Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Present Day

On January 21, 2013, files from the Los Angeles Catholic Diocese were released to the public proving that Cardinal Roger Mahony and another bishop protected priests who sexually abused children. More files have been and will be available to the public in the next few weeks. The current leader, Archbishop Jose Gomez, posted a letter by which he relieved Mahony of certain duties he was still performing though he is now considered retired.

A Vatican spokesperson declined to answer several media inquiries about the matter. As quoted by John Allen, a Catholic news reporter, the Vatican needs time to “better understand the situation .”

This revelation of records happened only because the Los Angeles Diocese was sued and made to reveal them. Mahony’s lawyers have been fighting for years to keep them hidden.

I would be happy to think there is an attempt by Archbishop Gomez to bring about accountability for Catholic bishops. But we have gone through this in Boston 11 years ago. The most egregious enabler of predator priests there, Bernard Law, was not even allowed to resign by Pope John Paul II until a group of Boston priests signed their names to a letter insisting on it. Then the pope assigned Law to a cushy job in Rome as the head of a church there.

Fr. Thomas Doyle, a priest who has been working on the crisis for many years, wrote a short history of the Church’s ongoing battle with the problem of sexual deviation by priests. It is worth reading. The problem has apparently been known for centuries. One of the most troubling aspects is the “Secret of the Holy Office” in section 21b. It threatens anyone who does not keep the abuse secret with excommunication. Though the Los Angeles bishops and priests in question were doing their fowl deeds in the 1980’s, the Church was to this day still trying to hide it. The crisis continues in other places as well.

The scandal in the Catholic Church concerning sexual abuse against children by priests was addressed by George Weigel in The Courage to be Catholic . The book came out immediately after the 2002 revelations of widespread abuse in the US. Though staunchly orthodox, Weigel was surprisingly open about the horror of the predator priest situation and the potential damage it would bring to the Church.

Weigel says in the book that the crisis is the lack of fidelity because of laxity after Vatican II and rebellion to Pope Paul VI’s encyclical against contraception, Humanae Vitae. Though he briefly acknowledged problems in the past, Weigel claims it is worse now because after Vatican II, priests were not taught that they are supposed to be changed when they are ordained. The theology of the Church is that priests become “in persona Christi,” Latin for the idea that when priests are ordained, they are permanently changed somehow either into the person of Christ or an extension of Him. This point has been made in Church teachings such as the 1935 Pius XI encyclical, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii (section 12), where the priest is said to be “another Christ,” and “a continuation of Christ.” And, of course, bishops are themselves ordained.

As I understand the thinking behind this, the priest becomes thus in order to properly present Christ’s body at the mass. And as an extension of Christ, who was a man, the priest must also be a man. This is also supposed to carry through the priest’s entire ministry. This encyclical mentions that he might lapse into “errors and disgraces” through human frailty.

But Christ is fully human yet he did not sin. There is a disconnect here already. Pius XI said that there are special divine graces to help the ordained priest “if only he will faithfully comply.” Unfortunately, that is a big “if.” It seems we have to depend upon the will of individual priests. Desire for goodness is not completely taught in school—it is an inner movement of the soul of the person. Mahony said that he wasn’t taught in his graduate courses that sexual abuse of children hurt them. Yet as a bishop he knew the police would be after the priests if he reported the abuse. Wouldn’t that give him a hint? How can the Vatican not understand this situation? If we can’t expect Christ-like behavior from all priests and bishops, do we need to re-think “in the person of Christ” theology?

According to Weigel, priests didn’t really know they were representing Christ because they weren’t taught right in seminary. Personally, I’ve never heard of a Catholic who doesn’t know that one of the main reasons women can’t be priests is because the men become “in persona Christi” at ordination. I can’t imagine priests don’t know about it, Vatican II or not. For Bishops, he says they don’t believe what they are taught. So priests aren’t taught and bishops don’t believe what they are taught? Though Weigel may have been correct about a number of things in the book, I think his solution does not adequately take into account the reality of the situation.

Like Weigel, Pope John Paul II said the problem is a lack of fidelity of the bishops. I assume the pope considered himself faithful. John Paul was about as conservative as Catholics get. And yet John Paul became a big part of this whole problem when he placed Bernard Law in a church at Rome and left him on various councils. This was extremely hurtful to many Catholics, especially since Law never seemed very sorry unless I missed something. No matter what John Paul said, his actions spoke louder. And his actions said bishops can do just about anything without having to pay.

Also, John Paul ignored for a long time the accusers of Marcial Maciel, the deceased priest who was the founder of the Legion of Christ. Maciel molested seminarians and had children with several women. Before Maciel was finally exiled by Benedict XVI in 2006, John Paul and George Weigel had both defended the priest. That’s because Maciel was one of the so-called “faithful.” In other words, he was a supposedly conservative Catholic who was expected to know that priests are changed at ordination "in persona Christi," the exact solution that Weigel claims will end this problem. Maciel went to seminary before Vatican II, as did many, many others who have sinned in this way.

I suspect that the reason many priests don’t believe they are “another Christ” is because of their own sins even after ordination. It puts a heavy load on them to be perfect. Though some seem to handle it by trying their best, there are those even at the top who surely haven’t acted in the person of Christ.

Catholics have done a lot of good in the world such as teaching, healing and helping the poor. But it is distressing when any of us behave badly. The ages have seen this before. Popes and bishops have done terrible things, including owning slaves and defending slavery, living in debauchery, having people killed and even heresy. It is no wonder those outside the religion have negative opinions of us, to put it mildly.

Christians who are baptized are supposed to change from their sinful nature. In the Bible, St. Paul said:
So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Corinthians, 5:17, NABRE).
Unfortunately, Christians have proven that we are not perfect, including priests and bishops.

Even St. Paul, the very one who said we change in Christ, had trouble:
For what I am doing I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15, NASB)
Sin and evil are very much present in our day. It is not wrong, and in fact is our only hope, to keep the faith. As I read more about the predator priest problem, I see some bishops and priests have tried to solve it. But other bishops have behaved in a horrible way, moving the abusing priests around and hiding their identities from parishes and communities. The work is far from done and we all need the real Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, to show us the way.

As I watch in disappointment at the behavior of many bishops and the Pope concerning the child sexual abuse problem, I pray that the Church be cleansed. I also pray for Christians to be straightened, sanctified and unified so we may be pleasing to our Lord.

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