ccording to Tom Fox, long-time publisher/editor of The National Catholic Reporter, the flagship publication of the "progressive" Catholics, a new wind is blowing, a new surge of energy, and the moment has come for charging into the breach in the thick walls of the Church, just blasted by the current scandals, in order to install at last the often-deferred new "progressive" Church.
That dream has two essential parts. The first consists in breaking down the "centralization" of the Roman Catholic Church during the last 400 years, and "returning" power to national conferences of bishops and local churches. A "new way of being Church," it is called. The clergy of India (we are told) are leading the way.
The second part consists in changing the sexual teaching of the Church, to make it conform to current understandings and practices. The progressives want to put an end to celibacy, to ordain women priests, not only to welcome a homosexual orientation as a good but also to accept (as long as they are loving and respectful of the other as other) homosexual acts, to acquiesce in the naturalness of premarital sexuality, to permit divorce and remarriage, and generally to extend a warmer and more poetic acceptance of sensual, erotic, and sexual experience. Oh yes, and to accept contraception and in certain circumstances abortion. In short, the Roman Catholic Church should become rather more like the Church of England. The cross can be taken down from the steeples and replaced with a weathervane. This change, it is alleged, will boost weekly attendance and doctrinal fidelity.
The reason for the heightened optimism, among the "progressives" is sudden opportunity thrust upon them to defame the legacy of Pope John Paul II, which they had feared would extend far beyond their own lifetimes. Now, they sense, is their last opportunity to dismantle the Church as we have known it.
In order to effect their "progressive" sexual ideology, they have to do in the papacy. For there is no way on earth that a pope sworn to be faithful to the same gospel that the Church has announced since the time of Christ can give his blessing to the sexual ideology of the "progressives," which has jettisoned chastity, fidelity, and the glory of the human body as a Temple of the Holy Spirit. That would leave the Church pretty much where, say, the news media of today stand on sexual questions. How could any pope approve of that? A pope must defend the faith and morals that the Church has taught always and everywhere: Semper et ubique. A Pope must be "Semper Fi." Therefore, the authority of the papacy has to go.
National conferences of bishops are much more conformable to the pressure of national opinion. Individual bishops who resist can be publicly humiliated, until they give.
Stop and think for a moment. Is this scenario, sketched by Tom Fox in the April 25 USA Today, even remotely possible? Is there in fact a huge "progressive" groundswell? Will we see the long-desired victory of the "progressives" spring from the great sexual scandals that broke in 2002? The opposite will almost certainly occur.
First of all, in the current scandals, orthodoxy has been vindicated and progressivism found utterly bankrupt. No priests faithful to the traditional sexual teaching of the Church, and to their own maturely and voluntarily taken vows, caused any of the scandals aired in 2002. Traditional teaching did not fail. Had it been followed to the letter and in a full loving spirit, there would have been no scandals. Far from it.
Those who caused these scandals acted outside the tradition and sinned against it, as well as against God and, in terrible violation, against their trusting charges. Court records show that many of them calmly replied to their young victims, who questioned them plaintively, "But how can this be right?" in words such as these: "Trust me. It's all right. Just say nothing about it. Think no more about it."
Where does one suppose that these priests got the moral theology that allowed them to say that their dastardly acts were moral? They did not find that in orthodox teaching. Whatever was the systemic fault, it wasn't the doctrine of Jesus Christ, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Church faithful to their teaching since that time.
It is wrong, too, to blame homosexuality. I have no doubt that some of these criminals were heterosexual men, who in some internal desperation and need for the safest, least complicated involvement, sick with their own untamed needs, and lacking the strength of a vigorous supporting community, prayer life, and fiery love for God, simply abused the most helpless victims nearest them. They weren't moved by "homosexual" urges, I imagine, in their desperate loneliness. (Andrew Sullivan recently reprinted an online letter describing one such instance; accounts from treatment centers for fallen priests confirm the intuition.) They simply needed release. They were not mature enough to take thought for the consent, the good, the freedom, and the respect of the other as other. There may be a few homosexual weaklings among them, but there are certainly heterosexual ones.
One hates to think that since 1960 some 300 (or more?) priests have abused minors. But if they did, there is no point in hiding from facts. From now on, it will be much easier to get all this out in the open, and quickly rather than slowly. An aroused public, and news media that are in this respect attuned to the gospel of Christ: No sexual sin with minors, are excellent public supports for virtue. That in itself should be a deterrent that earlier was hardly present.
