For decades, Mr. Phil Lawler has written about the problems in the Catholic hierarchy. He just announced solemnly that he cannot do it anymore. Combat fatigue.
The straw that broke his camel’s back? The appointment of a new bishop for West Virginia. From within the Wuerl-Lori-McCarrick-Bransfield Edifice of Lies. An institution some of us call ADW, Inc. (ArchDiocese of Washington)
To reply to Mr. Lawler:
On the one hand, we understand and sympathize. His Excellency Mark Brennan certainly arrives in West Virginia already compromised.
How? Allow me, dear reader, to explain what I mean.
At some point in April or May, someone on the inside of the ecclesiastical Bransfield investigation went to the Washington Post with two sets of scandalous revelations.
1. Details about former-WV-bishop Bransfield’s lavish spending.
2. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori’s active suppression of the fact that: some of that spending was bribes paid to him.
(“Wait!” Mr. Aw-shucks by-gosh Bill Lori says, “I told you they were not bribes!” To which the reasonable people of Planet Earth reply: Sir, the recipients of bribes rarely recognize the unreasonable gifts they receive as bribes until after the briber’s wrongdoing gets exposed by someone else–the wrongdoing that you ignored, because it was your ‘friend’ doing wrong.)
Anyway: the leak blew the lid off the church-mafia’s attempt to scapegoat Bransfield quietly, without any public airing of details.
Now, where did Mark Brennan sit when the leaker leaked? At the table in the backroom meeting where everyone “agreed” to remove the list of bribes from the Bransfield report? Only God and the insiders know the answer to that.
But: wherever he sat exactly, His Excellency Mark Brennan had an obligation to do something as soon as he became aware of Lori’s dishonesty. Namely to denounce it openly.
He did not do that; he has not done that. Brennan sang Bill Lori’s praises to assembled reporters in Wheeling on Tuesday morning.
So: Mark Brennan sits on his throne, compromised. Just like Wilton Gregory sits utterly compromised on the throne in Washington, smiling endlessly at the exposed liar Donald Wuerl.
But, Mr. Lawler: Please take this on board. You acknowledge that you do not know Mark Brennan. I do.
In the photo above, he stands in front of the doors to St. Martin of Tours parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He served there as a genuinely generous shepherd for thirteen long years. I have admired Mark Brennan ever since I first met him, in 1997.
So your unworthy scribe can say, with some insight: Among the made men of the ecclesiastical mafia, Mark Brennan stands out as an extraordinarily humble and honest person. He actually knows how to put in a hard day’s work, as opposed to just talking endlessly about doing so. Mark Brennan has more intellectual curiosity in his little finger than a banquet-room full of Loris, Wuerls, McCarricks, and Bransfields all nervously slapping each other on the back.
Problem is: This relatively honest and fatherly mafioso has managed to let Pope Francis gaslight the living daylights out of him.
Allow your servant to try to imagine a bishop tasking me, as follows:
‘Er–Father White: You will succeed a pastor of thirteen years incumbency. He retired ten months ago. After he retired, I determined that he did some real bad things and launched a ‘probe.’ But the details are all top secret.
‘You, Father White, will: Take over the parish. And you will negotiate your predecessor’s penance with him. And enforce it.’
Now, hearing such an assignment put to me, I think I would say: ‘Hold the phone there. You expect me simultaneously
a) to sympathize with and comfort the poor, faithful people who my predecessor harmed, and
b) sympathize with and comfort the poor, faithful people who found a way to love him anyway, for thirteen long years, and
c) serve as my predecessor’s impartial judge, jury, bail bondsman, and baseball-bat-wielding repo man?
Instead of replying brainlessly, “Thanks for your trust in me, chief!” I think I might say something that rhymes with Duck Crew.
“Shouldn’t you, Excellency, our superior, take care of judging and punishing my retired peer? Shouldn’t you do your job?”
What honest person can simultaneously embrace the flock left behind as a shepherd and give a fair trial, and impose a fair punishment, on the accused malefactor? Not possible for one person to pull off. This is why professional jurists do things like recuse themselves from cases in which they have a personal interest.
