordained by the Church, and respected by the faithful. In their partial but far-reaching abdication, they have opened the way for the laicizing of church leadership under a national review board run amok, for increased defiance of bishops by priests and parishes who no longer trust them, for newly energized agitations to remake the Catholic Church in the image of liberal Protestantism, and for, not inconceivably, schism. Maybe Rome will effectively call the bishops back. Maybe not. Maybe God will spare us the most dire consequences of what was set afoot at Dallas. Maybe not. Meanwhile, we must be braced for a rough ride in the months and years ahead.
The Courage to be Catholic
Just in time, George Weigel, author of the papal biography Witness to Hope and regular contributor to these pages, has come up with a bracing tonic that I most warmly recommend. The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church is now out from Basic Books and available everywhere. Carefully and convincingly, Weigel explains what went right and what went wrong following the still unimplemented Second Vatican Council, which is the necessary background for understanding the present crisis. Why did many thousands of men abandon the priesthood, and how does that connect with the clericalizing of the laity by the multiplication of ministries that dilute the distinctive identity of the priest? He has some provocative, if painful, answers to that question and many others. He provides a chronological commentary on developments leading to the present crisis, and fresh insight into the Truce of 1968 when Rome failed to back bishops who were prepared to discipline those who publicly rejected the encyclical Humanae Vitae , thus institutionalizing the culture of dissent and creating the myth that rejection is loyal opposition.
Weigel surveys the various, and often contradictory, interpretations of Vatican Council II, and casts new light on John Paul IIs efforts to implement the Council-efforts sometimes resisted, but more commonly just ignored, by many of the American bishops, notably by some of the most active in the politics of the national conference. Weigel is a lifelong student of the Catholic Church in this country and elsewhere; he has a firm grasp of the dynamics and players driving the national conference and the episcopal fraternity. He gained unprecedented access in writing the biography of John Paul, and has an intimate knowledge of the papacy and its supporting-and frequently obstructing-Curia. His narrative of Romes responses to the current crisis, and especially of events surrounding the April meeting with the Pope, provides a unique and sometimes disturbing insight into how the Church is governed today.
As the subtitle indicates, The Courage to be Catholic is much more than insider journalism. Weigel lays out a course of reformation in everything from catechesis and liturgy to the formation of priests and the ways in which bishops are chosen. It is a reformation that, he persuasively argues, was mandated by the Second Vatican Council and has been tirelessly advocated by John Paul II. Out of the evils that created the present crisis, God may be working the great good of an irrepressible sense of urgency in implementing, at long last, the authentic and thoroughly Catholic reformation for which the Second Vatican Council called. A great strength of Weigels book is that he understands that the present crisis, and the crisis of the last thirty-five years, is, above all, a crisis of fidelity. For the Church of this time and every time, the question is that of Luke 18: When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?
Form and Reform
Which brings us back to Christ, and how Catholics believe he formed his Church, and how, therefore, the Church must be reformed. In that understanding, the bishops are the successors to the apostles, with and under the successor to Peter. That understanding was not reflected, that understanding was gravely compromised, at Dallas. The bishops cannot restore their credibility by abandoning their responsibility. Dallas cannot be the final word. Somehow, the bishops must recover their nerve to be bishops, rather than the frightened CEOs they have made themselves appear to be-scurrying to follow scripts written by public relations experts, lawyers, and related masters of damage control. They must accept, as the bishops that they are, responsibility for what went wrong, and for putting it right. What went wrong is the entrenchment of patterns of infidelity-evident also, but not most importantly, in sexual infidelity and related abuse-and it will not be set right without the courage to be found only in conversion.
The bishops should meet again, and soon. Not under the auspices of the national conference with its built-in bureaucracies and biases, but freely, as heads of the local churches they are called to govern. Not in a posh hotel in order to get through a predetermined agenda on schedule, but in a monastery or retreat in order to pray and deliberate. Not under Roberts Rules of Order with a few minutes allotted for disjointed interventions terminated by the flashing of a red light, but under the guidance of the Spirit in a way conducive to conversation in depth, and to the making and hearing of arguments. Not to adopt guidelines and procedures, but to wrestle with truth revealed. Not under the glare of the media, but alone with one another, and with God. Not for two or three days, but for as long as it takes. Maybe for a month, and then, later, for another month. Do they have anything more important to do than to recover their credibility and authority as bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ?
