Couple More Podcast Episodes + The Big “Pro-Life” News

JP II The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) Chapter 1, Part 3
JP II The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) Chapter 2, Part 1

[Click HERE for the podcast website.]

Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi

The big Catholic and pro-life news is:

The Speaker of the House’s Archbishop has notified her that she may not receive Holy Communion in San Francisco. That is, until she 1. publicly repudiates her political position on abortion and 2. goes to Confession.

Two questions about this. 1. Is Archbishop Cordileone credibly pro-life? 2. Will this do any good?

Survivors of clerical sexual abuse do not think Archbishop Cordileone is genuinely pro-life.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco has never publichsed a list of credibly accused clergy. Cordileone admitted that the Archdiocese has paid more than $87 million in secret settlements. Only a small fraction of the sex-abuse cases in the archdiocese have been dealt with.

Last May, the Survivors’ Network published a statement. Here are some passages:

The Dallas Charter promised openness and transparency. We are concerned that abusers remain in ministry in San Francisco.

We would like to see Archbishop Cordileone publish a list of abusers in his Archdiocese, including their histories, their pictures, and what the Archdiocese knew about them, when it knew about them, and what it did in response.

These lists alert the public to hidden predators and start survivors on the road to healing by letting them know that they are not the only one. This simple step, completely with the Archbishop’s control, may well save lives.

There are hundreds of priests associated with the Archdiocese of San Francisco who have destroyed the lives of innoncents and their families. It is beyond ironic and hypocritical of Archbishop Cordileone to assume any moral authority, as long as this clear and present danger remains.

In our eyes, Archbishop Cordileone has no moral standing, as long as he continues to endanger young lives. We know that not all these boys and girls will survive the attacks. Death may not necessarily be immediate, but it is one of the clear consequences of placing the reputation of the Church, and money, over the safety of children.

archdiocese0419_PH1

Archbishop Cordileone gave an interview yesterday and lamented that “he had to” exclude Pelosi from Holy Communion.

As he outlined in a letter to the priests of San Francisco, the Archbishop sought to meet personally with Speaker Pelosi, after she had spoken publicly last fall in favor of a federal law declaring a constitutional right to abortion. But Pelosi’s office responded that she didn’t have time to speak with him.

Cordileone does not have an answer to the question, Why now? What has really changed over the course of the past decade, during which he has been Pelosi’s Archbishop, and her position about legal abortion has not significantly changed?

Last year the Archbishop wrote a pastoral letter to his people about co-operating in abortion and receiving Holy Communion. It seems clear now that he did so in order to lay the groundwork, so to speak, for his Notification to Pelosi.

The pastoral letter outlines the reality of abortion and explains the difference between formal and material co-operation in evil. What the letter does not do is: Engage the political realities of the issue, in California, and in the U.S. as a whole.

There is no “right” to abortion. To the contrary, the law should prohibit the killing of innocent human beings. Nearly fifty years ago, however, the Supreme Court of our land found otherwise.

Now, apparently, that situation will change. (That is, if the leaked Alito opinion truly represents the finding of the Court on the matter.) The individual states will then make laws about abortion, like they did before Roe v. Wade.

Will all states prohibit abortion? No. Will abortions occur in states that do prohibit it? Yes, because of the availability of abortion pills and the work of underground abortionists, who have already mobilized. Will the state of California prohibit abortion? Certainly not.

One of the basic rules of democratic politics is: You win by convincing people. You might find yourself able to force people to conform to your ideas for some period of time. But then you will likely lose your power to force anyone to do anything, and you won’t get your way anymore.

It seems to me that being pro-life means, fundamentally, finding a way to convince people not to have abortions. Using force against women is exactly what we are against.

Cordileone’s Notification does not seem genuinely lawful to me. If it were, Speaker Pelosi would have a clear path to a resolution of the crisis.

The Archbishop does not lay out clearly what Pelosi is supposed to say, what precise position she is supposed to repudiate, in order to satisfy his demands. Instead, Cordileone has created a situation that looks like a father trying to discipline a teenage daughter. “You know what you’ve done wrong. So go to your room until you’re ready to apologize.”

Pelosi could reasonably ask, “What exactly do you want me to say, Your Excellency?” He would likely reply, “Just say anything that harmonizes with the teaching of the Church about abortion.” She would reply, “I think I have already done that. What exactly do you want me to say? What exact political position do you want me to take?”

And he would not have an answer. Because the business is complicated. Complicated as H. E. double hockey sticks. Democratic politics is an ugly mess.

Archbishop Cordileone says that abortion is a clear case of good and evil. Indeed, it is. Aborting a child is never the right thing to do. Seems like our job as pro-lifers is to convince people of that.

But what Archbishop Cordileone has done only serves to convince people of things that actually are not true. He has reinforced the idea that being pro-life has to do with obedience to celibate men in miters. He has fed the general conception that pro-lifers are Christians trying to force our religion on others who don’t share it.

Archbishop Cordileone did not have to do this. He, like most bishops, lives in a cucoon. He has publicly embarrassed a member of his flock, with no real prospect of any good coming from it, because he says he can no longer tolerate the “scandal” she has caused.

But how can he not see that most of the people of San Francisco will see what he has done as the scandal? Does he not realize that he comes off as an arrogant autocrat who thinks he owns Jesus Christ’s sacraments? And that he looks to most Americans like an amateur meddling in the dirty business of politics?

I’m not saying that Speaker Pelosi will not have a lot to answer for, when she goes to meet The Judge. Her political position on abortion is dishonest in the extreme. I would gladly say that to her face, if I had the chance.

And I would do the best I could to convince her to change her mind. I might ask her to let me read Evangelium Vitae to her. But I hope I would never be fool enough to make her the heroine of a mean-Church, poor-Italian-American-grandma story.

 

Compendium of Posts for the End of Roe v. Wade

Roe v Wade court
The Roe v. Wade court

Two years ago tomorrow, Bishop Knestout issued a decree prohibiting me from preaching and celebrating the sacraments publicly.

He did this to punish me for blowing the whistle on the long-term cover-up of Theodore McCarrick’s crimes. Shortly before then, I had given a homily about the Gospel of Life, the end of Roe v. Wade, and the coronavirus.

Bishop Knestout’s decree prohibiting my giving sermons remains in effect, and I obey it.

As Providence would have it, though, I actually gave a good number of sermons about the end of Roe v. Wade, prior to May 5, 2020.

I share the links with you, dear reader, with some quoted passages. Perhaps you will find the texts helpful now.

1. July 4, 2018: 45-Year Dream Come True.

That Independence-Day Sunday, I anticipated the event that appears to be imminent now, the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Couple quotes:

…Now, suddenly, in the summer of 2018, we find ourselves at a point in our history when we can reasonably hope that this will change. With a new justice, the Supreme Court likely will abandon its claim to govern the country when it comes to abortion…

We Catholics are pro-life. As Pope St. John Paul II explained to us, we simply cannot accept the idea of elective abortion. Accepting it would mean betraying the most central realities of our Christian faith.

That said, we also love, and sympathize with, all mothers who find themselves in situations which might tempt them to seek abortions. The culture of death, the throwaway culture—it poisons many minds, with its hopeless, dark fear of the future. We Catholic Americans fight the culture of death in our country not with anger and judgment, but with love.

Roe v. Wade accorded a “right” to abortion that does not exist. The irony is: this actually short-changed pregnant women of the rights they do, in fact, possess.

Every pregnant woman has the right to love and support, without being judged. Every pregnant woman has the right to the best healthcare available for her and her baby. Every pregnant woman deserves our friendship, our advocacy, our help.

…We know that plenty of people fear what will happen when an abortion case reaches the Supreme Court with a pro-life majority and the whole legal situation changes.

Let’s sympathize with that fear. Let’s acknowledge that something has to fill the vacuum that Roe v. Wade will no longer fill. Something has to occupy the psychological space that the abortion industry has occupied in these last, lawless 45 years.

us_supreme_courtLet’s pledge ourselves: We American Catholics will fill that space with our Christian love. When the tropical storm that is Roe v. Wade finally blows out to sea, away from these shores, and the sun comes back out again: We will stand there with acceptance, support, and tender loving care for every pregnant woman.

2. May 17, 2019: Pro-Life Turning Point

We can hardly hope that the Supreme Court would ever turn Roe v. Wade completely on its head and make abortion illegal in all fifty states. Rather, it seems like we’re headed towards: red-state/blue-state regional variations in abortion law.

