California Reflections on a Boston Book

faithful departed

What Ought the Bishops Do?

(Editor: the following email arrived on May 26 from California woman who has followed and interacted with the California bishops regularly.)

Forgive the length of this e-mail, but I just got through reading The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture by Philip Lawler, and I have to unload on someone.

The book is very insightful. Although the exact subject matter (e.g. Boston’s loss of Catholicity, the sex abuse scandal) is now water under the bridge, nonetheless, IMHO, it contains considerable food for thought for bishops. In fact, I started making notes as I was reading it of the areas where the same problems and patterns of episcopal behavior keep cropping up.

1) Protecting church institutions, not church faithful. Lawler gives the example in his book of the American bishops responding to the push for taxpayer-funded birth control programs simply by seeking exemptions for hospitals and doctors operating under the auspices of the Church. This had several bad results. Most importantly, by so limiting their arguments, they confirmed the popular idea that the Church’s opposition to contraception is just a narrow sectarian doctrine, rather than a universal moral principle. Secondly, they left the Catholic laity hanging out to dry. We saw the same thing here in California with regard to the Women’s Contraceptive Equity Act, in which, rather than presenting a principled opposition to requiring employers to fund contraceptives in their health coverage, the Church just whined about getting (and failed to get) an exemption for church-run organizations.

2) Opting for face-saving compromises that embolden the opposition. Lawler gives several examples in his book, reminding me of similar cases here in California. For example, there was Abp. Levada and the domestic partners debacle, where he got around explicitly providing health coverage for domestic partners of employees by saying that every employee could designate some other person who would get coverage. And again, the contraceptive equity act. I asked Ned Dolesji what happened after they lost the challenge to that law, and he indicated that Catholic Charities had managed some work-around. Probably many Catholic entities have just given up and are complying, but even if they have come up with some work-around which allows them to ostensibly comply with the law while somehow not really doing so, they have in fact emboldened the Legislature to move on to the next steps. If they stood up and said, “Sorry, then we won’t provide prescription drug coverage,” they would have shown that there were lines they were not going to cross.

3) The perennial problem of pro-abort politicians. The lesson from Lawler’s book is not to wait till election time to take them on. But they must be taken on. Issuing periodic general statements condemning abortion is meaningless if at the same time, those responsible for protecting and promoting it – indeed, those actually providing abortions – incur no penalties, or even disapprobation, from church leaders. (Ever since I heard of Ted Kennedy’s terminal condition, I have been thinking about this. Presuming that he does not repent, if he were to be denied a Catholic funeral and burial, or at least a public one, it would be the single most pro-life action the relevant bishops could take in this decade. Contrariwise, if he is sent out with full Catholic honors, these same bishops might as well not even bother saying anything about abortion ever again.)

4) Shooting the messenger. Yes, there are cranks and malcontents in every diocese, but that is not an excuse for circling the wagons and shooting at anyone who comes forward with relevant information concerning the questionable behavior (or orthodoxy) of a priest.

5) Lying. I find it so disturbing that spokesmen for church officials seem to have adopted, and are only held to, the very lax standards of honesty that apply to politicians and their spokesmen. Thus, as long as one is not absolutely covering up scandalous or criminal activity, it is acceptable to tell a better story rather than the true one. If it happens to come out later that Mr. Smith was actually golfing rather than attending a briefing when he got the news about such-and-such, that is accepted merely as a “clarification.” Two examples: 1) there was a Catholic World Report article about JPII, ca. 2003, in which it said that everyone knew that the Pope had Parkinson’s, though of course Joaquin Navarro-Valls denied it. It was simply taken for granted the Navarro-Valls would lie about it. (That prompted me to write a letter to CWR, in which I pointed out that we used to call that “lying.”) 2) Around the time of the bishops’ meeting in Dallas in 2002, the head of the USCCB flew off to Rome to consult about some matters, and then flew back. While he was gone, reporters were asking if he had gone to Rome, and his press people denied it. When he got back, they said, yes, he had been in Rome. Nobody made a big deal about the lying, but all I could think is that the new era of honesty and accountability was not getting off to a good start. (I have to confess that my recollection of the details of this second example are sketchy. What sticks in my mind is the apparent unconcern with which the bishop’s representatives told a lie of convenience – and no one called them on it. It was simply to be expected that spokespeople say whatever is helpful. Truth is a secondary consideration.)

6) The rush to forgiveness. Lawler’s book is replete with examples of bishops giving wonderful send-offs to despicable people, thanking them for their years of devoted service, the gifts they brought to their ministry, etc. I can think of similar cases here in California, for example, Bishop Ziemann in Santa Rosa. Again, my recollection of the exact details is a little sketchy, but I recall an article in Catholic San Francisco in which we were basically called on to admire Ziemann because he drew the line at paying millions of dollars in hush money for his peccadilloes. A few hundred thou were doable, but he decided eight million was too much (from the diocese he had spent into a $16 million deficit). What a guy! Then there was the priest who was arrested for possession of child pornography after his rooms at the seminary were raided. (Was he the rector, or just the dean? I forget.) As quick as the next issue of Catholic SF could get out, as he was being held without bail after entering a not guilty plea, we were being reminded about the need to forgive, we’re all human, years of service, etc. My reaction was, “Hey, he’s pled not guilty. Can we at least wait till he pleads guilty before we forgive him?” Is it really necessary to give everyone, no matter what they have done, a glowing commendation? Aren’t there times where at least silence would be more appropriate?

Again, sorry for the length of this, but I feel better having put this all down. Believe it or not, I also have some positive thoughts about bishops, but I won’t try your patience any further.

Article courtesy of the California Catholic Daily

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