The goal would be to act on the invitation, and to follow the example, of John Paul II in fully embracing, fully teaching, and fully implementing the Catholic reformation of the Second Vatican Council. The result of such an extended period of prayer, deliberation, conversion, and resolve might be a renewed confidence that the Church has bishops again. It might instill a measure of courage in contending for the recovery of libertas ecclesiae, the right of the Church to govern itself. It might prepare the bishops to lead in showing the world that there is a distinctively Christian, and Catholic, response to sin and grace, justice and mercy, and the call to holiness. All these are matters not unrelated to the question of whether, when the Son of Man returns, he will find faith on earth.
It lasted but a moment, but while it lasted it was political theater to be relished. The wondrously eccentric U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit-more precisely, two members of a three-member panel thereof-discovered that the phrase under God in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional . The judges sided with Michael Newdow, who had complained that his daughter is injured when forced to listen in public school to the assertion that there is a God. One story said that, in fact, the daughter regularly joined in the recitation of the pledge and was embarrassed by her father making a big stink about it. Never mind, the judges know the coercive establishment of religion when they see it.
Well, within hours the entire political order, from left to right and from dogcatcher to President, exploded in outrage at the Ninth Circuits political blasphemy. In Washington, both houses promptly passed unanimous resolutions condemning the decision, after which our national leaders marched to the capitol steps to sing God Bless America and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with voices raised to full-throated patriotic pitch at the words under God. It took Jerry Falwell all of thirty minutes after the announcement of the court decision to declare that he was launching a campaign for a million signatures in protest against it. That seemed an exceedingly modest goal. A moral entrepreneur of greater imagination might have set a goal of 100 million signatures, with the assurance that the millions of contributions received would be spent in reaching the 180 million patriotic laggards. Sometimes nothing short of unanimity will do, or at least virtual unanimity, recognizing that the Ninth Circuit, Mr. Newdow, and Paul Kurtzs American Humanist Society are beyond hope.
Once our leaders had put on the record their wholehearted devotion to the proposition that ours is a nation under God-a proposition to which, judging by the public evidence, most of them had never before given a moments thought-they felt much better about themselves and went back to business as usual, confident that the decision of the Ninth Circuit, which has a commanding lead in the judicial silliness sweepstakes, would, one way or another, be promptly negated. Political theater aside, the Ninth Circuits provocation obviously struck a central nerve in the body politic, revealing the inchoate but powerful popular conviction that the phrase under God says something indispensable about the way Americans want to understand their country.
Above All That
Most Americans, that is. For a different take on the dust-up, representative of a certain sector of elite opinion, one goes-but of course-to the editorial board of the New York Times . Eschewing the vulgar atheism of the Newdow-Kurtz eccentrics, the Times is offended by the Ninth Circuits lack of good manners. People of better breeding understand that public expressions such as under God are simply not to be taken seriously. They are but scraps of sanctimony tossed out to appease the gullible masses, while their enlightened masters get on with the running of a thoroughly secular society. The editors sniffingly observe that the words were added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, at the height of anti-Communist fervor. Anything approaching fervor in opposing communism has always been in bad taste at the Times . The editors continue, It was a petty attempt to link patriotism with religious piety, to distinguish us from the godless Soviets. How petty can you get. If youre reading the editorial aloud, remember that patriotism is said with a supercilious raising of the eyebrow, and religious piety with a slight but sufficiently contemptuous snarl. The editors, or at least some of them, probably know that an officially atheistic totalitarian regime murdered millions of its people because of their religious faith, but that was long ago, and even at the time was no excuse for getting fervent.