Which means, of course, that here in purple Virginia we will have the pro-life fight of a lifetime on our hands…

Do we want to ‘impose our religion’ on others? Well, did the slavery abolitionists of two centuries ago intend to ‘impose their religion?’ Plenty of people said that they did, including US President and native Virginian John Tyler…

Maybe some people call themselves ‘pro-life’ out of sexism or prudishness. If so, that doesn’t mean that innocent and defenseless unborn children should face death with no legal protection, just because some of their advocates have imperfect motives.

No one thinks that the slaves in the South should have stayed slaves because some northern abolitionists were hypocrites, or because Abraham Lincoln himself had confused, and not altogether humane, ideas about blacks.

Why are we pro-life? Do we have a ‘religious conviction’ that life begins at conception? Actually, we have airtight scientific evidence that it does.

Whatever happens in the statehouses and courts, we have a clear mission. Serenely to love every human being. We do that out of religious conviction. That’s our way of ‘imposing’ our religion—loving our neighbors selflessly, unconditionally, and generously.

3. June 22, 2018: The Place Where Abortion is Illegal.

This is actually not a sermon but an analysis of a magazine article about “accompanying” pregnant women. Quotes:

…Kaveny gets it wonderfully right here. The problem of procured abortion is not, ultimately, a metaphysical matter. We have to focus solely on the simple moral question. Can it be right to choose to have an abortion?

…To countenance the idea that abortion could be the right thing to do–that would involve a failure of charity towards both baby and mother. Just like refusing to sympathize with the burdens faced by the mother would involve a failure of charity towards both of them…

Fleetwood Mac RumoursI have argued for most of my life that we do not need faith in order to know that abortion is wrong, since sonograms clearly show us that is is.

But, on the other hand, it is faith that protects us from the hubris that justifies abortion, based on uncertain predictions about the future. Every line of thinking that leads to the idea that abortion could be the right thing to do–all of them start with fear of the future. From that fear of the future comes the compulsive attempt to control it, through violence.

4. January 22, 2018 (45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade): Whose Future Is It?

In this sermon, I tried to address pro-choice thinking and offer a solution. Plus: An essay responding to Stevie Nick’s reflections on her 1979 abortion.

5. December 25, 2016: Christmas, Pro-Life Feastday.

Don’t accuse me of bringing politics into Christmas Eve. Our Catholic adherence to the Gospel of Life runs much deeper than any political affiliations we have. But, of course, being pro-life has political implications. We rejoice in the victories won this past Election Day by candidates with a pro-life message.

nativityThese victories mean that we have to pray all the harder and remain all the more vigilant for opportunities to participate in building up the culture of life. May the year to come see us living out in practice, day in and day out, the spiritual worship that we take part in at Christmas, beside the holy manger of the newborn Son of God…

We find ourselves next to the newborn babe in the manger, we clearly perceive that violence has no place here, in this sublime mystery of conception, pregnancy, and birth. As the prophet Isaiah put it, declaring the Gospel of Life: “Every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for flames, because the Prince of Peace has a vast dominion, which is forever peaceful.” The cruel violence of abortion is completely foreign to the peace of God’s kingdom. Visiting Bethlehem spiritually cements this truth into our minds.

6. March 30, 2016: Some Pro-Life Clarity?

This is an essay, not a sermon. It’s about appropriate criminal penalties for abortion.

7. January 28, 2013: My Marching Apologia

…The babies themselves are in the hands of God. But the persons who are morally responsible for their deaths find themselves in an untenable state. The Pro-Life Movement holds that we find ourselves in this untenable state as a nation.

With tears, we lament this collective darkness of soul. We insist that purification and enlightenment can and must be a legitimate object of political activism. We reject the abortion-tolerating status quo as foreign to human decency…

8. August 15, 2008 (the day this blog started): Logic and Voting Pro-Life

My Holy-Week Peace (Becoming Catholic, Part III)

Easter Vigil London Oratory

When the hand-held candles light up the church, with the Paschal Candle in front of the altar, at the beginning of the Easter Vigil: Christ triumphs, and we rejoice.

The ritual of our Church gives us the meaning of all the toil and pain of this difficult mortal life.

“We owe God a death” (Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, scene 2). God gave us life, and everything. And we thoroughly messed the business up, we human malefactors. We owe Him the death He calls us to.

He, however, went ahead and paid off our debt, on the Holy Cross. So now we can live under the canopy of His sky and trees; His sun, moon, and rain–we can live under His shelter, as the heavenly Father’s hopeful children.

We can light up the dark church with little candles, knowing it’s all true, His Gospel. He paid the full debt of death, and came out of it alive.

Resurrection tapestry Vatican Museums

At the Vigil, a clergyman holds the big candle, the light of Christ. The flock all hold little candles. It’s the Church, Head (Jesus) and members. The Redeemer and the redeemed.

Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ: the night of Saturday, April 10, 1993, found me holding a little candle in Dahlgren Chapel in Washington, D.C.

We all owe God a death. I will gladly pay that debt anytime, whenever God wills. The heavenly grace that found me that Holy Saturday night, the grace of communion with the Church of Jesus Christ: that grace outweighs death more than a lion outweighs a flea.

I became a Catholic to become a priest. As a seminarian, I learned the Holy Week ceremonies, in close detail. Then I spent two decades of Holy Weeks celebrating those ceremonies.

mccarrickI think I mentioned before how I served as Cardinal-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s deacon on a couple occasions during the Lent and Holy Week of my tenth anniversary as a Catholic.

On the First Sunday of Lent, 2003, I sat next to McCarrick at the big ceremony where the parishes present their RCIA candidates to the Archbishop.

Before the final blessing, I had a moment to whisper to the Cardinal, “Ten years ago, that was me, Your Eminence.”

He loved it. He stood up, and before giving the blessing, told the whole crowd what I had just said. Then he encouraged the young, unmarried men there to consider the seminary.

I also deaconed for McCarrick at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week that year. That’s the annual Mass when all the clergy gathers at the cathedral. The priests renew our promises, and the bishop blesses the holy oils for use during the coming year. That includes the Chrism oil, which you need for Confirmations (anointing the forehead) and Ordinations (anointing the palms).

I stood next to Cardinal McCarrick, and helped hold his chasuble back from his wrist, as he consecrated the Chrism he would use a month later at our ordination as priests.

We’re all sinners. No one is perfect–not even priests, bishops, popes. There’s no such thing as a Church with 100%-holy clergy. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for criminals to hide from justice behind the altar rail.

During Holy Week 2003, a lot of people knew that McCarrick was a criminal hiding from justice. People in New Jersey knew, and people in the Vatican knew.

The Vatican ambassador was at our Chrism Mass in 2003. He knew at that very moment that multiple victims of McCarrick’s abuses had tried to report what had happened up the clerical chain of command.

And yet here McCarrick was, presiding over the sacred ceremonies, as Cardinal-Archbishop of the national capital of the most-powerful country on earth. Some other men in miters at that Mass also knew some of the secrets. But they just stood there, consummate cowards, as a criminal pederast consecrated the Holy Chrism.

St Matthews Cathedral

Most of us there would not have tolerated the situation, had we known.

If the Vatican ambassador had somehow decided to throw the Code of Silence to the winds, and marched to the microphone, and declared to everyone in the cathedral everything he knew about what McCarrick had done; if such a miracle of truth-telling had occurred, I believe that:

We would have stood in silent shock for a moment. Then we would have applauded the whistleblower’s courage for speaking. Then we would have knelt down to pray for the patience to wait for the Lord to send us a different Archbishop, one that we could actually respect and trust.

At least that’s what I hope I would have done. Instead, though, the Code of Silence prevailed, as usual. The criminal remained hidden behind the altar rail for another 15 years.

Every year, the bishop invites his priests to the Chrism Mass at the cathedral. For three years running now, though, I have not been invited. I am not welcome.

Knestout Lori

The bishop here probably knew some of McCarrick’s secrets, at the Chrism Mass in 2003. (Monsignor Barry Knestout was right there, near McCarrick that day, just like me.)

If Bishop Knestout didn’t know anything that day, he certainly came to know some of it, in the subsequent few years. He dutifully kept the Code of Silence of the mitered mafia.

Now, two decades later, with some of the McCarrick truth known to the world, Knestout has left me outside, to fend for myself spiritually. Because I think the Code of Silence is bull–t.

I will participate in the Holy Week ceremonies this year, not as a priest celebrant, but in the back of a strange church, praying quietly among people who don’t know me.

I have peace about this.

Because: If you take all the wrongness of a criminal presiding over Holy Week as Cardinal Archbishop–if you take the whole invisible wound caused by that, and try to look at it, honestly and carefully, you see: we still owe the Lord a lot here.

We still owe Him for all the cruelty, the hypocrisy, and the cowardice, hidden behind the altar rail two decades ago.

