Is there a patron saint of “the appearance of things?” If so, we should build cathedrals around the world in that saint's honor. Nobody does illusion better than Mother Church. I’ve been conscious of just how deep the prioritizing of looking good over being good goes ever since I wrote a review of a book some years ago by a German Catholic theologian that carried the title, Der heilige Schein (The Holy Illusion).
I have never held back in recent years about my discomfort with organized religion. In responding to a friend’s e-mail just now about the latest of a never-ending list of shenanigans in the Catholic Church, I wrote the following:
Yearning for meaning is a human universal. All thinking people wonder about the beyond, the transcendental, wonder if there is an entity that, if known and understood, could make sense of what seems like a chaotic world. They come up with one religion after another as a hypothesis, one more radical and absurd than another until they cross the line into insane fantasies.
It wouldn't be so bad if they lived on their own little island and kept their local insanity to themselves. The problem is that when men and women organize themselves into religious bodies, those religious bodies become political bodies, which then form armies of militants to spread their madness upon the whole world.
Roman Catholickitis is not the only form of madness. But it's one of the more insidious.
I realize that many good people don’t agree with me. Where I find discomfort, they actually find comfort. As long as they don’t use their Bible as a hammer, I am happy to let this be a place we are none the worse for wear for our different perspectives on life.
Because the church claims to be the source and the guardian of morality, it’s no surprise that it seems to attract the greatest number of hypocrites. The child abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Church first exposed by the Boston Globe first in 2002 has now been shown to be a universal phenomenon and there seems to be scarcely a diocese anywhere in the world that has remained untouched.
What this suggests is that the problem is not primarily with the church and its priesthood but with the human condition. Recent additional scandals involving priestly abuse of nuns brings makes it plain that at the center of things is the intersection of power and human sexuality, and the inability to approach sexuality in a sensible humane way.
And what has the Church done with this discovery? Instead of facing it head-on, it has added cowardice to its hypocrisy. It is now scapegoating its own gay members. Get rid of the gays, they say, and we’ll get rid of the abuse, conveniently overlooking the priest abuse of nuns for some reason.
There are two good reasons for leaving the Church. One has to do with faith; the other with disillusionment with organized religion. I left it because once I got out of my small home town and realized how many different religions there were flying about, I could no longer find any one of them more convincing than the rest. If people leave the church because they can no longer buy into the mindset of their local religious community, there’s nothing much the church can do about that. Not in a place where freedom of thought is valued, at any rate.
But what baffles me is how foolish church leaders can be. They have it within their power to do something about the second big reason people are leaving the church in droves: the hypocrisy and cowardice of its leaders. After sending that e-mail letter above, which addresses the first reason, I realized I was not addressing my friend’s concern: it’s not so much a lack of faith that is destroying the church from within, but the folly and the nefariousness of its leadership.
It's easy to muddy the waters on child abuse. In some cases, a closer look would show that it's not about children but about genuine sexual affection between a sexually willing teenager and his friend and councilor, better described as unprofessional or unwise and a breaking of vows, rather than abusive. But more often than not, as when rape takes place, we're dealing not only with what the church labels a sin, but what society has declared to be a crime, and justice demands the victim should have his day in court. And the extent of the problem goes deep. Just yesterday the story hit the news that Cardinal McCarrick had been defrocked for soliciting sex in the confessional. And you may remember that in Chile in 2015, when they tried to install Juan Barros as bishop in Osorno, there was an actual riot in the cathedral. Barros is believed to be part of a cover-up by his mentor, Father Karadima, whom the Vatican actually found guilty of sexual abuse. The word is out. Plenty of Catholics are fed up and don't want to take it anymore.
Back in 2002, just when the Boston scandal was first grabbing the headlines, a local bishop, Bishop Daniel F. Walsh of Santa Rosa, just north of here, appeared on television complaining that the media were unjustly smearing the priesthood. I wrote him a letter, expressing my view that the problem was not the “bad apples” but the clergy. They were turning their backs on the abused kids by worrying more about maintaining the illusion that there were no bad priests among them. Illusion was the goal; not Christian charity. Not love and compassion, but social reputation, however ill-deserved.
