News Archive

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle...

Seattle Catholic is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Seattle
Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
27 Apr 2002
Birds of a Feather

by Peter Miller

Several themes for wayward cardinals

In the midst of what has become perhaps the single biggest event involving the American Catholic hierarchy in decades, religious and secular presses alike have been flooded with reports, commentaries, excuses, explanations and promises. The U.S. Cardinals, having traveled to and returned from Rome, are now voicing excitement and optimism for the future.

Rather than trying to give a comprehensive report on the matter, I decided to take a page from the Vatican's own official release and dedicate my analysis to some of the "themes" raised over the past several weeks.

THEME 1: Deflecting the Blame

In what was destined to create a confrontation eventually, some Church leaders (e.g. Cardinal Bevilacqua) are now publicly acknowledging the fact that the molestation of teenage boys indicates homosexual rather than pedophilic behavior. Hanging on to the na´ve hope of keeping the debate centered around the actions of bishops and evils of Catholicism, some members of the secular press have lashed out against what they consider a "shifting of the blame" to the innocent and victimized homosexual clergy. For a lesson in "liberal logic," see William Saletan's Slate article ( or Leonard Pitts Jr.'s "work" in the Miami Herald (

While it can generally be agreed that the bishops are to blame, it is primarily because of the fact they defied directives and let homosexually-oriented persons become priests. Just because bishops are to blame, does not mean it's not a homosexual problem. If a shepherd enlisted wolves to watch over his sheep then tried to shuffle around and give therapy to those who attacked the flock, he would be horribly negligent, but he'd still have a wolf problem to deal with. As we know, the root of that problem is not reaction time after the first attack but employing the wolves' assistance in the first place. Sure they'll be animal-rights groups who will claim that not all wolves attack sheep and there's nothing inherently wrong with them, but the statistics don't and won't back them up.

But the blame game works both ways. On days they aren't defending gays, liberals are placing the blame on the Church for not allowing married priests, female priests, children priests, voodoo priests, priests by committee, computer priests, etc.

THEME 2: Trojan Horses of Glass

In another predictable and transparent move, liberal "Catholic" groups have seen this as the biggest opportunity since Vatican II (and until the death of John Paul II) to foist their pet causes upon the Church. Three of these in particular have come to the forefront:

First, feminists point to the surprising statistic that zero percent of the abusive priests were females as a good argument for female ordination — an "issue" still seen as debatable to most Catholics in the country. Short of that, the accompanying argument is made that women should be in leadership positions on the diocesan and parochial levels to help keep priests in line. As if it's a given that priests by their very nature (rather than the candidates selected) are an uncontrollable threat to society.

The abolition of clerical celibacy is the next agenda item to push. A secular world that doesn't understand such concepts as supernatural gifts and sacrifice finds it hard to understand why priests are "forced" to remain celibate — a seemingly "unnatural lifestyle" (unlike sodomy of course). Supported by media-proclaimed "Catholic experts" like Richard McBrien who proclaims celibacy "all but dead," most of those with a short-term memories wonder why the Church is hanging on to such an old-fashioned idea. Something tells me that even if given the option, a homosexual priest would not take a wife. But of course lurking in that same Trojan horse is the ability for a non-celibate priest to be "married" to a same-sex "partner."

The final and perhaps most insidious reform being pushed is the democratization of the Church. At first it may seem like a logical reaction to the crisis — if bishops were more accountable to the laity, the secrecy and cover-ups would not have happened. And if people had more say in Church decisions, they are less likely to make the same mistakes. My response is twofold. First, even if a democratic majority would not make the same mistakes, they would make all sorts of new ones. The idea of power and authority derived from the people, a doctrine ingrained into the psyches of most Americans and United Nationites, reverses the hierarchical model of the Church and the Divine authority of Christ the King. Once democratic control is given over matters of governance, doctrine and morals won't be far behind for these newly-empowered citizens. Secondly, just as secular representation is no safeguard against political scandal, further involvement of the laity offers no guarantee against such events and cover-ups in the Church. Across the country, parishes and diocesan commissions are already under the influence or direct control of a lay committee or a non-ordained administrator. And as for the scandals that have come out, the information was not limited to the bishop and a couple priests but included therapists, lawyers, advisors and doctors. Scandalous behavior could just as easily be carried out by a corrupt lay committee as a corrupt bishop. Replacing the perpetrators doesn't alleviate the need for honest behavior unless you subscribe to the same clerical myth that bishops by their very nature are unqualified to perform their given functions. As hard as our bishops are trying to prove this point, it still must be rejected as false. Finally, in a perhaps not entirely unintentional irony, bishops who have favored an increase in lay roles may be aided in the cause by their very actions. The concealment and scandal perpetuated by bishops and priests will help justify their efforts towards a lay-run Church.