I think of the good, honest souls with me at that Chrism Mass, 2003, in McCarrick’s cathedral. People who knew me then, and who know the truth as I know it now. I believe they think like this, about the situation as it now stands:

It’s a shame that Barry Knestout has thrown Mark White in the trash. It’s a shame, because Mark turned out to be a halfway-decent priest.

But it makes sense. It makes perfect sense that the tall, idealistic deacon then would wind up the unjustly ‘canceled’ priest now, considering all the hidden evil involved. It’s no surprise that the tall, bookish dude would find himself on the forgotten fringe of Holy Mother Church. Because it’s better to suffer in the back of the church than stand up in front and pretend everything is fine, when it isn’t.

If you missed the earlier posts, click for:

Becoming Catholic, Part I

Becoming Catholic Part II

Becoming Catholic, Part 2

Christ blessing Savior World el Greco

While I was in the process of becoming Catholic twenty-nine years ago (click HERE for Part 1), I tried to make sense out of the ‘historical Jesus’ problem.

We never really discussed it in RCIA class, but it seemed important to me. So I read a bunch of books about it.

What is the ‘historical Jesus’ problem?

One the one hand: Jesus of Nazareth, a human being, like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. We have historical records about Jesus, like we have historical records about other luminaries of the ancient world. The records about Jesus have been gathered into a unique collection called the New Testament.

Human beings wrote the records we have about Jesus. And those writers had their human reasons for writing, and particular human audiences in mind, when they wrote.

History = reconstructing the past by studying written records. Nothing magic about it, or holy. It’s a field of study that we human beings must engage in, in order to understand our situation. Jesus of Nazareth, an important man of history, fits into that study.

On the other hand: The Church believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal Word made flesh, the God-man. The Church believes that He is the heart of the holy and divine Scriptures, the books that reveal God Almighty to us. God Who can neither deceive nor be deceived.

The Church reverently reads the Bible as not just true, but as the key to understanding The Truth.

As a candidate for the Easter sacraments, I encountered some ideas about how to deal with this problem. And I couldn’t bring myself to accept those ideas.

For example:

Jesus as portrayed in the Bible is the Christ that Catholics believe in, and what actually happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago doesn’t matter. History is one thing, faith is another. There’s no point in struggling with an impossible task, namely making the Bible’s testimony about Jesus seem reasonable or accurate.

But hold on. Don’t Catholics believe in the actual, factual Jesus Christ?

As in: He instituted the Holy Mass, using bread and wine, with His own human hands and voice, at a particular Passover celebration, with His apostles.

And: He rose from the dead in the flesh.

Doesn’t the whole religion absolutely require that these are true facts?

I knew I had no intention of joining a Church founded on myths, even lovely myths.

illuminated-bible

In other words: critical thinking about Holy Scripture seemed absolutely necessary to me. Not just on the grounds that we are rational animals, we human beings. But also on the grounds that: Christians believe in a God-man who actually did walk the earth, talk, eat, sleep, bathe, etc.–like us. There is no Christianity without the actual, historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Here’s another idea that floated my way during my RCIA year, one that I couldn’t accept:

We ‘enlightened,’ modern people have more learning than the ancients, so we can understand the human beings who wrote the Scriptures better than they understood themselves.

We now have the skills necessary to interpret Scriptural statements that seem hard to accept; we can render them perfectly reasonable. When you can psychoanalyze the human authors, and their original intended audiences, then you can understand what they really meant.

giotto-flight
Flight Into Egypt by Giotto

For example: Matthew’s gospel says that St. Joseph took the Blessed Mother and the baby Jesus to Egypt, to escape the slaughter of the innocents ordered by King Herod.

According to the school of thought I’m talking about, a ‘naive’ pre-modern reader thinks: This means the Holy Family made a difficult journey. But an ‘educated,’ modern interpreter understands: The author traditionally known as ‘Matthew’ wrote this to tell his readers that Jesus is the new Moses. (Since Moses came from Egypt to Israel, in the Exodus, with the whole people.)

Now, Jesus certainly is the new Moses. And we could read Matthew’s gospel and know that, even without the detail about the Holy Family’s trip to Egypt.

But call me naive, I think that if the trip did not happen, then the book contains an untrue statement.

I read and re-read the gospels, and went looking for some help in the writings of St. Augustine. The following began to dawn on me:

1. Some ‘historical critics’ insist that the gospels contradict each other on certain points. But that is not true.

Finding ‘contradictions’ requires over-interpreting the significance of particular statements, as if they were meant to exclude other related facts.

But if you avoid over-interpreting gospel details like this, then the ‘contradictions’ disappear. The apparent discrepancies arise from the multiple points-of-view that the New Testament offers: multiple points-of-view on one underlying set of facts.

That underlying set of facts is no more–and no less!–complicated than our own complicated lives, with all their relationships, conversations, confidences, etc. etc.

resurrection

For example:

The gospel accounts of disciples seeing Jesus after He rose from the dead seem complicated and disjointed? How would the accounts of your friends seeing you, in different places and at different times, after you rose from the dead seem, if that happened?

How many facebook posts would be involved? Could those posts be gathered together into an easy narrative? Please. The facebook posts about your family’s last Thanksgiving dinner could hardly be gathered together into an easy, coherent narrative. Very few family Thanksgiving dinners could be.

thanksgiving-BeverlyHillbillies

2. The four gospels corroborate each other–and corroborate the Christian tradition–on the basic narrative about Jesus of Nazareth. If the written records of the first century A.D. give us anything, they give us a solid picture of this man’s life.

He traveled Palestine as an itinerant rabbi; He taught a distinct message about His identity and His significance in Jewish history that got Him crucified. His followers claimed that they had seen Him after He rose from the dead (even though it cost many of them their own lives to make that claim). They celebrated Baptism and the Eucharist at His command.

Thoroughly verifiable historical facts, these.

3. Most of the content of the gospels, however, can neither be proven to be true history, nor disproven. You can’t prove that Jesus said all the things the gospels say He said. But you can’t prove that He didn’t say them, either.

These books give the reader the intimate point-of-view of the disciple of Christ. They were written by disciples for disciples, by Christians for Christians. These books continue the experience of intimacy with Christ that the disciples had; the books allow the authors’ experience to continue now.

It is an undeniable historical fact that the original disciples had the experience of intimacy with Christ. What that experience involved can only be known by fellow believers. When you read the New Testament, as a member of the Church, you have it–the same experience as the gospel authors.

That is, the experience of communion with the triune God, on the terms that Jesus laid down in His teaching and example. (And made possible by His gifts of grace.)

I realized, twenty-nine years ago: Historical inquiry gets you right to the front door of the church, without any doubts. Or any leaps of faith.

Then the Catholic, apostolic faith gets you inside, to hear and read the gospels for what they are.

There’s nothing irrational about believing every word of the Bible, assuming we are humble enough to admit that we don’t fully understand them all.

We quickly leave the question of historical accuracy behind, however, as we enter the realm of intimacy with God that the New Testament open up to us, here and now.

Becoming Catholic

Dalgren Chapel
Dahlgren Chapel, Georgetown University

First week of Lent. The Purim moon comes in one week; the next full moon after that means… Easter.

Twenty-nine Lents ago, on the sunny afternoon of the first Sunday of the season, I found myself at a ceremony in St. Matthew’s cathedral, on Rhode Island Avenue, in Washington DC.

I was dead tired. I could hardly keep my eyes open during the sermon.

I was always tired on Sundays in 1992 and 1993. I spent every Saturday night waiting tables at a 24-hour cafe, just up the street from the cathedral.

Actually, that Sunday I had already been in the cathedral, for 7am Mass. I went every Sunday morning, after my shift ended. I never got there quite on time, but it didn’t matter. I was there simply to kneel and pray quietly in the back. I wasn’t Catholic yet, anyway.

That was why I was in the cathedral that particular Sunday afternoon. The ceremony was the “Rite of Election,” presided over by the bishop. The pews were filled with candidates for the Sacraments of Initiation, to be given all over the archdiocese, at Easter.

I was one of the candidates. I was going to join the Catholic Church.

Strictly speaking, the Rite of Election ceremony did not pertain to me. I was already baptized, as a Protestant. I was a Christian already. But most of our group came to St. Matthew’s anyway, that Sunday afternoon, for fellowship’s sake with the one unbaptized person among us.

The whole thing was something called “RCIA.” Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. (These days, I think, the preferred term is actually OCIA, Order of Chrisitian Initiation… But a pox on the acronyms.)

