The National Catholic Review

Newsweek, in an article by Tim Fernholz, has accused me and Peggy Noonan of occupying the "mushy middle" in the discussion of the clergy sex abuse crisis. I have been called many things, but "mushy" is not one of them. If anything, my worry is that the blogger’s calling to be provocative sometimes overwhelms my Christian obligation to charity, that a bit of sharp writing will be mistaken for a sharp elbow. Besides, my posts on the subject of clergy sex abuse and the reporting on that subject can be summed up in one non-mushy sentence: I expect bishops and reporters to do their job.

But, the more obnoxious part of Fernholz’s claim is that there is a "middle" on the issue of clergy sex abuse that somehow corresponds to the standard left v. right ideological divides in Catholic circles. My conservative friends have been as horrified by the abuse and the cover-up of the abuse as my liberal friends. My liberal friends have been as concerned about the shoddy quality of reporting as my conservative friends. Yes, some kookie analysts want to blame homosexuality for the crisis and others want to blame the patriarchy. Most people understand, as Morna Murray, President of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told Newsweek, that the sex abuse crisis makes all of us sad, not ideologically motivated. As well, it need hardly be pointed out that conservative prelates like Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos and liberal prelates like Archbishop Weakland both missed the bus on the issue of clergy sex abuse. If you are not upset by the molestation and rape of children, you are not a liberal or a conservative; you are morally blind. And, if you are not profoundly concerned at the extent to which such moral idiocy governed the actions of way too many hierarchs, you are not a child of Vatican II nor a devotee of Trent; you are obtuse.

Fernholz strains to make his argument. For example, he quotes the last line of a thoughtful, balanced essay that appeared in these pages by the canonical and legal scholar Nicholas Cafardi. In that essay, Cafardi argued that the bishops lost some of their pro-life credibility because of the partisan way they came down on the health care debate. I actually disagree with Cafardi on this point: I think the bishops were wrong but I do not think they squandered their moral authority, only their political relevance. But, Cafardi emphatically did not suggest that any loss of credibility on health care somehow carried over to a loss of credibility on sex abuse, or vice-versa.

The most offensive part of the Newsweek story, however, is the subtitle of the article. (N.B. Writers do not get to write the headlines of their articles, so here my beef is not with Fernholz but with his editors.) The headline and sub-head read: "Opportunity in Crises; The Catholic left hopes to disentangle Catholic morality from the church hierarchy." Well, I am as good an example of the Catholic left I can think of, and I have no such wish. In fact, I recognize that no such wish is possible and that it is not just foolish, but pernicious, to suggest such a disentanglement is possible. Not because the bishops are always right about morals, but because both the Catholic hierarchy and Catholic morals are derived from the same authority, from the authority of Jesus Christ. You can’t divorce one from the other because you can’t divorce either from Him, even when we human instruments of His will get it horribly wrong.

In his brilliant essay "The Difference between a Genius and an Apostle" Kierkegaard writes "If [the apostle] Paul is to be regarded as a genius, then it looks bad for him; only pastoral ignorance can hit upon the idea of praising him aesthetically, because pastoral ignorance has no criterion but thinks like this: If only one says something good about Paul, then it is alright….Such thoughtless eloquence could equally well hit upon the idea of praising Paul as a stylist and an artist with words or, even better, since it is well known that Paul also carried on a trade, claim that his work as tent maker must have been such perfect masterwork that no tapestry maker, either before or later, has been able to make anything so perfect….then comes the earnestness, the earnestness – that Paul is an apostle."

Mind you, I am not such a huge fan of Kierkegaard. Like Balthasar, I have never forgiven him for condemning Mozart and, more generally, his denial of a Christian aesthetic shows one of the principal differences between a Catholic imagination and a Protestant one. Still, he is on to something. What is decisive for a Catholic is not what happened at the USCCB last month, nor what happened, or didn’t happen, at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1985. What is decisive is what happened on a hillside in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, what happened when Francis first kissed a leper, and what happened when Jeanne Jugan first took in the elderly poor and gave them love so that they could die with dignity. The Church is not the Church because she has great pastors. The Church is not the Church because of the profoundness of her social teachings or even because of her commitment to justice. The Church is the Church because she loves Christ and encounters Him here and now in the poor, the suffering and the marginalized. We encounter Him, too, when we feel impoverished, when we are overwhelmed by suffering and we are marginalized by our own incompetence or capacity for evil, and have the courage to admit our need for His grace.