This is a well-meaning ruling, say the editors, but it lacks common sense. Read: The court has been dangerously imprudent in upsetting the natives. A generic two-word reference to God tucked inside a rote civic exercise is not a prayer. The grammar gets sticky here, but presumably the editors mean that the God referred to in under God is a generic deity. That is not quite the case, of course. Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, do not propose a God whom one would be under in the way the pledge says we are under God. Religio-cultural context, plus indisputable legislative intent, indicate that under God is meant to refer to the God of biblical religion, meaning Judaism, Christianity, and (although it was probably not in the legislative mind at the time) its latter-day expression in Islam. As interesting is the editorial claim that the phrase is not a prayer. It is, they say, a civic exercise; to which one might respond that any prayer in the public square is a civic exercise, which does not mean it is any less a prayer. But perhaps the key to the editors meaning is that the Pledge of Allegiance is rote exercise. The word rote denotes something done routinely, mechanically, or unthinkingly. Maybe that is the way the editors of the Times say the Pledge of Allegiance, if they say it. They do not explain why they think less extraordinary Americans say it that way.
We wish the words had not been added back in 1954, the editorial continues. But just the way removing a well-lodged foreign body from an organism may sometimes be more damaging than letting it stay put, removing those words would cause more harm than leaving them in. The phrase under God is a foreign body, perhaps like a cancerous tumor, but it is safely contained and does not threaten to metastasize, so let it be. It would be nice to be rid of it, but surgery is dangerous. The practical impact of the [Ninth Circuit] ruling is inviting a political backlash for a matter that does not rise to a constitutional violation. And even if it does, the editors want to save their powder. Most important, the ruling trivializes the critical constitutional issue of separation of church and state. There are important battles to be fought over issues of prayer in school and use of government funds to support religious activities. The very next day, of course, the Supreme Court handed down the historic Zelman decision, declaring vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional. Now that, in the view of the Times , is a battle worth fighting, and the following days editorial opposing Zelman was forceful; one might even say fervent. Fervor in the defense of secularism is no vice; aloofness in the battle for keeping the public square naked is no virtue.
I am glad that the words under God were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and that they will almost certainly stay there. It is true that civic piety, like every other expression of piety, can be rote and empty. It can also be hypocritical. As I have said before, it used to be that hypocrisy was the tribute that vice paid to virtue, whereas now it is the charge that vice hurls at virtue. To say that ours is a nation under God is both a statement of theological fact and of moral aspiration. As a theological fact, it is true of all nations. As a moral aspiration, it is markedly-although perhaps not singularly-true of the United States of America. To say that we are a nation under God means, first of all, that we are under Divine judgment. It is also a prayer that we may be under Providential care. It is not a statement of patriotic pride, although many may think it is, but of patriotic humility. The reaction to the Ninth Circuits decision was a salutary moment of public witness to the irrepressible popular intuition that, in the words of Lincoln, America is an almost chosen nation. I do not expect the editors of the Times to understand any of this. To those of a certain mindset, the intolerable idea, the truly insufferable notion, is that they are under anything or anyone, even if that anything or anyone is no more than a generic two-word reference.
A History of Their Own
At the suggestion of a friend, I took with me for reading on the flight to Ukraine the popular new novel Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (Houghton Mifflin). It is a clever-at times overly clever-entertainment, and a remarkable achievement for a writer still in his early twenties. The story line is simple enough. A young American Jew with time on his hands is hanging out in various European cities and decides upon visiting the shtetl in Ukraine from which his family escaped, and some who did not escape were killed by the Nazis.
A large part of the book is composed of letters to the young hero, who is also named Jonathan, by a young Ukrainian, Alexander, whom he had engaged as a guide. Written in the aftermath of their ambiguously successful search for the shtetl, these letters are sometimes poignant but mainly humorous, and frequently hilarious, exercises in Alexanders efforts to master the English language in expressing his unbounded dreams of one day living in America and being rich like his friend Jonathan. Darker themes intervene with Alexanders grandfather, who accompanies them as driver in their search, and who harbors a terrible secret about what happened during the Nazi era. Interspersed between Alexanders letters, and moving with cinematic rapidity, are vignettes of the shtetl as it was in the late eighteenth century, in the 1940s, and is no more.
