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Michael Sean WintersApril 19, 2010

Father Martin has already called attention to an article in yesterday’s New York Times by Nicholas Kristof although it is a mystery to me why Father applied the adjective "excellent" to it. I found the article literally dripping in the kind of misplaced moral and intellectual superiority to which Times’ columnists seem born and to which Father, who hears confessions, would normally be alert.

Kristof’s essential theme is that the sex abuse crisis is simply the result of the Church being stuck in a "patriarchal premodern mindset." Well, yes, insofar as Jesus of Nazareth lived about 1600 years before the Enlightenment and a good 1800 years before the Industrial Revolution, I suppose that the Church’s mindset, to the degree it hews closely to that of its founder, is precisely premodern. Hell, the Church’s mindset is downright ancient, you might even say it is as old as the Bible. Alas, sometimes folk sayings have greater insight than the intellectual ruminations that get past the editors at the Times and the Post.

Of course, even an op-ed benefits from a little drama, so Kristof introduces an alternative plotline that was frustrated by the patriarchy. He writes that the first century church was "inclusive and democratic." I am not sure what he means by those adjectives. It appears that the apostles did decide matters collectively, which is not the same thing as democracy, but their status and their – here comes that anti-modern word – their authority derived from the fact that they had been chosen by Christ, were witnesses to his resurrection and then martyred for the faith. But, who needs to concern oneself with the authority of martyrdom which is so passé.

But, Kristof’s principal encomiums for the early Church derive from its lack of the dreaded patriarchy. He writes, "The Gospel of Philip, a Gnostic text from the third century, declares of Mary Magdalene, ‘She is the one the Savior loved more than all the disciples.’" Citing Gnostic texts in the early Church is a bit like citing a book called "How to Win a War by Don Rumsfeld." The Gnostics’ was the most outrageous heresy, which may not be apparent to some moderns because it is also the heresy that seems to have the longest life, reappearing in our own day as "New Age" nonsense.

Kristof is wrong to think that only heretics were concerned about the relationship of love and authority in the early Church. The definitive, orthodox text is the ending of the Gospel of John which we are hearing at Mass in these Sundays of Easter. At the tomb, John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, gets their first, but he waits for Peter to enter. The Church’s runs ahead you might say, but it does not abrogate the Church’s authority but waits for it to catch up and enter first into the Mystery. At the end of that same Gospel, Peter jealously asks Jesus what is to happen to John, and Jesus brings Peter up short, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!" These are, in fact, the last words of Jesus in the Gospels and all Popes and bishops would do well to remember them: "What is that to you? Follow me." Those invested with authority in the Church and those seized with the Lord’s love whom we call saints, all are called to follow the Master. There will be times they disagree. There will be times of conflict and debate and anger and frustration on all sides. But, the task for both – and for all – is to follow, and following is not held in high regard in our self-regarding, self-promoting cultural zeitgeist.

Kristof goes on to make a fine point about all the good the Church does in the world, and it is this which Father Martin quotes and which, I assume, he wishes to commend. But Kristoff transitions from his criticisms to his praises with the observation: "Yet there’s another Catholic church as well, one I admire intensely." This is false and it is pernicious and it is profoundly opposed to the spirit and the letter of Vatican II. There is one Church, not two. The concern for dogma and the practice of charity are linked intimately in the life and heart of the Church. Many non-Christians and unbelievers do heroic deeds everyday but only someone motivated by a life for Christ can practice Christian charity.

Kristof might take the time to learn a bit more about the early Church. He might learn that it took a while for the Church to figure out exactly what it meant when it called Jesus the Christ. He might, for instance, consult the history of Pope Silverius, elected in 536. He was devoted to orthodoxy at a time when the Empress Theodora was enamored of the monophysite heresy. When her husband’s army recaptured Rome, she had Silverius deposed and exiled, eventually dying of malnutrition. Theodora was a woman and a lay person, the modernist dream, but her effect on the Church was pernicious. Kristof might also consider the history of Pope Symmachus. He was the candidate of the clergy in 498, but the people elected their own Pope and placed Laurence on the throne of Peter. The laity wished for a stronger stance against the Goths and favored working with the Emperor in Constantinople. The lay leaders were, writes the eminent historian Eamon Duffy, "anxious at all costs for reconciliation with the Emperor, and willing to make doctrinal concessions to achieve it."

Anyone who thinks lay control or female control of the Church is the answer needs to get better acquainted with the history of the early Church. It was not pristine. And, liberals should be especially aware that if there were elections for lay leaders, it is more likely than not that Bill Donohue and George Weigel and Raymond Arroyo would win at the Catholic polls. I will take my chances with the clericalist patriarchy, thank you very much. In his recent book, The Difference God Makes, Cardinal Francis George wrote that a principal problem for liberal Catholics is their willingness to become chaplains to the status quo. Kristof’s article could be exhibit A.

