Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Schism In All But Name

No doubt by now you’ve heard many accounts about the 2018 abuse scandal. I want to discuss a certain aspect of that story that went unreported—the aspect of dissent that was building for decades and came to fruition in the opposition to Pope Francis. No doubt some will disagree with my observations here. But I do believe it explains how the backlash to this scandal could have erupted so quickly. To get to the point we’re at in late August, 2018 didn’t happen overnight, but it doesn’t need a conspiracy theory either. 

What it took was years of dissenters pretending (or deceived into thinking) their opposition was faithful Catholicism. I think it can be traced to resentment after changes in discipline. Certain Catholics, who thought these changes went against what they thought the Church was supposed to be, believed the Church to be in error. They blamed the Church for any negative behavior from dissenters—a post hoc fallacy. Over the decades, this mistrust and blame led to a growing suspicion that the magisterium was wrong while they were the arbiters of what was orthodox.

By the pontificate of Pope Francis, the suspicion became open contempt. People believed that the Pope was a heretic and whatever he did was suspect. His critics, through suspicions, gave the worst possible interpretation of his words, “confirming” their suspicion that he was a heretic in a vicious circle. What he said was compatible with his predecessors, but was assumed to be a contradiction by Catholics ignorant of his predecessors’ teachings. The result of this was a refusal to accept the authority of the Pope. His critics refused to accept his authority to govern or taught. Confusion resulted, but the critics blamed the Pope for the confusion.

The result was when the renewed outrage over the abuse scandal arose, his critics blamed him for a problem that went back to the 1940s and was mostly eliminated by 2002. What was different was that we learned some bishops were involved in concealing abuse in the same period—and one cardinal stood credibly accused of abuse. Understandably, Catholics wanted those who covered up to face the consequences for their acts. The problem was in determining which living bishops did wrong, and which ones merely inherited the problem.

The anti-Francis Catholics demanded immediate results, even though a just investigation and canonical trial takes time. Much longer than the two weeks between the Pennsylvania report and the time of writing this sentence. Because the Pope did not mention specific policy changes in his condemnation of the evil, critics accused him of doing nothing—again two weeks after the release of the report.

Finally we had the Vigano letter. Putting aside the arguments about his motives, we have an accusation that Benedict XVI imposed sanctions on McCarrick in 2010, but Pope Francis knowingly removed these sanctions in 2013, taking part in the coverup. As of the time of my writing this, nobody has proven that Benedict XVI made such a decision. In fact, Cardinal Wuerl has explicitly said nobody told him that such sanctions were in effect—and he would be the one responsible to make sure they were enforced. [§] In his press conference, Pope Francis told reporters to stop being lazy and investigate the accusations. I believe he is confident of the results of that outcome.

But the mistrust this faction caused has reached such extremes that any bishop who denied being part of the coverup was deemed a liar. As a result, the critics had a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation. Any bishop who didn’t go along was “part of the problem.” Any bishop who did was “proof” that the other bishops were liars. There’s no way a bishop can prove his innocence under these circumstances.

And, here we are. A vocal faction has hijacked the narrative and attacked anyone who challenged the claims. They were so loud that many people are beginning to believe them. Now, when the Pope and bishops reject the accusations, people believe the propaganda.

This is schism in all but name. I will not be part of it. Like this Pope or hate him, he is the Vicar of Christ. Like or hate the bishops, they are successors to the Apostles. They do have the authority to bind and loose regardless of personal sins. Yes, reform is needed. But it cannot be a revolt. It must work with the magisterium, not against it.


[§] Also of note, if Benedict XVI imposed sanctions and Pope Francis lifted them, Cardinal Wuerl would have an excuse for not getting involved in the McCarrick case. But instead of saying he was ordered to end sanctions, he insisted he received no instructions to begin them.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Pro and Con: Trying to Sort Through the Slogans


After the disgust at the news of wrongdoing (I naively assumed the bishops had cleaned up their mess in 2002), the next thing that rises up in me is wariness. Catholics are right to want the wrongdoing fixed, but I’m dubious about the righteousness of some of the demands being made. Some of the reactions seem based in wrath or preexisting resentment. These cannot be the basis of reform.

