Still Mushy? My Reply To Fernholz

Far be it from me to speak ill of someone who writes kindly about my book and provides a link to Amazon so readers can buy it. A blessing on Tim Fernholz. But, he has issued a reply to my article last week, which was in turn a reply to his article in Newsweek in which he said me and Peggy Noonan were in the "mushy middle" among responses to the clergy sex abuse crisis. We appear to be talking past each other and seeing as I do not know Mr. Fernholz, I am unable to settle the matter properly over a martini and must repair to my laptop.

Let’s take on the easy points first. Fernholz writes that I misunderstand his relationship with Newsweek and is bothered by the way I described it. I plead guilty and apologize.


Second, Fernholz writes that he "was curious to see whether differing responses to the crisis from different factions within the Church, coming at a time of great political division within the laity, would affect the political manifestation of Catholic ideas, and that’s what I wrote about." He writes that "everyone I spoke to generally agreed" with the sentiment that most people were falling into the expected ideological camps in their response to the crisis, except for me and Noonan, of course. Well, he might have spoken with the two people he cites as running counter to expectations. More importantly, he only quotes people one might call "activists." I do not doubt that they might fall into expected ideological responses, but I do not believe they speak for most Catholics, any more than I think most women in American share NOW’s hyperventilation about abortion rights.

But, the important point here is not whether some activists have adopted an expected position, but whether or not they should. Fernholz, to be clear, was writing a news article and his job was to report on what he found. My blog posts here are opinion pieces. My job is to note how people are responding to the crisis, but also to call out those who are responding to it badly. And, by badly, I mean those who use the crisis to strengthen their prior, unrelated ideological arguments. So, I am on record opposing those who are trying to blame it on gays. And, I am on record opposing those who blame it on patriarchy. James Carroll and Bill Donohue are both guilty of using the crisis to bolster their ecclesiological views which is an additional disservice to the actual victims who want real answers to their problems, not ideologico-ecclesiastical agitprop.

 Third, Fernholz quotes my observation: "It is our confidence in the fact that our sins are forgiven that makes us holy." He asks: "Is it also this confidence that made the hierarchy so callous and unrepentant about these scandals?" It is a fair question. It is not hard to see how some hierarchs viewed their sinning priests as errant sons, as prodigals, and were all too quick to believe their promises of amendment. It is also true – and let’s be perfectly clear on this – a bishop does owe even a pedophile the promise of God’s mercy. He does not owe him another assignment working around children. This was the mistake and, yes, it was callous to make such a mistake when the lives of children were at stake. As for "unrepentant"? I do not think that adjective characterizes any American bishop. Certainly, I cannot think of a comment by any of them that would count of evidence of such an attitude but given some of the things they say about the President, perhaps I missed it. Most American bishops, I believe, have adopted the policy of meeting with the victims, apologizing for the crimes against them repeatedly, and of leading the flock in prayer and reflection and penance for those crimes.

The real issue between Fernholz and me is this. He writes: "This is not a discussion of what makes us Christian, this is a discussion of how we live as Christians." To which I reply: Who says? It is not news to me that bishops can act badly. Have your read the Gospels? The apostles are often clueless and dense. The Pope is the successor of Peter, you know, the one who denied Jesus three times. More importantly, I do not believe the application of religion to the world is the heart of the matter. Put differently, I resist the reduction of religion to ethics, the replacement of the question about what makes us a Christian with the questions about how we live as Christians. Nor am I alone. The press only pays attention to Pope Benedict when there is a crisis in the air, but one of the central themes of his pontificate has been to resist this reduction of religion to ethics. It doesn’t matter whether it is conservatives thinking it is enough to be a good Catholic to not use contraception and cast some aspersions at gays or liberals who think the Church’s primary purpose is the attainment of social justice. A religion reduced to ethics will come to lean on the authority of its arguments, and the authority of the Church is found elsewhere. Put differently, contra Fernholz, it is ALWAYS a discussion of what makes us Christian, it is always about first theological principles, it is always about God and, just so, derivatively about us.

