Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Week of the Supremes

The Supreme Court is taking up, at long last, two big court cases this week affecting the rights of LGBT people.   On Tuesday they will hear the challenge to Prop. 8, which took away the right of LGBT people to marry in California.  And on Wednesday, they will hear a challenge to DOMA, the nastily mis-named “Defense of Marriage Act” which imposed a no-gays-allowed policy nation wide that has prevented gays and lesbians from all sorts of benefits, from tax benefits to adoption rights to hospital visits – more than 1000 in all – that straight people enjoy and gay people don’t.  Most people are predicting that DOMA will be overturned.  There is less certainty about the Prop. 8 case.

If you have access to today’s New York Times, they did a splendid job of laying out the complexity of the two cases, on page 16, complete with flow chart and graphics depicting what people are calling the 1-state solution, the 9-state solution, and the 50-state solution to the Prop. 8 battle.   (They don’t use these terms, and the graph was made before it became clear that Colorado would join the eight states with domestic partnerships, but the terms are the right ones.)

The 1-state solution, if the Supreme Court decides to resolve the conflict this way, would overturn Prop. 8 in California and return to gays the right to marry, but it would leave everybody else out.  It would uphold the decision that the U.S. District Court (Judge Walker) in California reached to overturn Prop. 8.  It would be what is called “the narrow ruling,” the ruling which decides on the basis of those couples taking the case to court, not on the basis of all gay people’s rights generally.  The way they would get there would be via a curious legalism.  When Judge Walker decided Prop. 8 was unconstitutional, he decided in favor of the couples (one of whom was named Perry) who wanted to marry, and against the government of the State of California (then headed by Schwarzenegger), which was obliged to uphold the bad law.  But then the government folk who were supposed to defend this homophobic law some more drew the line when it went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  They said no.  They (including Schwarzenegger) agreed with Walker that Perry should win and Schwarzenegger should lose, and they wouldn’t support it.

So then the same anti-gay religious folk who put Prop. 8 on the ballot in the first place (and paid all that Knights of Columbus and Mormon money for false information to mislead California voters into voting for it) decided they would have to take up the appeal, if Schwarzenegger wouldn’t.  Now in real life they should have been shown the door, since the rules say only people directly affected by the law have the right to sponsor efforts to do this.  But somebody bent over backwards, and let them do it.   What the Supreme Court can do now, if they want to make this a narrow ruling, is simply declare these religious pork butts had no standing.  They should not have been allowed to take it to the Appeals Court in the first place.  And that would mean the Appeals Court never happened (even though the Appeals Court upheld the Walker decision – told you it was complicated) and the Walker decision would stand.

Nine U.S. states have domestic partnership or civil union rights (eight at the moment, and Colorado starting May 1st) which are essentially the same as marriage rights.  This means that the battle over same-sex marriage in these states comes down to a battle over the right to the word “marriage.”  The Supreme Court could decide to accept the argument that it makes no sense to grant rights to do something but insist on making a semantic distinction that hurts gays and at the same time doesn’t help straights.  The 9-state solution would simply extend to the people in the nine states with domestic partnership or civil union rights, the right to call themselves married.  That would mean gays and lesbians could marry in nine more states, in addition to the nine states (plus D.C.) where they can already marry, making it eighteen states plus D.C., where same-sex marriage is legal in the U.S.

The 50-state solution, if chosen, would be derived from the argument that anti-gay bias is not a proper basis for law-making, and all restrictions gay people now live under would therefore be removed.

Obviously I believe the right thing for the Supremes to do is give us the 50-state solution.

Most people I know who have been following this struggle closely are guessing it’s a toss-up between the 1-state and the 9-state solutions.  Nobody I know thinks we will come out of this hearing with no changes.

I keep thinking about the comment I heard Ruth Bader Ginsburg make the other day, that Roe v. Wade may have been a mistake.  It made abortion safe and legal – no small thing – but it hardened the right wing and gave them cause to distrust the legal system and start down the path of crying “activist judges!” every time they were faced with a decision they didn’t like.  The implication is this could happen again if the Supremes go for the 50-state solution, because clearly many in the country are not “ready for it.”

This is in line with the thinking of other justices who believe the Supreme Court has to be “prudent” and “move slowly.”  Not get too far ahead of the thinking of the country.  It has to do its job assessing constitutionality, of course, but we’re supposed to believe they have to consider which cases to take and when to take them on the basis of the pulse and the mood of the country.  That bothers me.

There are two forces urging caution.  One consists of people you hear on the Fox Network arguing as if the only rule that applied to American democracy was majority rule.  These people act as if the Supreme Court had no function to override laws passed at the expense of basic constitutional rights.  They have been talking this way since Prop. 8 when it appeared the majority of Americans were against same-sex marriage.  No court, they wanted you to know, Supreme or otherwise, has any right to go against the supposed “will of the people.”  You’ll note they are singing a different tune now that the tide has changed and the majority of Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage.  I heard Tony Perkins argue this morning that the polls were wrong.   Poor fellow.  Where else can he go now?

The other force are the wise and practical people, like the ACLU, which made a very strong case that Boies and Olsen should never have taken up the cause of same-sex marriage because the country “wasn’t ready” and they might lose and set gay rights back an entire generation.  The ACLU didn’t anticipate how rapidly things would change, and how in a few short years support for same-sex marriage among young people would be in the 80% range. 

It’s an interesting philosophical question, whether to let the majority rule on everything.  Thank God we don’t.  Democracy without constitutional constraints is mob rule.

Consider what American majorities have wanted in the past, and have gotten away with, actually – slavery, white supremacy, keeping Jews out of country clubs, putting children to work in factories, keeping women from voting, forcing Chinese laborers to leave their women behind in China to make a living, putting Japanese in concentration camps, taking the country to war in Vietnam and Iraq, keeping gays from marrying.  OK, some of those are not so much majority decisions as government decisions, but they were approved of by the majority.

Without a strong independent judiciary, this country, like any other country ruled by selfish passions and money and hero-worship and self-interest, is a democracy off the rails.  Without fair-minded judges who have a higher purpose than enforcing majority opinion, we can’t make it.

And that’s the argument for the government we have, where the Supreme Court may soon decide that Prop. 8 and DOMA are unconstitutional.  Where democracy can be restored.

And if Scalia and Thomas decide the way we think they will?  And if three others join them?  Will I still be such a fired-up supporter of the courts as Superman heros fighting mob rule?

What happens then?

We live in interesting times.

photo credit

Monday, March 18, 2013

Digging for Dirt

It didn’t take long after Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope before the world lined up on one side or another, loyalists singing his praises, and those with a less sanguine view of the Catholic Church digging for dirt.   Most people seem to be advising a wait-and-see approach, and expressing optimism that here, at last, we may have in Francis a pope who will do as he says he wants to do, turn the church away from corruption and denial to what the majority of Catholics would like it to be.  A home to be proud of.  A place of love and charity.