Bransfield does, after all, have a right to a fair trial, like anyone else. He may be guilty of serious wrongdoing. But not a whole lot more guilty than most bishops. He’s hardly one black sheep in a flock of whites. He’s a gray among grays, when it comes to spending faithful Catholics’ donations on nouveau-riche creature comforts for themselves.
I would feel sorry for my old diocesan brother Mark Brennan. If it weren’t for the fact that he owes it to the world to speak the truth. Bransfield is hardly the only straight-up fraud and liar on the stage right now. Lori, Wuerl, and Bergoglio are all straight-up frauds and liars, too.
On Friday afternoon, Pope Francis intervened in the Bransfield affair. He “sanctioned” Bishop Bransfield…
An innocent question: For what reason did Pope Francis impose these sanctions?
Not easy to draw a conclusion about that. Since the Vatican communique has nothing whatsoever to say about Bransfield’s actual crimes. As usual, you have to do extensive background research, even to begin to understand the oracles of the Church mafia.
In March Archbishop Lori had suspended Bransfield from ministry pending a review of the case by the Holy See. Lori made no mention whatsoever of any particular crimes of which Bransfield had been found guilty by an ecclesiastical judge.
Then an insider leaked to the Washington Post the details of the report that Lori had sent to Rome. And also leaked the version Lori had not sent–the one that disclosed the money he had taken from Bransfield.
The leak forced Lori to address the matter with a public letter, to try to explain away his backroom subterfuge. In that June 5 letter, Lori reported that investigators had determined that “allegations” against Michael Bransfield of “sexual harassment” were “credible.”
“The team uncovered a consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestive comments and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority.”
Lori went on to write, “It should be noted that due to privacy concerns and at the request of those who alleged harassment by Bishop Bransfield, the alleged victims and their personal accounts, which for them are a source of deeply-felt pain and humiliation, will not be disclosed by the Diocese.”
Strange thing to write, since one of the victims had filed a lawsuit against Bransfield, and the diocese, two months earlier, in which the victim explicitly recounted the details of an incident. An incident that rises to the level not just of sexual harassment but of sexual assault.
Nothing in Lori’s June 5 letter even so much as accuses Bransfield of any recognizable specific ecclesiastical crime, much less finds him guilty of any.
Lori also wrote in his June 5 letter that “the investigative report determined that during his tenure as Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, Bishop Bransfield engaged in a pattern of excessive and inappropriate spending.”
Lori went on to acknowledge, however, that Bransfield never departed from any of the normal rules of financial oversight.
Lori explains that in this way: Bransfield’s “management style and personality undermined the effectiveness of diocesan policies, controls and oversight procedures. In some cases, it is apparent that the judgment of diocesan personnel was impacted by the culture of fear of retaliation and retribution that the former bishop fostered.”
A believable-enough characterization. But also lacking any specific accusations of concrete criminal acts.
So maybe we can understand Pope Francis’ “sanctions” in one of two ways.
1. As a medicinal punishmen, aimed at the bishop’s repentance. After all, Michael Bransfield finds himself increasingly close to the end of his earthly pilgrimage.
But Bransfield, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, flatly denies all the accusations against him.
So maybe the pope’s sanctions are not so much a medicinal penalty as a kind of “plea bargain.” The prosecution decides to skip the hard task of making a case based on clear laws and concrete evidence, and the defendant accepts a token punishment.
2. On the other hand, the Vatican communique about the sanctions claims that the pope has acted out of “sincere concern for the clergy, religious, and laity of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.”
That would seem to mean–or should mean, anyway–that the sanctions intend to restore justice and equilibrium to the life of the local church.
As they are, they manifestly do not do that. All the particulars of restitution are left to future negotiations between Bransfield and an as-yet-non-existent person. (Apparently we’ll learn the new bishop’s identity tomorrow. )
And the pope has made no provision whatsoever for the possibility of an irreconcilable dispute arising in the course of the restitution negotiations. Considering the fact that Bransfield denies all wrongdoing, such an dispute seems inevitable. Unless the next bishop of Wheeling-Charleston decides just to forget the whole thing.