The heart of the faith is not its application to the world. The Creed which we recite every Sunday does not tell us what to do: It tells us who we are by revealing who God is. Gaudium et Spes #22 remains the key text, pointing as it does to the retrieval of a proper Christian anthropology: "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” Catholicism is not, fundamentally, about our good deeds or bad. It is about God’s ineffable forbearance. That is the good news. The bad news is that, like the apostles and their successors, we seem only capable of stumbling along as if we were not, in fact, created in the image and likeness of God. 





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Kate Smith
8 years 5 months ago
MSW, i haven't been reading your writing here at AM for very long, but I noticed some things.
Sometimes it ssems your big themes expose what you missed.  You express a conviction, and there goes all the things (and people) that don't fit what you believe.   I want to be clear that you are certainiy not the only writer that does that.....  but gosh, when you do it, it's memorable.
This would be a useful time to provide an example.  But here's the reality.   I had a couple beers before noon to deal with the inexpressible shit of trauma from being sexually assaulted by a Jesuit priest half a life time ago.     And how do I know alcohol and rape are connected?   Never having had a beer in my life, AFTER I was sexually assualted I bought three beers.  And apparently I broke some rules and laws when I did that.  (''The look on your face said you needed it.'', said the young man in Italy, where it happened.)
And the day I wrote to the Jesuits in 2003 (the first time reporting it actually mattered), I opened a bottle of wine.  And I kept drinking wine - which I didn't drink normally so I had plenty of it here for guests.....  And by the time I heard from the Jesuits, I was drinking a bottle a day.
And 2010, and the Jesuits betrayed the promises and legal agreement they made with me, so I have to file the first lawsuit of my life??????  Beer.  More beer.  Beer before noon.
Just wanted to explain why I didn't give you an example yet.
Brendan McGrath
8 years 5 months ago
''It is our confidence in the fact that our sins are forgiven that makes us holy.'' - To take this in a completely different, unexpected, and nitpicking direction - isn't this actually heretical?  The following is from the Council of Trent's Decree on Justification (; it might perhaps be useful in dealing with Fernholz's objection (''Is it also this confidence that made the hierarchy so callous and unrepentant about these scandals?''): i.e., authentic Catholic doctrine would seem to reject such a confidence as that - though at the same time, Fernholz seems to be misunderstanding and misusuing what Winters is talking about.  Anyway, here's Chapter 9 of Trent's Decree on Justification:



But though it is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted nor ever have been remitted except gratuitously by divine mercy for Christ's sake, yet it must not be said that sins are forgiven or have been forgiven to anyone who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins,[47] resting on that alone, though among heretics and schismatics this vain and ungodly confidence may be and in our troubled times indeed is found and preached with untiring fury against the Catholic Church.

Moreover, it must not be maintained, that they who are truly justified must needs, without any doubt whatever, convince themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified except he that believes with certainty that he is absolved and justified,[48] and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone, as if he who does not believe this, doubts the promises of God and the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

For as no pious person ought to doubt the mercy of God, the merit of Christ and the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, so each one, when he considers himself and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension concerning his own grace, since no one can know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God. 

The relevant canons are as follows:

Canon 12.
If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy,[117] which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.

Canon 13.

Canon 14.
Brendan McGrath
8 years 5 months ago
Not sure what happened to Canons 13 and 14 in my previous post; here they are:
Canon 13:
If anyone says that in order to obtain the remission of sins it is necessary for every man to believe with certainty and without any hesitation arising from his own weakness and indisposition that his sins are forgiven him, let him be anathema.
Canon 14:
If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified,[118] or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema.
Molly Roach
8 years 5 months ago
Certainly moving sexual offenders around and giving them access to more children could be evaluated as sinful but the issue is that great harm came out of this particular episode of human sinfulness.  This is not the time to say, Oh well, the apostles were sinful, what do you expect?  The human vulnerability to sinfulness is not the issue.   The issue is that on the watch of a great many Catholic bishops, many of them American,  enormous harm was done to thousands of human beings because these men failed to do their work properly.    There are agonizing and damaging consequences other people (victimes)  are facing and struggling with because these men failed to do their work properly.   The question arising from this is, given the harm that was generated by this failure, what is the honorable thing to do?  Making excuses for these men is not honorable.   


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