Sunday, April 30, 2006

The song remains the same

The Chicago Tribune reports today that Bishop Joseph Imesch of Joliet has offered a Chicago priest "any parish he wants" after that priest convinced his brother to report a sexual assault that occurred in 1975. Imesch's offer came after Father Michael Knotek asked Cardinal Francis George of Chicago to intervene in his brother George's case. George (the brother, not the cardinal) was assaulted by his parish priest when as a 16-year-old he went to inquire about going the seminary.

You can read the whole story yourself--I'm barely scratching the surface--but this kind of corruption is revolting to say the least. Setting aside what Imesch was actually trying to accomplish--maybe to get Michael to pressure his brother to keep quiet?--this is just another sign of how bishops think their dioceses are personal fiefdoms, with parishes as prizes at the ecclesial swapmeet. The diocese of Joliet claims it has no record of the offer (!!). That should surprise no one, since usually people don't keep records of bribes.

Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, this offer came in 2002--after the U.S. bishops passed their charter for the protection of young people. Another sign that these bishops have changed not at all.

This is truly the last straw. Imesch should resign; actually he should have resigned after his incredibly callous testimony about past sex abuse in his diocese a few months ago. The fact that bishops behave in this was is a scandal as severe as sexual abuse itself. If anyone is "destroying the church," as so many are claiming sex abuse victims are with crippling lawsuits, it is these bishops, who, in their contempt for the people of God are making a mockery of the gospel and the church's mission.

Friday, April 28, 2006

And now back to the bedroom

But we're still on the environment: B16 today described an "eclipse of love" that is causing lower birthrates. Now, I understand he's worried about the fact Europeans aren't making babies at "replacement rates," but look around: We human beings are consuming the world, warming the atmosphere, and making life difficult for not only every other species, but also for the 2 billion homo sapiens that are trying to scrape by on $2 a day. I'm not sure further population growth is what we need--unless we intend to develop warp drive and colonize other planets, which I'm up for. Anyone else?

How about we question a basic assumption here: Population growth is not necessarily a good thing. We're asking for big trouble by growing further. Pandemics, ecological devastation, economic disaster, and revolution if we're not careful. (Too many super poor and only a few super rich is bad for peace and quiet.)

Besides, Genesis doesn't say "Fill the earth and consume it." There are surely other ways to develop our capacity for selfless love. Maybe we could start with making some sacrifices for the sake of the rest of God's creation.

Out of the bedroom and into the ecosystem

Since a reader has complained that I criticize the church for too much bedroom politics but then focus on it myself, let's turn to the environment. In a move that raises at least my eyebrows, the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is encouraging the continued development of nuclear energy for civil use--on the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster! In fact, Cardinal Renato Martino saw a silver lining in the catastrophe, according to Zenit (, 4/27 dispatch): It allowed "innumerable initiatives of solidarity flourish, directed in a special way to children," which I guess refers to relief efforts, but I think we can all agree that we don't need nuclear accidents that devastate entire areas for decades to work on solidarity.

Now perhaps Martino is trying to gently intervene in the Iran dispute, but you'd think a more responsible outlook would be to encourage the expansion of renewable energy sources rather than another reckless expansion of nuclear power that will produce further tons of eternally radioactive waste.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

I think this qualifies as in bad taste

The Insurgent, a newspaper associated with the University of Oregon, has generated some, uh, controversy over two cartoons of Jesus in a--how to put this delicately--state of arousal. I'll not put the images here, but you can follow this link to the story; don't worry, the images have been "altered for propriety" as WorldNetDaily puts it. Since one features Jesus on the cross and the other is a "resurrection" image of him kissing another man--well, let's just say, let the browser beware.

The editors claim that they are trying to point out how offensive the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were to Muslims by deliberately offending Christians. While their method qualifies as puerile and completely unimaginative, their point is well taken.

Bill Donahue of the Catholic League disagrees, of course, and has fired off a letter to the university referring to the cartoons as "the most egregious examples of hate speech targeted at Christians" and "so gratuitously offensive that only the most depraved would defend them." Don't hold back, Bill.

Not wanting to appear depraved, I won't defend the cartoons, although I think we should follow Jesus on this one and turn the other cheek. Perhaps one of the reasons people publish these kinds of things is because they know that people like Donahue will get all in a lather and bring the offenders further publicity.

