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Church should weather harsh words

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

The Rev. Tony Campolo, prominent as a Christian pastor and educator and as post-Lewinsky spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton, made a verbal splash at a Christian college two decades ago that might have gotten him canned this spring in Sewickley.

Campolo was addressing a morning chapel service at Wheaton College outside Chicago. The evangelical Christian campus is home to the Billy Graham Library and Museum, all of "A Wrinkle In Time" author Madeleine L'Engle's papers and the boyhood wardrobe that inspired C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia." It's a broad-minded but upright kind of place.

Homelessness was the crisis of the moment in the early 1980s, and on the morning in question Campolo was trying to motivate his hundreds of young, upper-middle-class listeners to muster some concern.

I don't know Campolo's exact words, but one word I'm sure of:

"Millions of Americans will go to bed hungry tonight on a cold street," he said, "and most of you don't give a shit."

The students stirred.

"In fact," he continued, "most of you are more scandalized that I just used the word 'shit' in chapel than you are that millions of people are homeless."

His frank words sprang to mind a few weeks ago when Pittsburgh's Roman Catholic diocese transferred the Rev. William Hausen out of the Sewickley parish he had served five years as parochial vicar. Hausen had delivered an Easter Sunday sermon in which he used a mild vulgarity and advocated the ordination of women and married men.

Vulgarities are a dime a dozen and a dozen a minute on any city street or high school sidewalk. But when they come from the lips of men who rarely use them, they carry great power. When they're uttered to draw attention to important ideas, they're appropriate and effective.

I didn't attend Campolo's sermon; I heard of it secondhand. But I've never forgotten his point.

On Easter 2002, Hausen said Catholics should be "pissed off" by the sexual abuse scandal rocking their church. He used a mild, nearly ubiquitous vulgarity in reference to a horrifying sin covered up by self-professed men of God at the expense of dozens or even hundreds of other young victims.

Anyone who objects to Hausen's pastoral words in this context is a person I couldn't have a conversation with.

"Piss" appears in the King James Bible, by the way -- it's the kind of thing Sunday school students look up and giggle over -- but I really don't think it was that word that caused Hausen's transfer, anyway. And since the Pittsburgh diocese has responded quickly and seriously to any local hint of sexual scandal, no one could have thought Hausen was attacking his immediate superiors. It's more likely that his public advocacy of changes opposed by the hierarchy of his own church provoked his transfer.

Lots of Catholics -- and ardent Protestants like me -- have suggested significant changes to the church in the wake of the sex abuse scandal. But we're laymen and outsiders, not official representatives of God and Rome.

Ay, there's the rub. God and Rome are two different things, aren't they? And the Bible the first authored and the latter interprets says we all can, in fact, be His official representatives. The "priesthood of the believer" -- that's the kind of idea that starts reformations.

Perhaps for the sake of theological uniformity, Hausen had to be transferred -- he went to Sacred Heart in Shadyside. But his words didn't cause division; they revealed division that already exists within the Catholic Church.

Parishioners who respect his words were angered by his transfer. Some of them (apparently wrongly) blamed the Rev. Ray Rhoden, the parish pastor, who resigned just a few weeks later. He did so, by all accounts, to promote healing of factionalism in the parish.

Two decisions of the Pittsburgh diocese in this case are particularly fascinating. In the first, officials transferred the controversial Hausen to the esteemed Shadyside parish. That's a pretty mild rebuke. It seems they think highly of his ministry but intend the embarrassment of his transfer as a caution against future outspokenness.

The second fascinating decision is the appointment last Wednesday of the Rev. Al Semler to the hurting St. James parish. Semler has close ties both to Rhoden and Hausen and to the late Rev. Raymond Froehlich, the beloved Sewickley priest who died in 1997. In appointing Semler to St. James, the diocese displays a thoughtful concern for the well-being of its faithful.

As an outsider, I wish church leaders had been this thoughtful two months ago. Hausen's language is a non-issue. His ideas are only dangerous if the church is feeling weak or under siege. But responding to them with such a harsh, disruptive action may only serve in the long run to further undermine the church hierarchy's authority.

And to give Catholics another thing to be, well, really mad about.

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