This non-punishment is absolutely crushing news for WV Catholics and a serious blow to Pope Francis' credibility. https://t.co/cTaSmHORon
…This would be simply an embarrassing joke of a situation, if it weren’t for the fact that we have to face this:
The lawsuit filed by Bransfield’s sex-assault victim in West Virginia asserts a conspiracy on the part of McCarrick and Bransfield, to give Bransfield access to young men upon whom he could prey. (McCarrick participated in Bransfield’s ordination as a bishop in 2005.)
Now, this claim probably amounts to nothing more than legal boilerplate, intended to intimidate the defendants into settling the case for a large sum. As far as we know, no one has the kind of hard evidence of an episcopal sex-predator conspiracy that could hold up in a court of law.
But now, a year after James Grein went to the New York Times, we Catholics find ourselves with a pretty stark choice.
Either to believe by some impossible mental gymnastics that the pope really means well–but for some reason can’t attain forthrightness and clarity when it comes to sexually predatory bishops.
With impressive boldness, lay people in West Virginia have banded together and won a promise from Archbishop Lori. Lay Catholic Voices for Change threatened to withhold donations until an independent auditor checked the diocese’s books. Lori promised that such an audit will occur, with a report to be published for everyone to read.
Of course, the Archbishop currently sits on another, more important report. The findings of the investigation into former-bishop Michael Bransfield’s free spending and sexual harassment of seminarians and young priests. Lori has insisted that he will not, cannot publish that one.
And, of course, Archbishop Lori, in his letter making his promise, clearly explains how he never could possibly have done anything about this before now, and how he himself makes an honest living, and lives in a reasonable domicile, and meets with committees even when he’s tired, etc…
1. It’s our sister church, united with us by two centuries of intertwined history.
2. It could have been us. Richmond.
Pope John Paul II named one Philadelphian, Francis X. DiLorenzo, bishop of Richmond less than nine months before he named another Philadelphian, Michael Bransfield, bishop of Wheeling-Charleston.
Walter Sullivan had turned 75 years of age, and submitted his resignation, three months before Bernard Schmitt, then the incumbent in West Virginia, did the same. The bishop/sausage-making apparatus churned out two Philadelphians in quick succession for these openings. If Sullivan were a few weeks younger, or Schmitt a few weeks older, it could easily have gone the other way.
After all, neither DiLorenzo nor Bransfield had any particular affinity for either Virginia or West Virginia. Neither of them came with any talents or dispositions particularly suited for ministry in Virginia or West Virginia.
Anyway, during the ensuing thirteen years: West-Virginia Catholics lived through the ever-growing sense that something was rotten in their state of Denmark, so to speak.
…Our bishop lives way too high on the hog. Drinks too much. Travels outside the diocese more than he should. Yes, he has some winning qualities. And an awful lot of rich friends, apparently. But I can’t shake the sense that he acts more like Gordon Gekko than like Jesus Christ…
So people complained. Up the ecclesiastical chain of command. People who cared about true religion, serving God, the spiritual integrity of His Church, etc.
But, for thirteen years, the Church powers-that-be were like: No, people. Nope. This is normal. Quit complaining.
Metropolitans of Baltimore O’Brien and then Lori; papal nuncios Sambi and Viganò; Popes Benedict and Francis: Quit complaining, West Virginians. Bransfield’s cool. This is normal.
Thirteen years of increasingly painful cognitive dissonance for priests, seminarians, Catholics paying attention. Thirteen years of ever-increasing surreality.
Could have been us, here in Richmond.
(Some might say: Wait a minute, Father! That was us. Our Philadelphian pushed us way into the realm of the surreal, too! …Ok. Fair enough. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Anyway: After thirteen years of Quit your complaining! West-Virginia Catholics now have received some slender vindication. They rightly complained.