Catholic condoms?

I was out of town when this one hit, but it seems the Vatican is finally listening to its better angels on condom promotion in HIV prevention. As if in response to Cardinal Martini's comments last week on the issue, the Holy See said it would soon release a study requested by Pope Benedict on the issue, according to the BBC; Martini had called the use of condoms by couples in which one partner was HIV-positive would be a "lesser evil" than risking the infection of the negative partner.

Of course, I think this is a total no-brainer, but anything that would free Catholic aid agencies, which provide the majority of HIV-prevention in a lot of poor areas of the world, to add condoms to their prevention efforts is a good thing.

The better thing would be to allow married couples to follow their consciences in this matter, of course, but don't expect that any time soon. Already Zenit (, click on the 4/25 daily dispatch) is reporting that the head of the pontifical council preparing the study is pointing out that his organization cannot make any change in teaching and that the study is for "internal dialogue." Unfortunately, as far as many in Rome are concerned, even the smallest opening toward condoms would be equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading ultimately in many of their minds to gay marriage--you know, that big slippery slope.

Time will tell, of course, but there's too much pressure and too many good reasons--even theological ones--for changing the Catholic tune on condoms and HIV. The sooner the better.

Let the spin begin ...

Opus Dei is on the offensive as it awaits (with fear and trembling?) the release of The Da Vinci Code movie on May 19. Voice of America, of all outlets, posted this profile.

It's hard to feel sorry for Opus on this one. The can't refuse to identify members or explicitly name their ministries and then complain when they're accused of secrecy. And, although I doubt they're as sinister as Dan Brown makes them in his WORK OF FICTION (!!!), for a group of only 80,000, they exert incredible influence in a church of 1.2 billion.

So no more whining, OK?

Friday, April 21, 2006

If only he were pope...

In an interview with the Italian magazine L'Espresso, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, one-time papal contender and former archbishop of Milan, says what I know many Catholics are thinking: Not only does he argue condoms should be use to prevent the spread of HIV, he says it's better that abortion is legal than illegal (while saying governments should do everything they can to reduce abortion rates) and that it's better for even single women to carry IVF embryos to term rather than to destroy them or leave them frozen forever. Unfortunately, there is no English translation of the Italian interview, so we have to rely on new stories for the info. If you can read Italian, here's the real deal.

Of course, it's the abortion piece that will be the most controversial, and I imagine that there will be pressure for Martini to retract it, though at his age and stage of career, I don't see why he would. And let's be honest, we Catholic liberals (and I bet more than a few moderates and even conservatives) are a bit conflicted about abortion. We (or at least I) want to be unequivocably prolife but at the same time don't think abortion should be illegal in every case and that there are probably more politically possible and equally effective ways of reducing abortion rates than criminalization (comprehensive sex ed with good information about birth control methods, free pre- and post-natal health care, economic support for pregnant women and women with young children, you name it). And I think we can agree that the all-or-nothing, us-versus-them, pro-choice-versus-prolife approach has achieved absolutely nothing in the U.S. over the past 33 years.

So thank God Cardinal Martini has taken the chance on opening the can of worms on these issues. It's been time for grown up conversations about all these issues for decades.

Society's spring swoon

That would be the Cardinal Newman Society, which has just issued its latest rant against Catholic colleges and universities and the people upon whom they bestow honorary degrees. May favorite part of this year's statement is the reason Newman gives for why the University of Notre Dame should not be honoring Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland, as covered by Catholic World News:

" 'McAleese was a vocal dissident from the Church's infallible teaching on the male priesthood, and her statements about Vatican leaders have been strident and offensive.' The group quoted a statement McAleese made at a 1995 conference on women's ordination: 'If I truly believed that Christ was the authority for the proposition that women are to be excluded from priesthood by virtue simply of their gender, I would have to say emphatically that this is a Christ in whose divinity I do not and will not and cannot believe.' The Irish president was also a legal adviser at the founding of Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.

" 'We are not eager to protest an honor for the leader of Ireland,' said Patrick J. Reilly, the CNS president. "The country and its President deserve respect, and we admire President McAleese's positions on abortion and other issues. But our concern is whether a Catholic university is scandalizing students and others by honoring a harsh and vocal critic of the Church who has publicly opposed infallible teaching."