THEME 3: Collegiality and Governance

The initial assault on the hierarchy of the Church instituted by Christ came not from the laity but from the bishops. The idea of distributed governance known in the Church as "collegiality" has been a novel trend growing over the past century which received a significant boost at the Second Vatican Council. Collegiality is based upon the dissenting idea that a true hierarchy "fails to respect the dignity...of individual bishops" and a council of bishops in a given country is more qualified to determine guidelines appropriate to those local Catholics. Some of the chief advocates of this concept, like Cardinal Suenens, extended collegiality to mean that no directive can be imposed in a locale without the consent of its bishops — a practice that American bishops pretty much adopted years ago. Suenens further rejected papal infallibility on Faith and morals, maintaining that an ecumenical council is the only arbiter of such Truth.

The ability to cloak disobedience and dissent as collegiality was learned very quickly in the American hierarchy and has necessitated a number of Vatican directives; most of which were ignored, delayed or rendered useless through revision (Dominicae Cenae, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Ecclesia Dei and Ex Corde Ecclesia to name a few). Recall that it was the refusal of bishops to enforce the 1961 directive against ordaining homosexuals that has, more than any other factor, contributed to this crisis. Considering this, is the Catholic Church in America better or worse off because of the widespread adoption of "ecclesial collegiality"? Should not bishops in America follow the direction of their superiors rather than their own prideful notions?

Certainly collegiality did not originate in America and even a local episcopacy completely in line with post-Conciliar Rome leaves much to be desired, but the less Catholic and more segregated the Church becomes, the more resistant it's going to be to true reform. In a crisis so widespread as the one the Church now faces, there is little hope beyond a strong Pope willing to exercise his Divinely-instituted authority. A reforming Pope like St. Gregory VII or St. Pius V who is enough removed from the Conciliar era to objectively evaluate its disastrous effects and restore the Church in all its former glory. The necessary reforms are not going to come from a council of bishops worrying about asserting independence and public relations campaigns.

THEME 4: The Art of Public Relations

In case there were still some individuals clinging to the notion of a humble and hesitant bishop desperately longing for the salvation of souls assigned to his care, recent events have unmistakably shown otherwise. Through the testimony of victims and lawyers, the tactics of these bishops have been exposed. Whether it's calculated deception, legal harassment or damage control, these bishops know how to play these game as well as any executive or politician. The testimony given from Cardinal Mahony's own emails show the impressive (yet frightening) level of public relations talent these men possess. But that's all child's play compared to politics in the Vatican.

The announcement that American Cardinals were being "summoned" to Rome roused extreme adulation from the band of cheerleaders holding out the strange hope that Rome is finally solving all of America's problems. Seeing as how this routine seems to play itself out every couple years when Rome gives a directive that ends up being rejected, revised or ignored, it seems strange that the optimistic perception of Rome as a savior is so prevalent in "conservative" circles. One is reminded of those individuals repeatedly predicting dates which mark the end of the world, undeterred by the annoying reality that all previous dates have been wrong and the existence of the world persists.

Others had different ideas about what was going to take place in Rome. Cardinal Mahony even had the gall to consider this an opportunity to make a case for the end of clerical celibacy. He was the most prominent of those hoping to sail their Trojan horses over to the Vatican in hopes the Pope may finally catch on to what fringe dissidents have been saying all along.

What actually took place appears to be something in between an admonition and a listening session, and perhaps more of a grand scale public relations effort spearheaded by the Vatican. There was understandable confusion around some of the results which amounted to not so much of a solid policy as a set of ideas for further discussion. Much was made in the media of the differentiation between policies for "notorious serial" offenders and other, lesser-known predators who were just starting out. This was undoubtedly a silly distinction for the Cardinals to make and the appearance of favoritism overshadowed the substance of the difference which probably involved new defrocking procedures. Even such, a directive is only as good as the one enforcing it, so I wouldn't get too excited about a "no tolerance" policy in and of itself.

Most of the other "guidelines" to come out of the meeting mirrored policies most dioceses already have in place (although some just recently). Notifying local authorities, taking accused priests out of active ministry while investigations are going on, etc. are all obvious moves that gain no additional force when reiterated in Vatican City.

Despite the public relations faux pax in how they released the two-pronged approach, there were a couple other dumb statements to come out of the Vatican excursion:

  1. In a letter to priests, the U.S. cardinals expressed the mother of all euphemisms by saying: "We regret that episcopal oversight has not been able to preserve the church from this scandal." 1 Is the systematic promotion of homosexual ordination, defiance of Church governance and cover-up of sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over decades really adequately described as an "episcopal oversight"? This was not a post-it note that accidentally dropped out of one priests file, nor was it a mild or innocent mistake. Are the ones who orchestrated this mess so na´ve as to think double-checking their work next time will make everything better? Come on now.

