Sunday, August 31, 2014

Marriage and the bishops

A friend of mine recently was ordained a bishop and I was honored to receive tickets to and to attend his ordination.  He seems like a good guy and I wish him and his new diocese well.  I hope he is open to the flow of the Spirit in his new office and does not confuse it with the flow of cash from financial backers for his episcopal trousseau nor with the flow of obsequious flattery from clerical groupies.

But, you must give the guy credit.  He's well-aware of my blog and even occasionally reads it - and he still sent me some tix to his hierarchical hootenanny.  (This may come as a shocker but I'm typically not on the "A", "B", "C", or possibly all the way down to the "Z" invitation list for hierarchical hootenannies.  I'm much more likely to top a bishop's shit-list or "people we will ignore and hope go away" list.)  Anyway, we have either found common ground for mutual respect or we find each other amusing diversions...or maybe his invitation and shit lists got mixed up.  I'd like to think it's the first scenario.

The bishop of my diocese delivered the ordination Mass homily and something he repeatedly said keeps ringing in my much so that it's painful.  He said that my friend's "new bride" was this new diocese and that my friend would cleave to this "bride" until death parted them.

New bride? NEW bride? NEW? What, pray tell, happened to the old one?

In January I had an enjoyable and meaningful discussion with said homily-delivering-bishop.  I told him I was really, really tired of the bishops yammering on about "defense of marriage" and blaming all sorts of factors for what they consider the disintegration of marriage when the bishops, themselves, provide such a piss-poor example of marriage. His words at this ordination, which occurred about seven months after that fine January discussion, offer just one example proving my point.

You see if my friend, in becoming a bishop now has a "new" wife in this new diocese, that means he abandoned his "old" wife, his previous diocese.  And I would bet my entire retirement savings that if the hotline from the Vatican rang asking him to be bishop over yet another diocese, he'd do it.  I think that's called seeking a "trophy wife."  Yep, yep...that's what it's called allright. 

Therefore, I found myself choking back laughter when this statement about lifelong commitment between bishop and diocese "bride" was made...that this commitment would remain until death parted the two.  Give me a freaking break.  The guy that delivered the homily, himself was ordained bishop in a different diocese than he serves now...we are at best his third wife.  If you consider all of his assignments, we are something like his 9th or 10th wife. Furthermore, if this same bishop were asked to take on a larger diocese or archdiocese or don a cardinal's red hat, he would drop his 10th wife for his 11th faster than you can say "Jesus, Mary and Joseph."

To put this in perspective, Liz Taylor only married 8 times.  So, please, let us start using the hierarchy as the gold standard for "lack of marital commitment" rather than her.

I don't know which is more absurd - the notion of a bishop's lifelong commitment to his diocese "bride" or the idea of the bishop's diocese being his bride at all.  I just keep hearing in my head the group "Honey Cone" singing, "Wanted...young man - single and free.  Experience in love preferred but we'll accept a young trainee."  If you guys are married to us, the church of your dioceses, then it would really help if you loved us personally...and if not, then we sure would like the opportunity to train you.

Ah, but new bishops are indeed trained - by the Vatican - at new bishop school.  I'm trying to imagine what that curriculum looks like but somehow, I'm doubting that it involves the bishops' "brides" administering any of the training.  This is so like marriage, you know.... Two young folks tie the knot and then rather than using a honeymoon to deepen their intimate understanding of each other, the husband flies away to a husband training camp which bars wives from attending.

But, hey, let's face it.  We didn't get a chance to select our bishop husbands.  They were forced upon us in arranged marriages made by a bunch of husbands who also don't spend much time with their wives.  Again...stellar example for marriage.   

Let us recall the wisdom expressed in the movie The Princess Bride, "Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam... And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva... So tweasure your wuv." 

Guys, we're just not feeling the "wuv, tru wuv" or feeling "tweasured" when you dump us for what you perceive as a better opportunity.  Therefore, can we please stop with this "mawage" charade and just use plain language?  The clergy and bishops move from assignment to assignment just like people in any other career.  It's about your career, not any marriage to us.  You didn't know us before you became our bishops and most of you continue ignorant of most of the people comprising your "wife."  That's because you are corporate executives who develop and maintain relationships with your clients and employees similarly to how other corporate executives do.  You have as much commitment to them.  You have similar or less vested physical and emotional stake in them as do corporate execs. 

