A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Ted Schmidt

In a recently published book Conclave, on the process of the next papal election, John L. Allen Jr., the National Catholic Reporter’s full time Vatican watcher, profiles the men who will be in the running to be the next Pope. It is a wonderful primer for anybody interested in the papal sweepstakes.

     Allen is an astute reporter who writes in a direct, honest and often witty way. He is not afraid to name the top twenty front runners, and in lesser detail, he writes capsule comments on all of the candidates. For Canadians interested in handicapping the next conclave, his analysis of Toronto’s conservative Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic is both dead on and very witty. Ditto for Montreal’s Cardinal Turcotte.

     In this column, however, I would like to focus on a cardinal under siege, Bernard Law of Boston. Law as many readers will know is the embattled archbishop of Boston, under ferocious assault by Boston Catholics for his stunningly obtuse handling of the clerical abuse scandal which has seen over 100 priests resign or be suspended in that diocese alone. In the U.S. there have been, at the end of April, over 177 priests charged or taken out of priestly commission. The resultant furore has created a crisis in confidence in the American hierarchy, and an unwanted, but in this Catholic’s mind, a long overdue scrutiny of a hierarchy increasingly distant from its people, and out of touch with the Holy Spirit of Reform and Resistance which we believe guides history and perpetually renovates the Roman Catholic Church.

     According to John L. Allen, "Law is aptly named, since he is very much a law-and-order man. He challenges anything that looks like doctrinal deviation, such as the late Cardinal Bernardin’s effort to `find common ground’ in the country’s divided Catholic Church. He once called the moderate-to-progressive Catholic Theological Society of America `a theological wasteland’…in the 1970’s as a bishop in Missouri he invited 166 members of a Vietnamese religious order which had been expelled from that Asian country."

     Allen in his humorous way, has placed Law in his first category of cardinals, the Border Patrol. These men "are theological conservatives worried about the impact on the Catholic Church of relativism and secularization." Like any serious Catholic, Allen believes we should be concerned with both trends which have infiltrated the lives of believers, "increasingly taking on the attitudes, behaviours and values of the surrounding culture." It is however, the remedy which becomes problematic. For the Border Patrol it is "doctrinal clarity," Catholicism is the truth, ecumenism is dicey, homosexuality is "disoriented" if not evil, women are not in the image of Jesus so cannot be priests, the liturgy must be safeguarded from feminist intrusions like inclusive language; priests are radically distinct from laity. The leader of the Border Patrol is Cardinal Ratzinger. On every continent, his fellow ideologues are senior prelates like Law who make sure that no one gets approved as a bishop if he does not toe a vigorous line. No sentimental choices like bishops whose fundamental concern is for the excluded and marginalized.

     Bernard Law’s personal attributes are not under the microscope here. It is Law as a type, an Episcopal template which has failed the Catholic Church and his numbers are legion. These are men who have been appointed, not because they were pastoral giants or great leaders. They were men noted for their absolute loyalty to Rome and the ultra conservative pontiff, John Paul ll. They are men with a deep loyalty to the Catholic Church of yesterday, hierarchical, authoritarian and deeply clerical. As an immigrant Catholic Church became educated and used to democratic values like transparency and accountability, as lay people became theologically educated and women took their rightful places as partners at every level of society, the governance of the church and the squandered use of lay talents became problematic. Men like Law chose to protect the institution and its clerical caste over the lives of abused victims, those whom Jesus placed on his lap and described as
the most vulnerable.

     Because a Pope with a fanatic dedication to the church discipline of celibacy chose to limit the pool of talented ministers to a shrinking caste of celibates, the universal Church suffered. It has left itself defending a system which has left half of the Church without regular Eucharists; it has ordained weak candidates to the priesthood and shuffled sex abusers around because of the shortage of mature male and female talent; it has created a ministerial class with an over preponderance of gay priests and bishops, many of whom are sexually active, and it has blatantly looked away as many priests, particularly in Latin America and Africa refused to live as celibates. As Elizabeth Abbot says in her best-selling A History of Celibacy, "How does the Vatican respond? Like a tongue-tied mute incapable of so much a squeak of disapproval." All of these are known to many educated Catholics. They are what writer Gary Wills calls, "the structures of deceit."

     Perhaps the most blatant act of hypocrisy took place in England. Here the Catholic Church with permission from Rome hastily accepted married priests, in this case a bevy of disaffected Anglicans, whose sole claim to fame was that they could not abide the ordination of women in their own Anglican communion. While generations of Catholic priests found they could not live the celibate life and exited the priesthood in the thousands, now the Church openly welcomed this crew of misogynists. One can imagine the effect this had on the morale of British priests. We know the effect it has had on Church credibility.

     Now, the whole thing is unravelling and men like Bernard Law have lost the confidence of the Catholic people. In many ways, the Canadian Catholic Church is worse, absolutely refusing to come to terms with the idea that the clerical game is over and a new Church is being called for. The denial here is really quite extraordinary and depressing.

     On June 8 in their deliberations in New Orleans, the world’s largest association of Catholic theologians absolutely rejected the narrow focus of the American hierarchy in its attempts to come to grips with clerical sex abuse. The Catholic Theological Society of America demanded "thoroughgoing church reform." Their statement unanimously endorsed by the society’s board of directors said that…"the scandals facing the church today have led us to conclude that this reform is legitimate and necessary. Public outrage has been directed not just towards the instances of clerical sex abuse themselves but towards church leadership’s systemic failure to maintain even minimally, the kind of open communication, consultation and participative decision making that ought to characterize the church as communion."

     The American bishops, including Cardinal Law, began their annual deliberations in Dallas on June 12. Should they focus solely on sex abuse reforms rather than Church governance and discipline, they may please a dying restorationist papacy, but they will further alienate themselves from the People of God who are ready and eager to begin building a renewed Catholic Church where reform bishops vastly outnumber those like Bernard Law, uninspiring men on the Border Patrol.

Ted Schmidt is Editor of Catholic New Times and the author of Shabbes Goy: A Catholic Boyhood.

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