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The separation of church and critics

Sunday, December 22, 2002

On the 11th of this month, at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Divine Providence in the North Hills, he spoke to several hundred people during a program sponsored by the Association of Pittsburgh Priests.

The Motherhouse was, for his appearance, not just any random port on the far perimeters of a continuing storm.

"It's always been the case that when others fail you in the church, the sisters will always come through," Richard McBrien was saying on the phone the other day. "They're very courageous, and they're not going to let anyone push them around."

The sponsors of McBrien's speech had apparently been pushed around a bit. They'd wanted a suitable place at Duquesne University and were rebuffed.

"That's right," McBrien said. "The reply from Duquesne was that they didn't want to be seen as taking a negative stand toward the church. And in spite of several requests, there was no answer from La Roche [College], sort of a pocket veto. When the sisters found out it was going nowhere, they offered the Motherhouse."

This little unreported dustup, in its own way, is highly illustrative of the conflict between different political strata within the Catholic Church. The local priests' association and this particular pocket of nuns obviously wanted to hear McBrien talk about the sexual abuse scandal he calls the greatest crisis facing the Church since the Reformation. Others just as clearly did not want to hear him, and I would suppose there's something to be said for the position that one thing the Church needn't be doing right now is providing forums for its critics.

But Richard McBrien is not exactly your generic crank. He is, rather, the Rev. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame and a prolific author on church subjects dating to the '60s. His works include "Religion and Politics in America" (1987), "Lives of the Popes" (1997) and "The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism" (1995), for which he was general editor.

His message today isn't terribly optimistic. I asked him specifically if he thought 2003 would be a better year for the Church.

"Probably not," he said without much hesitation. "I say that because the resignation of Cardinal [Bernard] Law is by no means the beginning of the end of the controversy. This problem is not confined to Boston, nor is the behavior confined to Cardinal Law. It's a national and even a global problem and, as you know, the majority of bishops handle cases in the same way; they're using the same book. Most of these bishops are programmed to put the reputation of the institutional church ahead of all else. It's not because they don't care or that they are perverse; it's that they are hand-picked to protect the institutional church."

Early last week in Connecticut, a promising signal appeared to have been fired by Bishop William E. Lori, who helped write the newly approved sexual abuse protocols. Bishop Lori got the resignations of three pastors on sex abuse charges that were not a month old, which is the kind of active response too rare in the American church hierarchy, and especially by the Vatican.

"The Vatican is one word that describes a lot of people, including many high-ranking Catholic Church officials who are anti-American, which is why they at first dismissed all this as an American problem," Father McBrien said. "It was, 'Well, what do you expect from a sex-crazed society?' The reaction was also anti-Semitic in that several of these officials believe it was all pumped up and inflated by the media, some saying privately by Jewish-owned media."

Among the documents coming to light in Boston last week and putting the final political dagger in Cardinal Law was a letter supposedly translated from the pope's own words on the matter of an Ohio priest whom the pope recommended be transferred to a place where his "condition" wasn't known. But the pope supposedly said further that the priest need not be moved if a scandal could be avoided. I asked Father McBrien if he believed that.

"Of course I believe it," he said adamantly. "That just confirms what I've been saying, that these men were picked with their prime directive being to avoid scandal."

Their spectacular failure, of course, amounts to little next to the suffering of their victims.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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