No less visible, however, are the dirt-diggers, people calling attention to the fact that this man was in fact elected by a profoundly conservative bunch of cardinals packed into the curia during the reigns of the last two profoundly conservative popes to advance the task of mitigating, if not undoing, the reforms of Vatican II. 

The word of the day during Vatican II was aggiornamento – “updating”, modernizing the church, making it more accessible, more relevant to people increasingly accustomed to democracy and a sense of morality based on the concept of human rights, without regard for man-made distinctions of race, creed, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Today, a full generation after Vatican II, the church is back in the hands of the conservatives, most of whom long for the days of a unity of doctrinal belief, and absolute, unquestioned loyalty to the pope and the hierarchy.  To these people the church is the hierarchy and constancy, not reform, should be the church’s most notable feature.  Jorge Bergoglio, for all his talk of a new start, is very much the poster boy for this school of thought.

Bergoglio comes from a country where the church has made many enemies through its lust for power.  All over Latin America the church is associated with silks and satins and jewel-encrusted rings, and limousines, and images of cardinals and archbishops and nuncios at banquets with uniformed dictators, and perhaps particularly in the countries of Argentina, Brazil and Chile, where the dictatorships have been the most far-reaching.  Argentines are reacting with mixed emotions to the election of one of their own to the throne of St. Peter.  Some see the Holy Spirit at work.  Others are simply happy to have an Argentine raised up in world consciousness, and couldn’t care less what the man’s ideas are all about.

My concern is that we are making a terrible mistake in overlooking those ideas and dwelling on the symbols, the fact that he cooks his own meals, takes the bus and not a limousine to work, dresses more simply than others might in his position and kisses the feet of modern-day lepers, the victims of HIV/AIDS.  I am also concerned that in all the noise about his alleged participation in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” we are losing sight of what his rightwing approach to human rights can lead to today.

I think trying to dig up dirt on Bergoglio, while it may thwart the efforts of those who would put a halo around his head, is a red herring.  There is no doubt the Argentine Catholic Church is – or at least has been – a pretty nasty institution.  Bergoglio may have helped the wheels go round, but he was probably small potatoes during its lowest ebb in modern times as great enabler of the dictatorship.  I’m afraid we will end up crying wolf and concluding only that this was all an unfair attack by leftist fanatics, that the man should be given a clean bill of health and sent happily on his way with our best wishes.  If that were to happen we would be missing the woods for the trees.

Background: The Dirty War and the Church

Just to get those charges out of the way, let me give a little background on the attempt to paint Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio as anything but saintly.

First off, let’s separate him from his predecessor’s predecessor, Cardinal Aramburu, who was Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1975 until 1990, from just before the start of the period of State Terrorism known variously as the time of the “dictadura” (the “dictatorship”), or “the dirty war,” or officially as the “Proceso de Reorganización Nacional” (the “National Reorganization Process”) and continued in this role as head of the Argentine Church for seven more years until 1983 when the generals were expelled for taking the country to war with England and losing, the year before.  According to the current Argentine Ministry of Education’s own official treatment of the period, it was a time in which all political activity was suspended, Congress and all political parties were dissolved, thousands of books were burned and political opponents of the regime were tortured and killed.  30,000 is the official figure for the “disappeared”, many of whom were known to have been dropped from planes and helicopters into the ocean, and many were buried in mass unmarked graves without identification. 

And what did the good Cardinal Archbishop Number One Man of the Church have to say about all this?

He denied it was happening.

The best sources on this period of Argentine history include the books and articles of Horacio Verbitsky, a regular writer for the Buenos Aires daily, Pagina 12.    Verbitsky is not without his own critics, many of whom insist his active participation in a terrorist organization, the Montoneros, should give one pause.  Verbitsky, on the other hand, argues that the thugs who overthrew the legitimately elected Peronist government (Isabel, this time, not Juan or Eva) ran a reign of terror which had to be overthrown by any means necessary.  And besides, he himself never actually killed anyone.

Amy Goodman had Verbitsky on her program, Democracy Now, a few days ago (the 15th of this month), and the interview is worth listening to. Verbitsky gives both sides of the story he told in his book, El Silencio, that is at the center of the controvery over Bergoglio’s involvement in the Dirty War.   Bergoglio was the Provincial Superior of the Jesuits at the time and two of the priests under his charge, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, claimed he abandoned them and allowed them to be captured by the police and tortured.  Bergoglio’s version of the story is that the contrary is true, that he warned them of the danger, urged them to leave their work in the slums, and when they ignored his advice, he actually went to General Videla and tried to get them free.  Verbitsky presents both sides of the story.  For a version of the story which presents facts which put Bergoglio in the worst possible light, see Brett Wilkins, of the Digital Journal.   

Adolfo Scilingo is a former Argentine naval officer who was sentenced to 640 years in prison for crimes against humanity, twenty-one years for each of the thirty people he threw from a plane to their death between 1976 and 1983, five for torture, five for illegal detention.  In 1996, Scilingo sat for interviews with Verbitsky which Verbitsky turned into a book with the title, El Vuelo – ‘Una forma cristiana de muerte’.*  The “Christian form of death” referred to comes from Scilingo’s explanation of how he was able to get himself to engage in such unspeakable crimes.  He went to the chaplain at the Naval School of Mechanics, (the man was Father Alberto Ángel Zanchetta) he says (p. 38), with a guilty conscience, and was told that since these men had to be eliminated – war is war, after all – at least this was “a Christian death, because they didn’t suffer.”

Verbitsky is also known for his dogged pursuit of the story on the priest Christian von Wernich, who justified participating in torture for all the usual utilitarian ethical reasons of the day – he was fighting communism.  When he was done, Cardinal Archbishop Juan Carlos Aramburu sent von Wernich off with a new name to hide in a parish in Chile, in order to protect him from justice, once the generals were overthrown.  The same Aramburu who knew what was going on and denied it from the start.  The same head of the church in Argentina who routinely denied death and suffering, routinely gave communion to the torturers.  The same head of the business-as-usual church in whose obituary it is recorded that John Paul II sent a telegram of condolence, declaring himself “profoundly saddened” at the news of a “pastor who served his people and his church with such pastoral charity.”

No mention by John Paul of all the talk surrounding this man and his work as Great Enabler of the Dictatorship.

Verbitsky is arguably Argentina’s leading investigative journalist, winner of the 1995 Latin American Studies Association Media Award, and author of a dozen books.  Verbitsky also heads Argentina's main human rights organization, the Center for Legal and Social Studies.   Available only in Spanish, to my knowledge, is his 2005 book El Silencio, mentioned above.   It contains the subtitle “Catholic, Military Argentina” and includes the following synopsis:

Cuando la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos visitó la ESMA en 1979 no encontró ni rastro de los prisioneros. Con la ayuda de la Iglesia, la Armada los había escondido en la isla "El silencio", el lugar habitual de recreo del cardenal arzobispo de Buenos Aires. No se conoce otro caso en el mundo de un campo de concentración en una propiedad eclesiástica. 

