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Voices Online Edition
Michaelmas 2002
Volume XVII, No. 3

The Catholic Bishops and the Scandals
How Could They Have Done This?


by Kenneth D. Whitehead

From the moment the scandals erupted in January of 2002, faithful Catholics were overcome with dismay, incomprehension and a terrible sadness as they heard successive reports of Catholic bishops tolerating priests guilty of preying upon youngsters. They were grieved to learn that despite such evil acts, guilty priests were routinely transferred to other assignments. And they were amazed that dioceses frequently and often secretly paid out huge sums as "settlements" to victims of the priest-abusers.

How could the bishops have done this? What was in their minds? The Catholic bishops head an institution that has never ceased to hold and teach God's own law regarding human sexuality and its purpose and use; the bishops are, in fact, by the will of Christ, the principal guardians of the truth that there is no legitimate use of the human sexual faculties outside of that exercised by husbands and wives united in marriage.

In view of this strict Catholic moral teaching -- for which the Church is even today often stigmatized in our sex-obsessed and morally decadent society -- how could the Catholic bishops have so often closed their eyes to the seriousness of the sexual misdeeds that have now been so widely exposed and reported?

While it is true that only a tiny minority of priests has ever engaged in such immoral and criminal behavior -- a percentage not disproportionate to that recorded in other helping professions such as teaching or counseling,-- it has nevertheless been reported that as many as two-thirds of the US bishops have in effect tolerated such misbehavior by simply transferring the offending priest.

In the decisions they made at their meeting in Dallas in June to deal with the public scandals, the bishops placed most of the onus for the wrong-doing on the priests, and did nothing to penalize bishops who permitted guilty priests to become repeat offenders.

How could there have been such a pattern of episcopal failure to correct erring priests? How can this apparently long-standing pattern of episcopal toleration and even indulgence of sexual misdeeds by priests be explained?

There is, of course, a special bond between a bishop and his priests. The Church rightly affirms this; but it should never extend to ignoring immoral behavior, any more than the father of a family could knowingly tolerate such behavior on the part of his children. No -- in most of the reported cases, the bishop apparently decided to look the other way. There had become established among the American bishops a pattern of looking the other way in cases where priestly immorality was concerned -- a pattern, in other words, of not correcting wrong-doing.

To some extent this can be explained by noting that the bishops simply bought into the secular viewpoint that pederasty was "sickness", curable by "therapy", rather than wrong-doing and sin for which correction and reparation were required. This explanation is inadequate. Even the secular world has recoiled in horror at the spectacle of the exploitation of children by priests. When the bishops finally acted, it was not primarily because of the Church's moral teachings, but because of pressure from the secular media.

So our principal question remains: how was a pattern of episcopal tolerance, indulgence, and inaction toward immoral and even criminal actions ever established in a Church hierarchy, which is pledged to uphold morality? Our whole society, not incidentally, regards the Church as both quintessentially authoritarian and "against sex", and for those reasons in particular reproaches the Catholic bishops for allowing the present scandals to develop under their authority.

Actually, the failure of the American bishops to correct those subject to their authority began a long time ago in this country, and for nearly as long it has extended far beyond the cases of sex abuse that have now been reported. The American Catholic bishops pretty much stopped taking serious corrective action toward not a few of those under their authority at least as far back as the turbulent 1960s, when a generalized revolt against authority in American society at large made it difficult for many other institutions besides the Church to maintain traditional discipline. When confronted with rebelliousness within the Church, and exposed to public criticism and even obloquy from without as "repressive" and "retrograde", most American bishops tended to draw back, and some even ceased to try to impose discipline at all.

Also, beginning in the 1960s, American society moved rapidly toward the "anything goes" and "non-judgmental" attitudes that are such prominent features of our present "no-fault" society. Catholic bishops, like the leaders of some other institutions (e.g., associations, schools, universities), could no longer be sure they would not be confronted with open refusal to obey if and when they tried to impose rules -- or re-impose them. Meanwhile, the avid media were always ready and eager to exploit publicly the embarrassment of institutions confronted with rebellion against rules and discipline.

All these trends in society at large were exaggerated in the case of the Catholic Church by unreal expectations stemming from Vatican Council II. Some believed that the Council changed everything in the Church; and many Catholics who desired changes -- including some plainly at variance with Catholic teaching and practice -- were not slow to abandon their former docility toward authority. Often the rebels simply began to "demand" the changes they wanted, and, in many cases, they then proceeded to act as if their "demands" had been granted.