There is a final reason not to blame the current crisis on "patriarchy" or a lack of lay control or even on clericalism, although it is this last that offers the greatest explanatory value. But, as Daniel Goldhagen showed – and as the sales of his book "Hitler’s Willing Executioners" among young Germans confirmed – it is not enough to blame a group or a social characteristic when the actual perpetrators are still around. Young people in Germany had a difficult time knowing who, exactly, had perpetrated the Shoah. They had been told it was "the Nazis" which is true enough, but what happened to these Nazis? The few condemned at Nuremburg could not have run all those camps themselves? Goldhagen showed what Germany needed to face: It was Grandma and Grandpa and that nice old lady from down the street who manned the camps, and pulled the triggers and put the canisters of Zyklon B into the death chambers and hauled the bodies to the crematoria to be burned.

Before we go blaming "patriarchy" or any other impersonal category, let’s bring the actual culprits to the bar of justice. Father Maciel has gone to God or to Hell, but the men who protected him still hold positions of authority within the Church. Bishops in America and Ireland who shuffled pedophile-priests around remain in their sees. Let us name names and call individuals to task for their complicity. These are the questions that remain to be answered, and if the Vatican and the bishops do not start answering them, the lawyers and the journalists will do it for them.


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13 years 8 months ago
Mr. Winters: wish I'd written your excellent rejoinder
Dimitri Cavalli
13 years 10 months ago
What exactly are Nicholas Kristof's religious beliefs, if any?
It would help to know from what perspective (besides liberalism) he is coming from.
Devon Zenu
13 years 10 months ago
I am in strong agreement that the Catholic hierarchy can be insular, overly defensive, inept at understanding sexuality, and chauvinistic. Even still, Kristof’s analysis was simplistic in the extreme. Some of the more problematic points:
1)      Juxtaposing dogma and social justice as if the two were mutually exclusive (and forgetting that the Church’s dogmas about the nature of God and the person of Jesus are the basis for its advocacy of social justice).
2)      Perpetuating the myth that the Gnostic and other apocryphal gospels were suppressed because of their egalitarian inclusion of women rather than because of their late date of composition and their disagreement on key points with all earlier written and oral traditions about Jesus. The Gnostic gospels, upon closer examination are actually more resistant to femininity and sexuality than the four canonical gospels.
3)      Forgetting that the same early Church fathers whom he excoriates as suppressing the “proto-feminist” roots of Christianity and driving women out of positions of leadership also frequently called Mary Magdalene “the Apostle to the Apostles” and had high praise for other early women leaders in the Church. Not to mention, if the early fathers were out to prevent all proto-feminist texts from entering the canon of scripture, they sure did a lousy job. Why didn’t they get rid of references to Phoebe, Junia, Prisca, and other early women leaders in the Church? Why didn’t they downplay the role of women in the discovery of the resurrection, or scrub out Paul’s declaration that in Christ “there is no more male or female”?
4) Forgetting that the social justice ministries that he sees as the true Chruch have been sustained and supported by the hierarchy. In many cases they have survived only because of the full support and commitment of the evil "institutional church".
Julius-Kei Kato
13 years 10 months ago
After having read Michael Sean Walter's (henceforward, MSW) commentary on Kristof's op-ed (yes I've read that too), why do I feel like MSW sounds a wee bit too much like the voice of the Inquisition that too easily condemns and too facilely divides the world into a monolithic either/or, good/bad place? If there's something the Church needs today, it is definitely not a hasty, dismissive ''That's bull****!'' attitude. Away with all facile dismissiveness and hubris, please! What we need is a more humble and calm voice that doesn't add to the already too tense situation. Calm, humility, reflection - these invite clearer thought and a more balanced evaluation. Of those qualities, MSW's piece is surely not a good example.
What's wrong with citing patriarchy, lack of lay involvement and clericalism as significant factors for the present sex abuse crisis? Sure, I agree with MSW that ''bring(ing) the actual culprits to the bar of justice'' is important but if you do only that and not cite the root causes for their crimes, it's like plucking off only the top portion of bad weeds while leaving their roots in the ground. 
Re. the description of the first century church as more ''inclusive and democratic,'' well ... Of course the early church wasn't ''inclusive and democratic'' in the Enlightenment sense. Those are just categories that people often use to say that in early Christianity, you still don't have the powerful wizard in Rome who can wave a magic wand to bend everyone to his will - something that the excessively centralized and controlling modern papacy has become. I think the use of ''inclusive and democratic'' to describe early christianity as a strategy (to show how controlling the modern papacy is) is totally justified. Cf.Paul Collins' Papal Power.
Re. what MSW terms '' lay control or female control of the Church''... Where does Kristof advocate a ''control'' by laypeople or females? ''Control'' comes from MSW and is again reflective of the either/or, excessively macho mindset. It's not about ''control.'' It's about the sharing of responsibility by the whole people of God. That's Vatican II ABC (guess you have to brush up on your Vat II as well, MWS).
Re. the ''other Catholic church'' that Kristof admires, which MSW characterizes as ''false and ... pernicious and ... profoundly opposed to the spirit and the letter of Vatican II''. Again, that's just another way of saying that in the real Catholic community spread all over the world, there are pockets in which the emphases are not the ones that the boys' club in Rome is emphasizing. 
If I may suggest something, MSW ''might take the time to learn a bit more about'' a profoundly Catholic way of viewing the world (a la David Tracy/Andrew Greeley) called ''the Analogical Imagination'' which seeks to see ''similarities-in-difference'' as possibilities open to imagination. I think it is such an imagination that is more healing and potent for re-envisioning a more healthy, wholesome church - not the quasi-inquisitorial either/or voice which MSW's commentary has.
david power
13 years 10 months ago
Excellent article by MSW.Julius speaks of healing while calling Mr Winters "inquisitorial",nice.Condemns those who divide too easily ,then goes on about the "real" church and the "boys club" in Rome. Then we have calls for less hubris and more humility followed by the smarter than thou "might take time to learn more about" .Was this meant as parody?.  Reading Paul Collins does not make you an expert on anything and I can assure you that Mr Winters has a far better understanding of the council than you do. ABC are letters and unless you can provide them joined together in words ,cioe,quoting from Vatican 2 texts it is all just subjective ranting. The council fathers wrote the texts for a purpose.Cite them in the next attack. Packing your comments with negative adjectives is no real substitute for reason and does not convince. Winters has a weak point,politics,come back when he is on that and you will have a field day.This is his forte and if you were less dogmatic you would enjoy this article as others will.   
John Raymer
13 years 10 months ago
MSW: your article makes it sound like the Church has had a consistent form of government since the time of Christ. But you certainly know better, I hope!