There is another source of guidance for bishop qualifications, that we might consider using.  1 Timothy 3:1-5 tells us, "...whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task.  Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money.  He must manage his own household well, keeping his children under control with perfect dignity; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of the church of God?"

Ah, it would seem, according to Scripture that bishops, above all should be married with know...real ones - not metaphorical ones.  The kind that require you to change a dirty diaper here and there, mop vomit, and genuinely, physically and emotionally care for specific people.  Because if you can't demonstrate your ability to care for specific people in your personal household, how will you do so for the church of God?  Just curious.  And, no, babysitting for younger siblings when you were on break from the rarefied seminary world does not count. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Teaching credentials...

 Food for thought:
  • Imagine your English teacher demonstrating mastery of the language by regularly uttering statements like this, “We seen them deer when we was up north!” 
  • Imagine your mathematics teacher regularly adding numbers incorrectly. 
  • Imagine your social studies teacher talking about visiting “Toledo, the capital of the U.S.” 
  • Imagine your music teacher with an inability to count rhythms correctly or carry a tune.  

Now try to imagine yourself valuing these teachers’ lessons.  In each case, regardless of the theory expressed, actions belied their true subject-matter expertise to the point you probably justifiably questioned their credibility…a lot…  Their actions told you, “I am not qualified to teach about this.”


  • Imagine your Catholic faith teacher, who professes to know more than you about truth, being exposed as a liar. 
  • Imagine your faith teacher confusing the commandment about adultery with those about murder or stealing.
  • Imagine your faith teacher enabling and covering up clergy’s sexual abuse of minors but writing the Church’s norms to protect children.

Such is the case with the Catholic hierarchy and sexual abuse.  The bishops declare themselves the ultimate teaching authorities on faith yet, on a weekly basis we read of bishops being caught telling lies or enabling abusers.  We live with the appalling reality that bishops equate raping children to an adulterous affair, though rape is about forcefully taking that which is not given and destroying the child’s physical, emotional and spiritual life in the process.  Perhaps lesser known, the primary authors of the US bishops’ charter to protect children, themselves harbored sexually abusive priests even after the charter was signed.  What is most puzzling of all is that a) the bishops think anyone should take them seriously as moral authorities and b) that anyone does.

Here are just a smattering of proof points:

1.  Archbishop John Nienstedt of Minneapolis said in an April, 2014 sworn legal deposition that he didn’t know until March, 2014 that Ken LaVan, a priest with multiple credible sexual abuse accusations, was still in active ministry.  However, this past week revealed that ole John was actually getting annual updates about Ken’s ministry activities. 

Psst….John, this is called “lying” and violates the 8th Commandment: “Thou shall not bear false witness.”  John, I gotta tell ya, this really kills your street creds in the truth department.  Plus, when you lie under oath in this country, it is also called a “crime” further crumbling your “truthiness” credibility.  Much like Dr. Seuss’ book calling for another liar to depart public leadership, “Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!”, I think it’s beyond time we say, “John C. Nienstedt Will You Please Go Now!”

2.  Moving on to Canon Law, we see the hierarchy actually classifies priests’ sexual misconduct with minors under the 6th Commandment, “Thou shall not commit adultery.”  Yes, appalling as that seems, the hierarchy officially equates trusted religious leaders’ sexual assault of innocent minors with extra-marital sexual activity between two consenting adults.  You read that right: the clergy categorize destroying children’s lives and souls against their will equally with two adults consensually caving to hormones in a tryst.  

Don’t believe me?  Canon 1395 states, “A cleric who in another way has committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, if the delict was committed by force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen years, is to be punished with just penalties, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state if the case so warrants.”  This is the one sentence in Canon Law that is meant to deter clergy sexual abuse.  Why are you not trembling in awe? 

As an aside, please notice that unlike ordination of women which incurs automatic excommunication, clergy raping children, according to Canon Law, is not grounds for excommunication.  It merely calls for possible removal from office…ya know, “if the case warrants” it.  It would seem that the Vatican should have inserted an emoticon of a face winking next to that statement…it is so fierce and followed.