But it seems like cold comfort to me. After all, the problem always was: Why is the shepherd of the flock so into himself? Why so preoccupied with himself?
As I mentioned, Archbishop Lori wrote the Catholic people of West Virginia a letter, promising an audit. The letter focuses on one particular person.
–One of of the West-Virginians who took a chance, speaking out to try and right the ship? No.
–The brave soul who leaked all the information about the bribes to the higher-ups, that forced Lori’s hand to concede to an independent audit? Did Lori find the courage actually to thank the leaker? By no means.
No, Archbishop Lori’s letter to the Catholics of West Virginia focuses on the one person that concerns William Lori. The one person that truly preoccupies him. The same person he has focused on during all his numerous interviews and statements on the subject of the church crisis in West Virginia.
You guessed it: Just like Michael Bransfield’s main preoccupation in life has been, ultimately, Michael Bransfield, William Lori’s perennial concern is, above all, of course, William Lori.
The shepherd writes a letter to a confused and disenchanted people. About himself.
In one way or another, that’s basically what’s been happening for the past year, all up and down the East coast, and other parts of the country, too, for all I know, and in Rome. That’s what drives me to use bad words and conclude that our ecclesiastical situation totally sucks.
We are in the thrall of a mafia that may or may not be riddled with homosexuality, but which certainly lives its entire nervous, inept life in front of the mirror.
The discipline of Catholic bishops relies on the oversight of Archbishops, and the pope. If our bishop did something wrong–like, for instance, suspending the ministry of a priest without a commensurate cause–the wronged person must seek justice from the Metropolitan Archbishop of the ecclesiastical province, or from the pope.
Here in Virginia we find ourselves in the ecclesiastical province of Baltimore. If Bishop Knestout does wrong, we appeal to Archbishop William Lori, or to Pope Francis.
We would appeal to them, that is, if we thought we could trust them. I have pretty thoroughly documented for you, dear reader, why no reasonable man can trust Pope Francis to do justice. What about this question: Can a reasonable person trust Archbishop William Lori?
Long-time readers might remember my noting last September that Archbishop Lori made a public statement about another one of his suffragan bishops, Michael Bransfield. Bransfield had just retired as Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia. Lori referred to “troubling allegations” against Bransfield.
Now, what I found most troubling about Lori’s statement was: We, the general public, had no idea what these ‘troubling allegations’ were.
A decade earlier, Bransfield had been accused–by a convicted pederast–of sexually abusing minors in Philadelphia (Bransfield’s hometown). Bransfield had been exonerated.
And Catholics in West Virginia had gone to their local press with complaints about Bransfield’s apparently profligate spending.
They went to the press in 2006, a year after Bransfield became West Virginia’s shepherd. And they went to the press again in 2013, shortly after Pope Francis became pope–and supposedly set a new standard of simple, poor living for bishops. (Even though the pope actually lives in a $20-million Vatican hotel, paid for by a donor-friend of Donald Wuerl.)
Anyway, no Metropolitan Archbishop of Baltimore had so much as acknowledged those earlier complaints about Michael Bransfield. No churchman had ever referred publicly to any ‘troubling allegations.’ Not a word.
So what in the world was William Lori talking about, last September?
Actually, it was not difficult to see through the smokescreen. The long-slumbering hand of ecclesiastical discipline had bestirred itself to imitate action. The McCarrick Affair had exposed to the world the utter paralysis of the prelates of the Catholic hierarchy, when it comes to disciplining each other. So Lori–and Pope Francis–had something to prove.
Of course they had no trouble finding “troubling allegations” against Bransfield. All they had to do was search their own files, where repeated complaints had languished for years. (Probably in the same Vatican drawer as the McCarrick sex-abuse settlements from a dozen years ago.)
Anyway, Archbishop Lori proceeded to announce this past March that a ‘preliminary investigation’ had run its course. Bransfield should no longer minister as a bishop or priest. At least not in Lori’s territory.
That would have been the last anyone ever heard about any of this. Except: Someone on the inside had gotten fed-up with William Lori’s endless self-serving nonsense. Some insider(s) decided to provide the Washington Post with extensive documentation of the case.
