Sometimes, when I read or hear about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, I am filled with righteous anger. Anger at the priests and religious who did this, and maybe even more so, anger at the bishops and others who covered up and enabled heinous evil. It’s hypocritical, and it’s disgusting.
But at other times, I am filled with anger at the media and critics of the Church. There are times — and this past week, with its malicious attack on Cardinal Pell is a good example — when public figures and commentators indulge in vicious anti-Catholic bigotry. The noble goals of truth, justice and healing are sacrificed, even if momentarily. But worse than that: the terrible trauma of victims and survivors is exploited. It’s hypocritical, and it’s disgusting.
But here’s the thing: while I periodically navigate between these extremes, I can find myself irrationally reacting against a media article I’m reading, or a person I’m engaging in conversation. Let me give you a few examples:
- In private conversation, a Catholic from an older generation decries the media obsession, and the slavish position of the Truth, Justice and Healing Council. I feel anger boiling up within me, and a dismay that the Church doesn’t whole-heartedly and without qualification accuse herself and engage in radical penance.
- I read a newspaper article which unjustly pillories individuals within the Church, and reduces the scourge of clergy abuse to something marginal, like celibacy for the Kingdom. I feel anger boiling up within me, and a stubborn defensiveness of the Church.
These are just two examples from a spectrum that covers every position and every reaction. But there’s a common denominator: I respond with self-righteous anger, which is quite different from righteous anger. Maybe you experience something like this yourself.
Because of this, I now studiously avoid second- and third-hand accounts of the Royal Commission and the cases of abuse. I still open myself up to first-hand accounts. The direct testimony of Royal Commission witnesses for example, and confidential conversations with victims and survivors of sexual abuse. In those instances I am moved by compassion, not self-righteous anger.
But I avoid TV and newspaper coverage, facile musical parodies, and even artful treatments (by all accounts) like Spotlight. These second- and third-hand accounts too easily stoke my passions in negative and destructive ways. Which tells me something I knew already: in the midst of this terrible sin and scandal, which teems with human vice and worldliness, the devil also prowls. There is something truly diabolical about all this, which we must attend to.
I repeatedly remind my parishioners, at the beginning of the media’s periodic coverage of the Church’s sins, to consciously foster a supernatural outlook:
- To match every minute consuming media treatment of this evil, with another minute prayerfully reading the life of Christ in the Gospels.
- To debrief with the Lord each evening, examining one’s emotional responses to the latest news or commentary, and placing it all in God’s hands.
- To choose one’s words carefully, and listen with real compassion when others speak about these matters.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I counsel visits to the Blessed Sacrament. To go out of one’s way and kneel before a tabernacle, even if only for a minute, to remind oneself that Christ is the head of the Church; he is the reason we are Catholic; and he is always present to us in the Eucharist, regardless of the virtue or vice of his ministers. When we do these things, I think, we are better able to respond to this terrible evil just as our Lord responds. Not with self-righteousness, but with real compassion, sorrow, and righteous anger.
One more thing: suffering is not in vain. Suffering can be redemptive. As St Paul so beautifully puts it,
“the Sinless One became sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God.”
What is true of Christ is also true of the Church, and it’s true of us individually too, Christ’s members. We can assume sin, and carry its consequences within us, for the good and healing of others. So we should meet this current affliction with sincere hope in healing and redemption. For the Passion leads to the glory of the Resurrection.
American presidential elections provide me with hours of entertainment. I love this stuff – especially the “process stories” and “horse race coverage.”
This time round it’s even more entertaining, because Donald Trump is running. But boy, has the media got him wrong! For several months now, Donald Trump has been presented as a clown and amateur, who stumbles from one gaffe to another. And this is the result:
Scott Adams, the author of that comic, is best known for his Dilbert cartoon. He’s also an amateur hypnotist, and author of several books on negotiation and persuasion. He seems pretty good at it. Consider this anecdote from his Wikipedia entry:
In 1997, at the invitation of Logitech CEO Pierluigi Zappacosta, Adams, wearing a wig and false mustache, successfully impersonated a management consultant and tricked Logitech managers into adopting a mission statement that Adams described as “so impossibly complicated that it has no real content whatsoever.”