This article, which may not see the light of day, is my attempt to work through my misgivings. None of it should be interpreted as supporting the status quo or advocating clericalism. Nor do I intend to show fatalism. Instead, I hope to show that attempts to achieve true justice here are much more involved than the combox warriors on social media think.

Contradictions and Contraries

When we say “All A is B,” the contrary is “No A is B.” They can’t both be true, but both can be false. If we want to contradict “All A is B,” we would say “Some A is not B.” They can’t both be true, but one of them must be. So, if someone says “all Muslims/Priests/Bishops are terrorists/abusers/guilty of coverup,” the contradiction is “some Muslims/Priests/Bishops are NOT terrorists/abusers/guilty of coverup.” [§]

Once we recognize that, it is no longer legitimate to demand a “one size fits all” approach. If some are not guilty, then we must not punish them with the guilty. That means we have to investigate accusations and deal with those who are culpable.

Different Levels of Involvement 

Off the top of my head, I can think of four different levels of bishops’ involvement (and there are probably more) each with a different level of guilt.
  1. Bishops who knew wrongdoing was happening but chose to hide it
  2. Bishops who sent offending priests for treatment and sincerely believed the psychologist who said the priest was cured [~]
  3. Successors to the first bishop involved who assumed that past problems were properly handled until the offending priest showed up in the news.
  4. Successors to the first bishop involved who did their best to root out this evil from their diocese.
Obviously, the greatest guilt goes to group 1. Guilt in groups 2 and 3 will vary depending on what they did once they were aware of the problem reemerging. Group 4 clearly has no guilt and not only would it be unjust to punish them, but doing would hurt real reform.

So, again, we cannot just take a “one size fits all” approach in a reform.

“Let the Laity Run It!” 

One of the mantras on the scandal is that the bishops can’t be trusted and the laity should handle it. I am very concerned about this going wrong. First of all, the bishops are not like elected officials. They do have a sacramental based office as successors of the Apostles and cannot just set aside their task.

Second...well, have you seen the wrathful and sometimes woefully ignorant responses by some of the laity? I wouldn’t trust them to run an impartial investigation. To make this work, we would have to search out and appoint wise and impartial laity who would seek out the truth and render a just report. The problem is, WHO do we trust to make that decision? The bishops who many don’t trust? The laity who I have misgivings about? No matter how it’s decided, somebody will think the investigation lacks credibility.

Personally, I’d like it to be handled like Chile—where the investigation came from the Pope, but involved investigators from outside the country under investigation. Laity can certainly play a role in this. But let’s remember how justice works. The victims are witnesses, and we should listen to them and give them justice. But victims and witnesses can’t also sit on the jury. The whole point of a jury is that the verdict be reached by impartial people.

So, let’s realize that slogans aren’t helpful. We need to ask questions on how to create a just investigation that neither turns into a lynch mob nor turns a blind eye to evil. Yes, laity have a role to play. But so does the magisterium. Unless we recognize this, any investigation is unlikely to be acceptable.

Government Involvement 

I’ve seen some call for the government to be involved in an investigation. I could make a lot of flippant jokes on trusting government competence, but levity isn’t helpful here. The issue here is, what is the role of the government? It can legitimately investigate crime. So, if there were crimes committed that are not past the statute of limitations, the government can prosecute.

The problem is, the state not only can prosecute. It can persecute. It can turn an investigation into a weapon to silence foes. I think back to the 1990s when the government wanted to use RICO to target pro-life demonstrators and seize the property of family members. That was a politically minded attack from a pro-abortion administration. But this is not merely a threat from the past. I remember the recent contraceptive mandate and the hostility directed at the bishops. I can imagine the current administration remembering the bishops’ stance on immigration. So the question is, how far can we trust the government to only do what it has the authority to do?

This too must be considered in determining a just response.

Cut off Donations!