Question #2: Why had the complaints against Bransfield gone unaddressed for over a decade? Maybe because Bransfield had greased the palms of his ecclesiastical superiors? (Using diocesan funds.) Including, of course: the palm of William Lori.
Investigators found that Bransfield had given Lori checks totalling $7,500. In February, Lori privately attempted to suppress that information. In June, it leaked.
Lori had known about the allegations against Bransfield for years. Lori attempted to suppress that piece of information. This month, it leaked.
…An old, familiar pattern, my dear ones:
During the 80’s and 90’s, aggrieved individuals went to the Metropolitan Archbishop, and to the papal nuncio, seeking justice. They reported the wrongdoing of then-bishop (and later Archbishop) Theodore McCarrick.
(Until investigators from outside the hierarchy uncovered something. In the fall of 2017.)
During the 00’s and 10’s, aggrieved individuals went to the Metropolitan Archbishop, and to the papal nuncio, seeking justice. They reported the wrongdoing of bishop Michael Bransfield.
Nothing happened. Bransfield retired. Then, because the McCarrick Affair rattled the cage: An investigation!
Which led to: Lori getting caught covering up his role in the earlier cover-up.
…The mafia of self-righteous tinpot dictators that reign over our Church do not realize how corrupt they are. They always have some cockamamie rationale to try to paint themselves as angelic. William Lori styles himself a thoroughgoing Boy Scout. But I would rather seek justice from Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall.
We live in a windswept wilderness when it comes to ecclesiastical discipline, my dear ones. We might as well face that fact. We will need another Council of Trent, and an ensuing century of saintly self-sacrifice, to recover from the reign of these prissy, dishonest a-holes. But God will provide.
Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves… the Spirit of your father will speak through you. (Matthew 10:16, 20)
In Martinsville, Virginia, we have a flowering little inter-faith dialogue underway. A week from Sunday we will meet in the afternoon to discuss the question: Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God?
On the one hand, the short answer is certainly Yes. There’s only one God, after all. On that point, we Jews, Muslims, and Christians all agree.
Do we Christians worship the same God as the Jews? Well, we worship Jesus as Son of God. The God of Whom Jesus is the Son: that’s Yahweh, Adonai, the God of the ancient Israelites. Jesus is Jewish. We Christians worship the Jewish Messiah.
Do we worship the same God as the Muslims? Muslims worship Allah. So do we. The Scriptures and Missal of Arab-speaking Catholics use the word “Allah” for God. Catholics pray to Allah countless times every day in Asia. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explicitly taught that we worship the same God as the Muslims.
All that said, on the other hand: Two sides of the same coin both say that we do not worship the same God.
Jews and Muslims think that we Christians are wrong—that we are crazy—when we say things like: Mary is the Mother of God. God died on the cross. The one, eternal, unknowable God certainly is three distinct divine Persons, One of Whom united Himself Personally to the human race. By a union so intimate that we have only one available metaphor for it: marriage.
Meanwhile, our side of that coin: The Spirit of our Father speaks in us when we declare that God’s Kingdom has come in His only-begotten Christ. That God revealed His eternal, unchanging Law one place, and one place only: the cross. That the gentle rabbi of Nazareth sits at the right hand of the Father and will come again as the world’s merciful Judge. No one comes to the Father—except through the Son.
Shrewd as serpents; innocent as doves. May God keep us both humble and zealous, both open-minded and unswervingly faithful, both unassuming and evangelical.
Walter Sullivan and I grew up in the same neighborhood, making us homeboys. But he moved away to go to the seminary 24 years before my birth. He became the bishop of Richmond shortly after I turned four.
My mom lived for a couple months last year in a wing of her assisted-living facility named for Walter Sullivan.
Sullivan ordained many of my priest friends. He commissioned the writing of our compendious diocesan history book; the author dedicated his work to Sullivan.
Jennifer Aniston’s former mother-in-law wrote a biography of Sullivan called The Good Bishop.