(When the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights visited ESMA [the Naval School of Mechanics] in 1979, it found no sign of prisoners.  With the aid of the Church, the Army had hidden them in the “Island of Silence,” a vacation retreat that belonged to the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  There is no other known example of a concentration camp on church property.)

It continues:

Las relaciones secretas que este libro revela después de casi tres décadas de silencio incluyen la seducción que el almirante Massera ejercía sobre el papa Paulo VI, el doble juego del ahora cardenal primado Jorge Bergoglio, la colaboración del nuncio Pío Laghi y del secretario del vicariato castrense Emilio Graselli con el programa de reeducación de prisioneros de la ESMA.

Con la prosa apasionante de un thriller, Horacio Verbitsky describe la fascinación del mal sobre una institución cuya finalidad declarada es hacer el bien.

(The secret relations that this book reveals of almost three decades of silence include the [power of] seduction Admiral Massera exercised over Pope Paul VI, the con game of the present Cardinal Primate Jorge Bergoglio, the collaboration of the nuncio Pio Laghi and the secretary of the military vicariate, Emilio Graselli, and his program of reeducation of the prisoners of ESMA.  With the passionate prose of a thriller, Horacio Verbitsky describes the fascination with evil of an institution whose espoused goals are to do good.)  For another Spanish language source, see here.

Verbitsky is by no means alone in his criticism of the Church.  There are voices within the church itself arguably more critical than Verbitsky's.  Father Eduardo de la Serna, for example, whose Wikipedia page describes him as "the Argentine church's strongest critic".  He heads up an organization called the Grupo de Curas en Opción por los Pobres de Argentina (Clergy Group for the Rights of the Poor of Argentina) and was outspoken at the time of von Wernich's trial in 2007 and in favor of his sentencing.  And Rubén Omar Capitanio, from the Neuquén Diocese, who also testified at the Christian von Wernich trial in 2007, and who has listed some of the charges which have been made against Aramburu.  Aramburu is accused of:

  • giving the chief of the Federal Police the place of honor at the funeral mass for five priests of the the Palotine Society (whose founder,  Father Palotti, was declared a saint by John XXIII during the time of Vatican II) and accepted his condolences, in full knowledge of the fact it was this same federal force that had murdered the five priests.      (One should note, by the way, that it was Father Bergoglio who, in 2006, initiated proceedings to canonize the five as “martyrs to the faith.”)
  • accepting false excuses expressed by the Ministry of the Interior and not demanding they use their influence to stop the excesses
  • closing of the Metropolitan Cathedral as a place of refuge
  • accepting at the communion rail the leaders of horrendous public crimes
  • declaring, at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, that “in my country there are no clandestine graves,” that everyone receives a Christian burial, even though it had become public knowledge that thousands of such burials had taken place at dozens of cemeteries
  • making no efforts to act as father and pastor to the priests, religious and lay people detained, disappeared or jailed
  • not knowing what was going on at the Navy School of Mechanics (the ESMA, Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada,) which was within his jurisdiction and for not knowing in general what the whole world knew of the horrors going on in Argentina
(See also this report on Capitanio’s participation in the von Wernich trial in the New York Times.) 

Bergoglio’s involvement

The story of Bergoglio’s awkward relationship (for lack of a better word) with Liberation Theology priests working with the poor, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, make up the strongest case against him.   But there are others.  Eighteen officers who had worked at the Naval Mechanics School during the dictadura finally came to trial in 2010.  Bergoglio was asked to testify and took clerical privilege to be able to be questioned in his own office when he gave testimony about his own involvement.  Some of that testimony is available in Spanish at the "Abuelas" site (the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo).

Luis Zamora, a human rights lawyer who did most of the questioning, described Bergoglio as “reticent” and added , "when someone is reticent they are lying, they are hiding part of the truth."  Zamora found it suspicious that Bergoglio was able to arrange meetings with Videla and Massera, the two military leaders.  The implication is if he was just a lowly figure, as Bergoglio maintains, this would seem highly unlikely.  Bergoglio maintains that he kept no record of those meetings, “because the time pressures were so great” and “he had to move too quickly to write anything down.”

At one point Zamora asked Bergolgio, "In these thirty-four years what was the reason that you never approached the courts to give all of the information that you knew and that you are now giving us?"  The court did not allow the question, and Bergoglio did not answer. 

This all looks bad, but one has to recognize the lack of certainty in the charges and the fact that it’s not the whole story.  The dictatorship ended not with a bang, but a whimper, and for years an official policy of denial and whitewashing dragged on.   To fight this forgetfulness and apathy, a group of children of the disappeared known as the H.I.J.O.S. (hijos = Spanish for “sons and daughters”) Hijos por la identidad y la Justicia contra la Olvido y el Silencio (Children for identity and justice in opposition to forgetting and to silence) formed to find alternative ways to bring the criminals to justice.  These include a popular form of protest peculiar to Argentina, known as the “escarche,” in which the crimes of an individual are exposed in order to shame him or her, when all the normal procedures of bringing a criminal to justice fail. 

Some of what’s happening to Bergoglio at the moment has the appearance of an escarche.   Since Aramburu is dead and gone, those still unsatisfied with the church’s denials and refusals to be more forthcoming are now taking their anger out on Bergoglio.  The church in Argentina has been given a free pass, and it’s not an idle activity to probe more deeply for Bergoglio’s personal involvement.

Although Bergoglio was much farther down the totem pole than Aramburu during the dictadura, he was nonetheless, as Jesuit Provincial Superior, a member of the clergy leadership class, and he had a voice, if he had chosen to use it.  The question today is the larger philosophical question of who is to blame when an entire system is corrupt.  How far does one go down the line in punishing Nazis and their collaborators, or hardliner communists in the East Bloc countries.  Or villagers in mafia-controlled Sicily, for that matter?  Must one speak out at the cost of losing one’s place as an insider, where one can do more good than if one “does the right thing” and takes a clear stand against evil? 