Glad the Society is out there defending us from the scandal of strident women, especially because one who criticizes "infallible" teaching about the all-male priesthood. (Incidentally, the consensus among theologians is that the teaching is not infallible.)

Now I ask all five of you out there, do you want to belong to the "church" that the Society is defending. It sounds like some kind of strange mind-control organization, where someone's exercise of her right to free speech (guaranteed by canon law) about a disputed matter can make her a persona non grata forever. (After all, her statement about women's ordination was made ELEVEN YEARS AGO.)

The Society and groups like it, including the Catholic League, are in the end crisis creators, constantly denouncing in shrill tones anyone with whom they disagree, claiming victimhood (the League especially) while wildly misrepresenting Catholic tradition and teaching in the process.

Happily, the Society was soundly defeated in its attempt to prevent Notre Dame from holding performances of the Vagina Monologues and the queer film festival, much less in preventing McAleese from being honored. Let's hope that other Catholic institutions display the spine ND's president did. We Catholics don't need another ecclesial Big Brother to tell us what we can and can't think and say; we have too much of that as it is.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The money pit

Now on to the U.S. bishops: An audit of the Boston archdiocese's books reveals a $46 million operating deficit, due primarily to reduced revenue. And why aren't the people of God in Boston giving? A combination of parish closings (about 80, almost a third of the Boston's parishes) and sex-abuse fallout. Definitely bad news for Boston.

There is a silver lining: Groups like Voice of the Faithful are happy that they're beginning to get some of the financial transparency they deserve. Whether they're going to get real structural change is another question, of course. I say don't hold your breath on that one.

One really bad sign for Boston, however, is the $135 million in liabilities it owes its own pension fund. Like so many corporations, Boston relied too much on the stock market and compounded that mistake by underfunding its pension plan for priests. Hope you guys have been saving.

Of course, the financial ruin of the institutional Catholic churches (the dioceses) are still only beginning. Earlier this week, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles lost in his attempt to keep the personnel files of priests accused of abuse sealed by citing "pastoral privilege" (which sounds disturbingly similar to the "executive privilege" that another large institution constantly invokes). The Supreme Court refused Mahony's appeal of a lower court decision ordering the files released, which is a big go-ahead for more than 500 sex-abuse lawsuits against the archdiocese. Liabilities could reach $1 billion. That's right, $1 billion. The sex-abuse scandal has already cost about $1.5 billion.

It took a lot to wake up the people of God in Boston; let's hope it takes less in places like L.A. Laypeople really need to organize around this by joining Voice of the Faithful or Call to Action or by in some other way to get some accountability out of these bishops. After all, the money they're spending the church's (that is, the people's) money. Sheep of Christ's flock, rise up!

OK, so they should probably find someone else to come up with a slogan.

Benedict XVI turn I

Get it, Roman numeral I!!! Hilarious...

Nearly as hilarious has been the coverage of B16's first anniversary: The story: not much to tell. Nearly every single story points out that Papa Ratzi has neither burned liberals at the stake (for which they express their relief) nor enshrined the Catholic neo-cons in positions of absolute power (for which they express disappointment). All this means that the sum of their reportage focuses on B16's alarming fashion sense, which has included everything from Prada shoes to a Renaissance-era white-fur-lined stocking cap.

A treatment you might miss appeared in the Times of Malta of all places, which argues quite rightly that Benedict is a true Catholic conservative, which means the tradition he is trying to "conserve" is that embodied by the likes of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, rather than that invented in the past 27 years by JPII. (Note that B16 has said nothing of John Paul's "theology of the body," a theological innovation if there ever was one. And a crappy one at that.)

Of course, B16's newfound theological pacificism leaves liberals like me nothing to foam at the mouth about. (Luckily, the stunning incompetence of the U.S. bishops is another question altogether. See the next post.) The ship is still sinking, of course, and our professorial pope is not likely to do anything about it, but at least no one is running around with torches trying to set fire to dissidents in the meantime.

I think that's about as close to "the glass is half full" I can get...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Hysterical hierarch

I'm totally slammed with work, but I have to pass this one along: Archbishop Alfred Hughes of New Orleans has closed St. Augustine Parish, one of the oldest African American parishes in the country (founded in 1841), because it has been "desecrated." How, you might ask?

