Far be it from me to speak ill of someone who writes kindly about my book and provides a link to Amazon so readers can buy it. A blessing on Tim Fernholz. But, he has issued a reply to my article last week, which was in turn a reply to his article in Newsweek in which he said me and Peggy Noonan were in the "mushy middle" among responses to the clergy sex abuse crisis. We appear to be talking past each other and seeing as I do not know Mr. Fernholz, I am unable to settle the matter properly over a martini and must repair to my laptop.
Let’s take on the easy points first. Fernholz writes that I misunderstand his relationship with Newsweek and is bothered by the way I described it. I plead guilty and apologize.
Second, Fernholz writes that he "was curious to see whether differing responses to the crisis from different factions within the Church, coming at a time of great political division within the laity, would affect the political manifestation of Catholic ideas, and that’s what I wrote about." He writes that "everyone I spoke to generally agreed" with the sentiment that most people were falling into the expected ideological camps in their response to the crisis, except for me and Noonan, of course. Well, he might have spoken with the two people he cites as running counter to expectations. More importantly, he only quotes people one might call "activists." I do not doubt that they might fall into expected ideological responses, but I do not believe they speak for most Catholics, any more than I think most women in American share NOW’s hyperventilation about abortion rights.
But, the important point here is not whether some activists have adopted an expected position, but whether or not they should. Fernholz, to be clear, was writing a news article and his job was to report on what he found. My blog posts here are opinion pieces. My job is to note how people are responding to the crisis, but also to call out those who are responding to it badly. And, by badly, I mean those who use the crisis to strengthen their prior, unrelated ideological arguments. So, I am on record opposing those who are trying to blame it on gays. And, I am on record opposing those who blame it on patriarchy. James Carroll and Bill Donohue are both guilty of using the crisis to bolster their ecclesiological views which is an additional disservice to the actual victims who want real answers to their problems, not ideologico-ecclesiastical agitprop.
Third, Fernholz quotes my observation: "It is our confidence in the fact that our sins are forgiven that makes us holy." He asks: "Is it also this confidence that made the hierarchy so callous and unrepentant about these scandals?" It is a fair question. It is not hard to see how some hierarchs viewed their sinning priests as errant sons, as prodigals, and were all too quick to believe their promises of amendment. It is also true – and let’s be perfectly clear on this – a bishop does owe even a pedophile the promise of God’s mercy. He does not owe him another assignment working around children. This was the mistake and, yes, it was callous to make such a mistake when the lives of children were at stake. As for "unrepentant"? I do not think that adjective characterizes any American bishop. Certainly, I cannot think of a comment by any of them that would count of evidence of such an attitude but given some of the things they say about the President, perhaps I missed it. Most American bishops, I believe, have adopted the policy of meeting with the victims, apologizing for the crimes against them repeatedly, and of leading the flock in prayer and reflection and penance for those crimes.
The real issue between Fernholz and me is this. He writes: "This is not a discussion of what makes us Christian, this is a discussion of how we live as Christians." To which I reply: Who says? It is not news to me that bishops can act badly. Have your read the Gospels? The apostles are often clueless and dense. The Pope is the successor of Peter, you know, the one who denied Jesus three times. More importantly, I do not believe the application of religion to the world is the heart of the matter. Put differently, I resist the reduction of religion to ethics, the replacement of the question about what makes us a Christian with the questions about how we live as Christians. Nor am I alone. The press only pays attention to Pope Benedict when there is a crisis in the air, but one of the central themes of his pontificate has been to resist this reduction of religion to ethics. It doesn’t matter whether it is conservatives thinking it is enough to be a good Catholic to not use contraception and cast some aspersions at gays or liberals who think the Church’s primary purpose is the attainment of social justice. A religion reduced to ethics will come to lean on the authority of its arguments, and the authority of the Church is found elsewhere. Put differently, contra Fernholz, it is ALWAYS a discussion of what makes us Christian, it is always about first theological principles, it is always about God and, just so, derivatively about us.
The heart of the faith is not its application to the world. The Creed which we recite every Sunday does not tell us what to do: It tells us who we are by revealing who God is. Gaudium et Spes #22 remains the key text, pointing as it does to the retrieval of a proper Christian anthropology: "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” Catholicism is not, fundamentally, about our good deeds or bad. It is about God’s ineffable forbearance. That is the good news. The bad news is that, like the apostles and their successors, we seem only capable of stumbling along as if we were not, in fact, created in the image and likeness of God.