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