Catholic bishops, like other authorities in society, frequently found that the orders they issued were simply not obeyed; and, if they ever attempted to deal with disobedience, they often found themselves stymied -- as well as pilloried in the media. This provided bishops with pretty strong disincentives against acting.

Among the more spectacular incidents in the mid-1960s that helped to undermine episcopal credibility and authority was the open rebellion of the Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns in Los Angeles against James Francis Cardinal McIntyre -- a case presented in the national media as the inability of the cardinal to discipline his unruly flock. Then, in 1967, there was a student and faculty strike at the Catholic University of America in Washington that succeeded in closing down the entire university -- merely because university authorities had attempted to deny tenure to a dissenting theologian, Father Charles E. Curran.

In the latter case, the bishops found they had to back off if they wanted "their" university to open up again; the CUA president resigned and was replaced by another one more compliant with the demands of the strikers; and the dissenter who was the cause of it all, Father Curran, was granted tenure on the university's theology faculty.

The following year, Father Curran led the massive revolt of North American theologians against Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the Church's traditional teaching that every marriage act must be open to the transmission of life. The teaching of Humanae Vitae that artificial birth control was immoral went against the confirmed views of a majority of Americans -- including, it turned out, a majority of Catholics. Pope Paul VI's issuance of the encyclical, in the middle of the post-Vatican-II and Sixties turmoil that already engulfed the Church, resulted in aligning huge numbers of the Catholic laity, if polls are to be believed, on the side of about six-hundred Catholic theologians who publicly dissented from the encyclical. That Church authority no longer counted for much in the minds of a majority of Catholics was plain for everybody to see.

Perhaps understandably, the Catholic bishops of the day had scarcely a clue about how to cope with this new situation. The efforts of Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle in Washington, DC to discipline priests and theologians who dissented from Humane Vitae became a national, if not an international, cause célèbre. These efforts were no more successful than those of Cardinal McIntyre in Los Angeles to bring to bay a mother superior whose disobedience had landed her on the cover of Time magazine.

The bishops of that day apparently got the message: attempts to restore order and discipline were not likely to succeed. Most bishops no longer even tried to impose discipline or correct rebels and dissenters. Henceforth the bishops generally let things ride; they remained uneasily at the head of the Church's administrative structure; they went on administering their dioceses, attending their national meetings, and issuing their episcopal statements; but it was no longer clear how firm their authority really was within their own Church.

Occasionally, a bishop might move to correct sacramental violations or abuses; however, open dissent from or disregard for Church teachings was rarely corrected. It was as if the bishops had tacitly decided that correct "doctrine" -- particularly the onerous and embarrassing prohibition of birth control -- was not all that important any longer. Above all, the bishops seemed to recoil from the very idea that dissent from Humanae Vitae, for example, might ever constitute some kind of a "litmus test" for Catholic orthodoxy.

The zealous defense of her teachings, all of her teachings -- which had regularly characterized the Catholic Church through her entire history -- thus became strangely muted in the Church in America during the years after Humanae Vitae. Holding correct doctrine was apparently no longer a strict requirement for being a "good Catholic". Catholics went on professing the Creed on Sundays and Holy Days, but the clause about believing in "the Holy Catholic Church" -- and all of her teachings -- apparently did not count any longer. As in Arian times, there was a kind of practical suspension of the Church's Magisterium in the United States.

The important thing henceforth -- since orthodoxy could apparently no longer be required -- was simply to be a "loyal" Catholic; and "loyal" often came to mean not criticizing Church authorities for not correcting dissenters against Catholic teaching.

A veritable custom or habit of episcopal toleration and inaction in the face of open challenges to the Church's teachings and practices thus became established, and has substantially persisted to the present day. New bishops quickly grasp how dissent from Catholic doctrine is to be dealt with today -- it is not to be dealt with at all!

Of course the bishops have never actually admitted that in many respects their authority has simply been suspended. The notion that they are still in full and unhindered charge of the Church has been maintained. Even dissenters quickly learned that it was in their interest to maintain this fiction. By pretending to accept Church authority, meanwhile pursuing their own dissident agendas without fear of serious correction, the dissenters avoided the stigma of "extremism" -- the label that was instead regularly attached to anyone attempting to protest or complain about the open and widespread dissent from or disregard of established Church teachings.

As in the case of Humanae Vitae in the 1960s, so it was in the 1990s with Pope John Paul II's Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which excluded female ordination. Again another majority of North American theologians dared to go on the public record opposing the judgment of the supreme teaching authority in the Church, the pope, that the Catholic teaching concerning the impossibility of female ordination was definitive and irreformable. There was no discernible reaction from the hierarchy at all to what should have been seen as an embarrassing revelation, namely, that most North American theologians were openly dissident.