Students at Virginia Commonwealth University learn about Catholicism from the Walter Sullivan professor of religion. They attend the Walter Sullivan lecture series.
The first-ever Holocaust Memorial in the state of Virginia sits on the property of our cathedral in Richmond; money from the Walter Sullivan Fund provides for its maintenance.
I remember Walter Sullivan both as a “flaming liberal” who presided over the wreck-ovation of numerous historic parish churches and as a kindly gentleman with the voice of Kermit the Frog. He had a profound aversion for violence. And for any trappings of ecclesiastical authority.
He saw to it that every county in our vast diocese had a Catholic parish–even though he didn’t have anywhere near enough priests, and he made practically no effort to inspire or retain vocations to the sacred priesthood.
One thing for sure: Walter Sullivan, during a three-decade tenure as bishop, made an enormous impact on our Catholic life here.
We used to have a Catholic high school named for Walter Sullivan, in Virginia Beach. That is, until Bishop Knestout removed Walter Sullivan’s name from that institution, this past Thursday.
Well, we would have the devil of a time figuring that out, if we had only the unintelligible diocesan communiques to inform us.
Bishop instituted a policy against naming buildings after anyone other than Lord Jesus, a canonized saint, or a place. Doesn’t apply to rooms or wings of buildings. Doesn’t appear to apply retroactively, except in the case of Bishop Sullivan High School, which will now be known as Catholic High School (it’s name from 1993-2003).
Bishop announced the name change in a letter about sexual abuse. Has someone accused the late Bishop Sullivan of abuse? Doesn’t appear so.
But Bishop Knestout writes: “overcoming the tragedy of abuse is not just about holding accountable those who have committed abuses, it is also about seriously examining the role and complex legacies of individuals who should have done more to address the crisis in real time…It is my hope and prayer that the policy change is another way to continue to assist survivors of abuse in their healing, especially those who have, in any way, experienced the failure of Church leadership to adequately address their needs and concerns.”
“The bishop is aware of the concerns survivors and advocates who have detailed the detrimental effect of continued recognition of those who may have been in a position to intervene and better protect them. This policy is not designed to punish or tarnish legacies; this action is intended to remove what survivors might feel are barriers to healing.”
The same reporter had asked Ms. Cox in late May about having Sullivan’s name on the high school. Cox had said then that “the diocese is not investigating whether Sullivan mishandled allegations, nor is there a plan to rename any diocese buildings.”
Mumbo jumbo and zig-zagging naturally beg more questions. The reporter asked. From last week’s article:
“Cox did not respond to The Virginian-Pilot‘s questions about whether the diocese investigated claims about Sullivan or whether Lee influenced the decision.”
Mr. Tom Lee. Sexually abused by Father John Leonard. At St. John Vianney diocesan high-school, in 1969, 1970, and 1972.
Lee, Mr. Bruce Jeter, Mr. James Kronzer, Mr. Bill Bryant, and Mr. Thor Gormley all reported to the diocese that Fathers John Leonard, Julian Goodman, and Randy Rule had abused them sexually during their high-school years at St. John Vianney–a small high-school the diocese had established to help young men discern vocations to the priesthood. (The school closed over forty years ago.)
All the accusations reached Sullivan during his tenure as bishop.
Father Goodman admitted his crimes. Bishop Sullivan did not terminate Father Goodman’s ministry.
In fact, Bishop Sullivan declared in 2002 (the last time American bishops pretended to care about sex-abuse victims) that the diocese of Richmond had no abusers in active ministry. (While all three St.-John-Vianney abusers were still in ministry.)
In 2002, Father Leonard denied wrongdoing. Claimed it was all a big misunderstanding. Sullivan ordered an investigation. (Sullivan admitted that he never personally spoke with Leonard.) One of the investigators sat on the diocesan review board.
Sullivan exonerated Leonard after the investigation, without consulting the review board. The investigator who sat on the board, along with other members, resigned.
Less than two years later, Leonard was found guilty of misdemeanor sex abuse in Henrico County court. Sullivan claimed then that he had acted under pressure in earlier exonerating Leonard.