I think Adams sees a kindred spirit in Donald Trump – who, after all, literally wrote the book on The Art of the Deal. And unlike every other commentator I’ve read, Adams gives a compelling explanation for Trump’s success: the Donald is systematically playing the media, exploiting the visceral reactions of voters, and slaying his opponents. Nothing in his campaign is accidental.
Here is one example:
When CNN anchor Chris Cuomo asked Trump to react to the Pope’s criticism of capitalism, Trump correctly saw it as a trap. If he engaged with the question he would be quoted on this topic and smeared with the association of Trump-capitalism-corruption. Tomorrow the headlines would be some form of “Trump blah, blah, corruption.”
Trump couldn’t bluntly refuse to engage in the question because that would look weak. So how does Trump wiggle out of such a well-crafted media trap?
Trump responds that he would tell the Pope that ISIS is coming to get him, and that they have plans to take the Vatican, which I assume is true, or true enough.
Do you even remember the question anymore?
Now compare the wattage coming from these two thoughts:
1. A boring discussion about corruption in capitalism. (Cuomo’s question.)
2. A mental picture of ISIS taking over the Vatican.
No comparison. Corruption and capitalism are mere concepts that have no visual appeal. The ideas are important yet inert. But an ISIS overthrow of the Vatican is so visual you wonder why it isn’t already a movie. And that visual is all anyone will remember of that interview in a week.
Do you still think Trump’s clown act is random?
Four weeks ago, Adams said that “Hillary Clinton has a 95% chance of being our next president unless we get some surprises. But the other 5% is all Trump.”
Now he says that Trump has a 98% chance of winning the election. He’s the only one saying it, but then he’s also the only one who has been right about Trump so far. It is fascinating commentary. Read it all at blog.dilbert.com.
The latest issue of Quadrant is full of thoughtful and thought-provoking articles. As ever. This is why I read it.
Christie Davies approaches a topical issue from a secular conservative viewpoint: ‘Why same-sex marriage happened, and where we go next.’ (Subscriber only — sorry.)
Davies supports same-sex marriage for liberal reasons: personal freedom, and utilitarian benevolence. In other words, the state should not be empowered to stop two unmarried citizens from entering into civil marriage, which he defines as a secular contract between two individuals. Moroever, marriage will benefit gays and lesbians, adding to their respectability and reducing harmful behaviours. (His byline reads: “Christie Davies and his wife are very happy, which is why he wants others to enjoy the same felicity.”)
What’s interesting, though, is that while Davies supports gay marriage, he is dubious of gay marriage activists. He rejects the “marriage equality” argument, which derives not from liberalism, but from Marxism.
If you meet someone who says, “I care passionately about equality,” you can be sure that you are in the presence of an irrational and possibly dangerous person, who will sacrifice all aspects of the good society just to get more equality. They hate the freedom of capitalism because it produces unequal rewards. They hate the family because they see it as the transmitter of property and privilege. They are vocal in favour of same-sex marriage not because of any benefits it might bring, but only because it fits their egalitarian agenda.
Davies concludes by calling for a new alliance between conservatives and married gays and lesbians, who might be recruited to the conservative cause. Not unlike Andrew Bolt.
In significant ways, Davies’ case is marginal to the Catholic case. Secular conservatism is not, and never will be, synonymous with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, Davies’ article has clarified my thinking. In last week’s post on the Australian bishops’ letter, I was perhaps a bit too critical of Don’t Mess With Marriage. The letter is deficient in what it does not say, but it is nonetheless an excellent pastoral letter for what it does say. Credit where it’s due. Credit to our bishops.
The letter engages almost solely with the “equality” case for marriage. No wonder. The case for “marriage equality” has dominated the debate in this country and abroad. But Davies has me wondering. Maybe it’s the freedom argument which has earned broad public support, not the equality argument at all. I must say, from my perspective the argument from equality is patently spurious, and the bishops dispatch it masterfully. But the argument from freedom is another matter. It is coherent and even compelling.
In any event, I would maintain that the hierarchical Church’s primary task, at this juncture, is not to influence public opinion. That ship has long since sailed. Of course Catholic laity, acting in their capacity as citizens, can and should engage in the democratic process and continue to influence public opinion using secular arguments.
But the hierarchy’s duty, right now, is to persuade Catholics themselves. By that I mean we have to explain why Jesus teaches what he teaches. As I’ve said before: apologetics.
