Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Unintentionally Honest Bishop

The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church (meaning abuse + cover-up by bishops) is not over.  We all wish it were, but it's not.  In Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali recently removed twenty-one priests from active ministry--only after a grand jury investigation led to charges against several of the priests, including the cardinal's right-hand man, who is accused of helping to cover-up suspected criminal misconduct by priests.

Half-way across the country, another bishop, Robert Finn, has covered up another case of a priest who is alleged to have engaged in crimes against children.  If you want to believe that what the bishops' conference did in 2002 in Dallas fixed the problem, you owe it to yourself to read about the case of Bishop Finn.

Robert Finn should resign as bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph (Missouri) diocese.  Finn has admitted in the last few weeks that he shielded a priest who was behaving inappropriately towards elementary-aged children.  The priest is in jail at the moment on child-pornography charges.  Bishop Finn has claimed he did not bother to read a four-page letter which a Catholic school principal delivered to the diocese one year ago; Finn did not read the letter, that is, until about five days ago, after the priest was arrested.

Think about the best case here:  Finn was indifferent to allegations of inappropriate conduct toward children; he was not interested in learning more after his vicar general summarized the letter for him.  Worst case: The bishop is lying about not knowing the letter's contents until last week.  One hopes the bishop is not lying--indifference would be bad enough, of course.  However, previous abuse cases elsewhere have shown some bishops are not above ignoring allegations of misconduct and then lying about their knowledge of those allegations.

Finn acknowledges he knew the priest had at least one nude photo of a child on his computer as long ago as December 2010, along with numerous other photos of kids from the school.  At that time (he has recently claimed), he had someone in the diocese (who?) describe the photo to a police officer who was a friend of diocesan officials--instead of furnishing the suspect photo to the cops--and was supposedly told the picture did not constitute a criminal offense.  Notice that no one told the diocese that the priest's behavior was normal or harmless.

Did Bishop Finn notify anyone on the diocesan child-protection board, the group that is charged with looking into allegations and calling the police?  He did not.  The head of that board was "flabbergasted" when he heard about these allegations in the last few weeks.

There's no way to get around it:  Finn has proven himself to be a bad bishop, an irresponsible shepherd who let the wolf hang around the sheep even though he heard the wolf howling.  Finn is a bishop who needs to resign immediately.

Ironically, however, Bishop Finn unintentionally spoke a small shard of truth in explaining why he did not turn the priest into the police in December.  He told parishioners, by way of apology, that "We have a priest shortage and we needed a pastor there."  The bishop did not want to heighten the vocation crisis in the church--so, he kept a priest in action who he had every reason to suspect might pose a danger to children.  "We have a priest shortage here..."

In the early 1990s, when Wilton Gregory was bishop of Belleville, Illinois (prior to his service as president of the USCCB and his elevation to his current post as archbishop of Atlanta), he made the brave decision to remove thirteen  of his priests from active ministry because credible evidence existed that each of those men had abused children.  Thirteen priests out of about eighty priests total in the diocese who were then below retirement age.  Such a cut--while absolutely necessary--took courage.  The Belleville diocese had a priest shortage prior to the firing of those thirteen men; obviously, the shortage was worse after they left.  Of course, all in all, the diocese was much better off once abuser priests were removed.  

Every diocese obviously needs to follow its stated policy of calling the police when a suspected abuser is discovered among its workforce.  Yet Bishop Robert Finn is, perhaps, ultimately more in keeping with the times than his colleague, Wilton Gregory.  Finn, a staunch conservative, knows that whatever else happens, we simply, absolutely cannot have women priests--so say Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia (as they attempt to raise to the level of infallibility John Paul II's teaching from 1994 that everyone should please just shut up and stop mentioning women's ordination).  We cannot have married priests--unless, of course, you count those married Anglican priests whom the Catholic church is glad to poach; those married priests who are, by coincidence, afraid enough of women clergy and women bishops to want to split with the Anglican faith.

Joseph Girzone, retired priest and author, has written about the cost that the church incurs as a result of its ban on married priests and women priests.  Bishop Finn's failure to act is reflective of both his negligence as a shepherd and his belief that a priest who is dangerous to children is at least better than a woman priest or a married priest.  He's following the company line on that one.  Which is, sadly, one reason why he likely will not do the right thing and quit.

