John F. KavanaughMay 03, 2010

Was it a sign, a warning to us Catholics, that the continuing child-abuse scandal flared once again, this time during Holy Week? We saw a parade of articles, attacks and defenses—all, by my reading, beside the fundamental point. Some of the defenses were embarrassing, ranging from self-serving claims that Catholic clergy members are no more abusive than any other group, that the criticisms amounted to gossip and media bias against the church, that everything was to blame but ourselves. Even Pope Benedict’s heartfelt but stern letter to the church in Ireland seemed not to register in any meaningful way. Words failed.

Among the scribes of culture and church, allusions were made to Holy Week itself. But no one asked why Jesus himself was rejected and executed.

The Gospel reading for the eve of Passion/Palm Sunday makes it quite clear that Jesus was a threat to vested national and religious interests. “If people believe in him, we will lose our land and our nation.” The reigning powers saw that he was a danger to their property, privilege and power. Even his apostles, arguing over who would be first in the kingdom, have to be rebuked by Jesus. In Luke’s account Jesus says: “Among pagans, it is the kings who lord it over them.... This must not happen with you.” The Christ-formed leader must never “lord” it over others. And any Christian leadership rejecting that command is destined not only to failure, but to being a countersign to the Gospels. Such leaders might muster sympathy for their own caste, but precious little for any other. This is the worm at the core of many believers’ discontent.

If there are priests and bishops who think they are better than other followers of Christ, or presume that they are to be served and honored, or who think their privileges and interests are more important than the people of God, they are destined to failure as ministers of the Gospel and will bring scandal on the church.

At the end of Lent 2010, two other prominent Catholics resurfaced in the news. The first is Marcial Maciel, of the Legionaries of Christ, who was sadly but honestly repudiated as “a model of Christian or priestly life” by the community he had founded. In addition to his sexual abuse of seminarians, this priest exercised tight control over the lives and monies of his followers while he garnered friendships among the powerful and privileged. Despite his exploitation of people in matters of money, sex and power, he was merely invited to end his life in quiet reflection and repose.

The second name to surface was that of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose assassination occurred 30 years ago. This was a priest-bishop who lost all his allies in the Salvadoran oligarchy, and most of his fellow bishops as well, because of his choice to identify with Christ’s poor and oppressed. He was murdered, so appropriately, while celebrating Mass. There is no doubt that he died for being faithful to Jesus’ model of leadership. One hopes that neglect of his cause for canonization has not been influenced by interests of power, property and privilege.

We are at a crossroads: the way of Maciel or the way of Romero. Like all great reforms in the history of the church, we may well be called to repent of the ways we have “lorded” it over others. Such change, however, is not effected by mere words. We need to act out the truth rather than merely utter it. Perhaps two prophetic actions could start us on our way.

The first is a pilgrimage to Assisi. Although Pope Benedict has been attacked, probably unfairly, he still represents the church and especially priests and bishops. Since he is not strong enough to walk a penitential pilgrimage to Assisi, he should send his closest proxy, to be met at the site for a liturgy invoking the patronage of St. Francis in reforming the church and establishing a shrine of repentance.

Second, Pope Benedict should press for the canonization of Romero. These two simple acts might indicate, even without words, that our church, still so loved by us, is not as interested in privilege as it is devoted to the way of the Lord Jesus.

Our problem is not that we are “too Catholic” or “not Catholic enough.” The question for us is whether we believe in Christ, without whom all of our hierarchy, sacraments, laws and traditions are emptiness.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
C Walter Mattingly
11 years 5 months ago

Fr. Kavanaugh:

The record of the papacy to canonize its great martyrs seems laboriously slow. The great latin martyr of your congregation, Father Miguel Pro, S.J., virtually walked to the firing squad in defiance of the then-extreme anti-Catholic leftist government of Mexico.  The president had hoped to show a cowardly priest quivering before the firing squad, but instead encountered a saint who held his rosary in one hand, his cross in another, and who, after praying for and forgiving his executioners, refused a blindfold and formed a cross with his outstretched arms, his final words being "Long live Christ the King!"

His funeral lead to a great public outcry, his words echoed by those thousands attending. The president who had ordered the pictures of what he had hoped to be a cowering little priest instead had to confiscate copies of a heroic martyr as best he could.

Fr. Pro was not beatified until 1988 by John Paul II.  To the best of my knowledge he has still not been declared a saint even today. If this great martyr still awaits canonization after almost a century, the process does not bode well for a quick resolution of Bishop Romero's candidacy.