In our assigned pew that afternoon in St. Matthew’s:

The affable Georgetown Jesuit priest in charge of the campus RCIA program. The kind woman who helped Father, and who actually knew all our names. And the candidates–at least the ones who were able to make that particular ceremony. The fiancee of a grad student (the lone un-baptized member of the group). A couple undergrads. The high-school-senior daughter of a professor. A bookkeeper at the GU finance office. And sleepy me–a local waiter, suicide-prevention-hotline worker, and college drop-out, who had stumbled into this particular group through a friend studying at Georgetown.

We had a regular RCIA routine, of course, and it reflected the Lord’s-day schedule of the Georgetown undergrads: Church on Sunday evening, rather than morning.

Each Sunday we RCIA students made our way to Dahlgren Chapel on the Georgetown campus in time for the 7:30pm Sunday Mass. We sat together in a pew near the front of the chapel. After the sermon, the Jesuit celebrating the Mass would call us up in front of the altar, give us a good word, and dismiss us for our little ‘class.’

We would sidle out into a parlor in the old School of Business next door to sit with the woman who helped Father (the lovely Mary Patricia Barth Fourqurean, who I pray the Lord will bless forever, for her bottomless kindness to us) and the seminarian detailed to minister to us. They would lead a discussion of the readings we had just heard at Mass.

We each had pocket-sized Catholic Bibles. I kept mine on my person at all times. I read it on the subway on the way from my Capitol-Hill apartment to RCIA, and on the way home, and in the morning, and in the evenings. I read it whenever I could.

One homework assignment I had: to obtain a baptismal certificate.

New York Avenue Presbyterian church
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.

In October 1970, my parents carried me to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Rev. George Docherty, a semi-famous Scotsman, baptized me.

I called the church office there, and the secretary agreed to prepare a certificate for me to pick up. When I came by to get the envelope, I asked if I could visit the church, and I prayed a little bit there.

I handed the envelope with the certificate to Mary Pat the following Sunday evening.

The Holy Roman Catholic Church recognized this Presbyterian baptism. No plans to re-baptize me. I found this intriguing.

I mean, I understood that Baptism is for life. You don’t do it multiple times. It marks you, invisibly yet definitively, somehow. That part resonated with how being baptized had affected my life so far. I hadn’t shown up for RCIA in order to forsake the religion I learned in childhood.

I loved Jesus Christ from the time when I was old enough to understand the gospel readings that we heard on Sundays. I loved Him because of those readings. I pictured the Lord in my mind’s eye as I listened, and I loved Him. Jesus, as the four canonical gospels, read aloud in church, present Him: He was already my Lord, and Sundays in our family church growing up involved communing with Him, no doubt.

The Roman Catholic Church regarded my Protestant baptism as somehow theirs, as an act of The Church, the one and only Church. That comforted and captivated me.

All that said, when I showed up at the Catholic doorstep, I had never been to confession; the “Confirmation” I had received bore little resemblance to the sacrament of the Church, and therefore certainly did not count; and the Holy Communions I had taken thus far in my life involved bread and wine only.

…Now, the fact is, the Georgetown University “RCIA team” never really taught us much of anything. But I did not notice that. I was reading so much on my own.

In addition to the gospels, I read a helpful little book called Catholic & Christian by Alan Schreck. (An RCIA staple nationwide.) And I plowed through John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

Card Newman
John Henry Newman

Newman was a clergyman of the Protestant Church of England who entered the Roman Catholic Church in mid-life. He explained himself in his Apologia.

One big part of the book outlines an ancient Church controversy. In minute detail, Newman shows how the authority of the papacy held the Church together and kept Her true to Christ. I found it all thoroughly compelling.

I also read a middle-English poem called The Pearl.

The speaker of the poem falls asleep and has a vision of his daughter, who had died, across a river. He speaks with her about her death and redemption. She answers by summarizing some of Christ’s parables, and then the speaker sees the city of heaven as described in Revelation.

All the details of all the images in the poem have meaning, referring to Scripture somehow. Reading it opened up entirely new vistas in my mind. There’s more than just what meets the eye–in the Church, in the Bible, in everything.

brunelleschi_crucifix

All my reading aside, though, I showed up for RCIA for two main reasons:

1. The crucifix.

In the Protestant church I grew up in, crucifixes were unheard of. I was taught to think of a crucifix–with the body of Christ hanging on it–as something grotesque.

But I had a total change of heart on that when I was 22. Something drew me to contemplate Christ crucified. I meditated for many hours on His suffering in the flesh, on the cross.

Especially His spreading out of His arms to receive the nails. That gesture came to mean everything to me, as a sign of love, and as an instruction on the meaning of life.

Spreading out His arms, He abandoned Himself to love, to death, to the Father. And to the human race that was killing Him cruelly and mercilessly.

His doing this made life make sense to me. This is what it means to be a living human being: to give yourself to God and to your neighbor, unto death, like Jesus did at that moment.

And He opened His arms to give Himself to the Father, who was–and remains–totally invisible to the human eye. Jesus did that with complete trust.

The trust of Christ in the invisible Father shows us: On the other side of everything visible, on the other side of the sky, there is unfailing love. He cares, the One Who made the heavens and the earth. He knows, and He cares.

The Father gazes with tenderness at everything. And He governs it all with a shepherd’s heart, leading us to the pasture that we most deeply desire, but cannot even properly imagine.

When the Lord Jesus spread out His arms to receive His cruel death with a peaceful embrace, He taught us to trust the invisible heaven, the Kingdom of the Father.

tabernacle

2. Jesus’ quiet act of embracing death with trust: it was a religious sacrifice. Somehow I grasped that, even though no one had ever taught me to understand it that way. And that sacrifice was the sacrifice of the Catholic Holy Mass.

That’s the second reason I was sitting in St. Matthew’s on the first Sunday of Lent, 1993: I had shown up for RCIA in the first place because some supernatural force had moved me to believe in the Real Presence. To believe in it with everything I had. Jesus is present on the altar after the consecration at a Mass; His own words at the Last Supper tell us so. I believed it.

Again, the Christianity I grew up with had taught me different. We had communion every Sunday, but nothing about the ceremony communicated the idea of religious sacrifice, or that the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ were on the altar.

The way everyone at a Catholic Mass knelt down together–I knew that was where I belonged. Kneeling among the Catholics, with faith in something that the human eye cannot see.

That faith came to me as a pure gift. To know that a priest, ordained by a bishop who had himself been ordained through a chain going back to the Apostles–believing that such a priest can offer to God the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Thanks to that inner force (which to this day I do not understand), I  already believed with all my heart in the Catholic priesthood and the Real Presence when I first showed up for RCIA. It’s the reason I showed up. It’s the reason I went to St. Matthew’s after I knocked-off work every Sunday morning that year. I wanted to kneel in Jesus’ presence.

I never even thought about going to Holy Communion in those days. I knew I wasn’t supposed to receive–that is, until I officially entered the Church at Easter. No problem. I just wanted to be in church and love Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

confessional…No one on the RCIA team ever really tried to teach us how to go to confession. But we did go, at a penance service in Dalgren chapel, with multiple priests, during Lent. I had never seen the Jesuit I went to, and I have never seen him since.

I was altogether at a loss about what to do, what to say, how to say it, etc. But I did feel great sorrow for my many sins. I had neglected God, and I had violated a bunch of His clear commandments. Since I had attained the use of reason and became responsible for my actions, I had been a pretty thoroughgoing arrogant prick a lot of the time. I knew I was a lost soul who had been found, praise the Lord.

I remember the penance that Father gave me to do. “Pray for the rest of us.” Ok.

…My mother had deep suspicions about my new affiliation with the organization that her hero, Martin Luther, had so vociferously criticized. She managed, however, to tolerate with kindness my eccentric youthful turn to Rome.

My brother could not even discuss the matter, he was so infuriated by it. Did it mean I would now vote Republican?

My friends, for the most part, thought I had lost my mind or been drugged by aliens. That is, except for a couple of them. One of them said to the others, “Look, Mark has always been obsessed with God.” Another was himself in the throes of becoming an observant, pious Jew, even though his family and all their Jewish friends never darkened the door of a synagogue. (He came to the Mass when I was received into the Church.)

My Episcopalian father gave me the money to order a nice, tailored suit for the Easter Vigil.

Rosary Prayers

I don’t recommend this, but: A year or so earlier I had dated a woman I worked with, who was 18 years older than me. After a couple months, the romance turned into a friendship. She herself had converted to Catholicism as a young adult, because of a previous boyfriend.

She became my RCIA “sponsor.” She gave me a tiger-eye rosary-bead set that she made a special trip to buy, at the gift shop of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

I taught myself how to say the Hail Mary, and the other Rosary prayers, on the subway.