Is Bergoglio one of these?   Is he innocent enough?  There are a lot of people scratching for dirt, and I am concerned that Bergoglio might not be getting credit where credit is due.  In Amy Goodman’s interview with Verbitsky on Democracy Now, for example, Verbitsky gives a response which may surprise us, considering his damning statements about how Yorio, one of the priests under his charge, blamed Bergoglio for his arrest.  The several lines of Q and A are worth reading in their entirety:

AMY GOODMAN: ... We’re talking to Horacio Verbitsky, a leading Argentine investigative journalist, well known for his human rights investigations. I wanted to ask you about this issue of hiding political prisoners when a human rights delegation came to Argentina. Can you tell us when this was, what are the allegations, and what was the role, if any, of Bergoglio, now Pope Francis?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: No, in this episode, Bergoglio has no intervention. The intervention was from the cardinal that in that time was the chief of the church in Buenos Aires. That is the position that Bergoglio has in the present. But in that time, he was not archbishop of Buenos Aires. When the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came into Argentina to investigate allegations of human rights violations, the navy took 60 prisoners out of ESMA and got them to a village that was used by the Cardinal Aramburu to his weekends. And in this weekend property were also the celebration each year of the new seminarians that ended their studies. In this villa in the outskirts of Buenos Aires were the prisoners during the visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And when the commission visited ESMA, they did not find the prisoners that were supposed to be there, because they were—
AMY GOODMAN: ESMA being—ESMA being the naval barracks were so many thousands of Argentines were held. So where were they?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes, but Bergoglio has no intervention in this—in this fact. Indeed, he helped me to investigate a case. He gave me the precise information about in which tribunal was the document demonstrating that this villa was owned by the church.
AMY GOODMAN: He said that they were hidden in a villa that was owned by the Catholic Church?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes. And the prisoners were held in a weekend house that was the weekend house of the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires in that time. And Bergoglio gave me the precise information about the tribunal in which were the documents affirming this relationship between this property and the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The real story

Here’s what I’m getting at, though.  While we fuss over whether Bergoglio was one of the dirty guys, or merely a man of little power trying honestly to follow his vow of total obedience to his superiors, or actually one of the good guys trying to clean up the church in recent years, we must not miss the more troubling fact that this newly elected pope has other things in his history besides the dirty war.  Most recently, he fought tooth and nail against the move in Argentina to  allow same-sex marriage.  Although he lost, and Argentina joined the group of eleven nations where same sex marriage is legal, he described the efforts he opposed as “a ‘move’ of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”  Satan himself, apparently, came to Argentina and made them do evil things. As many have pointed out, this is hate speech, pure and simple.  (And if you don’t think so, then you were not paying attention when they taught you to pray for the destruction of the Devil and all his works.)  One can't help but remember the testimony of Father Christian von Wernich, who insisted in court that the prisoners he tortured admitted to being "the tools of the devil."   The Argentine Church has never taken away Father von Wernich's right to say mass and forgive sins, by the way, while at the same time it has excommunicated all kinds of people for other reasons.

The question today is to how consistently will Francis’ work at the Vatican be a continuation of his work as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  In another Democracy Now interview the other day, this time with Argentine historian Ernesto Semán, Semán tells of an incident where Bergoglio gave some indication of where he stands on the political issues of the day.   The current government of Cristina Kirchner is a liberal progressive one and, to no one’s surprise, Bergoglio and Kirchner locked horns over a number of issues in addition to same-sex marriage.   At one point, a military chaplain suggested openly that, because of his progressive views on contraception, the Minister of Health of the current government should be “thrown into the sea.”

It doesn't take much effort at all to imagine what that must sound like to the ears of an Argentine with any sense of history.  The government demanded the chaplain’s resignation.   Bergoglio, however, refused to comply.  His preferred course of action was to wait for the priest to retire when his time came, thus demonstrating a “hands off” policy reminiscent of the decisions by many church authorities not to take action in priest abuse cases, but to protect instead the priest and the institution.

There are other questions, too.  About his membership in the Jesuits, for one, and how that may affect his role as pope.  We know that the Jesuits saw themselves originally as the pope’s most loyal of subjects.  That a Jesuit could become pope was at one time virtually unthinkable.  Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, composed eighteen “Rules for Thinking with the Church.”  Number 13 of those rules has gone down in history as the quintessence of blind obedience to authority.  It reads, in part, “if she (the church) shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.”  

We also forget that the modern conflict over ultimate authority between those who would put the pope at the center of the church and those for whom the center is more properly “the people of God” is not a new conflict.   A similar conflict was present in the 17th and 18th centuries between the “conciliarists” who wanted the church run by ecumenical councils and “ultramontanists” (from “over the (Alps) mountains, i.e, not Germany, not France, but Rome) who wanted nothing to do with the idea of national churches or any diffusion of authority.  Jesuits were, from the beginning, associated with the ultramontanists and behind Pius IX’s efforts to settle the question once and for all with his doctrine of papal infallibility.

At the same time, Jesuits have been notoriously independent.  Many have taken theological positions that are anathema and at odds with central authority.  There are Jesuits and there are Jesuits, in other words.  We have a pope who, whatever he may do about the poor and about the choice between taking a limousine and taking a bus,  is totally committed to doctrines established and fostered by his immediate conservative predecessors.  Female priests?  Not on your life.  Making celibacy voluntary?  Don’t bet on it.

Another question, and a heartbreaking one for Catholics interested in the social gospel, is Bergoglio’s attitudes toward Liberation Theology, the view that the church should focus on the poor and on working toward greater distribution of wealth and elimination of class distinctions, so often taken for granted by the world’s power structures with which the official church has worked hand-in-glove.   Various liberation movements throughout Latin America have been put down, sometimes ruthlessly, with the church hierarchy’s open-eyed support.   See Robert Parry’s account of his struggle against the Church’s efforts to crush the Nicaraguan freedom movement, for example, and for the part the Argentine junta played on the side supported by Reagan and the CIA.  

Abby Ohlheiser posted an article in Slate on March 14,  in which she discusses Bergoglio’s negative attitude toward Liberation Theology.  She mentions claims offered by the National Catholic Reporter that his reason for opposing their efforts had to do not with opposition to their working with the poor, but with keeping them out of politics.  When it comes to politics, after all, this is a church that wants to speak with one voice.  It does not want a thousand points of light or a thousand political perspectives from its underlings.  I'm in no position to engage in the debate going on within the church over Liberation Theology but the argument that Liberation Theory is Marxism simply won't fly.  At the same time, it is also true that many priests associated with Liberation Theology have lost their lives because governments too, in their own way, not the church this time, couldn’t distinguish between liberation theology and Marxism, and Bergoglio’s argument he was just trying to save Yorio and Jalisc from that fate certainly has surface believability.  It is not an area where one can draw conclusions with certainty.

All of this supports Ernesto Semán’s point that the real problem we have to contend with in Bergoglio is not evil, or even bad policy, but a culture of social conservatism. A preference for pietism over activism.  An embrace of eternal certainties over an ever-evolving morality that grows with the benefit of human experience.

For the Abuelas, the Grandmothers and the Mothers who marched every day in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the president’s palace demanding information about the disappeared, and for anybody else haunted by a lack of final justice against the criminals who ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983, getting at the question of whether the current pope had his fingers in the dirty work of the Dirty War is a nagging question that won’t let go.  They deserve to have their questions addressed.

But for the rest of us focused more on the present than on the past, and those, like the Liberation Theologists, who believe God helps those who help themselves, we need to be concerned about business as usual in the Vatican.   American women and others who find their rights to control their own bodies repeatedly threatened by old men with stunted sexual imaginations, those of us in California who had our right to marry the partner of our choice taken away by the Catholic Church in Proposition 8, an imposition of the church's will on the lives of non-catholics as well as catholics, it must be noted, those fighting AIDS in developing countries thwarted by Catholic insistence that condoms, the single most effective preventative, are an instrument of the devil – we too have a stake in what this Jesuit from Argentina now assuming his new duties chooses to do with his power.