The current situation where the pope chooses the bishops only developed gradually over the course of the 19th century. Prior to that time, most bishops were chosen locally. Since the local governments in most Catholic countries consisted of kings, princes and noble families, it was the they who did the choosing. These bishops were not beholden to Rome but to their local communities and governments.

The current governance model for the Church is that of the royal court of an absolute monarch. This model once pervaded post-medieval Europe but was gradually replaced because it is not effective in the modern world. In the royal-court model, lines of authority and power go down from God to pope to bishop to priest to the powerless parishoner. This means that, to advance, an ambitious priest must focus his attention on the hierarchs above him - kiss up to move up - rather than on the needs of the people below him - whose only job was to pay, pray and obey. Great leaders typically don't advance because they are perceived by those above as a threat. The court becomes a group of synchophants rather than leaders.

The "crisis" in the Church today exists because of its ineffective governing structure. If bishops had to answer to the people, like other government leaders do, then the abusers would have been rooted out quickly.

The great fallacy of MSW's argument is that he equates the practical government of the church with some divinely ordained structure that goes back to the apostles. While it is our belief that our bishops are the successors of the apostles, it is only a relative recent construct that those bishops are independent of the people and communities whom they oversee.
Tom Maher
13 years 10 months ago
MSW is making a lot of sense.

The sexual abuse crisis, as bad as it is, is not a pretext for radical experimentation in the church's world-wide governance, thank you very much, Mr. Kristof.
Dwight Lindley
13 years 10 months ago
Mr. Raymer,
For future reference, ''the great fallacy'' you've spotted in MSW's argument, in which ''he equates the practical government of the church with some divinely ordained structure,'' is called faith that the Holy Spirit is still guiding the Church. If you do believe that ''our bishops are the successors of the apostles,'' as you say, then in what sense do you mean this? They are such inasmuch as they agree with you? I fail to see how apostolic succession can possibly be separated from practical matters, as bishops' jobs are de facto practical. Your suggestion runs amok in a way similar to that erroneous idea of a pure separation of church and state-which imagines that doctrine has nothing to do with practice. 
And yes, certainly things have changed in the bureaucratic order of the Church, but haven't they always? It's my understanding that different ages have called for different measures, inasmuch as different ages are, well, different. Certainly the papacy, and the individual bishoprics as well, have become more centralized, but hello: we live in the age of the advanced, postmodern nation-state, and everything is run, more or less, via centralized bureaucracy. There are Bing Crosby movies for when one pines away for simpler times.
-Dwight L.

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