Catholics in the pews who want to see irresponsible bishops such as Finn go need to speak loudly:  both with their voices and their wallets.  If you have a bad bishop, why not put a note in the collection basket that you are praying for the bishop's conversion.  A prayer of that sort is indeed a meaningful contribution to the church's welfare.  Then give your money to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, your local food pantry, or a crisis pregnancy center.

And if you should happen to discover you are not alone in this effort--if you find, for instance, that dozens or hundreds of your fellow Catholics locally are behaving similarly--why not contact your local newspaper or TV station so they can report on this phenomenon?

NB:  Thom, at Faith in the 21st Century, has a good discussion of the Kansas City case, with some attention to what Finn really wants to spend his energy on:  bringing back Latin, liturgical lace, and everything that might undermine the reforms of Vatican II.  On the other side of the coin, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, at the arch-conservative What Does The Prayer Really Say, has a pro-Finn commentary; in Fr. Z's comment box, one finds folks claiming that Finn's approach to this case was just dandy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

With or Without You?

I'm of the generation that experienced the release of the 1987 U2 album, The Joshua Tree, as a cultural and spiritual moment.  (There were also plenty of catchy hooks; have to admit that.)  I remember a couple of friends standing in line at midnight outside the record store on Grand River in East Lansing, waiting for the LP to go on sale.  (Perhaps one or two of my friends bought it on CD, though  most of us did not own CD players at that point.  For many people my age, that seems to have been one of the first albums they made a point of buying once they ponied up for a CD player a few years later.)  Plenty of wonderful songs on that album.  The first one to hit the radio was "With or Without You," a song you can listen to on any number of levels--romantic, existential, spiritual.  Both desire and ambivalence pound through that song, and the dilemma is no closer to being resolved at the end of the song than it was at the beginning.

Fast forward two and a half decades.  I'm not that angst-ridden undergraduate.  Now I'm a somewhat angst-ridden middle-aged fellow, and I still love that song.  Today, though, when I hear it, I think largely of my identity as a Catholic:  This church into which I was born (baptized at two weeks old, thank you very much), this church which I thought was something nearly flawless during my nine years (K-8) of Catholic school.  (That school closed forever last year.  My year of graduation was smack dab in the middle of its sixty-year history, whatever that signifies.)  I spent most of eighth grade thinking about whether I had a vocation to the priesthood even as I recovered--ever so slowly!--from a crush on a girl the previous year who ended up going with another guy to the school carnival.  I wished them well (sort of) and thought that Jesus was with me every step of the way.  (There must have been some girl that a fourteen-year-old Jesus thought was cute, right?)

It was not until my junior or senior year of high school that I first questioned why women couldn't become priests.  It wasn't until college that I first began to question--during a late night conversation with a friend who had been brought up Methodist--the shaky logic and disturbing implications of the church's ban on artificial contraception.  Not until my late twenties or early thirties did I question the church's teaching that the only way a gay or lesbian person could live a holy life was to remain completely celibate for his or her entire life--even if that individual had found an opportunity for love and commitment that, from all appearances, was both real and life-giving.  (No, I'm really not interested in any debates about procreative potential.  Life-long romantic relationships can indeed be "life-giving" in many senses that do not involve the combining of a sperm and an egg.  I write this as somebody who is one-half of an infertile heterosexual couple that has experienced any number of "life-giving" moments over the years.)  

My point, however, is that I've learned to question.  I've learned that I cannot be a good Catholic (or a good Christian of any variety, or even a half-way decent human being period) without asking tough questions.  Questions about the sexism in the church; questions about the continuing difficulty the church has in honestly coming to terms with the history of sexual abuse and cover-up and excuse-making that has pervaded the church for far, far too long.  (Think the issue is completely resolved?  Read this recent piece by Catholic apologist George Weigel and think again.  One silver lining, though, if you click on the article:  Even the readers of the very-conservative National Review call Weigel to task on the issue of abuse victims' ages.)