Here’s my letter to Bishop Walsh:
The Most Reverend Daniel F. Walsh
Diocese of Santa Rosa
320 Tenth Street
Santa Rosa, California 95401
March 25, 2002
Dear Bishop Walsh:
This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle has your picture on the front page, and staff writer Jim Doyle has a story about your Palm Sunday address to your parishioners. “The smearing of all priests,” he has you saying, “and the open questioning of their fidelity to their vows because of the sins and crimes of the few has caused great pain.”
Like you, I have complaints with the media. It’s possible Jim Doyle misquoted you, or took you out of context. But even if smearing the imperfect media was not the primary focus of your sermon, your choice to call the kettle black suggests that, after all the attention this issue has demanded, you apparently still do not understand the reason for the widespread outrage and disgust. You still evidently think the fault lies elsewhere but in the hierarchy that circles the wagons to protect its corporate interests, even at the expense of the young souls in its charge.
You may be justifiably resentful that the media help keep this story alive, but you should recognize it is remarks such as yours that drive the outrage that drives the interest in the first place. Attempts to deflect attention from the real problem will only hurt the church in the long run. Lust for children does not stem from celibacy; it’s not about celibacy. And the presence of a few sexual predators in a brotherhood of hundreds of thousands surely is beyond human control; it’s not about statistics. And it’s not about
the media. The issue is whether the arrogance of power that led bishops and cardinals to cover up abuse will ultimately destroy the church from within, and whether catholics will withhold contributions to an organization managed for bureaucrats in cassocks, rather than for human souls.
More than 80% of Roman Catholic Americans admit to practicing birth control, according to a report I read recently. The fact that this represents about the same percentage as among Protestants is telling. Figures are similar for ever increased recognition of gay and lesbian relationships as loving and healthy. These trends and patterns demonstrate that Catholics are no less than Protestants full participants in American culture and that they are governed more directly by cultural norms than by institutional religious directives.
A few screwed up priests won’t drive most catholics out of the church any more than mediaeval constructions of sexuality. One can learn to live with imperfection. Arrogance, duplicity, and deflection of responsibility, however, is another story.
Alan J. McCornick
The bishop wrote back.
Here is his response:
April 5, 2002
Dear Mr. McCornick,
I wish to acknowledge your letter of March 25th, and want to thank you for your observations. I do feel my words were taken out of context and the primary focus of my sermon was encouragement to priests as well as acknowledgment of mistakes made in the past by the hierarchy in dealing with this question. I thank you for your observation.
With kindest personal regards I am,
Your Brother and Servant in the Lord,
Most Reverend Daniel F. Walsh
Bishop of Santa Rosa
Nice, don’t you think? Very civil. Cordial, even. He even acknowledges “mistakes made in the past by the hierarchy.”
For some reason, years later, his name came up for some reason and I decided to see what the good bishop was up to.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say, in part, about the Most Reverend Daniel F. Walsh, now Bishop Emeritus of Santa Rosa:
In August 2006, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office recommended that criminal charges be filed against Bishop Daniel Walsh for not reporting multiple child molestations by Fr. Francisco Ochoa, who had confessed his actions to the Bishop earlier. During the period in which Bishop Walsh was required by law to report the crimes and did not, Ochoa fled to Mexico and avoided prosecution. A plea agreement was reached with the District Attorney's Office under which Bishop Walsh agreed to undergo counseling in lieu of prosecution. Had the plea agreement not been reached, it would have been the first civil prosecution of an American bishop in concealing sex crimes. (http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/SANTA-ROSA-Catholic-bishop-may-face-jail-2490519.php).
What can I say?
Rome wasn't built in a day, maybe?
photo credit - a bishops' conference near Chicago to address the child abuse crisis