When unspeakable tragedy occurs — the sort of tragedy which now afflicts Phillip Walsh’s family — a natural question arises. Is God absent?
It’s not a bad question. By that I mean it’s not a sinful question. In fact the question arises quite often in the Bible, especially in the psalms. Our Lord was quoting from one of those psalms when he cried from the cross: Eli Eli lema sabachthani?
Is God absent? is a good question to ask — and now I mean an appropriate question to ask — when we find ourselves in the middle of affliction.
But when we are onlookers, I think it might be the wrong question. When we are bystanders to another person’s suffering, a better question, I think, is How can I make God present?
In some ways, that is a scandalous question, but ours is a scandalous religion. God repeatedly makes Himself vulnerable and dependent on creatures. The Scandal of the Incarnation. The Scandal of the Nativity. The Scandal of the Cross. The ongoing Scandal of the Eucharist.
This strange dependency of God, despite His omnipotency, is evident in a different way in this Sunday’s Gospel:
Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and he could work no miracle there, though he cured a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
No faith = no miracles. He will not work alone.
So, in the face of unspeakable suffering, when God is apparently absent, it falls to us to make Him present. Or more precisely, to make His presence known.
In the first place, this is achieved by intercessory prayer. We should not underestimate the power of the prayers we pray for others. Pope Francis likens it to “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity:
It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people.
Evangelii Gaudium, 283
And then, of course, God also expects us to act on His behalf. Christ has no hands, no feet on earth but yours, in the words of St Teresa of Avila.
In practical terms, that means that when a friend or acquaintance is afflicted by grief, we need to be present. Whether that takes the form of a visit or a phone call or a letter is a matter of discernment: prayerful dialogue with the Holy Spirit.
But we need to overcome the temptation to stay away. To give people space. To pay our respect from a distance.
We don’t need to formulate the right words. We don’t need to contrive the right emotional posture. We just need to be present. When we are present, with our prayers and with our affection, then we have an answer to that question. God is present insofar as we are present.
We’ve all had uncomfortable conversations which we’d rather avoid. In those moments it’s tempting to misrepresent one’s true thoughts and keep the peace.
Priests have lots of these conversations, though possibly no more than others. But priests have a big advantage. Priests minister sacramental confession.
When I am hearing confessions, I’m acutely conscious that I act in persona Christi. It is one of those very rare moments when I am enabled and obliged to judge another person. I certainly don’t do this on my own behalf, but only in service to the Lord, whose justice and mercy I minister.
No one on earth will ever know the advice I give to penitents. But God knows. This is one instance when the easy way out — acquiescence and agreeability — is not an option at all. Since I speak for God, not for myself, I am absolutely obliged to be faithful to God’s truth.
At the same time, the penitent is in a very vulnerable position. (I know, because I’m frequently a penitent myself!) They have just opened up their heart, and exposed their inner life. Not to me, but to our Lord. So I have another obligation, no less grave: to be kind. To minister the Lord’s mercy.
I do not remember the sins I hear in the confessional, because I ask to forget them, and the Holy Spirit grants me that favour. But though I remember nothing, the act of hearing confessions changes me. I am practiced in speaking the truth with love, which is often a very challenging task.
But of course this task, the duty to proclaim the truth with love, is not exclusive to priests. Every Christian is called to do this. Even in the most awkward conversations, the most unwanted confrontations, we must be faithful to truth, and faithful to charity.
I think veritas in caritate has a certain “look.” It is serene. It is good-humoured. And it is humble. But it is seldom easy.
An impressive account of veritas in caritate appeared in my Facebook newsfeed today. It was a shining beacon in the midst of an ever-rolling stream of ill-measured and inflammatory comments.
The other day we got together with a friend of mine from high school named Andrew, and his boyfriend, Tom. We caught up on life and work, Andrew and I clicking as well as we always have. I wore waterproof mascara because I knew I’d end up laughing to the point of tears, which, in fact, I did.
Then, when my husband and Tom went to pick up a round of drinks at the bar, Andrew had a question for me. “So,” he said, grabbing a tortilla chip from the basket in front of us. “What do you think of gay marriage?”