I'm left to wonder whether I can live with the Catholic church.  Can I stay Catholic?  Should I?  (My spouse and son are Catholic.  I don't want to go across town to worship at the Episcopal church, even if I suspect my conscience and soul would feel more at home there.)  I believe in the Real Presence of the Eucharist in the Catholic mass--I truly do.  However, I also believe that Christ is truly present (if in a different sense perhaps) in the people who gather in all sincerity to worship and serve God in other faith communities...and, not infrequently, I have brief glimpses of Christ's definite presence in people and groups that do not bother at all with the label of "Christian" or devout church-goer.  God is present--can work through, can be seen in--all sorts of folks, no matter what they call themselves.  This I believe.

And yet I do get something out of the Catholic route to God.  I dig many aspects of Catholic spirituality.  I get a lot out of the stations of the cross (when I take the time to do them).  I love St. Francis and Julian of Norwich and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and Mychal Judge, the Catholic fire chaplain who died while ministering to his firefighters during the 2001 attack on the WTC.  Those folks were not the "property" of the Catholic church, but their lives were rooted in the best parts of Catholic teaching and spirituality.  Too often, though, the Catholic road I see myself traveling is cluttered with vestiges of sexism, self-righteousness, legalism, and outright corruption.

With or without the Catholic church?  (Bono's voice: "A slight of hand and a twist of fate...")  I can't live with or without you.  But maybe--who knows?--maybe one of these days I'll find out for certain if I can.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Really: Which Bishops Deserve to Be Fired?

Good editorial in The National Catholic Reporter on a very bad event:  that is, Pope Benedict's decision to fire a bishop in Australia who was guilty of the terrible offense of pondering (in a newspaper column) whether the church should consider ordaining women and married men to the priesthood.  As the editorial points out, we can't manage to fire bishops for covering up sexual abuse and enabling abusers, but we sure can go after the ones who think creatively about the church's crisis in priestly vocations.

No surprise.  This is the same Vatican that claimed, only a year ago, that an attempt to ordain a woman as a priest is as morally repugnant as a priest sexually abusing a child.  They are both considered major offenses against the faith.  Seriously.  And the Vatican was happy (not embarrassed) to share that point of view with the world.  Never mind that one is a crime in every modern society, and the other is a debatable issue at worst and a good solution to the vocations crisis at best.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Fessing Up: My bin Laden Problem

I am not a very good Christian.  This is not the first time I've realized this, but it's hit home in a deeper way in the last couple days.

When I heard the news late Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I was glad.  Not jumping up and down with joy, not calling my five favorite people to celebrate -- not that.  But more than mildly satisfied. 

Last night, lying in bed, I got around to processing a fact I had learned a couple hours earlier.  bin Laden saw the bullet coming:  He realized he was about to be shot.  It occurred to me then that bin Laden must have experienced genuine fear in the nanosecond before his death.  Regardless of how much bullshit bravado and wannabe-matyr's self-glorification an individual has engaged in up to that point, when there's a gun pointing at him and he realizes the odds are greater than not that he will be killed, there has to be a quick stab of fear.  And for some reason, I liked the idea that bin Laden experienced such fear.  Maybe because he caused so many innocent people to experience a fear that was as least as deep -- on September 11, of course; also on October 12, 2000, when the USS Cole was bombed; and in other instances that I know too little of to catalog here.

It's not the Christian thing to be happy about anyone dying violently.  It's not the Christian thing to hope that anyone -- even someone who embraced evil as willingly and frequently as bin Laden -- suffered at the moment of death.  That was not what Christ taught -- not at all.

I know what I should be doing is praying for God's mercy on his soul.  And I am doing that, a few seconds today, a few seconds yesterday.  Along with asking God's mercy and healing for all those whom bin Laden and his followers killed or psychologically maimed. 

I'm fighting the part of me that wants to be glad about the way this man died.  Maybe the best reason to wage that fight inside me is so my own soul does not become cold and prone to dehumanizing anyone...even bin Laden.  Because I'm guessing having a cold soul prone to turning others into objects -- targets -- is how bin Laden became bin Laden.

May God have mercy on all of us sinners.  Osama bin Laden included.