The most charitable interpretation of Sullivan’s actions:
[PG-13] Sullivan studiously refused to recognize that doing things like: giving minors drugs and alcohol, asking minors to remove their clothes, initiating sexual conversations with minors, fondling minors’ genitalia–that while these things may not rise to the criminal threshold of forcible sodomy, they all count either as acts of sexual abuse, or as acts intended to groom someone for sexual abuse. Sexual predators do things like this.
Sullivan did not want to see that. He wanted to draw a line at actual penetration, and call everything short of that line “horseplay” or “boundary violation.”
That’s the most charitable interpretation possible for Sullivan’s dithering. Less charitable interpretations certainly stand to reason also.
I think that, for these failures, we rightly decline to honor the memory of Walter Sullivan. For all his vaunted sensitivities, he betrayed the trust of these sexual-abuse victims. (And other victims, too–I intend to try to write more about this when I can.) I think we can agree with Mr. Tom Lee that Sullivan’s name does not belong on our Catholic High School in Virginia Beach.
But: Is it too much to ask that our diocese be clear about all this? At least as clear as I am trying to be right now? After all, the diocesan files contain more information–more than what I have been able to unearth, with just a part-time research assistant and Google.
Is it too much to ask that the diocese recognize two facts? 1. Acknowledging the truth about Bishop Sullivan’s profound failure causes pain to the many people who remember him very fondly. But 2. We have to cause that pain, because truth and justice require it.
Sullivan managed to hurt, endanger, and disedify pretty much everyone involved in the sordid history of the abuse at St. John Vianney. How? By failing to think and communicate clearly about it. That was his fundamental crime. Lack of honest clarity.
Clarity about the high-school name change? From Bishop Barry Knestout and his entourage? Hardly.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Today we Americans commemorate the end of slavery here in our country. Word of Union victory–and emancipation of the quarter million slaves then living in Texas–reached Houston on June 19, 1865. Jubilation filled the streets.
Lord Jesus came into this world to liberate. He came to free every human soul from bondage. To turn us toward the infinite horizon of heavenly love. To teach us our true destiny–and how to achieve it, by loving God and neighbor.
Christians respect the dignity of every human person, made free in the image of the sovereign God. Our heavenly Father summons all of us to eternal love. We recognize everyone’s right to respond freely to God’s call.
From the Catechism:
The seventh commandment forbids acts or enterprises that for any reason lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold, or exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. (para. 2414)
From an 1830 Handbook of Christian morality, written by a German bishop:
The state of slavery, and any treatment of human beings as slaves, turns people who are persons into mere things, turns people who are ends in themselves into mere means, and does not allow the responsibility of people for what they do, or do not do, to develop properly, and in this way cripples them in their very humanity; hence it is contrary to the basic principle of all morality.
Two years ago, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., acknowledged with shame, sorrow, and contrition, the fact that the University, and the Georgetown Jesuits, had trafficked in slaves. Among other acts of reconciliation, the University renamed one of its buildings. It had borne the name of Fr. Thomas Mulledy, SJ, who had engaged in the slave trade. Now it bears the name of one of the slaves he traded.
A Virginian, Father Mulledy played a significant role in the early life of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond. He participated in the solemn consecration of St. Peter’s church in Richmond in 1834.
In what was then the cathedral of our diocese, Father Ryder referred to abolitionists as “wicked would-be philanthropists,” with whom “only madmen or traitors” would co-operate.
Of the abolitionist movement, Ryder declared: “The Catholic will shrink from shaking the polluted hand that would sow the seeds of confusion and horror in the fair fields of the South, rifling the domestic happiness of the master and his slave. [Abolitionism] is not religion. It is not piety. It is a profanation of the gospel.”
Pope Pius VII erected the Diocese of Richmond in 1820, but we did not have a resident bishop until 1841. Bishop John England of Charleston, SC, served as a de facto spiritual leader. But he did not prove to be a genuine spiritual leader at all, on the subject of slavery.
