Nicholas Kristof, Meet Pope Symmachus
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.