This is a popular slogan, but it flies in the face of our Catholic obligations... notably the Fifth Precept of the Church. The fact is, the faithful are required to provide for the needs of the Church to carry out her mission. Now I understand the anger the faithful have in seeing this support go to paying settlements. If the bishops had acted instead of evaded, we might not be in that mess. But their bad stewardship doesn’t remove our obligation.

That doesn’t mean we have to just throw our money away. One can specify that their donations go to specific ministries and not the general fund. But this does require some research to know where the greatest need is.


I realize these reflections do not provide solutions. That was never the intention. The point of this was to point out that the Catholic response cannot be implementing slogans. They require thought and planning to ensure a just solution that solves the problem, not a quick fix that does greater harm down the road.

I don’t advocate a clericalism based response. After all, I’m a member of the laity and I’m involved by writing about this. But I also reject the idea that the clergy is the enemy of reform. That idea has led to many heresies and schisms.

If we as laity want to truly be involved, I think it involves prayer and study before actions. We must pray for God’s involvement and for our own guidance. We must pray for the innocent clergy to be comforted and given courage to do right. We must pray for the guilty that they repent and make amends for their evil, and that they be brought to salvation.

And after prayer comes study. There are a lot of uninformed, emotion driven reactions out there which will not bring reform. They will only cause division. We must understand what the Church can actually do, we must understand what is compatible with her mission. If we can understand that, we can recognize when a demand is something we cannot do.

This frustrates people. We want the filth to stop. We want accountability. There’s nothing wrong with that. But unless we pray for guidance and study to learn what is just, we may end up doing injustice to feel good. 


[§] This works both ways of course. The contradictory of “No A is B” is “Some A is B.” 
[~] There can be overlap with group 1 if they worked to conceal wrongdoing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

What Are We To Do? Thoughts on Reforming the Church

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. 

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

—JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Some of the anticlerical posts I’ve seen on social media claim that other states will follow the lead of Pennsylvania and start their own investigations. These posts are saying that the Church should “get out in front” of the scandals and disclose the names.

I’m pretty sure I know how it will play out. We’ll probably see incidents from the late 1940s to 2002 and then a sharp decline. We’ll probably see some bishops who, whatever the motivation, moved these priests around. Then we’ll all fight again about who knew what and what should have been done instead.

What we won’t see is many people seeking to understand how we got to this point, what motivated some bishops to think this was a good idea, and who advised them. Instead of learning the full truth of the matter, we’ll stop seeking the truth with a list of names and some graphic descriptions of what was done. People will be shocked by these descriptions, get angrier with the Church until finally some of them decide to leave the Church, declaring that this is the worst scandal to ever strike the Church, and we need to throw out the old and rebuild.

I will not be among those who leave. That’s not because I’m “in denial” about the evil done. Nobody who studies Church history can be blind to the often shameful and always cringeworthy scandals throughout. I will remain because I understand that each era of the Church has its own scandals that must be faced and overcome.

But I don’t expect a quick fix to the problem. When a long-running problem is exposed, exposing it to the roots and removing them takes time. For example, in dealing with the corruption that led to the Protestant revolt, the Council of Trent took almost 30 years after the rise of Luther to begin, 18 years to complete, and over a century to implement. Fifty years after Vatican II, we are still implementing it—and fighting over whether it should have happened at all.

While I pray it doesn’t take that long to deal with this, the task at hand is more involved than people seem to think. People think it is just a matter of identifying and throwing out the priests and bishops involved. And while that is a part of it, it is not the only part of it. To prevent sliding back, we need to understand what led to it becoming so entrenched and how it could have been tolerated. Pope Francis mentioned the problem of clericalism. I think he’s right. Not just the arrogance of some clergy that lets them view their parish or diocese as a personal fief, but also a belief among laity that they must accept and keep silence over wrongdoing.