As I say, it is a clever entertainment, and provided a pleasant enough distraction from a long and tedious flight. Foer employs the usual tropes in depicting shtetl life in Eastern Europe-tropes made familiar by Isaac Bashevis Singer and treated more profoundly by the likes of Chaim Grade. One is at home again with God-obsessed and God-denying Jews aligned with rival synagogues of the observant and the skeptical, and consumed by intergenerational quarrels, most of which resolve around who copulated with whom, frequently with grotesque consequences. (Unlike most books in the shtetl genre, copulation keeps returning to center stage in this story. But then, unlike most authors of that genre, Mr. Foer is a very young man.) The historical vignettes include mysterious births, genealogical irregularities, and bizarre coincidences that are variously interpreted as miracles or evidence of ontological absurdity. Not included in Everything Is Illuminated is anything that might illuminate the reality of Ukraine, either past or present.
Mr. Foers story could have been set in any part of Eastern Europe. In this depiction, there are but two realities-the shtetl and the Nazis. Goyim such as Alexander and his grandfather play a part, but only as they are related to the Jews of the shtetl and the Nazis. There is no hint that the gentiles may be part of a culture, a religion, or a people of their own. The non-Jews who make an appearance are, as it were, honorary Jews-until, that is, they betray Jews to the Nazis. I do not wish to make heavy weather of a book that is, after all, no more than a mainly light entertainment, yet it is of a piece with a large literature that distorts Western perceptions of Central and Eastern Europe and troubles many of the people of that part of the world who have lived through the great terrors of the century past.
Reviewing two other novels by Americans who knocked around the region, Adam Goodheart observes in the New York Times Book Review : Other peoples pasts: thats the only commodity in generous supply in post-Communist Hungary . . . . The Hungarians are also time-battered specimens, nicotine-stained survivors of wars and uprisings. Among such people, the young Americans seem weightless, almost immaterial. And the present itself has a quality of flimsy provisionality: not history itself but rather an interstice in history, a flickering blankness between movie frames . . . . For all their pretensions to something grander and more picturesque, they are nothing but tourists-not just in Hungary but in their own lives and in the world at large. Neither novel, Goodheart concludes, is really very European. And so it is also with Mr. Foers book.
A Certain Puzzlement
For the last twelve summers in Krakow, Poland, I have been teaching in a seminar on Catholic social doctrine that brings together university students and junior faculty from America and Central-Eastern Europe. Each year I lecture on the Holocaust and Jewish-Christian relations, and each year the students visit Auschwitz, which is a little over an hours drive from Krakow. The Holocaust, as most powerfully represented by Auschwitz, is Western cultures only available icon of absolute and undisputed evil. One can argue that there have been equal or greater evils in human history, but they are all, to one degree or another, in dispute. On the sane side of the fever swamps where dwell Holocaust deniers and flat earth proponents, nobody disputes or attempts to mitigate the evil of Auschwitz. Each year the students are manifestly shaken by their hours there. Some speak the next day of their nightmares following the visit; others cite the final words of Kurtz in Conrads Heart of Darkness , The horror! The horror!
Yet the visit and the discussion of Jewish-Christian relations also provoke questions and objections unfamiliar to most of us in the West. Young Poles in particular deeply resent the widespread notion that Poles were somehow responsible for Auschwitz. They point out that Auschwitz was a Nazi enterprise established on what was then the territory of the Third Reich. They ask, What about the millions of non-Jewish Poles who were killed in the Holocaust? Why do only Jewish deaths count? Such objections bear no suggestion of anti-Semitism, which it is readily admitted was common, and is today not uncommon, among Poles and others in Central-Eastern Europe. The objections are marked, rather, by a certain puzzlement, a deep sense of unfairness, and a belief that the truth should be told.
A Polish graduate student spoke of her visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. The exhibitions failure (refusal?) to recognize the millions of non-Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis occasioned feelings of deep complexity. Her sorrow over what happened to Jews, she said, is in no way qualified by her disappointment over the nonrecognition of what happened to so many others. It is readily admitted that there is something unseemly and wrong about competing for victim status. But, these students insist, it is also unseemly and wrong to misrepresent that long night of horror by turning it into a simplistic drama in which the only parties appearing on stage are Jewish victims and Nazi victimizers, with everyone else cast in the role of indifferent onlookers or active, even eager, collaborators in unspeakable evil. What about the Polish dead, and what about the thousands of Poles who, as all scholars of the period recognize, risked their lives and the lives of their families in rescuing Jews?