By it's own people, it turns out, who were protesting its merger with nearby Peter Claver, which would leave St. Augustine open only for Masses, weddings, and funerals but without its own members, leadership, and pastor. The protesters, including the president of its pastoral council, evidently interrupted Sunday Mass. and are now are occupying the rectory. Said parish council president Sandra Gordon: "We will continue to peacefully occupy the facilities because this is our parish." I'm with you, Sandra. Hughes said the church could only be "reconsecrated" after an expression of remorse by the protesters.

The theological idiocy of the whole things aside--desecrated indeed! as if consecration was some magic spell banished by a protest sign--post-Katrina New Orleans must have finally pushed Hughes over the edge. What a thing to say--that baptized people could somehow "desecrate" their own church building simply by interrupting what is, in the end, their own liturgy.

We need more Sandra Gordons, more women and men of faith who, fed up with episcopal autocracy, clerical malfeasance, and ecclesial financial ruin ($1.5 billion and counting), finally say: Enough! It's time for the sheep to rein in their shepherds so we can agree on a new model that doesn't leave laypeople on the short end of the crook.

Dissing the people of God

Another group has called for Cardinal George's resignation over the Daniel McCormack fiasco--and the results of the audits revealed spectacular failures on the part of the archdiocese. It turns out that as a seminarian in the early 1990s, Father McCormack had been involved in sexual misconduct with two adults and one minor but was ordained anyway, with no record of the incident left in his file. But that's not really my point.

The hullabaloo today is about a protest planned for Good Friday at Holy Name Cathedral, a silent vigil calling for George's resignation. In response to the plans, archdiocesan communications director Colleen Dolan had this to say: "To be disruptive, even silently disruptive, is disrespectful. [The cardinal] cannot change the past. He can change the future."

Whether George can actually "change the future" (she's a communications director?) is beside the point, but why the people of God cannot gather outside the mother church of the archdiocese and ask for redress is beyond me. Canon law guarantees their right to gather to make their views known, and it's not like they're running up and down the aisles during the proclamation of the Passion.

Disrespectful? I'll show you disrespectful. How about turning loose on the people of God a man known to have already engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor? How about conveniently neglecting to keep a record of the incidents in question? If you want to see disrespect, read the audits available at the archdiocesan website; prepare to have your hair stand on end. The fact that not a single person involved has been fired is disrespectful in the extreme.

And, finally, why do God's people in Chicago need a "communications director," especially one that seems to have little respect for the people who pay her salary. Another example of Roman Catholic Church, Inc., run amok.

Whether George resigns is beside the point. I tend to think a chastened George, now more aware than ever of the reality of sex abuse by clergy, is better than some new guy sent from someplace else. Whether George should resign as vice president of the bishops' conference is a better question. But someone should be "taking responsibility"--whatever that means anymore--for these failures that endangered children, and I mean something more than a little egg on their faces.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Throwing the first stone

Once again a Catholic institution has made a mockery out of what it means to be prolife: In the same school year that preschool teacher Michelle McCusker was fired by St. Rose of Lima School in Queens, New York, for becoming pregnant without being married, Robb McCoy has now been fired by Bishop Feehan Catholic High School in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, for being in the same situation, though on the other side of the it-takes-two equation.

Of course, equally ridiculous is that McCoy went to his parish priest to talk about the possibility of marriage. The priest refused because the couples wasn't seeking marriage "for the right reasons." OK ... Even if that was true, is that really up to Father?

And then, the coup de grace, McCoy was fired for violating the Fall Rivers diocese's "celibacy policy" for single teachers. (Aren't all single people "celibate" by definition, that is, unmarried?) Talk about having to take your work home; glad my employee handbook doesn't cover my personal life.

Great, so now we have a new dad, who neither encouraged his girlfriend to have an abortion nor abandoned her, who doesn't have a job because he had sex outside of marriage. Is it prolife to fire people who do the "right" thing? Now, of course, the infant lacks the income her father might have provided her. Once again, being prolife ends up meaning being pro-fetus instead of fully pro-child.

And talk about a teachable moment for the kids at Bishop Feehan: How great would it have been for McCoy to share his story, acknowledge the ramifications of (obviously unprotected) premarital sex, and then serve as an example of someone who takes responsibility? And what an example the school itself could have offered by supporting someone in his situation? Instead, we've pointed out just how hypocritical Christians can be to a group (adolescents) who doesn't need to be reminded how hypocritical adults and their institutions can be.