Also, we need to separate those bishops who decided to coverup wrongdoing from bishops who trusted psychologists to “cure” predator priests and believed them when they said the priest was safe to return to duty. We need to separate both groups from later bishops who thought the past problems were legitimately solved until news of a former priest from the diocese made the news. Finally, we need to separate these three groups from the later bishops who sincerely followed the Dallas Accords and tried to root out the filth. A true reform needs to deal with all four scenarios and not slap on a single “throw the bastards out” slogan.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing a growing number of Catholics who think it’s better to throw out some of the innocent if it means getting rid of all the guilty. They think “kill them all, God knows His own” is reasonable. This view shows up in the assumption that all bishops must be guilty of willful wrongdoing and none can be trusted.

And that brings up another problem. In every case of corruption in the Church, there is always a faction that goes too far, rejecting the legitimate authority of the magisterium and insisting that the reform be given to them instead. That’s happening here too. That faction must be rejected. Unfortunately, rejecting them is represented as rejecting real reform. So, if the Pope follows canonical procedures in investigating, these factions will accuse him of stonewalling “real reform.”

One of the responsibilities of the laity in this time is to educate themselves about what the Church can and can’t do. When we know, we can have reasonable expectations on how the Church works, or respectfully call for a reform of what doesn’t work. But if we’re ignorant about it, we’re liable to get furious over unreasonable demands and think it’s “business as usual.” That’s how heretical and schismatic movements get started.

None of what I say here should be interpreted as advocating passivity or clericalism. We do have to act, and we do have to participate. But I am saying that if we want to truly reform, we need to work together with and for the Church, not against the Church. Otherwise our efforts will damage the Church we hope to save.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Come What May, The Church Remains

The scandals have shaken the Church. McCarrick and the 300 priests who have credible accusations [§] against them abused their positions to molest children and that is inexcusable. Some bishops were more interested in avoiding scandal than in shepherding their flock. That too is inexcusable. The Church has a procedure to canonically investigate and try bishops and that should be done [†].

However, certain Catholics have taken it further. In their mind, all the bishops should have known and therefore cannot be trusted. They believe that only the laity can save the Church and demand that they lead the investigation, determine the fate of bishops, and have a say in their replacements. The implication is that since none can be trusted (unproven) they cannot lead us. It’s a very anticlerical movement that shows some people do not have a clear understanding of what the Church is.

Others have shown signs of believing that the Church is a simply human institution. I’ve seen parents say they weren’t sure if they wanted their children baptized and priests wonder if the gates of hell have prevailed against the Church (cf. Matthew 16:18). These too are a sign of people not understanding what the Church is. 

What we need to remember is the Catholic Church is the Church Our Lord, Jesus Christ, established and promised to protect, remaining with it until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). That doesn’t mean that the leaders of the Church will be sinless. Even in the best of times, there is corruption. Even with the holiest of Popes and bishops, there are bad decisions. That doesn’t mean we have to be fatalistic about the current crises in this time. Of course we have to work to clean up the Church. But regardless of corruption in the Church, Our Lord’s promise remains. Individuals sin, fall into heresy or schism. But Our Lord does not permit the Church to teach error in His name [¶] regardless of what some of the shepherds may do. 

Remembering this is how we discern true reform from rebellion. In every time of crisis, the true reform has come from those who gave submission to those tasked with leading the Church. False reform came from those who rejected that authority. In fact, the false reform usually spun off into heresies or schisms. 

What we need to remember is that the Church exists as the ordinary means [∞] Our Lord uses to bring His salvation to the world and help us discern how to live faithfully, and that He has entrusted the teaching office to the successors of the Apostles—the Pope and the college of bishops in communion with him. Our Lord made hearing His Church mandatory (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16). So, when we encounter a movement which refuses or undermines the teaching authority of the Church, we know this movement is not of God.

I understand it is frustrating, especially since some bishops have been revealed as failing to look after their dioceses. How can we tolerate knowing that other bishops, guilty of similar things, may be undetected? The answer is, we must trust that even if a sinful priest or bishop should escape detection, God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7). Our Lord’s warning about millstones (Matthew 18:6) should terrify them about dying unrepentant. We trust that God can and will protect the Church from going astray.