Christopher Butler
11 years 5 months ago


I fear you are far too kind.  While I am enthusiastic about the canonization of Msgr. Romero, and have nothing against pilgrimages, such largely symbolic gestures do nothing to solve this problem.  

This is a crisis of the abuse of power, and nothing but a root and branch restructuring of the distribution of power in the church is going to heal it.  I have no confidence in even another church council succeeding in reform if it is a meeting of perps talking to each other.

Craig McKee
11 years 5 months ago

I totally agree: this current pope should, indeed, TAKE A HIKE!

And Oscar Romero certainly doesn't need this church's PERMISSION to remain the saint he is.

John Raymer
11 years 5 months ago
"Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also." Our church will only change when we change the way we choose our bishops. For most of church history, bishops and even the pope were chosen by their local communities (meaning the king or powerful noble families). This made bishops accountable to their communities.

Today bishops have no accountability except to the Vatican curia. This lack of local accountability is reinforced by the practice of promoting bishops from one see to another and eventually to Rome. The result is that "successful" bishops are careerists who love their masters in Rome and despise the people and priests in the parishes. "No man can serve two masters, either he will love the one and despise the other, or he will despise the one and love the other." Abp. Oscar Romero was killed because he changed masters.

Modern communities elect their leaders. We do so because it is the most consistent way to find the best people for the job and to ensure that those people have the best interest of their community at heart. It is time that the faithful elected their own bishops.
John Shuster
11 years 4 months ago

We have a documented situation of decades of sex crimes against children, with recent revelations proving that the cover-up of these crimes goes all the way up to the Pope.  The author suggests that Ratzinger send a proxy to do a pilgrimage and that we have a canonization of Romero.  I'm getting tired of the view from fantasy land that most priest apologists present in response to this atrocity against the world's children.  The only credible canonical priest writing about this is Dominican Tom Doyle, and the clerical system has all but thrown him out of the church.  If the author wants to suggest that we take an Imitation of Christ approach, I believe the best course would be to start with truth, justice, and the resignation of every priest, bishop, and pope who took failed to act immediately to stop these sex crimes.  That should leave about as many clerics standing as those who have actually observed the total sexual abstinence advertised by their promise to be celibate.  Priests are all compromised in one way or another, so their words on this subject are disingenuous and sadly amusing in their unintended transparency.

Carolyn Disco
11 years 4 months ago

Thank you, John Shuster.

Joanne Blair
11 years 4 months ago
Wow...this really tells it as it is! And, Oscar Romero has been my favorite saint for years - in spite of the fact that he hasn't actually been canonized. My theory is that it is God who makes saints, not the Vatican...
Jim Cruise
11 years 4 months ago

"Deeds, Not Words?" 

As a survivor of sexual abuse by a serial predator priest, I have had enough of this symbolic nonsense.  We don't need a pilgrimage, we don't need to honor one dead guy rather than another, we need truth and justice. 

Maybe a better first "deed" might be for the pope to stand up and say, in unveiled language, that he acknowledges many thousands of children around the world were savagely raped by priests and religious.  Maybe he could say he understands that priests took their penises and forced them into tiny little mouths, anuses and vaginas.  We don't need any more of his and your vague symbolism.  We need real action.

How about if the pope shipped Cardinal Law back to Boston?  Wouldn't that be better than sending an underling to Assisi?  What if he immediately removed all the hierarchs known to have perpetrated cover-ups?  What if he ordered hierarchs to acknowledge publicly who the abusive priests in their dioceses were? 

Enough with the symbolic smokescreens.  The pope needs to stand up and deal with the problem. 


Miguel de Servet
11 years 4 months ago

"We are at a crossroads: the way of Maciel or the way of Romero."

Fr. Kavanaugh, 

let me put it in my own words: if Pope Benedict XVI is serious about the radical reformation of the Catholic Church, THE way for him to prove that he "means business" is to "exorcise" the filthy and still lingering presence of the foul scoundrel Marcial Maciel by means of no less than the immediate canonization of the luminous martyr and saint Oscar Romero (possibly moving Maciel's protector, Pope JP2 to the backburner ....).

I believe you are very naive. I believe that no less than God's direct intervention could achieve that, but we know that God respects our freedom, even the freedom of opposing His will.

Ask yourself, in all sincerity, this simple question: what has Ratzinger/Benedict fought longer and with more determination?

The Priestly Pedophilia Pandemic? Naah ...

The Theology of Liberation? Yeah ...!!!

