Odium theologicumthe ill-feeling and nasty polemics to which theological controversy can give riseis in short supply. I don't mean ordinary nastiness in disagreements over religion. I mean the high panache of distinguished theologians going at one another. Reinhard Hütter of Duke Divinity School offers a robust example in the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He is provoked by an attack by John Milbank, prefect of a school of thought self-dubbed Radical Orthodoxy, on a book by Lawrence Feingold in which Feingold defends traditional Thomist teaching on nature and grace. Milbank said Feingold's argument is "arch-reactionary," "paleolithic," and dependent on exegetical methods "much like that of the proof-texting of a Protestant fundamentalist." This gets Hütter up to speed: "The associations seem to be all too clear to leave any doubt about the purpose of such antecedent rhetorical disqualification. Anyone willing seriously to consider Feingold's arguments (and for that matter Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's interpretation of Thomas Aquinas), by the sheer dynamic of the connotations entailed, must be a supporter of the Spanish Inquisition, a defender of the Papal States, and an admirer of the Franco, Vichy, and Pinochet regimes in addition to anything else implied by association as arch-reactionary. It is sad to see such an astute and critical mind as Milbank's submit in such an unnuanced and uncritical way to the thoroughly modern political geography of 'left' and 'right' in order to situate and prejudice matters doctrinal and theological, a habit, surely by now as widespread in contemporary theology as it is thoughtless, and achieving nothing else than comfortably condemning matters of theological enquiry and discourse to the Procrustean bed of a policing political correctness and hence of the final domestication of matters ecclesial and theological under the extrinsically superimposed rubrics of political liberalism."
Whew, that felt good. In truth, Hütter's article is substantive, incisive, and persuasive, and I recommend it to the theologically minded. What you will not learn from the article, and what there was no reason for him to mention, is that Hütter is a former Lutheran who became Catholic a few years ago; and what he does not come right out and say in the article is that the traditional understanding of Thomas Aquinas on nature and grace is essential to what the sixteenth-century Reformers, at their best, meant by sola gratia.
Multicultural, interracial, nonsexist massacre. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, in the immediate aftermath of the rampage at Virginia Tech, reflected on those killed: "I am struck by their diversity. They ranged in age from 18 to 76; they came from nine states, along with Puerto Rico, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Romania. They were male and female, African-American, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Caucasian." You were probably struck by the fact that they were dead. I am sure that Mr. Wallis did not mean to imply that there is anything mitigating, never mind admirable, in a politically correct slaughter. It has been suggested that people should be forgiven for what they say under the pressure of being confronted by a horror that leaves them not knowing what to say.
Good for Mark Sargent, dean of Villanova Law School. In an article in Commonweal titled "Vengeance Time," he has the courage and decency to say some of the things that need saying about the appalling treatment of priests caught up in the panicked reaction to the sex-abuse crisis. Sargent writes:
In November of last year, the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, released the names of twenty former priests about whom the diocese found "credible or substantial complaints of sexual abuse of minors." Most of the twenty are dead. Edward M. Dudzinski, however, was still livingalthough he had not served as a priest since the 1980sand resided in Herndon, Virginia.
When local members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) discovered Dudzinski's location, they went door-to-door in his neighborhood distributing a file of documents with the title "Community Notification: Protect your children from a credibly accused serial sex offender," which they believed established Dudzinski's identity as a sex offender. Dudzinski, however, has never been convicted of, or even charged with, a sexual-abuse crime. . . .
SNAP might claim that its campaigns in Herndon and St. Louis were simply pragmatic measures needed to bring justice to those deprived of it, and to protect potential victims from the ongoing threat of clergy abuse. Presumably, they would argue that the church and its priests are finally getting what they deserve after decades of indifference, deception, and obduracy. Their actions, however, suggest that more is going on. SNAP's public campaign to expose priests who have merely been accusedor sometimes clearedof abuse has a vigilante air about it. In their eagerness to effect justice as they know it, SNAP may in fact be disrupting the rule of law. Likewise, the Philadelphia prosecutors' diatribe against the archdiocese (and the front-page coverage in the Philadelphia Inquirer) served as a kind of public theater in which the prosecutors cathartically worked out their rage at not being able to indict the archdiocese and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. The public, emotional, and absolutist character of all these actions expresses not only great anger and frustration, but also the desire to abase and punish. It's vengeance time.
In addition to victim activists and the media, the bishops bear a heavy responsibility for the injustices perpetrated. First of all, to be sure, the injustices perpetrated against young people but also the injustices against priests. Some bishops protest the depiction of their 2002 meeting in Dallas as a panicked effort at damage control, but it was just that. In diocese after diocese, "zero tolerance" was invoked to publicly shame and remove from the exercise of their ministerial vocation priests against whom there was nothing more than an unsubstantiated, and even un-investigated, charge of abuse. Utterly inexcusable was the action of some bishops in opening up confidential personnel files and publicizing the names of priests who now, dead or retired, were merely rumored to have done something wrong forty or fifty years ago. Thus were the reputations of many beloved priests recklessly destroyed. As a consequence, it will be a very long time before priests will again be able to view their bishops as the fathers in Christ that they are ordained to be.
We're not dealing with complicated questions of casuistry here. A reading of The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the eighth commandment should be sufficient:
Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury.
of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
of detraction who, without objectively valid reasons, discloses another's faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
It seems that nobody knows for sure how many priests have been removed from ministry and, in some cases, literally thrown out into the streets without having been proved guilty of anything or even given a fair hearing. According to the few people who have tried to help such priests, the number is well over a thousand. It is more than possible that some of them, perhaps many of them, are guilty. But the effort to distinguish between the guilty and innocent is a rather elementary moral obligation.
I have respected friends who say that innocent priests should not complain but manfully "take a hit for the team." There is something to that. We are all familiar with Flannery O'Connor's aphorism about suffering more from the Church than for the Church. But the Church is also supposed to be a mirror of justice, and that mirror has been grievously distorted by bishops eager to burnish their own reputations for what is called, without a trace of irony, "transparency."
Mark Sargent is right about this being vengeance time for real or alleged victims and, most repugnantly, their rapacious lawyers. It is also time for bishops to look into their shaving mirrors, if not the mirror of justice, and ask themselves hard questions about the faithful priests they may have betrayed.