One recent book alleges that the dominance of a homosexual subculture is so complete in the Jesuits that heterosexuals are made to feel like misfits. Yet even in that instance it is not the fact of a same-sex orientation by itself that is alleged to be the problem. Rather, it is their primary self-identification of themselves as gays on the part of many of those involved. Those who define the core of their being by a form of sexuality stand in contradiction to a Christian way of life. Such a commitment is different from merely being aware that one is homosexual in orientation (an accident of one's being like any other), while reflectively identifying oneself first of all as a chaste and celibate follower of Jesus Christ. There are many outstanding Christians, including priests and perhaps some bishops and cardinals, who have made of their being, as it has been given them, a perfect offering to God.
"Progressives" blame John Paul II for "cracking down" on unorthodox theological opinions, even while from chairs in Catholic departments of theology they freely spread abroad to one and all their own heterodoxies. If they are even now quaking in fear of reprimand, what may we imagine their true positions to be, that they have not already enunciated?
But is the pope in fact as narrow-minded as they allege? To take but one point, but not a small one, the invaluable Andrew Sullivan points out that John Paul II's Catechism is more open in welcoming those of homosexual orientation into the full life of the Church than any earlier document in Catholic history.
Moreover, the pope's actual writings on sex, which are quite extensive, running to many hundreds of pages, are far more sophisticated and well rounded than those of any of his "progressive" critics. They depict a stick figure of Karol Wojtyla, that energetic and handsome man in his youth, whom they portray as an old-fashioned, stupid absolutist without a new thought in his head. They show no familiarity with his vigorous, original philosophy of the human body and of sexual love, even as their own views tend to be rather conventionally and shallowly "modern."
They forget that as a young man Wojtyla had been an actor, playwright, and poet, with the close contact with attractive women that the theater imposes. Later, as a chaste man and celibate priest, he stayed in close conversation with young men and women among his friends, who fell in love, married, and spoke to him of their discoveries and perplexities. Given his artistic capacities, these experiences helped him to write far better of sexual love than most celibates do or even can.
Typically, there is a major difference between the way in which a celibate thinker and a thinker who has known a full, rich sexual love describe the latter. The celibate tends to see the action from the solitary viewpoint of his own life, and its meaning to him as comfort and release. Since this is for him a forbidden love, or rather a love voluntarily foregone, the enjoyment of it represents a giving in to weakness. The experienced lover, by contrast, knows how important and how difficult is the art of reading and understanding the other as other, and watching for consent and mutuality. In the one description, the solitary actor tends to be imagined; in the other, the overwhelmingly important reality is the mysteriousness of the other, sometimes near, sometimes far, always elusive and needing to be wooed.
Wojtyla's writings are brilliant on this interpersonal dimension of sexuality. His is a rare achievement for a celibate writer. To be sure, his language is almost Germanic in its phenomenological terminology. But the argument is clear enough, and his method holds the whole interpersonal dimension of sexual love in sharp and sustained focus. Before putting him down as an ignoramus, one really ought to read him. Preferably with the kind of sympathy required for understanding.
As an aside: It helps to approach Wojtyla's writing as if he were just another philosopher, without thinking of him as a later pope. (Some people just can't deal with the Pope thing.) His two central insights are into the "subjectivity" of each human person each an inalienable source of creativity and action and the "communion" in which two or more persons in some ways live in and become one with each other. With these two insights he turned Communist philosophy inside out. His thought has the same effect on "progressive" philosophy in the West.
The problem with the "progressive" reading of the present crisis, to return to that theme, is its utter chutzpah, like the man who has just murdered his parents pleading for mercy because he is an orphan. Consider simply the first plank of the "progressive" project: Cede more power to the national conferences of bishops, and diminish the papacy. Holy Toledo! The failure of the U.S. bishops to be good shepherds is precisely why the pope had finally to step in April 16, summon them to Rome, and let them taste the disdain of their peers from around the world.
Most national organizations of bishops around the world are weak reeds in the gale force of dictatorial state power, the disdain of non-Catholic majorities, and a sometimes-hostile press. Without the papacy for them to lean on, how would they resist local powers? Even in the United States, our bishops have proved woefully weak in the face of the zeitgeist, not to mention the other social and political forces sometimes arrayed against them, including major interest groups.
The bishops of Eastern Europe, bound by living ties to Rome, know how much they were strengthened, compared to their Protestant and Orthodox brethren, by not being left out on a limb all by themselves. "You can order me to do what you will," they could tell Communist autocrats, "but it is not in my power to decide. I am answerable to the pope, who will broadcast word of my plight to the whole world." Communists had no fear of God, but they had learned to respect the power of the papacy. So do the "progressives," hence their agenda against it.