On March 21, 2005 (just before JP2 passed on and Ratzinger became Benedict ...) posted an online article containing an interview with "Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, Italy, who is now the postulator for the Romero cause", optimisticaly titled "Beatification cause advanced for Archbishop Romero" (

I will conclude repeating your concluding words, which I fully endorse:

"The question for us is whether we believe in Christ, without whom all of our hierarchy, sacraments, laws and traditions are emptiness."

Eileen Ford
11 years 4 months ago
I, too, agree with John Shuster's comments and respect for Tom Doyle, a priest who believes that the hierarchy should be held acountable for their crimes.
Pilgrimages and canonizations may be important to the clergy but they are meaningless gestures in response to the crimes committed by church leaders who protected themselves and an institution instead of people.
Eileen M. Ford
Robert O'Connell
11 years 4 months ago
Thank you Fr. Kavanaugh for both two great suggestions that the Pope could consider and, more applicable to the rest of us, the reminder that the question is really whether we believe in Christ.

There are always going to be things we would like the Pope to do. To some extent, he is limited in terms of time, energy and other resources and he will never please all of us all of the time. A pilgrimage to Assisi invoking the patronage of St. Francis would be awesome; even if neither the Pope nor his designee can go there, we can. Publicizing the priestly holiness of Archbishop Romero is also awesome. Who knows what other ideas might warrant consideration?

There are also some things this Pope has done and is doing. To some extent, good taste if not humility limits his capacity to publicize everything. He did, however, speak out and even meet with some abuse victims in Malta. Maybe Cardinal Ratzinger was enjoying the patronage of St. Francis when he helped discourage the appointment of Bishop Krenn to the archdicese of Vienna or when he helped encourage Cardinal Goers' resignation. Perhaps Pope Benedict deserves more credit than we will ever know.

Christ wants us all to protect children, to be good samaritans to victims of wrongdoing, to avoid evil ourselves, to forgive all, and . . . to follow Him. I know I must try to live in Communion with Christ, to pray, to atone and deny myself; but I also know I do not really measure up. I know that I myself certainly ought not cast stones at or even judge others. I also know Pope Benedict believes in Christ, Fr. Kavanaugh believes in Christ, and virtually all but a handful of the hierarchy, consecrated religous men & women, priests and so many others in our Church do that I think we might celebrate.

And pray to the Holy Spirit, go to Assisi, canonize Archbishop Romero, pray to St. Catherine of Siena . . . and whatever else He tells us.
John McCloskey
11 years 4 months ago

Symbols are important but we need more than symbols. Let me suggest some actions. First, in this year's rumored consistory, name as cardinals only those who have taken the most principled and toughest stand on the issue of abuse of power. Start with Martin in Dublin and work from there. And if there are no such bishops in the usual cardinatial sees, then appoint as cardinals the bishops of obscure sees. This will get the attention of the everyone, even the most power-mad hierarch. Second, name women cardinals. There is no necessary relationship between holy orders and a cardinal's rank. Provisions to the contrary in canon law can be dispensed with at the stroke of a pen. Then appoint those women cardinals to positions in the curia.  Third, fire those who took money from Maciel and defended him. Surely, their judgment is impaired. Fourth, follow the American model of bringing people in "from outside the beltway." This doesn't work perfectly, but it does help to infuse new blood and fresh ideas. Fifth, adopt some modern leadership characteristics - read broadly and engage broadly, talk to people who come from different places of the world and different walks of life. The pope - especially this pope - seems to be a "prisoner in the Vatican" insofar as he consults and is advised by a very small cadre of men whose backgrounds and ideas are essentially similar to himself. Even the medieval kings had a court jester who could speak the truth!

And then, after doing these things, if he wishes, the pope can sentence someone to walk the road to Assisi.

Pamela Ruigh
11 years 4 months ago

As a recent convert, I sense a huge disconnect between the people who are trying to deal with this sexual abuse crisis in the trenches and the Vatican.  When I read on websites such as Bishops Accountability I am really shocked that some of our worst offenders as far as protecting abusers in the American Church were promoted to very high places in the Vatican.  The names Law, Levada, and Burke come to mind instantly.  If you look these names up on this website that claims to reporting the truth you can read a litany of actions of these men that reveal actions as bishops that one would imagine make it impossible for them to hold the positions they hold now.  If what Bishops' is reporting is the truth, then why are these men still in such powerful positions?

"We are at a crossroads: the way of Maciel or the way of Romero."