In my view it’s not the man who failed to sway General Videla to free two of his priests in the 1970s we should worry about.  It’s not even the Cardinal Archbishop who tried to defeat the same-sex marriage rights of his fellow Argentines we should worry about.  In that battle, he was outweighed by his political opponent, President Cristina Kirchner, about whom he declared, "Women are naturally unfit for political office.  The natural order and facts tell us that man is the politician par excellence. The Scriptures show us that women are there to support men, who are the thinkers and the doers, but nothing more than that."  **

Ms. Kirchner proved him wrong and won handily.  Today, however, she is meeting her former opponent and paying her respects in her role as a head of state to the new ruler of the world’s Catholics in Rome.  She will be showing him considerably more deference.

It’s what he does with that deference that we need to worry about.

*Verbitsky, Horacio, El Vuelo – “Una Forma Cristiana de Muerte” Confesiones de un oficial de la Armada.  2004.  Editorial Sudamericana S.A., Página 12, Debolsillo.

** (update - next day) - and then again, maybe he didn't make that statement.  My face is red.  I should have checked that out, as one checks out urban legends, before posting.  A church source attributes this statement to an Argentine commenter on Yahoo Respuestas who posted it under the name of Bumper Crop.  It was then picked up and posted on a Mexican Facebook site where it got 18,000 hits, a Costa Rican picked it up, etc. etc., and it went viral.   It is almost certainly a false attribution, because a google source finds no trace of it before March 13th, according to this church source.   Bergoglio's moves to keep women in their place are real.  We don't need to make things up.  Shame on these overzealous feminists, if that's even what they are.  Their heart may be in the right place, but their methods suck.  And shame on me for being suckered.  I apologize for my carelessness.  (I leave this in as a reminder to myself that no matter how tired I get and no matter how much I want to post something to be done with it, you gotta check your sources!)

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putting the finishing touches on the pope -
pope kissing feet -
damning statement document -
mujeres ineptas - 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Amour – A Review

Amour has a number of walk-on characters: the concierge and his wife, who provide Georges and Anne with the groceries they need to live in isolation as Anne slowly dies before our eyes under Georges’ care.  And Alexandre, a concert pianist and former student of Anne’s, whose memory of Anne from better days provides her with the dignity now being stripped from her almost by the hour.

Amour also has one minor character: Eva, Georges and Anne’s daughter, who struggles with her father to make sense of death – and fails.  Mostly Amour is about three major characters: Anne and Georges, a couple who have grown old together and are now in their 80s.  And the apartment that contains them. 

Anne suffers a debilitating stroke and fails rapidly before our eyes.  Georges assumes the role of caretaker and witness to her undignified demise.  The apartment is a shabby reminder of better times when the paint was fresh and the rooms were filled with art and music – the books are still there – and most likely more than a touch of Parisian elegance.  A place now reduced to four walls and furniture limited to two chairs and a settee in the living room, two chairs in the kitchen, and eventually a hospital bed in the bedroom.   A fortress to withdraw to when one no longer wants to answer the telephone.

If you have not yet seen the film, this review may not be for you.  It contains spoilers.

Anne and Georges return from a concert to find the lock broken on their  apartment door.  Anne remarks that if an invader were to enter, it would frighten her to death.  We soon learn that it’s not a burglar she has to fear; it’s death itself that has entered their space.

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke makes horror films.  Amour is his latest, and the film’s title masks the fact the horror this time is not ritual suicide, as in The Seventh Continent (1989), terrorist home invasion, as in Funny Games (1997), or religious sadism and child abuse, as in The White Ribbon (2009), but the fact that life itself comes to an end, and the ending can be anything but pretty.

Amour is not just another movie about the end of life.  It’s about the end of life as a taboo topic.   About death as loss of dignity and the gradual removal of those things which give life meaning – food and drink, communicating with loved ones, music, art, pride in one’s appearance, mobility and the illusion of control over one’s fate.

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance is nothing short of perfection.  How she missed the Best Actress Oscar this year will always be a mystery.  Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance, by the same token, shows that Haneke knew what he was doing when he wrote the story for Trintignant.   At some point about halfway through the movie I wondered if I was going to be able make it to the end, but I immediately realized I was so engaged by the acting skills of these two masters that there was no way I was going to miss seeing where they would take it.  And there was a second reason, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Amour is a character study of a man who slowly comes to the realization that he is not up to the task he is faced with.  The old line that God gives you no task he doesn’t also give you the tools to deal with may not be true.  You’re never quite sure.  Why didn’t Georges and Anne have a better relationship with their daughter, so she could have stepped in and helped bear the burden?  Why don’t we all have perfect relationships with all the people in our lives?  Why are we all not prepared for the unforseeable? 

The unrelenting suffering and loss of dignity is relieved by one powerful scene where Georges reveals not only an inner strength but what Anne said to him once at the breakfast table: “You are a monster.  But you have been very kind to me.”  We have just witnessed an act of humiliation.  The nurse who has combed Anne’s hair puts a mirror in front of her face and asks her to acknowledge that she has made her beautiful.   The next thing we see is Georges firing the nurse for incompetence.  The scene gets ugly, but Georges has restored dignity and your respect for him soars.

It’s a movie about death and dying.  It’s also about euthanasia.  Haneke clearly wants his audience to ask themselves how much of this pain and suffering they are willing to take.  I can well imagine a young person hearing about the plot line and deciding to give the film a miss.  This is not a film to enjoy; it’s an experience to endure.  I am the same age as the filmmaker, and about ten years younger than the main characters.  I am less likely than a young person to pretend we can brush the topic of death and dying aside.  I want to be prepared to take my own life, and in a way that nobody else will be blamed.  I’m not yet ready to plan my death and I am tortured by the question, when will I be?   Is leaving it to fate the only real option?  I don’t have the courage or the cowardice – I’m not sure which it is – to look away from the question Haneke is asking: Do you have what it takes? 

If you’re lucky, you will die a natural death.  Or you will be cared for in hospice, surrounded by loved ones.  But what if you mess up, and you don’t get dot all your Is and cross all your Ts?  What if you aren’t so lucky?  What if you are left to die on your own, with only one loved one to see you through?  Or no loved ones?

It took me two days to realize the movie was not just about Anne.  It's equally, possibly more, about Georges.  I realized only after some time the significance of the detail that Haneke wrote the story for Trintignant.  You become so focused on the horror of Anne’s rapid decline – a year telescoped into two hours – and the fact you are watching a taboo, that you miss entirely – at least I did – that Haneke stops before an even bigger taboo.  What becomes of you when you have given your all?  When you have taken the responsibility of making a life and death choice for another human being?