The bishops themselves have never expressly endorsed these departures from Catholic teaching. On the contrary, they have regularly acknowledged actions and pronouncements coming from Rome. They even proved willing to go along with Roman initiatives to restore discipline, as when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith insisted in the 1980s that Father Charles E. Curran had to be removed from the faculty of the Catholic University of America. On that occasion, Church leaders in America supported the Roman decision and even admirably fought and won in court the lawsuit filed by Father Curran contesting his removal.

The American bishops themselves, though, for the most part, have carefully refrained from initiating any such efforts to restore discipline on their own. Their efforts to uphold Catholic teaching have similarly been few and far between -- and usually ineffectual. For example, the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine a few years ago issued a critical study of the book Catholicism by Father Richard P. McBrien of the Notre Dame theology faculty. The Committee then attempted to get Father McBrien to correct some of the errors in his book.

Father McBrien's defiant correspondence replying to the Committee, however, was soon reported in the press as if it were a legitimate debate between him and the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine. Pronouncements of Church authorities had already come to be considered to be little more than subjects for theological debate; and those who were theoretically subject to Church authority might or might not accept such pronouncements, apparently at their option.

In the McBrien case, the Notre Dame author-theologian never did get around to making the changes in his book requested by the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine. This book, still containing all the errors identified by the Doctrine Committee, continues to be a popular survey of Catholic doctrine. The Committee, for its part, seems to have quietly backed off when confronted with the defiant opposition of Father McBrien.

It was the same Father McBrien, of course, who a few years later, publicly, and apparently with complete immunity, counseled all his theological colleagues not even to request the mandatum [bishop's mandate] to teach theology required by Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Not the least of all the ironies in the current sex abuse crisis in the Church has been the prominence in the national media of Father McBrien as a commentator on these events. The media call upon Father McBrien to fill this role, no doubt, because he is feisty and opinionated. And since he is a prominent professor of theology at Notre Dame University, "in good standing", how could the media people be expected to imagine that he might not be a credible spokesman for the Catholic Church?

However, that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops could allow such a spokesman to go on and on, week after week -- apparently speaking for the Catholic Church in the national media -- is surely one more indication that the American bishops have lost control over their own organization.

Such a climate of open dissent from, or disregard for, solemn Church teachings has gone on uncorrected for virtually an entire generation -- and, indeed, largely unmentioned, by the official guardians of the Catholic faith in America, the bishops. Can it really be any great surprise that some of these same bishops have proved equally unwilling or unable to correct instances of priestly sexual misconduct?

The now long-established pattern in America of episcopal toleration and inaction when faced with open dissent and disobedience within the Church can be verified in other areas of the Church's life. We have briefly noted this phenomenon as it has manifested itself among Catholic theologians and in some religious orders. Homosexuality in the seminaries is yet another topic now -- finally -- widely discussed as new revelations have shown how prevalent it had been allowed to become.

We could just as well have spoken about widespread liturgical abuses that have abounded since the reform of the liturgy following Vatican Council II. Or about how ideological feminism has been allowed free reign by uncritical bishops, corrupting not only "ministries" but the very language of our worship. Or about how the heads of Catholic colleges and universities were allowed without any opposition from the hierarchy to declare their virtual independence from Church authority with their famous Land O' Lakes statement back in 1967 -- a situation that the bishops have only recently attempted to correct.

This toleration of dissent has also led to very serious consequences in one of the most vital areas of the Church's life -- catechetics, the teaching of the faith.

Many Catholics have understood for years that the "new catechetics" that emerged following Vatican Council II has failed to teach the faith to at least two generations of young Catholics.

The very notion that catechetics is supposed to inculcate Catholic doctrine -- that is, the truths revealed by Christ and authoritatively handed down in the Church for the sake of our sanctification and salvation -- is largely absent from the new catechetics. Rather, the new catechetics consists largely of doctrineless, this-worldly, "feel-good", communitarian elements that are presented as the "Vatican II" version of the faith.

Some bishops have noticed and even admitted that today's religious education is woefully deficient. From time to time they have even tried to take corrective action. As far back as 1973, the US bishops issued a document entitled "Basic Teachings for Catholic Religious Education", which listed the major doctrinal truths that had to be included in all Catholic religious education.