I admit that may be a small consolation for the victims and their families. They do want justice—rightly. But we need to realize that, being but men, our magisterium will not do a flawless job of rooting out corruption, no matter how diligent and sincere they are. For the rest, we must leave it up to God, painful as it may be.

So let us pray for the faithful clergy in this time of trial. Let us pray for the unfaithful clergy that they may repent and be brought to repentance and salvation. Let us pray for the victims, that they might be consoled. Let us pray that we act wisely and not out of sheer emotion. And then, after praying, let’s get to work—but let’s work with the Church, not against her.


[§] Barring any exculpatory evidence a la  the Cardinal Bernadin case—which I do not expect—I have no reason to question the credibility of the cases.
[†] As I understand it, the statute of limitations is past for criminal charges or lawsuits.
[¶] This protection is not “prophecy.”  It isn’t a guarantee of personal moral perfection either. Rather it is a negative protection. It prevents the Church from teaching error, but it doesn’t mean further development isn’t possible.
[∞] Ordinary means is the normal way Our Lord carries out His mission. There’s nothing to stop Him from using an extraordinary means, but it would be presumptuous on our part to knowingly refuse His ordinary means and demand something unusual to save us.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Avoiding Rebellion

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’ve been warning about certain factions among Catholics who are hijacking certain controversies in the Church to support their ideologies. For example, Catholics who oppose Pope Francis are treating his refinement of Church teaching on the death penalty as “proof “ of his error.” Meanwhile, Catholics who oppose the US bishops because of their opposing Obama on the contraception mandate or Trump on immigration are seizing the McCarrick scandal as “proof” of their moral badness.

Keep in mind I am not talking about people who hear the news and are trying to make sense of it, seeking the truth. I am talking about people who assume everything can be explained by their favorite theories. It’s one thing to be shocked by the McCarrick scandal or the Pennsylvania grand jury report. It’s another to use these cases to advocate dissent.

Tragically, the number of Catholics believing these accusations of theological or moral “badness” are growing. I believe this shows that Catholics seeking to understand these upheavals are believing the constantly repeated accusations from these factions. The people who thought capital punishment was morally good are finding it easier to believe that the Pope teaches error than to consider the possibility that their understanding of the Catholic position is faulty. The people who are appalled by McCarrick are finding it easier to blame “the USCCB” than to grasp that predators can deceive others into thinking they are “good.”

What we need to do is look at the leaders of these anticlerical attacks. Have they had past problems with Church leadership? Is “ignorance” or “liberalism/conservatism” their continual accusation to explain why the magisterium does not go the way they want? If so, it is a warning sign against their reliability as authentic guides. Are they on the record (books, blog, etc) as holding a position that is not compatible with clarified Church teaching? That may be a sign that their objectivity on what is authentic interpretation of Church teaching is questionable.

We need to understand that the Pope does have the authority to determine what is authentic or inauthentic applications of Church teaching. He has the authority to determine how the investigation and trial of a bishop can be handled. Nobody has the authority to hear an appeal against his judgments (canon 1404). So he does have the authority to declare that the use of the Death Penalty is inadmissible in these times. He does have the authority to determine how the investigation of wrongdoing will proceed. We cannot argue that the laity can overrule him or the bishops in the lawful exercise of their positions.

Once we understand this, we might be able to find ways leading to useful reform. If we understand how a canonical investigation/trial works, we can properly apply canon 212 and reverently provide useful input on how to better achieve justice. If we understand the scope of the Pope’s authority (try Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 3, for example) we can avoid needless arguments on whether we need to listen to him (short answer: Yes). 

But if we refuse to learn how things work, if we assume that the error must be with others, not ourselves, then we are not providing religious submission of intellect and will to the authority of the Church. Our interpretation of Scripture is not Scripture itself. Our interpretation of past Church teaching is not past teaching itself. The Pope and bishops in communion with him have the right and responsibility to determine which interpretations are correct.

If we choose our own interpretation over that of the magisterium, if we argue that when we disagree the Church must be wrong, we are choosing a faction over obedience, and becoming rebels.