A good deal of the story deals with Anne’s loss of dignity.  The scene with the insensitive nurse.  Another, where Georges locks the door to her bedroom when Eva shows up unannounced because he knows Anne doesn’t want to be seen in her present state, even by, and possibly especially by, her daughter.  We see her being spoon-fed and the food dribbling down her chin, we see her spitting out water, we see her sitting naked in the shower being bathed by a stranger.  And we see her, in Georges’ memory flashback, as he wants to remember her, sitting at the keyboard, the graceful lady she once was.

Haneke doesn’t tell a story so much as lay out events in ways that force you to ask questions.  A pigeon flies into the apartment, not once, but twice.  What is it doing in this film?   Is the pigeon a dove?  The Holy Spirit?  The symbolism doesn’t work.   Accidental intrusion of nature into one’s inner sanctum?   Or perhaps the simple absurdity of life in the end.  A metaphor for life as an act of no ultimate consequence, a momentary distraction.

I am aware, in rereading what I have just written here, that I’ve portrayed the watching of this film as self-inflicted torture.  It is an endurance test, but it’s one worth enduring. Others have tried to claim this is a movie about devotion, about two old people who have known love and who ride the end out together.  Or that we should focus not on Anne’s death and dying but on the fact that she went to her death not alone, but in the embrace of a man totally devoted to her – that this was the ultimate love story.  You may see it that way.  I didn’t, but you may.

What I saw instead was the other reason I mentioned for appreciating the film and not wanting to leave the theater.  It is rare – so rare that it almost doesn’t happen at all – that a filmmaker puts all the decision making about what is transpiring on the screen in the viewers’ own hands.  Why does Georges disappear from the story in the end?  Why is this loose end not tied up?  Eva enters the apartment, as in a coda to a piece of music, and we see it now empty of all life, all furniture, all trace of illness and death, and there is no sign of Georges’ last days.   We have seen the obscenity of death in Anne’s slow demise.  We are spared having to look at what happens next.  The last taboo. What happens to Georges?  This is audience participation.  Haneke wants you to write that part of the story.

I’d call Amour a five-star movie.  Not because it grabs you and makes you cry.  I didn’t shed a single tear.  And not because you come out of the theater impressed by superb acting and directing – which you certainly do.  That would make it a four-star.  The fifth star is for new heights in story-telling honesty.  It will be matched in the future, probably.   But I doubt it will be excelled.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam

Well, the Italians have got their Italian pope.  He’s from Argentina, so that gives them a twofer.  We are ecumenical, you see.   A Polish pope, a German pope and now an Argentine pope, all in rapid succession.  A pope from the New World, for the very first time.

That’s what the chatter will focus on, no doubt, as people reach out and try to find things about which to sing the praises of the wisdom of the choice.   It should not be lost that this is very much business as usual.   They’ve got themselves a conservative hardliner who will stick to the old boys’ set of authoritarian claims that they are the gatekeepers of heaven.  Top of the list of rules that they will attempt to impose on the world is the one that men and only men must rule.   That women need to subject themselves to their fathers and their husbands.  That they need to recognize God does not want them to speak on matters religious.  The male God does not put into the hands of women the power to forgive sins. 

Gay men and women are expected to go on denying what they know in their hearts, that they are capable of great love and devotion.  They will be expected to continue the fiction that they have a choice between a life of sin, or a life of sexual denial.  Make babies with it, or put it away.

Less clear is what will happen, if anything, within the church to clean away the arrogance that allowed corrupt priests and bishops to be set above the children abused by priests and bishops, when the church first denied it was happening, then blamed it on a few bad apples, then on homosexuality as a sexuality, then complained that others, like the Boy Scouts, were just as bad, and finally shut down churches to pay the billions the courts hit them up for in reparations.   And that's just in the United States.  And the numbers continue to rise.

They tried to maintain this was but a momentary aberration of an otherwise infallible institution, incapable of error.   After all, what is a waif or an orphan here and there compared to the good name of the Church established by Saint Peter and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?  

Less clear, also, is what will happen to those voices within the church urging it to represent the poor and the powerless, the uprooted and the vulnerable.   One has to assume the jewels, the limousines, the banquets with kings and other top drawer people of the planet will continue as before.  The patriarchy will call the shots.   Priests working under some silly notion of “liberation” will need to stand back.  One assumes, too, there will be no adequate response to the fact the church in the developed world continues to hemorrhage parishoners, that many parishes go without priests, that suggestions these positions be filled by women will be rejected.  We will probably see more emphasis on the successes in the Third World without analysis of what these figures actually represent.

I just watched the Vatican press conference live, and saw three articulate spokespersons present the event as a glorious moment.  Federico Lombardi of Vatican Radio, who speaks such exquisite Italian, Canadian Father Thomas Rosica, who is the image of hardworking bilingual Canada with his easy flowing English and his English-accented but otherwise perfect French, and Spaniard Juan Maria de Tamayo, who spoke only Spanish and you wondered whether we're done with German now, all gave a great showing, even when a Chilean journalist asked them why it is Cardinal Mahoney was allowed to be there, considering his standing as a disgraced church leader, removed from his position because of failure to care for abuse victims properly.  They provided a diplomatic answer, making no mention of the fact that Mahoney’s diocese had just settled claims against it to the tune of some ten million dollars    Clearly the name of the game was keeping this a great moment of optimism and jubilation. 

I love it that a band marched up to the steps of St. Peter’s and played the Italian national anthem.  You didn’t miss the fact that this guy’s name is Bergoglio, now did you?  Not Smith, not Wittgenstein or Hickenlooper (been there, done that - no need for German at any press conferences anymore), not Nkumra.  We’ve got the reins back again.  I understand the early contenders included Marc Ouellet of Canada, and Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil, as well as Bergoglio of Argentina.  Clearly there were forces pushing for a guy from the Western Hemisphere.  The other early contender was the Italian, Angelo Scola.  You’ve got to hand it to the Vatican.  Despite the line they put out about what a spiritual process this conclave is and all the talk about Mexican nuns praying around the clock that the Holy Spirit will do the right thing (why would He ever do otherwise?) you’ve got some very savvy old men doing the diplomatic work of political compromise.

In fact, it’s quite remarkable how they know to be consistent when it doesn’t cost them face.  Francis, né Jorge Bergoglio, was the second choice in the last election, when Benedict won out.  So this is a nice little statement about consistency, one of the church’s favorite concepts.  After such a bookish distant pope, they’ve got themselves a man who lives not with a George Clooney type in a palace with gardens to die for but with an older priest, walks around in a simple priest’s robe, and cooks his own meals.  Nice.  Got the common touch.  Rides a bus to work.  Chose a name for himself never used before in papal history.  Francis.  The guy who talked to birds.  Everybody’s favorite saint.  The antithesis of backslappers like Timothy Dolan of New York and self-serving insider thought police like Lavandera and Cordileone of San Francisco, to name a few Catholics who reveal the split between the Democrats in the pews and the Republicans who run the show.

