Sunday, December 30, 2012

Conversion for All

On Nov. 12, 2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave a presidential address to the General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This was shortly after the US presidential election, and was uncharacteristically humble for the cardinal. The link above is worth reading, although it takes him a little while to get to the point. When he does, you find that he talks about conversion and penance. One would not be surprised if he meant for the people who voted for Obama, an action he and his fellow bishops heartily tried to prevent. But he actually meant first and foremost for bishops themselves.

One may cynically wonder if he had a victory speech prepared with entirely different substance if Romney had won. Though we may wish he spoke more plainly about his motivations for the need for conversion and penance, I think we all know what he meant. The half-year since their last meeting had brought court convictions for Msgr. Lynn in Philadelphia and Bishop Finn in St. Louis for the concealment of various forms of child sexual abuse. Along with the trials came media reminders of the failures of many, many other cardinals and bishops, including Popes.

If Dolan doesn’t know of the animosity many people feel against the Church leadership, he doesn’t deserve to be president of the USCCB. It seems this speech shows he gets it, at least in one form. Now if the words actually translate into action, we might all be a little happier. Penance is one thing, but conversion means the courage to change. Our strength is in the Lord  (cf. Psalms 118:14), and we all need to pray fervently for it.

Many people have written about the need for accountability for Catholic bishops, such as defrocking and even excommunication. But a deeper question exists: why are there so few consequences? We can’t say there are none, since in the case of the Legionaries of Christ, the leader, Marcial Maciel, was so horrendously guilty he was finally taken from his post by Pope Benedict XVI. However, even this took a long, long time after years of his accusers being ignored. But most bishops who passed pedophile priests onto unsuspecting parishes and still hide some of their identities go on with their lives and their jobs while other Catholics are excommunicated for things like promoting women priests.

Though Cardinal Dolan may have had certain things in mind when he talked about penance for bishops, he may himself not understand the deeper reasons for this inability to deal with the problem. Well, of course, we would not be wrong to say it is because of their sin. But perhaps a little more analysis would be helpful toward conversion.

Though I usually like to separate different issues to analyze them, there are some things in common with several themes here: the dismal behavior of bishops in the child abuse case; the desire of bishops to stop abortion (I generalize but believe most bishops want to stop abortion); and their rejection of women in true equality (and by true equality I mean not just nominal or “equal but different”).  The commonality is the way we think about these things, whether we listen to other persons problems and ideas, and what we do about them.

In the abortion issue, the bishops want the potentially aborting woman to consider the life within her and not reject it. This woman has her reasons for aborting, which she thinks are valid: she does not think the fetus is yet a human; she can’t afford it; she is afraid of what relatives will do if they find she is pregnant. However, none of these reasons are valid according to the bishops. They would object in some way: the fetus is a real human; help is available; the family may accept her anyway. Furthermore, they expect these potentially aborting women to listen to their answers.

However, in the case of treating women equally, they have all kinds of reasons why ordination and leadership should not be inclusive: the 12 disciples were men; Christ was a man; Christ is the bridegroom. But there are also objections to these arguments: 12 men represented the old ways of the law of the 12 tribes of Israel, and when Christ arose from the dead he showed Himself to women first and told them to proclaim his resurrection to others; Christ was human and so are women; if only men can represent Christ as the bridegroom as priests, then only women (the brides) should be in the pews.

When Cardinal Dolan asks for conversion of bishops, one hopes he refers, at the least, to the child sexual abuse crisis of the Church. It is good to see some sign of acknowledgement, but the bishops should know better than most that there must be changes in action if conversion is true. This is not just about going to the confessional and a fellow bishop telling them their sins are forgiven. If they expect to be satisfied with that, they are not converted.  They need to think about why they are doing these things and what needs to change for good.

These three issues relate to each group having their mindsets for doing things and whether they can listen to others.  There are differences in how we think about issues and how some things may be right and wrong in each group.  If bishops expect Catholic women who plan to undergo abortion to listen to them (and perhaps even influence non-Catholic women), they should think about whether they themselves accept women as equal or reject them and their ideas. They could start by reviewing their reasons why they keep women in the out-group, and evaluate if these ideas are true theology, or man-made rationalizations which sit among the genuine doctrine.

Perhaps the American political election brought the situation home to Dolan. He finally started, however tenuously, what needs to be done. The question is, how far will he and other bishops go? Because their conversion journeys will be very long and painful for them if they are to be done right.  May we all realize that true conversion is worth the pain, and may we have the courage to do it.

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