Let's be honest: If everyone's hidden sins in this matter were to be revealed, there would have to be a lot more firings. And, of course, no one even considers that treating an employee in this way violate Catholic social teaching--you know that "less important" (and ignored because it would actually require something of us) body of teaching about human rights, the needs of families, and just working conditions.

So sorry, Robb, despite what Jesus said, in this church the truth will not make you free. It will only get you fired.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

An ever more blue-haired church

From the other side of the Atlantic, a Spanish news story yesterday reported that a mere 40% of Spanish youth identify themselves as Catholic, and only 5% got to Mass at least once a month. Nearly 30% are agnostic, and that percentage is growing. This in Spain of all places, the birthplace of Opus Dei and many other high-profile (and conservative) church movements, which only a generation ago had one of the highest participation rates in the world.

So what's going on? Is it just another example of godless youth, more under-40 hedonists who don't see the need for God? Actually, a majority (55%) still believe in God; add the 28% that are agnostic and you still have openness to religion. The big problem? The Catholic church in Spain is now the third least trusted entity, after politicians and multinational corporations. (Talk about bad company!)

This is not just a problem in Spain of course. Spain may be a special case because of the Catholic institution's links with the Franco dictatorship--though that kind of collusion extended to many right-wing dictatorships in Central and South America as well. But even in John Paul II's beloved Poland, participation among the young is declining rapidly. Can the U.S., with its thoroughly discredited leadership, be far behind? (Of my group of friends, only three of us are still "religious" by any stretch, and we were all in the seminary at one time or other.)

It's too bad, really. With due respect to other religions, especially Judaism, which we Christians draw so heavily from, we Catholics have a unique story to tell about God, and it's tragic that, in our efforts to maintain the institution's political privileges, the church has become increasingly identified with, well, Caesar. And it's driving my generation away.

Now many will say that it's our (Gens X, Y, and Z's) fault for giving into the culture around us, but I think there's plenty of blame to go around. By and large the higher-ups have only been interested in talking to young adults who agree with them--on homosexuality, abortion, and birth control, of course--rather than engaging in any serious conversation with the great majority of us who, quite frankly, think that there's a lot more to being Christian than bedroom politics.

But it's really too bad. The story of Jesus and all who have told it through the centuries deserve better.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

VM at ND

That would be the Vagina Monologues at Notre Dame, where the president, Fr. John Jenkins, has decided to allow the staging of Eve Ensler's play as well as the annual gay and lesbian (and, I imagine, bisexual/transgender/queer/questioning) film festival. What a relief!

Jenkins on both allowing freedom of expression and acknowledging Catholic teaching: "The challenge is not to do just one of these—or even to do both of them in parallel—but to promote academic freedom and affirm our Catholic character in a way that integrates the two and elevates both. This university was founded on the premise that these goals are compatible and can be mutually reinforcing."

Jenkins gets points in my book from listening to the students on this one, many of whom signed a petition to keep ND open to such performances, according to the Chicago Tribune.

I must admit, of course, to a little consternation over all this hullabaloo, including the upset over Brokeback Mountain. When did we Catholics become so afraid of stories? You'd think, as a religion that tells one hell of a story about God becoming human, stories would be our stock and trade. Where else can we find God's presence except in the telling of our own stories, which we place in the bigger story of salvation history? (Remember, just because it's a "story" doesn't mean it's fiction.)

I know, I know, there's church teaching and all that. But what is church teaching except our common reflection on the story of Jesus in relation to our own stories? Jesus himself was a storyteller, and he told some pretty shocking stories. Why shouldn't we? One wonders if Jesus' own parables would be permitted at a Catholic university.

Besides, our Catholic story includes the stories found in the Vagina Monologues--stories about sex and birth and abuse and even rape--stories that have often been ignored or even supressed because they're about women. And our Catholic story includes gay people, and divorced people, and amazing saints and outrageous sinners. And we've learned from all those stories. Imagine if great Catholic writers like Flannery O'Connor or Graham Greene had to write through today's censors. We'd be deprived of some of the best modern Catholic literature.

Let's face it: The best way to make someone invisible is prevent them from telling their story because it's "dirty" or unacceptable, because it challenges us to change our attitudes, because we may realize that we've even been wrong all along.

So I'm glad that ND has decided to let these and other stories be told. But I'm sad that it's even an issue in the first place.