Call me nutty but I think that when a priest sexually assaults a kid, they kill a soul, they steal…thus, they break the 5th and 7th commandments against killing and stealing…not the 6th pertaining to marital fidelity.  This Canon Law classification reveals much about the hierarchy’s understanding or lack thereof with regards to the commandments, rape, children, marriage, sexuality, human life, etc…  In turn, it directly impacts the hierarchy’s credibility on all these topics.

3.  This brings us to the ace team of bishops who were principle authors of the US bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” written in 2002: Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Archbishop Harry Flynn, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, and Cardinal Francis George.  With the exception of Wilton Gregory, all of them harbored sexually abusive priests … some even after the charter was written, signed and promulgated.  In the case of Cardinal George, it included harboring a known sexual predator in his very own episcopal mansion (2003).

Actually, Cardinal George’s rap sheet of enabling and covering up sexually abusive priests after the charter is so long I will just provide a link that enumerates some cases between 2003 and 2006 rather than turn this into a painfully long blog article.  Harry Flynn kept the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer in ministry despite Wehmeyer's sexual addiction and sexual misconduct.  He also failed to report a priest in possession of child pornography.  All of this after the charter was in place. 

Of the group, Mahony seemed to be the one who at least tried to reform his diocese’s practices but there always seemed to be a struggle between loyalty honoring the brotherhood’s clerical institution versus honoring truth and justice.

These aren’t the only bishops failing to follow the charter.  For example, we do have our friend and convicted criminal for failure to report child abuse, Bishop Bob Finn, still at the helm of the Kansas City Diocese.  I just thought since they wrote the charter, that maybe they would have been role models for doing the right thing.  Silly me.

So, as I see it, the bishops seem to have authored the charter as a PR stunt rather than as a step towards profound institutional reform.  Furthermore, looking at the whole situation, I think the bishops collectively demonstrate that they:
a) Do not understand the 5th, 6th, or 7th commandments, and
b) Do not obey the 8th commandment

I wonder if they have enough self-awareness to realize that many of the faithful see them as also violating the 1st commandment against having false gods based upon their willingness to forfeit several commandments in favor of protecting their brotherhood’s clerical institution.  When a team who believes they are the guardians of the commandments demonstrates poor mastery of half of them, what are they really guarding?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The language of faith

Some readers have enquired as to my long lapse in publishing a blog article.  I have been globetrotting, including spending three weeks in Africa running a technology camp for girls. Thus, I’ve had limited time and internet connectivity to write.  Thanks for your concern and interest.

I returned to the United States coincidental with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) convening their annual assembly.  This year’s assembly carries a smattering of drama due to the Vatican’s recent finger-wagging exercises at the sisters.  The LCWR’s honoree this year is Sr. Elizabeth Johnson.  Her selection increased the hierarchy’s vigor tsk-tsking the sisters because the hierarchy doesn’t like one of Elizabeth’s books.  I’d characterize the hierarchy’s objections to her book as resulting from a willful inability to understand her…to speak or understand her language.

While in Africa, I experienced a certain amount of language confusion as well.  I worked in Rwanda where the country is shifting the official language for educational instruction from French to English.  Despite laws that instruction must occur in English, a fair amount of the camp was translated for campers…not into French, but into Kinyarwanda – the campers’ native tongue.  There are pros and cons to doing this but the camp staff preferred to err on the side of understanding and being understood.

Rattling around in my head all the while has been this proud moment in my family’s history when my grandfather and his brother were officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for about a year during the 1920s.  Their sin?  My great-uncle was part of the leadership team for a Franco-American journal called “La Sentinelle” and my grandfather was part of the Sentinellist movement.  The Sentinellists’ sin involved language.  They emigrated from Quebec to the U.S. and spoke French.  They had this crazy idea that their church and school environments should accommodate their language requirements because they wanted to understand and be understood.  They were called extreme radicals for this.

As some background, William Hickey, the Irish-American bishop of Providence, RI thought American Catholics needed to be more “American.".  He thought English language uniformity would increase unity and reduce the amount of anti-Catholic sentiment which arose largely from Irish opposition to involvement in World War I.  Though the Franco-Americans strongly supported America’s participation in the war by offering over 100,000 soldiers, the Irish-Americans tended to support the Irish’s stance.  Since the Irish-American Catholics and especially Irish-American Catholic clergy vastly outnumbered the anything-else-American Catholics, Catholics in America were seen as being downright “un-American.” 