Father Roy Bourgeois was excommunicated latae sententiae for his participation in a women's ordination ceremony in August 2008.  He had long been a crusader for peace in Latin America and against policies that hurt poor people there. This excommunication in itself leads me to think that sadly we are going the way of Maciel.



11 years 4 months ago

Dear Fr. Kavanaugh,




Thank you very much for your article "Deeds, Not Words".  You referred to the words of Jesus as he rebuked his apostles.  I have often wondered what happened to the idea of "servant leadership".  Was not one of the Pope's titles "Servant of the Servants of God"?  When did we come into the titles of "Your Holiness", especially when so many Popes were not holy?  And where did the titles of "Your Eminence", or  "Your Excellency", or even "Very Reverend" and "Reverend" (again when many of us were anything but reverent) come from?  Oscar Romero had to learn to be a servant leader, and he did it well.  I, too, hope that the interests of power, property and privilege do not get in the way of his canonization.  We all need the witness of his life to be once again the subject of headlines throughout the world.

Edward Visel
11 years 4 months ago

Fr. Kavanaugh,

It's good to have you back! I haven't seen a column by you here in a while, and I must say I've missed them.

From what I've seen, this second wave of the scandal has brought Catholics who are hesitant to endorse the pope due to his opposition to liberation theologies or moral relativism, or his general endorsement of the most conservative elements of the Church, among other reasons, quickly into the fold of his supporters. This honestly worries me as much as the scandal itself, for it further reduces the already quiet criticism that will drive the Church forward to naught but a whisper.

So for now, no, I don't see Romero getting canonized soon, despite his admirable virtue. Are we going the way of Maciel? Depressingly, it seems so, though not all conservative elements of the church are so malign. More importantly, due to the self-reinforcing, utterly unrepresentative system for picking popes, I don't see a change in that path coming very quickly. Instead, we must focus on what we can do locally, instead of as the Church as a whole.

11 years 4 months ago

I would like to make 10,000 copies of your article, Fr. Cavanaugh and hand it out in all the parishes of N.Y. Bravo!! Keep up the good work.

Margaret Stith
11 years 4 months ago

Thank you!  As always you eloquently and forcefully speak the truth.  I pray daily for the Church and I have faith that God will take care of the Church.  We need more Romero's and Kavanaugh'a and more Catholics to educate themselves, pray, and read the Gospel to truely start living and thinking the way of Christ.

john fitzmorris
11 years 4 months ago
Dear John, Thank you for your columns. What a breath of fresh spirit in the air. Keep it up! Keep going!

I deliberately omittd the title father from the salutation of my short letter to John Kavanaugh. Over the last several years I have come to take Jesus' prohibition on calling any man "father" as His very words. I think that it would be a small start on the road to dethroning the Catholic clergy from their positions of power and privilege that John has so brilliantly laid bare.

I never cease to wonder at the depth of John Kavanaugh's spirituality and understanding of the Gospel. It must have been thirty years ago when I first encountered John at a religious education conference in New Orleans. I sat rapted as in a virtuoso performance he proceeded to rip apart the veil of the temple of modern culture exposing it for the crass idolatry that it is. I have not viewed contemporary culture quite the same way again. That little session showed me that idolatry is truly the first sin from which all sins spring.

John's penetrating insight exposes the idolatry that lies at the heart of the clerical/ecclesastical culture that created and nurtured the current scandal. I have hoped for the appearance of a New Francis, a new Ignatius to set the world afire. to free it from illusion and idolatry so that it can truly blow like a great wind across the face of the deep. I believe that John is that New Ignatius, New Francis that call us back to our Gospel roots!!

As for the canonization of Romero or the Salvadoran Jesuits and the martyred nunsAND thier aly associates, I am not holding my breath, after all they each in their own way attacked the underpinnings of the power structures that support the privileged lives of the hierarchs

Thanks John

The latest from america

Social justice scandals play out in Netflix's newest hit "The Chair", echoing college campuses across the country. The show's empathy is remarkable, but as a recent graduate, some scenes hit too close to home.
Sarah VincentSeptember 17, 2021
Photo: Searchlight Pictures
America spoke with Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield about the nature of faith and the singular courage of Tammy Faye.
Ryan Di CorpoSeptember 17, 2021
I live with chronic pain, and often it seems like no one really understands what this means. Having chronic pain, especially as a young person, can often feel lonely and isolating.
Keara HanlonSeptember 17, 2021
The man who could oust Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from power became Conservative Party leader with a pledge to “take back Canada”—and almost immediately started working to modernize the party by pushing it toward the political center.