Another ex-girlfriend tried to talk me out of going through with the Catholicism thing. She bought me a copy of Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation.

The book was hot off the presses that year. It exposed the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse in a number of American Catholic dioceses. It was the first major work on that subject. Berry’s investigations led the way, and he has since become a hero of mine. I should have paid a lot closer attention to his findings, twenty-nine years ago.

I did not agree then, however, with Berry’s thesis. Namely, that Catholic sexual morality is the root of the problem. I still don’t agree with that. And, yes I was young and naive in 1993, but: I could see that the attractive young woman who gave me the book had an ulterior motive. She didn’t like the idea of me becoming Catholic because she wanted me to violate Catholic sexual morality. With her.

…Holy Saturday came, and then turned, literally, into a dark and stormy night. We had rehearsed for the opening ceremony of the Vigil, with the Easter fire, in the courtyard outside the chapel. But we had to scrap our plans because of the pelting rain. We candidates stood inside, looking out, while Father, stooped under a golf umbrella buffeted by the wind, lit the Paschal candle.

…To be continued, later in Lent.

Not Baptized?

the_holy_trinity

God possesses infinite life. He shares His life with us.

He gives us existence and capacities–including interior, spiritual capacities. We can feel, think, choose, love. And He unites Himself with us in Christ, in order to give us immortality and eternal friendship with Himself, the Source of everything beautiful and good.

We call our share in God’s life “grace.” It comes to us from Christ the divine eternal Son, through Christ the man, the son of Mary. God is the source of grace. The humanity of Christ is the instrument through which God gives us His grace.

The humanity of Christ: His human pilgrim life; His human death; His human resurrection; His human ascension into heaven. Through this humanity–Jesus Christ’s–we receive holiness from the unapproachable, true God. Grace.

Baltimore Catechism sacraments

Christ the God-man gave us the sacraments. He uses the sacraments of His Church to give us His grace. St. Thomas Aquinas employs this analogy for God’s giving of grace through Christ and the sacraments:

Imagine that our salvation and holiness were a wooden settee. God makes the settee out of wood, using His ‘hands’ (His humanity in Christ) and using His ‘tools’ (the sacraments.)

Could God Almighty share His eternal vitality with a particular human being using some ‘tool’ about which we Catholics know nothing? Certainly. God is God.

But, by the same token, can we say that we know of any way to get to heaven other than Holy Baptism and communion in Christ’s Church? No. We know of no other way. We would be dishonest as hell if we pretended that we did.

baptism-holy-card1

Holy Baptism comes from Jesus Himself. Before He ascended into heaven, He commanded His apostles to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

A Catholic baptism is a ritual washing. It is also an initiation ceremony, and a naming ceremony. In other words, Holy Baptism has certain aspects in common with similar rites in non-Christian religions.

But Baptism makes no sense at all, if you don’t understand it with reference to the Christian faith. A baptism is, first and foremost, an act of obedience to Jesus of Nazareth.

We obey Him in this way because we believe Him to be 1. God, 2. alive, 3. active in saving souls, through the sacraments which He gave to His Church.

The Church ministers Christ’s sacraments–as His instrument, a ‘tool’ in His hands. In the Church, we have particular individuals, sacred ministers, who can act in the person of Christ at Mass, and on other occasions. A particular sacrament, Holy Orders, makes a man a sacred minister within the ministering Church of Jesus Christ.

priest-singing

Sometimes when a sacred minister says “I” or “my,” he does not mean himself, in the sense of Joe Schmoe. He means, “I, Jesus.” In these moments, the sacred minister serves as a personal instrument of the Lord in the bringing about of a sacrament.

“This is My Body…This is My Blood,” would be the pre-eminent example.

To perceive by faith that Jesus Christ speaks these words at Holy Mass, using the priest as His personal instrument to bring about the consecration: that perception of faith is the key to embracing the Church’s sacraments for what they truly are. That is, perceiving Jesus acting in the priest at Mass = embracing the sacraments with Catholic faith.

Clovis Baptism St Remi

Since I hold the Catholic faith, by God’s grace, I can say this: When I have, hundreds of times, applied water to someone in a kind of ritual cleansing, I believe that Christ has acted to bestow the sacrament of Holy Baptism. Every time.

Most, if not all, of the people present on those occasions have believed the same thing. We have all believed it, because the Church believes it. We have shared, in an imperfect manner, in the perfect faith of Holy Mother Church, the perfect minister of the sacraments of faith.

On all those occasions, I have always undertaken to say what the ritual book instructs me to say. Who would I be, to think that I could improve on that? Who am I to tinker with something so sacred, so hallowed by the centuries, and so crucially important?

missale-romanum-white-bg

All that said, perhaps you have heard, dear reader, about a serious problem that has arisen in the Church, regarding the ministering of Holy Baptism?

The problem has only just begun. It appears to be two-fold.

1. Many poor souls have to wonder if they are in fact baptized, since some ministers have said, “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” instead of “I baptize…”

2. This hardship for earnest Catholics has led many to criticize, and even mock, our Church.

I think we can understand the criticism. Consider the situation: A family and their friends with a baby, coming to a Catholic church building (which has been dedicated for sacred use by a bishop), holding a child over a baptismal font (itself also consecrated for this holy purpose), participating in a ceremony conducted by a duly ordained Catholic clergyman, a ceremony in which the clergyman applies water to the child in a ritual cleansing (a ‘baptism’).

And the clergyman says:

[first-person pronoun] baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

All the circumstances naturally lead everyone present to think: This is a Catholic baptism. No reason to doubt it.

That is, until the Vatican declares: If the first-person pronoun used was singular, all good. If plural, no baptism occurred.

You sure? Yes, we are absolutely sure no baptism occurred.

baptism

What if the minister said “we” by mistake? What if he was not a native speaker of the local language? Does what he meant to say count at all?

We Catholics have traditionally understood: What the minister means to say not only counts, but is the decisive thing. A sacrament occurs when the minister intends to do what the Church intends to do, by employing the necessary words and material.

Can I personally say that I have never flubbed the words? I can’t. I probably did, at some point. Over half the baptisms I have ever done have been in my second language.

But: However imperfectly I might have spoken, did I nonetheless habitually have the intention of celebrating the sacraments as Holy Mother Church celebrates them? Yes. I can say that without hesitation.

So I rest serene that my errors of diction have not impeded Jesus in His work.

Back to the Vatican declaration. In 2020, the Holy See responded to this question: Is a baptism conferred with the words, ‘We baptize you…’ valid? Answer: No. Anyone baptized with these words must undergo baptism again, as if he or she had never been baptized.

The pope approved the response. And the Vatican also published an explanation of its answer.

St Peters

Let me say two things. This procedure is how things should work in the Church. The Holy See has the authority to settle questions like this. Also: only a very foolish cleric chooses to alter the words used to confer the sacraments.

That said, I humbly propose that there are three reasons why we might wonder about this Vatican judgment. I do not think it is correct. I think the Holy See should reconsider.

The three reasons:

1. In the first paragraph of the Vatican’s explanation of its ruling, they cite the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Vatican writes:

[In this case] the ancient temptation resurfaces, that is, to substitute for the formula handed down by Tradition other texts judged more suitable. In this regard, St. Thomas Aquinas had already asked himself the question, ‘Whether several people can simultaneously baptize?’ He replied negatively. (Citing ST III q67 a6)

Citing St. Thomas as an authority on this matter does not serve the purpose. Let me explain why.

St. Thomas considers the words used by the minister of a sacrament in questions 60, 64, 66, and 67 of Part III of the Summa (as well as in additional questions later on, considering sacraments other than Holy Baptism.)

In his considerations in these four questions, St. Thomas recognizes not one, but two, traditional formulas for conferring baptism.

In the Latin-speaking Church, the minister says, “I baptize you…” St. Thomas explicitly refrains from ascribing the phrase “I baptize you” to Christ’s institution. (Christ instituted the use of the name of the Holy Trinity, but Matthew 28:19 does not include ‘I baptize you.’)

In the Greek-speaking Church, on the other hand, the minister does not refer to himself at all. Rather he uses the passive voice, saying “[Name] is baptized in the name of…

St. Thomas therefore opines:

“As to the addition of “I” in our form [the Latin], it is not essential. It is added in order to lay greater stress on the intention.” (emphasis added)

To lay greater stress on the intention. What intention? To do what the Church does in a baptism.

In other words, the sentence uttered by the minister is not some kind of incantation. It a verbal communication of his intention in acting as he does: that is, applying water to someone in a ritual washing.