The last time we hung out, this unspoken topic was not as palpably present as it was now. Even though our gay friends knew that we’d converted to Catholicism, nobody cared enough to bring up potentially controversial issues. But now, the mood in the world around us had changed. Throughout our country the issue of same-sex unions was being debated furiously; it had become a defining issue of our generation, and thus the average person was no longer allowed not to have an opinion about it. It was too weird to sit at the table, two orthodox Catholics and two men in a gay relationship, and not bring it up. We could no longer ignore the storm that raged outside the cloister of our friendship; the doors had blown open, and the rain had come inside.
I shrugged, trying to keep it casual.
This is one of those awkward conversations we’d all rather avoid. But the author, Jennifer Fulwiller, doesn’t do this. Instead she attempts that elusive balancing act of truth and love.
Read it all. It’s worth it.
This morning at Mass, I distributed the Australian bishops’ recent pastoral letter on marriage. Despite its assertive title — Don’t Mess With Marriage — it is a very mild document.
The document presents a case for traditional marriage which seeks to be as inoffensive as possible. By this measure, the document has failed. Here’s a few headlines to prove it:
- Anti-same-sex marriage booklet sent to Catholic schools ‘degrades’ gay students
- Catholic Church “desperate” after handing out anti-gay marriage booklets to children: Brisbane priest
- Penrith Catholic students burn ‘anti-gay’ booklets
- Don’t Mess With Marriage booklet could breach Anti-Discrimination Act
The supreme irony in this is that the document nowhere refers to the Church’s “most offensive” (read, most counter-cultural) moral teachings. No mention of the grave immorality of homosexual acts. No mention of objectively disordered inclinations. These teachings constitute the elephant in the room.
I spoke to a priest last week who was quite animated in his defence of traditional marriage. “Marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. If a same-sex couple came to me, I’d be very happy to bless them. I’d pray that they find God in their love for each other, and goodness in their life together. But it’s not marriage.”
Right. It’s not marriage. But what that priest said isn’t Catholic teaching either. A gravely immoral relationship can’t be blessed. This priest’s position is incompatible with the Catholic moral tradition. But it’s not incompatible with Don’t Mess With Marriage. I don’t wish to suggest that the bishops’ pastoral letter condones same sex relationships. That’s a logical leap too far. But certainly, the letter is ambiguous. It fails to present the full Catholic teaching on the subject.
For this reason, I also distributed to parishioners a much more comprehensive document. In 2003, Pope John Paul II approved the CDF’s Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons. The title is much longer than the Australian bishops’ letter, but the document itself is much shorter. It’s also much more “offensive” — in that it doesn’t mince words and includes very direct exhortations.
Sacred Scripture condemns homosexual acts “as a serious depravity… (cf. Rom 1:24-27; 1 Cor 6:10; 1 Tim 1:10). This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.” This same moral judgment is found in many Christian writers of the first centuries and is unanimously accepted by Catholic Tradition.
When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.
Here we have language which is deeply provocative, and I can understand why it wasn’t used in the Australian bishops’ pastoral letter. The bishops want to teach and edify. They don’t want to offend.
But here’s the thing. Catholic teaching on homosexuality is offensive to a growing proportion of the population. We only have to review those headlines above to confirm it. As disciples of Jesus Christ, Catholics need to be comfortable with this. Our Lord, who of course excelled at speaking the truth with love, wasn’t very nice. He offended people left, right and centre. Why should things be different for us?
The furore caused by Don’t Mess With Marriage despite its mild presentation, suggests to me that we may as well be direct and avoid ambiguity. Hence my recommendation to parishioners to take and read both the bishops’ letter, and the CDF’s Considerations.
Many times in the last few years, I have heard bishops and cardinals call for a review of the language the Church uses. To cite a recent example, consider Cardinal Diarmuid Martin’s response to Ireland’s gay marriage yes vote:
“It’s very clear that if this referendum is an affirmation of the views of young people, then the Church has a huge task in front of it to find the language to be able to talk to and to get its message across to young people, not just on this issue, but in general.”
I think this is dead wrong. It’s also a bit patronising. “Marriage equality” activists aren’t offended by the language of Catholic moral teaching. They’re offended by the content. The Church has never waged a petty war of words. The Church is engaged in the noble battle of ideas.
Put another way, the “messaging remedy” is not semantic. The remedy is something which was banished from the Church’s seminaries and universities and schools 50 years ago, at great cost. The remedy is apologetics.