There was never any effective follow-up, however. That a fair number of these same "required" doctrines never were effectively taught was made clear as recently as 1997 -- a full quarter of a century after the "Basic Teachings" -- when the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee the Use of the Catechism issued a list of "consistent deficiencies" in the catechetical texts in current use.

These "consistent deficiencies" included insufficient attention given to the Trinity, to the Divinity of Christ, and to Christ's centrality in salvation history; the downplaying of many Catholic beliefs and magisterial teachings; a defective Christian anthropology or understanding of what man is; an overemphasis on human action at the expense of God's action; a downplaying of grace and the sacraments; a deficient teaching about Original Sin as well as about actual sin; and, finally, an inadequate treatment of the Christian moral life as well as of the life of the world to come.

This is a formidable list of deficiencies. Catechetical texts that include any of them would surely not qualify as teaching the faith fully and properly. A huge question here, of course, is how, nearly a quarter of a century after a document of the bishops required that all doctrines be accurately taught, a bishops' Committee could still identify so many deficiencies in current texts.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church itself is, among other things, one more effort on the part of the Church to remedy deficiencies in the teaching of the faith. The Catechism should have removed all doubt about what needed to be taught in Catholic religious education programs. Yet years after its appearance, the same old errors that have regularly bedeviled postconciliar catechetics continue to be manifest.

How could this be? Surely the Catholic hierarchy has made abundantly clear what needs to be taught?

True enough -- but what the hierarchy has not done, ever, is ensure that what has been prescribed as required doctrine has been embodied in the catechetical texts and religious education series actually used in the classroom. This would necessarily have involved correcting the people responsible for producing the defective religious education materials; but this was not done.

Just as some bishops have eschewed the difficult task of imposing real discipline by simply transferring priests guilty of sexual misdeeds, so, in religious education, most of the bishops have also simply left in place all the same "new catechists" and religious education specialists responsible for the current defective religious education in the first place. Just as some bishops relied on the advice of physicians and psychologists concerning the sexual misdeeds of priests, many (if not most) bishops have relied on the "specialists in the field" where religious education was concerned.

Not even the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee that discovered and published the "consistent deficiencies" listed above has had the power to correct these deficiencies. The Committee examines only texts voluntarily submitted by religious education publishers. Moreover, the official task of the Ad Hoc Committee is limited to verifying whether the quotations from the Catechism in the religious education materials are correct. There is no requirement that texts for teaching the Catholic faith must be submitted to the Committee for oversight and review.

A diocesan bishop approves or disapproves the texts used in his diocese. However, almost every bishop delegates the actual task of selection of these texts to his religious education "experts" -- who are "new catechists" themselves. Most dioceses issue their own religious education guidelines, but these guidelines are prepared by the same experts.

As a result, few American bishops ever really disapprove of any religion texts. Few bishops probably ever look at the texts, despite the well-known deficiencies of so many of them. This is also the case with many pastors as well: they depend upon their parish Directors of Religious Education (DREs). However, what the trained DREs and the catechetical experts too often purvey bears little resemblance to the authentic and integral Catholic faith.

Most Catholic religion textbooks and catechetical series in use today are produced by publishers who specialize in the lucrative Catholic market. These publishers rely on today's "trained" catechetical experts as their principal authors and editors. These are the same experts, of course, who comprise most of the staff of the national, diocesan, and parish catechetical offices, where they both prepare the diocesan guidelines and decide which books to order and use -- in other words, which ones to include on "the bishop's" approved list.

The experts in the "new catechetics" who work for both the Church's religious education offices and the publishers of religious education texts are usually trained in departments and institutes and schools of religious studies staffed by academic specialists in the same new catechetics. Too often, these academics are dissenters from Catholic doctrine. Sometimes they are the same professional theologians who boldly dissent from Catholic doctrine.

For example, Father Berard Marthaler, the long-time and still current Executive Editor of the official catechetical journal published by the Department of Education of the bishops' conference, The Living Light, is one of the original Humanae Vitae dissenters; yet his suitability as one of the top religious education gurus in America has apparently never been questioned by anybody in authority in the Church.

Both the curriculum and faculty of many of the departments, schools, and institutes where the experts in the new catechetics are trained, then, are heavily biased toward the acceptance of the dissenting views of many of those same academics. This can be quickly verified by looking at the ads for these academic training programs in almost any issue of the National Catholic Reporter, and noticing who the professors are.