  2. USCCB President Bishop Wilton Gregory said after the conference that there was a "growing consensus, certainly among the faithful, among the bishops, that it's too great a risk to assign a priest who has abused a child to another ministry." 2 It's nice to see that after multiple bishops were publicly embarrassed for their horribly negligent handling of sexual predators, the acceptance of something so obvious is "growing." One day, I hope for all bishops to realize that sex abusers shouldn't be in "ministry" but I'd hate to rush them.

  3. In responding to Chris Ferrara's question about homosexuals in the priesthood, Bishop Gregory said that "it is an ongoing struggle to make sure that the Catholic priesthood is not dominated by homosexual men." 3 Exactly what steps have bishops taken in this "struggle"? Would this be a "struggle" at all if the 1961 Vatican directive against ordaining homosexuals had been followed? Is a homosexual clergy acceptable as long as it doesn't "dominate" and is perhaps kept under 50%?

A fitting conclusion to the public relations campaign would seem to be the removal of Cardinal Bernard Law from office. Most of the public were not persuaded by the impromptu Vatican visit and the effort to restore trust should have a sacrificial lamb. Although an "unnamed Cardinal" leaked to the Los Angeles Times (um, that would be Mahony) his intentions to discuss Law's removal, the topic did not come up. Public relations aside, the moral thing for the Pope to do would be acknowledge that Cardinal Law failed in one of his most basic duties and should not be a bishop. But applying that criteria to remove only one bishop would be a double standard obvious to all. Even such, I predict that financial hardships faced by the Boston Archdiocese will adversely affect their social programs and force Law's resignation.

THEME 5: Strikes, Balls and Fouls

Early on in the Vatican meetings was mentioned the idea of a "one strike, you're out" policy for defrocking clerical sex abusers. Although it morphed into a "lots of strikes and public exposure, you're out; otherwise, we'll see" suggestive guideline, it still misses the point. Even the toughest reactive policy enforced by the toughest bishop in the world is still an imperfect solution. Everyone needs to stop pretending they don't know the common characteristic running through over 90% of these cases! This isn't a wait and see situation. Homosexuals should not be able to come up to the plate and take a swing. They shouldn't even be on the team. The problem lies in the bath houses and beauty salons posing as Spring Training camps.

But enough of that metaphor. One not entirely unacceptable aspect to come out of this meeting was a Vatican acknowledgement of where the roots of the problem lie:

Which has been tried before and was hijacked by American bishops and dioceses who told the visitors what they wanted to hear. The state of seminaries in this country has never recovered from their collapse in the late 1960's and, as with the other directives, what is said is infinitely less important than what is done.

THEME 6: Rebuilding with Demolition Experts

Just as new and improved reactive policies are worthless without stopping the problem at its source, the reason seminaries were allowed to get so bad has another, underlying problem — modernism ... or neo-modernism or progressivism or liberalism, whatever you want to call it. This crisis is not a crisis of homosexuals or the result of an "episcopal oversight." It is a fundamental failure of the leaders of the Church.

The official statement to come out of the conference contained a passage that applies just as well to Church leaders in Rome as to bishops in America:

This acknowledges that the pastors have failed, and can apply to matters of Faith as well as morals. As obviously evil and horrible as it is, sexual abuse is just one of problems strangling the Church. The only reason it is being addressed is because secular media organizations were willing to shine a spotlight on it. But what about those issues the media will never care about? Those crimes infinitely more grievous as they endanger the souls of millions. If Law should be removed for jeopardizing the safety of children, so should almost the entire American episcopacy for jeopardizing the souls of children. The Church's primary mission is the salvation of souls but the new policies, emergency Vatican meetings and whole focus have revolved around a non-spiritual matter. When will we see public apologies and new policies for heretical sermons, sex education programs, blasphemous liturgies, scandalous ecumenical charades and the toleration of every error, perversion and novelty imaginable?

The bishops who have orchestrated the demolition of the Church, both here and abroad, are not qualified to rebuild it. The problem is not one of failed policy, it is one of leadership. Working to construct the deadliest sword in the world is not going to do any good unless there is a bishop man enough to wield it — a bishop willing to take a moral stand for the Catholic Faith without concern for public acceptance, media relations, angering subordinates, offending non-Catholics or causing a schism. Such a man is diametrically opposed to what a majority of bishops have become and he will not be formed through conferences, discussion groups and workshops. He is a future Pope who will see this devastated vineyard for what it is and by the Grace of God, restore His Church.

Peter Miller
Seattle, WA

1 Vatican Information Service, "U.S. Cardinals Letter To Priests" (4/25/2002)
2 Agence France-Presse, "US Cardinals Announce Sex-Abuse Recommendations" (4/25/2002)
3 Associated Press, "Vatican Sex Abuse Summit Leaves Much Unresolved" (4/25/2002)
4 Vatican Information Service, "Sex Abuse: Solidarity with Victims, Severity With Offenders" (4/25/2002)
5 Ibid.
© Copyright 2001-2006 Seattle Catholic. All rights reserved.