In an effort to make Catholics appear more American, Hickey embarked on a multi-phase campaign to reroute monies pouring into Franco-American French-speaking parish schools.  He imposed a “subscription” to build English-speaking diocesan high schools.  The subscription was basically a tax upon parishes.  Each parish was apportioned part of the cost to build Hickey’s schools and if donations did not meet the allotted cost, then he just took the outstanding balance from the parish coffers.  This is much like how Diocesan Services campaigns work in U.S. dioceses.  The bishop gets what he asks for because he simply takes it if it isn’t freely given.

The Sentinellists were rightly concerned that losing their language would dilute the ranks of the faithful.  History showed that in the late 1800s, failure by the hierarchy to support Catholics’ language requirements resulted in a 10 million person exodus from the Catholic Church in the U.S.  The Sentinellists were extremely devout Catholics and did not want this to happen to their families and neighbors. 

The Sentellists were also working people who didn’t have a lot of money.  They knew that they could not support their children’s needs and the bishop’s demands.   Therefore, they erred on the side of their children and boycotted paying their “pew fees” (money paid to reserve a pew for your family at church) and the “subscription” in order to build a French-speaking Catholic high school rather than an English-speaking one.   This seemed to be their ultimate sin winning them excommunication…they hit the bishop in the most sacred part of his faith life…his wallet.

I’m a fan of assimilation but I’m also practical.  Assimilation occurs at a pace balancing the culture into which one is trying to assimilate against the practical realities of the ones trying to assimilate.  Third party meddling trying to force a faster assimilation pace can have severe unintended consequences. 

We see that with the profound diminishment of Franco-American Catholics after the aggressive assimilation efforts in the early 1900s.  French-heritage Catholics in the U.S., though some of the most abundant early establishers of Catholicism in North America, are now rare.  Their language was suppressed and they left the church in droves.

I wonder if the same is occurring with women’s language and the church.  Elizabeth Johnson speaks the language of women.  Despite recent lip-service given to developing a “theology of women,” those who speak the theological language of women are sanctioned and censured.  Is the hierarchy again making the error of mistaking “uniformity” as “unity?”  I would say that we can wait to see the possible unintended consequences of suppressing women’s language in the church except we are already seeing it.  Women are leaving the church and taking their children with them.

However, there is a bigger question here and that is whether or not assimilation should occur at all.  In the case of French Canadian emigrants, they chose to move to a land where English was the primary language.  There is a certain responsibility on their part to assimilate to the culture that they chose to join,  In the case of the Rwandans, the French-speaking Belgians imposed themselves on their culture.  By the fact the Rwandans opt for Kinyarwanda rather than French during this time of language transition, we see that the Rwandans didn’t necessarily feel compelled to assimilate to the culture of people who inserted themselves upon the Rwandan culture.

But, what about women?  On the one hand the hierarchy screams about how very ontologically different women are from men.  Yet, on the other hand, the hierarchy seems to want women to assimilate to men’s culture by abandoning their own language and experiences to adopt those of the men.  Is this right or even possible? 

If women ontologically differ from men, then trying to force male voices and thoughts upon women commits one of these pesky “sins against nature” that the hierarchy abhors.  If women do not differ ontologically from men, then excluding women from the priesthood is unfounded. 

Either women are different and hierarchical leaders owe the LCWR and Elizabeth Johnson not only an apology, they owe them their deep appreciation for letting these differences shine forth via their language of women…or women are not different and hierarchical leaders owe a deep apology and expression of gratitude as well as need to reinstate all the excommunicated female priests because they simply denuded a myth about men’s and women’s ontological differences. 

There is a third scenario where the hierarchy both reinstates female priests and apologizes to the LCWR and Elizabeth Johnson which should occur if men’s and women’s differences serve to complement rather than impede clerical ministry.  But right now, the hierarchy’s stance seems to just further undermine its credibility.  Johnson succinctly expresses the real issue at hand, “In my judgment, and this is difficult to say, but I do believe such carelessness with the truth is unworthy of the teaching office of bishop.”