When the American bishops apparently decided at the time of Humanae Vitae that dissent from that encyclical would not disqualify anyone from being an academic or teacher helping to form the next generation of religious educators, they probably did not foresee the catechetical shambles we now in fact have before us. When faced with this shambles, they might have drawn a few conclusions about it -- just as they might have from the incidence of priestly sex abuse that has been so costly and damaging.

But just as the bishops could not depend upon their seminaries to teach authentic Catholic doctrine to future priests, so they could not depend upon the institutions that were forming today's religious education experts. It is these very experts who work both for the publishers that produce today's deficient materials and who staff the diocesan and parish catechetical offices that use these materials. They also train hundreds of volunteer religion teachers.

The whole system is self-enforcing and self-perpetuating. It is a virtually closed circle. When publishers come out with a new book or series -- every year or two -- they simply send out publicity directly to the diocesan and parish religious education directors, who then select and "approve" the books to be used and distribute them to teachers and students.

Rarely do the bishops seriously intrude upon, or even enter into, this self-contained system. When bishops do speak about religious education, as likely as not it will simply be to praise the "good people" engaged in the effort -- or to deplore the "attacks" on these same "good people" from parents, pastors, and teachers who are concerned that today's catechetical materials do not properly present the faith.

If a bishop does prescribe that certain "Basic Teachings" are to be taught, or that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is to be used in all religious education, the "new catechists" have learned not to rebel openly, but rather to make cosmetic changes in the textbooks that make it appear that they are complying. When parents, pastors, or teachers complain that a specific doctrine -- say, the Real Presence -- is lacking, the "new catechists" respond by adding in something about it to the next edition of their texts. Although they are always happy to mention items that a checklist specifies should be taught, in no way do the new catechists really intend to teach the Real Presence as the Church holds and believes the doctrine -- any more than they intend to teach the whole faith as the Church believes it. And in the case of the Real Presence of Jesus, for example, they are as likely to apply it to the community as to the Eucharist! Meanwhile, they can still say it is "in there" if anybody should come along with a checklist.

The new catechetics, in short, does not teach "the Catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles". The new catechetics aims instead at teaching a variant faith learned primarily in today's departments and institutes and schools of religious education staffed by dissenters. This "new faith" is a this-worldly, largely horizontal faith that strongly emphasizes the community and strongly de-emphasizes redemption from sin by Jesus Christ. God is presented as Creator, but little or nothing is said about God as Redeemer; since this new, variant faith is chiefly Pelagian in its orientation, there is no need for any Redeemer. The sacraments are primarily community rituals.

Christ may even be called "the Son of God" in this presentation of what is supposed to be His revelation about Himself (it's in there!); but few or none of the theological implications of His divine Sonship are ever emphasized. Christ is presented as primarily a model: a very nice man, who calls all of us to be very nice as well.

All the "consistent deficiencies" identified by the bishops' own Ad Hoc Committee, in other words, are indeed to be found in the "new catechetics". But the Committee apparently did not notice that it is actually a variant new "faith" that is almost universally now being taught within their own religious education system -- a fact that can be verified by a serious examination of the actual catechetical materials still in nearly universal use today.

Nor have any effective corrective measures been taken by the bishops since the Ad Hoc Committee issued its list. That would have required the removal and replacement of some of the principal people currently running the whole catechetical show, as well as the abrogation of the pseudo-faith and methods of these same people -- something most bishops seem unprepared to consider.

Again, as we have seen in the sexual abuse cases driven primarily by a homosexual "culture" that has been allowed to infiltrate the priesthood, most bishops do not appear to recognize or admit the fundamental problems with catechetics, and avoid confronting the source of the problem. Instead, most bishops continue their established pattern of toleration and inaction -- just as, for so long, many of them continued to tolerate the sexual abuse of youngsters by priests in their jurisdiction.

The current religious education situation, in other words, constitutes yet one more instance where the American Catholic bishops' "benign neglect" -- their unwillingness to correct the errors of those under their authority - amounts to a virtual abdication of their own role as the primary teachers and guardians of the faith.

Confronted with the clergy sex-abuse scandal, Catholics cannot help asking: how could bishops have done it? Perhaps a more difficult question is this: in the light of the pattern of the last thirty-five years, how could we have expected them to do anything else?

Kenneth D. Whitehead, the author of eight books, is co-author, along with Monsignor Michael J. Wrenn, of Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 1996). Many of the errors of the new catechetics are carefully identified and laid out in this book. Mr. Whitehead's wife, Margaret, is a parish Director of Religious Education (DRE); her position has afforded him the opportunity to observe and understand better how the catechetical system continues to operate today.

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