What am I doing now? Am I rinsing the baby dandruff off your little scalp? No, “I baptize you in the name of the Father…”

To reiterate. St. Thomas: “I baptize” is not essential. It expresses the intention of the minister.

Okay, but doesn’t singular versus plural matter? What if a priest stood at the altar during the consecration at Mass and said: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is our body… Take this all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of our blood.”

I think we would all agree that this would not result in the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament. It would be an ‘invalid’ attempt. It would result in a nonsensical, ridiculous situation, and the priest should have his head examined.

But St. Thomas’ explanation of the baptismal words (which takes the Greek Church practice into account) teaches us that the “I baptize” is not the same as the “My” of the Body and Blood at Holy Mass. There is no Mass without the priest using the exact words of Christ to consecrate the bread and wine. But the Greek-speaking Church has celebrated countless beautiful baptisms without anyone there saying “I baptize.”

The fact of the matter is: the Vatican addresses one situation in its response, while St. Thomas addresses something quite different in question 67, article 6, of Pars III.

In the cited article, St. Thomas concludes that several people cannot baptize at the same time. He gives this example:

Suppose a child to be in danger of death, and two persons present, one of whom is mute, the other without hands or arms. The one would have to speak the words, the other perform the act of baptizing.

He considers two possible explanations for why that would not work.

The first possible explanation:

Were they to say, “We baptize you…,” the sacrament would not be conferred because the form of the Church would not be observed, i.e., “I baptize you…”

St. Thomas unequivocally rejects this explanation for why it wouldn’t work. He writes:

This reasoning is disproved by the form observed by the Greek Church, since their words differ far more from our form than does ‘We baptize…”

According to St. Thomas, therefore, it is not the words “We baptize…” that renders it impossible for multiple people to baptize a baby. Rather it is the second explanation he proposes, namely:

If several concur in conferring one baptism, this seems contrary to the notion of a minister, for a man does not baptize save as a minister of Christ, as standing in His place; wherefore, just as there is one Christ, so should there be one minister.

In the case that sat before the Vatican for judgment, there was only one single minister. He substituted “we” for “I,” yes. But only he did the baptism. St. Thomas, in concluding that several cannot baptize, was addressing a different situation.

To my mind, this seriously compromises the integrity of the Vatican’s response. It also brings us to problem #2 with the Vatican’s explanation.

holy-office

2. When a minister substitutes “we” for “I” when baptizing, who exactly does he mean by “we?” Do we know?

The Vatican explanation assumes that the ‘we’ the minister means is: the persons present at the ceremony. The Vatican puts it like this:

Apparently, the deliberate modification of the sacramental formula was introduced in order to express the participation of the family and of those present.

The Vatican rightly points out:

No group can make itself Church… The minister is a sign-presence of Him who gathers… The minister is the visible sign that the Sacrament is not subject to an arbitrary action of individuals or of the community, and that it pertains to the Universal Church.

Amen. Excellent points. But what if these points, too, do not actually address the case?

The Vatican also says this, in their explanation:

In the celebration of the sacraments, the subject is the Church, the Body of Christ together with its Head, that manifests itself in the concrete assembly. Such an assembly therefore acts ministerially.

What if, by “we,” the minister means this ministering Church? What if the “we” is not limited to the family and friends present as a mere human community, but actually refers to the Holy Mother? The “we” that is the Church.

If the minister has this ‘we’ in mind, would that change the situation? And perhaps allow for a different Vatican response?

baptist-greco2

This brings us to the third problem with the Vatican’s explanation for its negative response.

3. The Vatican assumes ill will on the part of the minister who says “we” instead of “I.”

The Vatican ascribes the rationale for the minister’s change of pronouns to “debatable pastoral motives,” adding: “Often the recourse to pastoral motives masks, even unconsciously, a subjective deviation and a manipulative will.”

The Vatican continues:

The minister’s intention to do what the Church does must be expressed in the exterior action constituted by the use of the matter and form of the sacrament.

They add: Substituting ‘we’ for ‘I’ does not

manifest the communion between what the minister accomplishes in the celebration of each individual sacrament with what the Church enacts in communion with the action of Christ Himself…

Therefore, in every minister of baptism there must not only be a deeply rooted knowledge of the obligation to act in ecclesial communion, but also the conviction of St. John the Baptist: although many ministers may baptize, the virtue of baptism is attributed to Him alone on whom the dove descended.

Stirring words.

But who will test baptismal ministers for the necessary deeply rooted knowledge and conviction? How will we know when these necessary conditions are present?

And are you really saying that the mere substitution of ‘we’ for ‘I’ proves, in and of itself, that the necessary intention to do what the Church does is not there?

No clergyman should ever substitute any words in conferring a sacrament. The Vatican should emphasize our obligation to ‘say the black and do the red,’ as they say.

And maybe that is precisely what this Vatican response actually intends to convey.

Which would mean that perhaps the Vatican authorities are, at this very moment, concerned and preoccupied with the unforeseen consequences that their ruling has had, namely:

1. Many good, earnest Catholics have to worry about the validity of their own baptism, or their children’s. And they have to take onerous steps to deal with that worry.

2. Our Church looks like a ridiculous and pedantic institution that can’t manage to get its head out of its butt.

Maybe, even now, they are reconsidering what they have done. I hope so.

Because this action, like so many other actions of the hierarchy, is obtuse and unfair.

Send a message to loosey-goosey clergymen by laying a burden on earnest laypeople? Really?

Indianapolis Talk

Heading to Indy to give a talk on Saturday, sponsored by Corpus Christi for Unity and Peace. Thank you, dear Vicki Yamasaki, for inviting me.

Here’s the text, if you’re interested. I believe the talk will be recorded and made available on YouTube.

noah-covenant

The Scandal in the Church

Everyone familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

Near the beginning of the book, the Catechism explains the “Stages of Revelation,” the moments in history when God has “come to meet man,” to “reveal His plan of loving kindness.”

The Catechism highlights the covenants between God and man that occurred between the creation of heaven and earth and the coming of Christ. Anyone know what those two covenants are?

1. The covenant with Noah, after the flood, and 2. the covenant with Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites.

Pretty important to our Christian faith, these dealings between God and Noah, and between God and Abraham. We read about it all in the book of… Correct, Genesis.

It would certainly seem to pertain to our Catholic faith that we believe that these things really happened, right? Not that we reject the science of geology or paleontology. But we need a way to understand the Holy Scriptures as fundamentally accurate regarding these ancient covenants. Right? After all, they prepared the way for the coming of Christ.

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurchIt seems crazy to some people, but we Christians have the idea that you can read the Bible and learn things, things that make life mean something.

Not that our faith in the Word of God gives us the answer to every question; the Bible doesn’t claim to answer every question. But we know that we cannot understand the meaning of life, without being able to read the Holy Scriptures. And believe what we read.

Now, you may be wondering: Why the heck is this man talking about this? I mean, it sounds great, but.. Why talk about the early chapters of Genesis right now?

One reason I am here is to tell you my story. I thought it might be good to start with December 2001, just over twenty-one years ago, a couple months after 9/11. As Christmas break approached that year, I had managed to pass my comprehensive seminary exams, and I had one semester left before ordination to the priesthood. But then the rector of the seminary told me that I was not welcome back after Christmas. Continue reading “Indianapolis Talk”

Spain Follow-Up + Answering CIASE Criticisms

Shepherd One
Shepherd One, where El País handed over the info

The Spanish newspaper El País has collected testimony from well over a thousand victims of clergy sex-abuse. Earlier this month, one of the reporters presented 385 pages of information to Pope Francis. On Sunday, El País made all of this public. The paper added: The Vatican and the Spanish Bishops’ Conference will investigate all the cases.

I expressed some misgivings about El País’ confidence in an ecclesiastical investigation. On Monday, the Spanish Bishops’ Conference confirmed my skepticism. The Spanish bishops published a defensive, less-than-honest press release. They referred to a “lack of rigor” in El País’ investigation. The bishops offered multiple justifications for not investigating anything.

Juan Cuatrecasas, president of the Stolen Childhood victims’ association reacted with outrage:

That these gentlemen speak of rigor is offensive. Let them interview each victim in that report and tell them face-to-face, looking in their eyes, that what they say is not ‘rigorous.’

Speaking of embarrassing ecclesiastical defensiveness, I promised to consider the criticisms that a group of French Catholic intellectuals have made against the comprehensive report on sex-abuse published in October–the Rapport Sauvé, or CIASE report.

Jean Marc Sauve CIASE France abuse

The CIASE report gathers the testimonies of sex-abuse survivors; it reviews the records of dioceses and prosecutors; and it reports the results of an on-line survey of the general population of France, about sex-abuse.