Beyond an understandable resentment over their own people being slighted and slandered, these students are getting at a deeper problem in the conventional presentation of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is in many ways singular in the historical gallery of horrors, resulting in a tendency to place its inhumanity beyond the pale of humanity. The soul-shaking truth, however, is that such inhumanity is not beyond humanity. We human beings are capable of such horror, as we are capable of indifference to such horror, and as we are capable of heroic resistance to such horror. The engagement of all these capacities must be taken into account if we are to understand the humanness of the inhumanity that was the Holocaust.
We Do Not Have the Right . . .
That Jewish survivors and their descendants should tell the story through the prism of their experience is perfectly natural, and for half a century they have done so with an intense productivity that is perhaps unmatched in the chronicling of any other period of history. Yet the resulting literature has by no means illuminated everything. Each year I encourage the students in Krakow who feel deprived of a history of their own to write the biographies, novels, and plays that might convey to a world audience the experience of Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Ukrainians, and others during the Nazi and Communist periods. This urging consistently meets with resistance. Some say that there are such accounts but they are not read except by a few who speak the language in which they are written. There is a pervasive feeling that the outside world is little interested in the experience of Central-Eastern Europeans. A further reason for reluctance, especially in discussing the Nazi era, is that telling their story would be construed as telling their side of the story against the dominant Jewish narrative. There is a widespread, and for the most part healthy, anxiety about doing anything that might be viewed as anti-Semitic. But perhaps the most interesting response to my urgings is the fear of shame, reflected in one students summing up the discussion by saying, We do not have the right to embarrass our families.
The Jewish story can be told, and typically is told, as a tale of unambiguous conflict between good and evil, with Jews cast as unambiguous victims. Writers such as Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964), pay a heavy price in terms of criticism for deviating from the standard account. The Krakow students are painfully aware that any honest rendering of the actions and inactions of their parents and grandparents during the Nazi and Communist periods would, to put it gently, not be entirely edifying. Moreover, the peoples of that part of the world-battered, beaten, crushed, and generally humiliated for centuries, mainly by Russians and Germans-have only in recent years reached a point of modest hope for peace, prosperity, and cultural self-respect. Isnt it better to forget about the tortured past and move on? One cannot help but have a measure of sympathy for that way of thinking, yet it is a great pity, for theirs is an important part of the universal human drama. It should be understood, and to be understood it must be told.
I write this in Krakow, after the days in Ukraine, and having talked again with our students upon their return from Auschwitz. Mr. Foers Everything Is Illuminated is still on my mind, recalling the Holocaust books beyond number that one has read over the years, and bringing home the fact that there is still so much that is unilluminated. The students here are from a half dozen or more countries only recently freed from the evil empire of Soviet communism. They want it to be known that they have a history of their own, but it will not be known unless they make it known. I appreciate the desire to move on, to make the most of this moment of unaccustomed freedom, and the reluctance to embarrass the families and peoples they love is admirable. Yet the countless stories of their story must be told, for, finally, the history of their own is also ours. Unless they tell the stories, the next generations understanding will be limited to, and distorted by, the tales of bright young westerners who are, as Adam Goodheart says, just tourists-not just in Central-Eastern Europe but in their own lives and in the world at large.
Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.
I know it is a fact, but it is nonetheless hard to picture: had he lived, Martin Luther King, Jr. would now be seventy-three years old. Everybody of a certain age has memories, if only of television images; many were there when he spoke, others marched with him in Selma or Montgomery, and some of us were, albeit intermittently, drawn into his personal orbit. The last I count as one of the many graces of my life, and it no doubt explains why I read, almost compulsively, just about everything published about the man and the time. Now we have Marshall Fradys Martin Luther King, Jr., the latest volume in the Penguin Lives series. It is a valuable addition to the many accounts we have of the man and the movement he led.
I am in the minority with my