Franziskus, as the Germans will call him (I’d suggest the less latinate Franz, but I admit that sounds too much like somebody who works in a brewery), speaks German.   Francesco, in Italian.   He speaks that too, of course.  François, as the French will call him, will be the first Jesuit to sit on the siège de Saint-Pierre.   That’s a biggie.  Jesuits, despite their vow to be loyal to the pope “as a cadaver”  –  no kidding – look it up:  “perinde ac ("as if")  cadaver,” as their founder put it   –   are notoriously independent and disobedient.

“La presidenta Cristina Fernández de Kirchner envió una carta al flamante Sumo Pontífice de la Iglesia Católica” reads the headline in the Buenos Aires paper Pagina 12.   And no, that does not mean President Kirchner sent a postcard to the flaming sumo wrestler of the catholic church, although that's what she may think of him after all those political battles they had over same-sex marriage.   Sumo is supreme, carta is letter, and flamante is brand-new.  I have it direct from Buenos Aires that people there are pretty psyched, although the Guardian reports there are no tangos in the street for some reason.   Possibly the 20% who actually go to church are at a same-sex wedding somewhere.   Francisco (don’t call me Pancho) will not be using “the First” by the way.  We have come to think for the past couple thousand years that a pope needs a number after his name, but the official word is in.  You’re not officially the first at something until there is a second.

So here we are with a new beginning.  Time to put aside all the information about the failure of the church in the past.  Time to put aside, for now, the role of the Catholic Church in supporting the dictators of Latin America, especially during the ugly years when the generals were dropping young idealists into the sea from helicopters and priests like Christian von Wernich working for the generals were shunted off to Chile afterwards by the archbishop of Buenos Aires to protect him from prosecution.  That wasn’t Bergoglio, by the way.  That was Aramburu, who denied there was anything funny going on.

I would like to know, though, what Bergoglio thought of what was going on at the time.  I still want to hear more from priests like Eduardo de la Serna, who is on record as being none too pleased with his archbishop.  “The least we can say,” said de la Serna last November, speaking about a moral crisis in the country and about a Christmas message put out by the church, “is that we who are in the slums, among the people, with our feet in the mud, we have a view that is very different from the one in the bishops’ document.” 

In response to the news about his archbishop’s election to pope, Father Eduardo expressed some concern.   "I still have many doubts about his role regarding the Jesuits who went missing under the dictatorship." 

But that’s all for another day.  Let’s give Pancho twenty-four hours to get his feet wet.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

The Faithful Departed - A review

Philip F. Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture is an account of that collapse from the perspective of a Catholic right wing hardliner.   In Lawler’s view,  everything that has gone wrong with the Church is due to its abandonment of its once uncompromising stance that “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” – without the church there is no health.  The church has failed because it has opened itself up to the modern world, whose highest values are increasingly those of democracy and an enlightened embrace of diversity, and come to doubt the wisdom of  holding to a singular notion of truth and authority.  To Lawler, the Catholic Church can never be a “big tent” church.  It must always be exactly and only what the pope and his curia say it is, not what may be derived from the larger body of believers working in concert.

Lawler’s version of  Catholicism, which he adamantly insists is the only possible view that can be called “catholic,” demands unquestioned obedience to the bishop of Rome, and strict adherence to a bevy of dogmatic claims all focused on keeping power over life and death and one’s eternal soul in the hands of the men who run the church.   To a belief that to be a Catholic you have to force a woman who has been raped and impregnated to give birth to the baby.  That you cannot practice birth control, cannot have a sex-change operation, cannot have a hand in euthanasia, cannot vote for a Catholic congressman who favors abortion rights, even for non-Catholics.

I suspect Lawler is wrong when he concludes the church is dead.  It is not dead, but simply evolving.  The bullying church is on the ropes, at least in Europe and America, but the pastoral church is likely to go on for the forseeable future.  The problem is, Lawler doesn’t accept this division.  For him there is only one church and he sees no reason not to label the 90% of Catholics who practice birth control as non-Catholics.  Or not-really Catholics.

Lawler gets the problem right: Church leaders derailed the church in Boston (and this applies elsewhere as well) by yielding to the temptation to build up their power and influence for its own sake, rather than nurturing the religious solidarity on which they depended.   “Cardinals became preoccupied with the needs of the archdiocese as a secular institution, sometimes even to the detriment of the archdiocese as a community of faith.” (p. 248.) 

But he gets the solution wrong – that the church should speak with one voice, and that that voice should be the voice of central authority.  And he sabotages his own solution by writing wistfully of a day when politicians took their orders from bishops and people knelt and kissed their ring.  It’s not the “community of faith” he appears to be longing for but a community of power in numbers, a community run by authoritarians who brooked no dissent.

Lawler and I are working from opposing ideologies.  His is that there is a single divine truth, that it has been revealed to the pope and curia of the Roman Catholic Church, and that there is no room for divergence from their magisterium.  Mine is that truth is not revealed, but discovered, that knowledge is the sum total of all human experience to date, subject to change with every piece of new and conflicting evidence.  There is no middle ground between these two ideological stances, but I trust I can at least describe his views fairly and objectively before explaining why I disagree with them.

Here is Lawler’s evidence for the decline of Catholic power and influence in Boston and beyond:

  • A 1958 Gallup poll showed that three out of four American Catholics attended Sunday Mass regularly; by 2000 the figure was closer to one out of four. 
  • In that same time period nearly half of all Catholic elementary and high schools closed. 
  • The number of Catholic marriages solemnized in churches fell by over 30% and the number of marriages annulled went from about 350 a year to nearly 50,000.
  • The number of priests fell by about 20%; the number of ordinations dropped by about 65%.
  • Two-thirds of the country’s seminaries closed and the number of women religious fell by over 50%.  Teaching orders declined from 104,000 in 1965 to about 8,000 today.   (p. 73)

“For the Catholic Church in Boston today,” Lawler writes, “there is no earthly hope.”

…Empty buildings—cavernous Gothic churches, rectories, convents and schools—urgently need repairs, but the paltry collections are not even enough to keep up with the current fuel bills.  Priests and nuns are aging, and precious few young people are entering the seminaries and convents to take their place.  The congregations, too, are aging; the pews are dotted with gray heads, while young couples spend their Sunday mornings at home with the newspaper and the television programs that cater to serious-minded secular viewers by featuring discussion of current events.

The entire massive structure of Catholicism totters along on borrowed time.  But the trend is clear.  That whole structure will come crashing down, perhaps within the next generation, unless there is some dramatic change…   (pp. 252-3)

Lawler thinks the church’s problem is that it is a willow when it ought to be an oak.  It should be standing firm and strong, eternal and unchanging.  It should never have surrendered to worldly pressures but held firm against all temptations to modernize.  Vatican II was the beginning of the end, he says – not because of the work of the council itself, but because of what happened afterwards.  The church never should have abandoned Latin, the universalizing language.  Priests should never have begun turning and facing the congregation at worship but continued with his back to them as he led the body in the ritual of worship and the mysteries of the faith.  The problem began in Boston, he says, when the Kennedy family met at Hyannisport to figure out how Catholic politicians now entering the mainstream should compromise as political leaders of Americans outside the faith.  They should never have allowed them to think independently of Rome.  There should have been no allowance for politicians who voted, for whatever reason, for birth control or abortion.  Lawler’s book could have been written by Rick Santorum.

