Monday, March 10, 2003

I don't normally blog on religious issues, but the scandal in Boston—and now its disturbing aftermath in the Catholic press—have raised some questions among Catholics who have never been at odds with the Church but now find themselves, as Eileen McNamara recently wrote in the Boston Globe, Still Catholic But Changed.

Last month Richard John Neuhaus wrote a long piece in First Things about his thoughts on the scandal in Boston. As a major thinker and writer in Catholic issues in this country, he has considerable influence. It's quite obvious that he's bothered by more than the church's wrongdoing. And I think he is taking exactly the wrong route in addressing it.

For the first time I find myself deeply disagreeing with him, a man for whom I have written and whose many articles and books I have read with pleasure.

George Weigel is also entering the fray along these lines: it looks like some conservative Catholics have decided there's been enough bad press, and the best thing to do is to try and change the subject of the scandals altogether.

How? By attacking liberals in the church. By attacking the media.

I'm not a liberal. I must say, at my age, I have no patience with people who want to turn the Catholic Church into the Burger King of liberal Christianity.

Having said that, I am in the media (in however humble a capacity), and I am alarmed by the apparent strategy on the part of critics like Father Neuhaus to go after doctrinally lax clergymen in print when what he and other writers need to be doing is reminding the bishops and administrators in the Church in this country that they need to operate less like corporate bankers and more like the preservers of the Gospel Jesus Christ meant them to be.

Some items that stand out in Father Neuhaus's piece:

There is no doubt that the Catholic Church has been 'singled out'; that the incidence of sexual abuse in other religious communities, in public schools, and in social services is as high, and possibly higher, than it is in the priesthood.

He provides no evidence of this whatsoever. I for one would like to see some, with references, please. But even taking Father Neuhaus's claim as true, it misses completely the cause of the scandal—not the incidents themselves so much as the corporate style cover-up by the bishops and the Cardinal. Is Father Neuhaus prepared to argue that the incidents of cover-up in the other religious communities is as high or higher as it has been shown to be in the Catholic Church in Boston? In the U.S.?

I would like to know.

He goes on, defending Cardinal Law in the worst possible fashion:

He cared passionately about the reputation of the Church, but did not understand how practices once thought judicious are now ammunition for destroying that reputation in a new world where confidentiality is condemned as secrecy and discretion as dissembling.

Practices once thought judicious? Meaning what? Hushing everyone up? Buying them off? Threatening them?

Especially odious were the attacks occasioned by the Cardinal's letters of sympathy to priests removed from ministry. Critics exploded in high dudgeon because he wrote to one priest who was apparently guilty of serial abuses that his ministry had been a blessing to 'many people.' No doubt his ministry, despite all, had been that. The repentant priest is still a brother in Christ and ontologically—as in 'a priest forever'—still a priest. The critics would not forgive the Cardinal for not being as mean-spirited as they are.

No. Pure and simple. Not even close. What appalled Catholics about those letters was the fact that there were no corresponding letters of true sympathy and assurances written to the victims or their families. Did the bad old Boston Globe just not publish those letters out of mean spiritedness?

Or is the harsh truth that neither Cardinal Law—nor any other bishop—ever wrote one? That they never really considered the sense of betrayal that must have been felt by the children and by the parents of those assaulted?

Does Father Neuhaus think it was not a good thing that these evils were exposed? Does he prefer they should have remained hidden, festering, rotting out the core of the archdiocese? That is the impression one gets from his repeated attacks on the media. Yes they did their job and it's a good thing, he seems to be saying, but at the same time aren't they all just a bunch of low bottom-feeders. Is it not clear that if the Globe hadn't done its job, however grubby, the hierarchy certainly wasn't going to?

But Father Neuhaus can't resist falling back on the age-old excuse: anti-Catholicism in the culture and the media.

Boston is a peculiar place. The Brahmins who once indisputably ran 'the hub of the universe' and still control the media have never really accepted the presence of the great unwashed of Irish and Italian immigration. Catholic politicians, prosecutors, and judges who want to ingratiate themselves with the establishment seem to vie with one another to prove themselves as anti-Catholic as their betters.

This is just risible. Boston Brahmins still control the media? At the Boston Globe, for example, where my father wrote for years, there's Renee Loth who currently runs the editorial page; Helen Donovan is the executive editor; Steve Bailey (from North Carolina I seem to recall) is the main writer on the Business page; Eileen McNamara writes on local issues, Steve Kurkjian, Walter Robinson on news—oh yes and Derek Jackson. Boston Brahmins all??

At WCVB-TV Five, where I worked for two years in promotion and local interest programming, the General manager is Paul LaCamera—a blue blood if ever there was one??

As you can see, this claim about the Boston media is just plain ridiculous. There's no other word for it. Those unwashed Irish and Italians (and Jews) now ARE the establishment. In politics and the media. Lament, if you will, that the Irish and Italians aren't as Catholic as they should be. But the puppets of Brahmins? What Brahmins? If they're not dead, they're drunk like William Weld and writing bad novels, or running museums and WGBH.

The complaint that I and many Globe readers have these days isn't that the media is controlled by Boston Wasps—it's that the Globe doesn't hire more home-grown reporters on the beat with real roots in the neighborhoods. There are too many imports from other regions in the country.

To fall back on this kind of stereotyping just smacks of desperation. Blame the media. Blame liberal Catholics. But don't stress the fundamental question of corporate corruption in the church.

As for those liberal clerics that Father Neuhaus and other conservative Catholics are upset about, the 58 liberal priests who signed that letter asking for Cardinal Law's resignation may indeed be what Father Neuhaus calls 'the usual suspects.' They may indeed have an axe to grind and may make for boring dinner-table conversation on a nightly basis. But it was Cardinal Law who gave them the opportunity to write that letter. And by the way, a large chunk of the other more traditional conservative parish priests wanted the Cardinal out as well. Just make the rounds and ask some of them.

This is what Father Neuhaus and George Weigel don't seem to grasp about the scandal in Boston. The true dismay and loss of faith in the hierarchy (not the Church per se) has been determined by the slow, day by day, drip by drip headlined realization that the corporate structure of this archdiocese is just that. A corporate structure. Collar or no collar, the bishops have been bureaucrats in the worst sense. Their prayerfulness and piety and vocations have not preserved them in any better way from the same slinking behavior that determined the worst actions of the Enron execs. Cover-up. Denial. Obstruction. Blaming the victims, which is the worst sin of all.

And it continues, as McNamara writes. The Archdiocese of Boston is spending collection box money to hire lawyers and psychologists to attack the victims. Why? To save money? Church Property? Is it any wonder so few people turned out for the Ash Wednesday mass at the Cathedral? To see the Archdiocese engaging in such sordid tactics is demoralizing.

Maybe it's me. Maybe I don't get it. Maybe I just don't understand how a ruthless corporate culture was from the beginning meant to be an intrinsic aspect of the Catholic Church. But I'm not the only one who's wondered. There may be good reasons why the Church should act so ruthlessly toward its own parishioners. But I would love for someone to point out a reference or suggestion in the Gospel somewhere showing how Jesus foresaw and approved such corporate behavior for the men he entrusted with the task of spreading the good news.

I wish Father Neuhaus and Mr. Weigel would be aware of something. By all means, they should keep reminding us and the Bishops about Fidelity Fidelity Fidelity. That's their job as Catholic journalists. Granted. But there is something we pew-sitters expect the hierarchy in this country to be about right now.

And it is not scapegoating.

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