In pursuing their sexual agenda, the "progressives" have been in charge of virtually all Catholic institutions since Vatican II, and have driven "conservatives" into virtual powerlessness, with the exception of new institutions founded by the conservatives themselves. Nearly the whole of the Catholic press is "progressive," and so are the educators, diocesan officials, Catholic charities, and above all the rectors and professors in most seminaries (although in recent years some reforms have been underway here). Not many years ago, a seminarian asked an old wise visiting priest whether he approved of celibacy; when the priest said an emphatic yes, the young man said: "You are the first priest in this seminary to tell me that."
The huge predominance of "progressives" in American Catholic institutions, precisely during the era of the great sexual and other doctrinal confusions of the last 30 years and their kicking, screaming, whining resistance to the self-reform and new horizons to which they have been summoned by Pope John Paul II makes their attempt to blame that pope for their own sad legacy pathetic. During the decades of their predominance, what a botch the "progressives" have made of a once-vital Church.
Not that they did everything wrong. To its great credit, for instance, the National Catholic Reporter under editor Tom Fox broke the story of the priestly abuse of minors in 1985, at least 17 years before the Boston Globe awakened to it. Had the Globe publicized in 1985 the writings of Boston's notorious Father Shanley, supporting the Man-Boy Love Association, and attacked them then with the vigor they saved up for attacking Cardinal Law now, recent history might have been quite different.
For that matter, it is a shame that Cardinal Law did not rule Boston with the stern law and order his "progressive" foes have always derisively attributed to him. (When Cardinals Law and O'Connor were named to the purple in the same year, they were swiftly nicknamed "Law and Order.") Law should have taken whips in his hand as Christ did, and driven the culture of rebellion and the flagrant violation of doctrine out of the precincts of the Church. He should have had zero tolerance. They accuse him of always having opposed dissent. But he in fact let it flourish. Boston reeks with "progressive" rebellion even today. (Is it necessary to cite chapter and verse?)
In one of those painful ironies that characterize our too-brief lives, it was Law's very unwillingness to be the Iron Prelate his foes accused him of being that has given his foes so much glee now, in trying to bring him down. How they have rejoiced in his fall! Given all the morose delectation displayed by his foes in recent months, it is difficult to remember what a great figure the cardinal had been until just six months ago. His profound and lifelong preference for the poor, the immigrants, the outcasts, the vulnerable has to this day won him ardent, public support from that one loyal sector of the Boston Archdiocese. When it was not easy in his neck of the woods, this priest of Jackson, Mississippi, wrote editorials against segregation in the early 1960s.
Bernard Cardinal Law has also been a great, steady, and strong friend of Israel. He has long had a love affair with the Caribbean peoples of color, and with the Spanish-speaking world generally. He has been a good student of Catholic faith and its theology and practice, and before international audiences speaks of it with insight and wisdom. He is a very kind man. He nursed with his own hands one priest stricken with AIDS until the day the poor man died. Never once in all his recent troubles has he tried to shift the blame to those under him, although my own experience of human affairs tells me he has ample, ample reason to have felt betrayed by some he trusted. (None has had the manliness to come forward.) Cardinal Law has never yet told his side of the story, in an open and fair environment. That will have to wait, no doubt, until his current legal duties are done.
Very few men of our time have had to bear as much, as sustained, and as heated public vilification as has been aimed at him. All told, he seems to have borne it with some internal balance, whatever his private and unspeakable pain. He has said publicly he made some wrong decisions, even egregiously wrong ones, which he mightily wishes he could have a chance to do over again, to wipe out the wrongs.
For these reasons, I am glad to have selected for publication in a series I edit with Brian Anderson for Lexington books, a new book called Boston's Cardinal, edited by Romanus Cessario, O.P., containing some of the Cardinal's most memorable sermons, essays, and public writings, which exemplify the wide range of his knowledge and passions. Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard adds a long and fascinating introduction, in the form of a biography, and there are many photographs of the cardinal in happier days of childhood, youth, and early ministry. The decision to publish was made a year ago, well before the stories revealed in 2002. I am glad about that decision now, because without any defensiveness this book puts on the public record a much fuller perspective on the life of this man than the American people have yet been given. Bernard Law is a man not without sin and fault, but a good man, accomplished, memorable for many virtues, and true.
Those who have cast stones may wish to read it, and weep. They, too, having lived well for many years, may one day undergo an excruciating reversal of fortune.
Many are very angry at Cardinal Law, extremely bitter, and many would like to see him suffer even more. This is a moment for just anger; expressing it is a sign of concern for the good and the true.
Held in reserve for a later moment, nonetheless, we need a figure with the stature of Abraham Lincoln, who can stand above us all and sadly say: "Judge not, lest ye be judged."
Novak, the George F. Jewett scholar at the American
Enterprise Institute. Mr. Novak is the author, most recently, of
On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.