Yes, we want competent bishops. Yes, we want to help the poor. But, it is our love, not our agendas, that makes us Christian. It is our confidence in the fact that our sins are forgiven that makes us holy. It is our sure hope that death and sin are not the last words on human existence that makes us apostles of the Crucified who is Risen. It is still Easter. No matter how health care turned out. No matter what bishop covered up what crime. The editors at Newsweek may try and conflate the failings of Christians with the authority of the Church, but they misunderstand the source of authority in the Church. There is no ideological spin to place upon the acute fact of the empty tomb.

Michael Sean Winters

 

Comments

Michael Liddy | 4/26/2010 - 10:50am
MSW has such reasoned and well-written pieces on religion. What exactly happens to him when he writes about politics? This is not about political disagreement; it's about a writer who argues logically about religion and emotionally about politics. I hope that America will switch to a more balanced political writer and allow MSW to focus on his particular strength.

david power | 4/23/2010 - 1:27pm
I agree with the first commentator,most journalists that write for Newsweek or Time are too busy or lazy to delve into the subtle nuances of problems and so prefer an either/or.MSW again has written a very enjoyable piece that is only blighted by the fact that it is not joined up to a more comprehensive theme in his writing.A talented writer like this could write a great book on the catholic faith,for the ages,if he stopped blathering on about Obama and Republicans who will both be gone in the twinkling of a divine eye.The gift to link the seemingly incidental with the greater project we are all wrapped up in should not be wasted. 
Mark Harden | 4/23/2010 - 1:24pm
Abe,
 
As MSW shows, our faith is based on the authority of Jesus Christ: ''both the Catholic hierarchy and Catholic morals are derived from the same authority, from the authority of Jesus Christ. You can’t divorce one from the other because you can’t divorce either from Him, even when we human instruments of His will get it horribly wrong.''
 
A priest abusing children or a bishop covering up such abuse no more changes the teachings, the authority of the church, than the moral failing of a schoolteacher changes the fact that 2+2=4. Thus, to lose one's faith in the Catholic Church because of the sexual abuse scandal reflects a complete misunderstanding of the authority of the church.
Mark Harden | 4/23/2010 - 11:07am
Well spoken, MSW, thank you.
 
''The editors at Newsweek may try and conflate the failings of Christians with the authority of the Church, but they misunderstand the source of authority in the Church.''
 
Is this not also the correct response to those Catholics who claim that their faith in the Church is somehow ''lost'' because of the sexual abuse crisis? Do they not also misunderstand the source of authority in the church?
 
A schoolteacher writes ''2+2=4'' on the blackboard. Immediately the door opens and a sheriff with a search warrant takes the teacher away in handcuffs. Look back to the blackboard: does 2+2 not still equal 4?
Peter Lakeonovich | 4/23/2010 - 10:54am
Michael, well done. You have certainly used these troubled times to stand up for the truth of what the Church is.

To make your point more complete - that "we encounter Him here and now in the poor, the suffering and the marginalized. We encounter Him, too, when we feel impoverished, when we are overwhelmed by suffering and we are marginalized by our own incompetence or capacity for evil, and have the courage to admit our need for His grace" - I would just add that there is also a spiritual dimension where we encounter Christ personally and not just through others. Both are important.

And it is the Church, primarily through the grace bestowed through the Sacraments, that draws us into that deep relationship with Christ. It is what sets the Catholic church apart from and above all others. It is why you will not see the faithful leaving the Chuch in any significant numbers. It is why you will continue to see others joining the Church in significant numbers.

Nothwithstanding the above, we are at our best as a Church when we have holy pastors - like Sts. Peter and Paul - to unify us and lead us.
John Raymer | 4/23/2010 - 8:56am
Thank you Michael Sean. You have once again explained why I became Catholic in the first place. You have expressed our deep hopes that our bishops will do their jobs. You have affirmed that there is no middle ground in the abuse scandal and that it cannot be "put in perspective" or rationalized in any way that is true to our faith. You have also rejected the attempts by many to make it a question of modernism verus traditionalism, liberal versus conservative, or any of the other silly dichotomies fomented by our culture of news. Keep up the good work.