Based on these various sources of information, the report estimates that 216,000 young people have been sexually abused by French Catholic clergymen, since the 1950’s.

The French-intellectual critics insist that this staggering total cannot be supported by the information that is actually available. They point out that the percentages garnered by the on-line survey are too small to be extrapolated from, since they are smaller than the margin of error.

This is, no doubt, a valid point, in and of itself. But it is not a convincing criticism in this case.

First, because the CIASE report freely acknowledges that the extrapolated total does not tally easily with the hard data collected by other methods of investigation. CIASE estimates a maximum of 3,200 abuser clerics during the time period. To reach a total of 216,000, the average abuser would have over 60 victims–not a conclusion that is easy to feature, as the CIASE itself acknowledges.

The critics insist that the CIASE should have reported 24,000 victims, starting with 3,200 abusers and multiplying by the CIASE’s own estimate for average number of victims per criminal, which is 7.5.

But this would disregard altogether the insight given by the on-line survey of the general population.

Let me put it like this: the Catholic intellectuals’ criticism here is unconvincing because:

1. 24,000 victims is itself a staggering number.

2. The problem might not be that the total of 216,000 is too high, but that the estimate of 3,200 criminal clergy abusers is too low.

3. 216,000 actually fits reasonably into the overall picture of sex-abuse in France:

5.5 million French people have been sexually abused in childhood, since 1950. (This number is not in dispute.) If only 216,000 of those 5.5 million were abused by Catholic clergymen, that actually makes the incidence of Catholic clerical sex abuse lower in France, as a portion of total sexual abuse, than in other largely Catholic countries.

The critics dwell on the admittedly uncertain total estimate because they want to dispute the CIASE’s conclusion that sex-abuse of minors is a “systemic” problem in the Catholic Church. The Catholic intellectuals accuse the CIASE of inflating the number in order to shock the public into accepting the idea that the problem is systemic, without any further debate on the point.

Again, an unconvincing criticism, because: Even if the CIASE total is significantly off, would that somehow make the problem less ‘systemic?’ If there are actually only 108,000 victims, wouldn’t that still be a systemic problem? Or even if we stuck with the number that the critics themselves suggest–24,000. Isn’t that total enough to justify the conclusion that there is a systemic problem?

The criticism of the estimated total seems more like a quibble intended to obfuscate the matter, rather than an engagement of the real issues at hand. The clear fact is: criminals have hidden in the Catholic clergy for decades, in order to prey freely on minors, and then go unpunished for it by their superiors. Something definitely needs to be done about this. The question is not if something needs to be done; the question is what.

Charlton Heston Ten Commandments Moses

The critics further obfuscate the matter by trying to play both sides of the sexual-morality issue.

On the one hand, the critics rightly point out: It is precisely the teaching of the Church that tells us just how wrong the criminal sexual abuse of minors is.

This is true, and amen to it. No one has ever suggested that it would solve the Catholic sex-abuse crisis if the Church stopped teaching that sexually abusing minors is wrong and a sin.

But then the critics bring up the fact that, in the 1970’s, some prominent Frenchmen, including the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, publicly proposed that pedophilia be de-criminalized. It was part of the crazy ‘sexual revolution.’

Pope Benedict XVI Castel Gandolfo good night

(Pope-Emeritus Benedict used another version of this same argument in his unconvincing 2019 essay on the sex-abuse crisis.)

The critics then go on to suggest that the thinking of the 70’s influenced the Catholic clergy of the time–even though it contradicts perennial Church teaching, not to mention the basic moral instincts of the human race.

But if this were, in fact, true–namely that Jean Paul Sartre & Co. managed to confuse the French clerical establishment about sexual morality–wouldn’t that actually suggest an even-more-serious systemic problem in the Catholic Church in France?

The criticisms outlined so far, however, are all secondary issues in the dispute between the Catholic intellectuals and the CIASE. The central point of conflict is this:

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurch

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers an image to explain the role of the clergy in the life of the Church. We clergymen exercise sacred ministry in persona Christi capitis. In the person of Christ the Head.

The whole Church of the baptized = the mystical Body of Christ. But we ordained clergy operate in the person of Christ the Head of the Body.

Now, not even Protestants say that this is out-and-out wrong. After all, you can’t have a community without leaders. Plus, in the Church, the leaders do something unique. We give Jesus Christ to the community.

That is something no human community could ever give to itself. The Son came from the Father, not from Europe, or Africa, or Asia. God incarnate was born of the Virgin in Bethlehem, in an altogether unique event. And that’s where this unique thing called the Church started.

All that conceded, the CIASE nonetheless recognizes: The image of in personal Christi capitis–used to identify what a Catholic clergyman is–it may be a necessary image, but it is still dangerous. The idea can be cruelly exploited, with disastrous consequences. The justifications that have been used to exploit the image must be identified clearly. And unequivocally condemned.

We read in the Rapport Sauvé:

The Commission believes that it is necessary closely to examine the hierarchical constitution of the Catholic Church in view of the internal disagreement concerning its own understanding of itself: between communion and hierarchy; between apostolic succession and synodality; and, essentially, affirmation of the authority of preachers and the reality of grass roots practices which are increasingly influenced by democratic practices.

Granted, these ‘discussion points’ require a vast range of reflection on the part of us Catholics. There are no immediately evident ‘action items’ here.

But who could deny that we do, in fact, very much need to reflect carefully on these very points? I myself have been meditating daily on these ‘internal tensions’ in our religion for the past three years. And it has done me an enormous amount of good.

But the French-intellectual critics of the CIASE can only dismiss this thoughtful recommendation with a sniff. They write: “We can hardly see what practical approach can be suggested by this motley enumeration.”

Motley? How about: Profound, insightful, and deeply challenging–for good reason.

canon law codex canonici

The critics then proceed to poke holes in the CIASE’s concept of ‘reparative justice’ for sex-abuse survivors. The critics explain–with perfect plausibility–that the legal systems now in place, both civil and canonical, cannot be used to obtain the outcome that the CIASE envisions, because the cases are mostly too old.

Again, in their defensiveness, the critics only manage to beg the question. One of the CIASE’s contentions is, in fact, that the canon-law system we now have is inadequate to deal with the problem.

To conclude. In their essay, the CIASE’s critics make a fundamental mistake, the same mistake made time and again by well-meaning Catholics facing the sex-abuse crisis. They see an enemy, where a friend is actually trying to help.

Again, it all seems painfully familiar to me. So let me make a distinction, when it comes to “enemies” of the Church.

Publicly to “incite hatred or animosity” against the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or to “provoke disobedience against them”–this is a crime under canon law, punishable by severe penalties.

But isn’t this canon missing a necessary qualifying phrase? For a real crime to occur, wouldn’t the criminal have to intend to damage the Church?

Without this qualification, the law runs the risk of criminalizing virtuous acts. What if a bishop or pope does something unjust, or even criminal? Was it a crime against the Church when one of McCarrick’s victims went to a journalist in the early 2000’s, to try to get his story out–after he had been brow-beaten and gas-lighted by multiple prelates?

The Chancellor of the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, recently published an article interpreting the canon in question here (canon 1373). Chancellor Caridi tsk-tsks public critics of the hierarchy and suggests that we deserve penal sanctions. He writes:

The Church is not an institution instilled with the values of self-governance or a right to protest.

But wait. Isn’t this a straight-up contradiction of the teaching of all the post-Vatican II popes? Don’t we Catholics think that it is precisely our Christian vision of the human person that has given rise to the realm of free speech, open debate, and freedom of conscience that we have traditionally called “the Western world?”

We believe that the magisterium of the Church delivers to us the truths of Divine Revelation, in which we put our absolute faith. But that doesn’t mean that prelates cannot err in their acts of governance. There is no charism of infallibility when it comes to governance.

When it comes to clerical sexual abuse, our prelates have erred in governance–as a body–so grievously, and over such an extended period of time, that reasonable, good people have lost confidence in their judgment.

If open debate about this evident fact results in penal sanctions in the Church, that does not serve good order or Church unity. To the contrary, it only serves as further proof of ecclesiastical misgovernment.

 

2018-19: McCarrick, McWilliams, and Me

Father Robert McWilliams
Father Robert McWilliams of Cleveland

Can you have a relationship with God without the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, governed by Pope Francis, bishop of Rome, and the bishops in communion with him?

God gives us all existence and life. We exist and live at this moment only because He gives us our share of His pure, infinite existence and life. This establishes a relationship. So, to answer the question above: Yes, you can. But…

What about God revealing something about Himself, like a friend would? Giving us insight into Himself? Showing us His will, His plan–His loving plan? Saving us from our ignorance, and our evil, so that we could find true, everlasting happiness?