There has probably never been a better illustration of how one can miss the woods for the trees.  The priestly abuse scandal, Lawler says, had three parts: The first part is the abuse itself.  The second is the prevalence of homosexuality among Catholic priests.  And the third is the abdication of authority when bishops, confronted with evidence of abuse, chose to ignore abuse complaints and enabled predators to continue as predators.  (pp. 7-9)

Lawler’s reasoning is that people lost faith in the church because of its failings.  The abuse scandal destroyed the credibility of the church as a moral force, and has caused catastrophic financial harm.  There’s no arguing with his first point.  Moreover, the public image of a church lying to protect its reputation and placing the welfare of its priests over the welfare of their victims was an even greater moral failing.  There is no arguing with his third point, either. 

There is, however, a serious problem with his second claim.  By putting emphasis on the sexuality of the priests in question, rather than on their inclination to abuse children, Lawler says little about the scandal and a great deal about his own homophobia. 

Lawler is a hammer in search of a nail, and he finds one in homosexuality.  Mired in the misconception of homosexuality as a mental disorder, he draws the line not between abuser priests and non-abuser priests, but between gay priests and non-gay priests.  He makes much of the John Jay Report on the scandal, commissioned by the bishops,  which noted that 81% of molestations were of males, and concludes this proves a connection between abuse and sexuality, without seeing the obvious – that even if 100% of all Catholic priests were homosexually inclined, the problem would still be the capacity of any particular priest to abuse, and not his sexual inclination.  According to the John Jay Report, only about 4% of priests have been charged with sex abuse and the number found guilty, obviously far fewer.    Most gay priests do not abuse boys, just as most straight priests do not abuse girls.   And opportunity – the fact that priests are left alone with boys but not with girls – would seem to be an obvious way to explain the rest. 

Lawler, however, is a dog with a bone.
When intelligence agencies discover an enemy spy within their own ranks, they…root out the effects of his treachery.  If the bishops had been determined to conduct a thorough study of sexual abuse they might have done similar investigations into the backgrounds of the priests who were accused.  Who were there (sic) friends among the clergy?  Where had they been assigned?  Did they share vacation cottages with other priests or bishops?  Who had been their seminary teachers? (p. 226)
Nobody could lay better ground for a witchhunt.   The child abuse scandal wasn’t the only reason for the church’s decline, as anyone familiar with the recent uproar in Germany over a rape victim being turned away from a Catholic hospital can tell you.  It does have more than a little explanatory value, though, provided you get the explanation right.  Lawler gets it all wrong.

Lawler’s assumption that homosexuality is by nature corruption leads him to the inevitable conclusion that the very presence in the church of gay people is what is corrupting it.  Not deception, not injustice, not hypocrisy, but rot from within as exemplified by "rampant" homosexuality.  Some people advocate frisking every black kid on the block on the grounds that the high percentage of black kids in trouble means you increase your chances of getting the bad guys.  Round up the homosexuals and anyone who has anything to do with them.  That’ll get the child abusers!

One might expect so much more of Lawler.  He is a Harvard graduate, the author of six books, editor of several magazines.  His articles have appeared in over 100 newspapers in the U.S. and abroad.  But even monkeys fall from trees.  And even good historians – and The Faithful Departed is very readable informative history – can trip over their own ideological blindess.  Lawler doesn’t just stumble, though.  His advocacy of blind obedience to a closed system hobbles him from the start.

Lawler is Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation, now headed up by Tea Party leader, Jim “homosexuals should not be teaching in the public schools” DeMint.  If you go to their website, the first thing you see is “Join Rush Limbaugh and hundreds of thousands of other conservatives as a Member of The Heritage Foundation today.”   No man should be judged entirely by the company he keeps, of course, but one gets an idea of what Lawler seems to have in mind when he speaks of conservatism.

His solution to what ails the church – to return to the day when young couples living together before marriage should be denied communion – is bizarre.   His advocacy of conservative causes fills his pages.  He uses terms like “pro-abortion,” rather than “pro-choice.”  He speaks of Father Coughlin, the fiery radio-priest of the 1930s as a kind of buffoon, as being “dogged by charges of anti-Semitism.”  (p. 88) Which is an interesting way to put it, when you consider Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.   He bewails (p. 129) the change from the time when Catholic children learned the Baltimore Catechism by the rote question-and-answer approach… to “master truths.”  In writing of the Vatican response to the demand for same-sex marriage, a document titled Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, he stresses that “The Vatican noted that these arguments were ‘drawn from reason’ rather than revealed truth and practically in the same sentence notes that “Considerations described homosexuality as a “troubling moral and social phenomenon,” missing the point that the only arguments used against LGBT rights for some time now have been those attributable to so-called revealed truth. (pp. 208-9)

Lawler makes the case that Vatican II did not change anything, that most Catholics are wrong in thinking that it did.  It was the liberals who hijacked the Council, says Lawler, catching “tradition-minded” Catholics off-guard (p. 71).  He makes no concession to a need for reform, no recognition that priests once turned away women wearing lipstick from communion.  No recognition, in other words, that “conservative” has no meaning out of context.  That what matters is not whether one is liberal or conservative but what one is liberal or conservative about, what is being conserved and what is being cast out.  Lawler makes no mention of the offensiveness of the prayers for the conversion of the Jews in light of charges Pius XII failed to step in with any effective opposition to the persecution of the Jews – for the same reason the church today is shamed by the child abuse scandal, because it acted to preserve the institution at all costs, and not to protect the bodies and souls of the vulnerable.  He cherry picks his events the way he accuses “cafeteria Catholics” of following those rules they will choose to be governed by and rejecting the others.

The church will rise again, is Lawler’s conclusion.  After all, Catholics in Boston were a minority back in the early 19th Century, oppressed by a hostile majority, as they are today.  “With the power of faith it could happen again.” (p. 258)

Faith, and a return to the old ways.  Back to a time before the 60s and the sexual revolution and easy divorces.  Back before the breakdown of gender roles, before all this talk of ecumenism. 

How is that to be accomplished?  Through unity of thought by imposition of orthodoxy.  By embracing the church militant, marching in lockstep and silencing all dissent.

Lawler tells us only what he thinks went wrong, not how one persuades the world that they should embrace his particular choice of orthodoxies and not some other.

That would be a topic for a different book.

page references are to Lawler, Philip F., The Faithful Departed: the Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, paperback edition (with a new 2010 preface by the author), Encounter Books, NY and London, 2008