Frederick Douglass traveled to Ireland to hear O’Connell. Douglass said that O’Connell had “shaken American slavery to its center.”
But Bishop England, and the American Catholic Church as a whole, not only failed to take up O’Connell’s challenge, but proceeded to impugn O’Connell’s judgment, and to pile up spurious distinctions to defend the enslavement of black people in the South.
The typical historical narrative regarding American slavery neglects one crucial set of facts. In the early nineteenth century–over fifty years before the Civil War–our mother nation of England actively sought to bring slavery to an end, throughout its entire sphere of influence. The Holy See intervened repeatedly to aid this effort. Most of the western world had come to recognize that slavery offended the dignity of man.
The western world, that is, minus the United States. Andrew Jackson and his partisans pushed in the other direction. The United States took away from the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees, Seminoles, and Mexicans, the land that became Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas–in order to expand chattel slavery. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny provided the mythological cover necessary to mask the brutal immorality involved.
All of this happened during the nascent days of both our diocese and of the American Catholic hierarchy as a whole. Bishop England bragged about how the American bishops, assembled in Baltimore in 1840, did not regard slavery as immoral.
Now, we must note that the Catholic Church occupied an almost unimaginably weak position in American society at that time. Bigoted mobs subjected us to repeated acts of violence and arson. And the South had so few Catholics that everyone reasonably wondered if Catholicism could survive here at all.
But all that does not change the fact: We American Catholics profoundly failed to confront the evil of slavery. Our Church not only absented herself from the abolitionist movement; we not only ignored the moral clarity provided by leaders like Daniel O’Connell–we actively opposed the cause of justice for the slaves.
We cannot honestly commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of our diocese without acknowledging this lamentable fact.
Buildings that house the celebration of Holy Mass and serve as repositories of the Christian faith. We have such buildings in our towns and cities, thanks be to God. Let’s make a list of the most-venerable such buildings on earth…
1. St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome
My first reaction on Monday afternoon: Rage. How do you manage to burn down Notre Dame Cathedral by accident?
But it can happen. They accidentally burned down St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome, in 1823. Damage far more severe than what Notre Dame suffered in Monday’s fire. They re-built, and the basilica that houses the tomb of St. Paul re-opened, just as it stood before the fire, thirty-two years later, in 1855.
Second Monday-afternoon reaction: Utter heartbreak.
Lyon has the most-ancient cathedra in France. But Paris has had one for a long, long time. The city became Christian with the martyrdom of St. Denis, during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
For perspective: We live in one of the oldest dioceses in the U.S. Barry Knestout sits as the thirteenth bishop. The current Archbishop of Paris sits as the 141st.
St. Louis, Missouri, got its name from King Louis IX of France, who brought our Lord’s crown of thorns to Paris during the century of Notre Dame’s original construction. St. Thomas Aquinas taught in Paris then, and prayed in the cathedral while work was underway.
In prior centuries, Protestants smashed statues, and the republican revolutionaries desecrated Notre Dame and dedicated it to a false god. The church survived.
People went to Mass there this past Sunday and Monday. One of our families in Rocky Mount took a trip to Paris just a couple months ago, and went to Mass at Notre Dame.
Zeal for your house consumes me. Now we have the most-sacred ceremonies of the year to celebrate, brothers and sisters. And we have a roof over our heads to celebrate them under. May God be praised.
I don’t think we have even really begun to fathom the depth of the wound done to our souls by Monday’s fire on the Seine. I, for one, am still in a state of shock–with dreams of an empty cathedral with no roof, and everything broken, haunting my sleep. And I was only in that building once, and that was almost seventeen years ago.
So the wound is deep. But a mortal wound it is not. Paris may yet have another 141 archbishops, or more–before the Church’s march through time finally ends, and the eternal Easter begins.
Notre Dame Cathedral gave birth to many wonderful, beautiful things—and she will give birth to more. May our humble parish churches strive for that kind of fruitfulness, too—here in our little Parises on the Smith and on the Pigg.