God sent His Son, to save us all, to enlighten us all, to give us grace from heaven. Jesus Christ saves and redeems the whole world. He founded His Church, giving us the Holy Eucharist of His Body and Blood, through the priesthood that continues from the Last Supper till now by the laying on of hands.

McCarrick ordinationTheodore McCarrick made us–my classmates, myself, all the couple hundred men he ordained–he made us ministers of the Body and Blood of God Incarnate. Can I have a relationship with God without the Church and the Holy Mass? Me, Mark White, Father Mark White–can I? No, I don’t believe so.

McCarrick’s criminal trial in Massachusetts will unfold in 2022. May it be God’s will, the world will hear for the first time, in open court, the testimony of one of McCarrick’s victims. A man who first appealed to Church authorities for help over 30 years ago. May justice be done, in that Massachusetts courthouse, next year.

We have come a long way since the initial public revelation of McCarrick’s crimes, back in the summer of 2018. Through 2018 and 2019, I experienced intense anger about the situation, and I wrote a great deal about it, with an angry edge.

In the spring of 2020, the bishop here intervened in the life of the parishes of which I was the pastor. By the grace of God, my anger turned into something else then. A clearer vision of why I find myself in the situation I find myself in.

I just learned this morning some details about the crimes of Father Robert McWilliams of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. (One of his victims and the victim’s mother both spoke bravely to a skilled reporter; read the article on the other end of the link only when prepared to deal with a vision of malice that will make you ill to contemplate.)

During the very period of time when I struggled through the throes of my initial anger over the McCarrick cover-up, Father McWilliams was in the process of sexually exploiting and spiritually torturing teens and pre-teens. Children of families that he had first gotten to know while still a seminarian. The families went to the police in October 2019. A judge has now sentenced McWilliams to life in prison.

McCarrick and James
Theodore McCarrick with the young James Grein

The McCarrick situation has progressed since 2019. Much of what I wrote in 2018 and 2019 no longer reflects the current state of affairs. Also, I believe that a careful, private study, on my part, of those old posts will help me understand the inner workings of my soul better. For that reason, the “Scandal Posts” tab above will provide access only back as far as February, 2020–at least for the time being.

Injustice moves us to anger. The emotion is not inherently evil. Only the foolishly proud, however, indulge themselves in believing that their anger is always just. Or even half the time. The perfectly pure-hearted Lord Jesus righeously drove the money-changers and pigeon-peddlers out of the Temple. But I know that my heart is far from perfectly pure. Calm reflection gets me a lot closer to the truth than righteous indignation does.

The battle, however, is only just beginning. If any of us could calmly say that McCarrick and McWilliams have nothing to do with each other; if any of us could scrutinize both situations and see nothing in common, other than incidental aspects–well, then I would have to bow my head and say, ‘My 2018-2019 anger was perhaps understandable, under the circumstances, but now it’s time to move on. After all, I didn’t know anything at all about McWilliams at the time, so it’s a pure coincidence that I vented some anger appropriate to that case, as it unfolded secretly in the hidden recesses of homeschool-Catholic-family Ohio. That’s just a fluke, that I wrote some jeremiads appropriate to the situation, as it happened.’

That would be what I would have to conclude, if we could all look at our beloved Catholic Church right now and say to ourselves, “Yes, the system is sound. This is a tragic, isolated case, just like McCarrick’s was.”

But can we say that?

Didn’t structural problems in the Church enable both these criminals? Problems that persist: unchecked clerical authority and secrecy, protecting the institution instead of souls, thinking about lawsuits instead of the Final Judgment?

One of the intentions I pray for at the holy altar, with the angels for company, is this: May I be spiritually ready to respond to God’s call, as the scandal involving the prelate who ordained me enters its next phase, in 2022. May I have the courage to examine myself honestly. May we all respond with generous love to God’s gift of being who He made us to be, here and now.

Being Catholic Now, Q4: Two Letters

Jenny Grosvenor Daily Beast
(photo from The Daily Beast)

In October of 1994, Jenny Grosvenor received a letter from the priest-principal of her late husband’s Catholic high school. It was obviously a form letter. It had no salutation, no “Dear…” Instead, the letter began…

We have been informed that you and your family have suffered the loss of a loved one during this past year.

Jenny’s “loved one” had died four months earlier, at the age of 32. By suicide. Her husband. The father of their four young children.

The letter continued…

Prayers were offered for the repose of the soul of your loved one at his alma mater. As the years have passed, Stepinac High School has lost track of many of her former students, so we ask that you share this announcement with all interested parties and please call our Development Office.

Now, it’s a little hard for me to imagine a priest doing something so callous and obtuse. Sending a form letter to a widow in her early thirties with four babies.

But it’s worse than obtuse. Under the unctuous veneer, the letter actually communicates dismissive contempt. Father would have shown more respect if he had simply written what he meant, in a straightforward manner, like…

I really don’t care about you or about your dead ‘loved one.’ Send some money.

But guess what? We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the contempt involved in Jenny’s situation. The word “contempt” doesn’t even capture it. Jenny puts it better, in an article she just published: conspiracy of pedophiles.

Jenny’s husband Peter killed himself because: a criminal sex-abuser priest who worked at the high school had destroyed part of his soul. Father Donald Malone (now deceased) dealt Peter a mortal blow. Peter wrote in his suicide note: “This thing has been in me for years, it was time to come out.

And the priest who wrote the “condolence” fundraising form letter? Also a criminal sex-abuser of minors. The now-laicized Monsignor John J. O’Keefe.

In her masterpiece of an article, Jenny explains her decades-long attempt to understand her husband’s untimely death. She recounts her dealings with the Reconciliation Program of the Archdiocese of New York (about which I wrote last year.)

Jenny tells us how she snuck into the high-school priests’ residence, to visit the place where the criminal had abused her late husband. She confronted the priest running the school. He called her a liar.

Concluding her story, Jenny writes that she “wishes she could let it go, let it be.” But, she goes on:

Truth is, I can’t. Stories surfacing daily in the news and on social media of ongoing priest abuse, the Pope’s inaction, and victims’ continuing harm and suffering won’t let me.

This conspiracy of pedophiles must end. I must do something, anything to find and help others suffering in silence, to somehow catalyze the telling of stories, to ease this debilitating shame brought upon countless victims of this diabolical, predatory abuse.

In the Divine Office this week, we read St. Ignatius of Antioch’s writings. His early-second-century letters bear witness to the hierarchical structure of the original ancient Christian Churches, founded by Jesus’ apostles.

St. Ignatius was martyred, devoured by lions in the Roman Colosseum. Prior to his death he wrote of a particular priest: 

Ignatius
St. Ignatius of Antioch

I continue to take delight in him because he is obedient to the bishop as to the grace of God… Holy priests defer to the bishop with the prudence which comes from God, or rather not to him but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of all. So then, for the honor of Him who loves us, it is proper to obey…

Be zealous to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God… be united with the bishop… you must do nothing without the bishop.

Our bishop here, Barry Knestout, opened his letter to the people of Martinsville and Rocky Mount with a quote from St. Ignatius of Antioch. Then Bishop Knestout condemned me for “pushing the faithful to animosity against the Apostolic See and his bishop,” by keeping this blog on the internet.

Jenny’s article will make people hate the Catholic clergy.

Why? Because we deserve that hatred?

Can we honestly say that we don’t? Can we find a way to be Catholic that reverences both St. Ignatius’ truth and Jenny’s? Don’t we have to find a way?

 


Nota Bene

Allow me to correct the record on one matter. It is a minor point. But Dr. Francesco Cesareo, one-time chairman of the USCCB National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, deserves this correction.

In April of 2020, I wrote about the formal complaint made to the Review Board by the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, in Tennessee. The complaint asked that the Diocese of Knoxville not receive certification by the board for conformity with the rules of the 2002 Dallas Charter (which is supposed to govern all the dioceses of the US).

I explained how my friend Tom Doyle had written a brief supporting the complaint. Tom demonstrated how a “non-disparaging agreement” that the diocese had forced upon a sex-abuse victim violated the rules of the charter.

When Tom and I discussed the situation, he told me that the Review Board had not even acknowledged the complaint, much less responded to it.

It turns out that Dr. Cesareo did in fact acknowledge the complaint. He reported to SNAP that he had forwarded their complaint to Bishop Timothy Doherty of Lafayette, Indiana, the chairman of the committee charged with enforcing the charter. (Click HERE, and scroll down, if you want to see Dr. Cesareo’s letter.)

Over a year has passed since then, and Bishop Doherty has not responded.