Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Catholics in the News: Don't Look Now, But It's about the Money

Significant news stories are breaking in the Catholic world so fast these days, it’s hard to keep up with them. I want to follow the posting I made earlier today about the recent Vatican attempt to blame gay priests (again) for the clerical sexual abuse crisis with one that provides links to a number of other recent stories I’m recommending to readers.

The first significant piece is Jason Berry’s commentary on the “Maciel problem” in the Hartford Courant earlier this week (and see here). My colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker reported on this story yesterday at her Enlightened Catholicism blog.

As I’ve noted in previous commentary, Marcial Maciel, a Spanish priest who founded the influential Catholic religious order the Legionaries of Christ, was removed as head of his order when Benedict became pope, after the Vatican decided that years of allegations of sexual abuse of seminarians by Maciel were credible. It was subsequently discovered that Maciel had also fathered several children by women he supported with his community’s funds. (Follow the labels “Marcial Maciel” and “Legionaries of Christ” at the preceding link, if you want more of my commentary on this story.)

Despite the allegations of abuse, Maciel and his Legionaries appeared untouchable during John Paul II’s papacy, because John Paul protected and promoted this cultic right-wing religious group. The Legionaries are also very well-connected financially and politically. In the United States, they have strong ties to wealthy conservative Catholics, whom the secretive order deliberately cultivates for its lay group Regnum Christi.

Berry argues that the Legionaries remain a serious challenge for Benedict’s papacy because he began his papacy decrying moral relativism in the church. In Berry’s view, Benedict’s papacy moves between two poles, one an absolutist pole that consistently challenges moral relativism, the other a pastoral pole that grants concessions when these appear appropriate—as when Benedict welcomed the schismatic Society of St. Pius X back into the church.

Berry argues that Benedict will seriously undermine his authority as pope and his claim to combat moral relativism if he does not assure that the Legionaries are thoroughly investigated now. In particular, he urges that the finances of the Legionaries be thoroughly probed.

Berry’s recent report on the Maciel problem contains information about Maciel’s use of money to woo Vatican insiders that is new to me. He states:

Maciel impressed his priests and seminarians with lavish gifts to favored Vatican officials. Several insiders I've interviewed express regret about checks as high as $10,000 to certain cardinals, Christmas gifts of expensive wines and $1,000 Spanish hams, even a car to one cardinal. They wonder if all that was bribery.

This information goes a long way towards explaining why Maciel received such a sympathetic reception for so long in the Vatican, despite the persistent (and credible) reports of his abuse of seminarians. I strongly agree with Berry’s call for a thorough investigation of how the Legionaries of Christ and groups affiliated with them, including Regnum Christi, have handled financial matters.

One of the most important keys to the clerical sexual abuse crisis, in my view, is the reprehensible way in which Catholic church officials have used money to cover up the abuse story, to pay off and bully survivors with hardball legal tactics, and to secure the cooperation of the media and the criminal justice system whenever possible in the cover-up. The same reprehensible pattern is also emerging now as dioceses like the diocese of Portland, Maine, collect money and use substantial donations from never-identified donors to attack the gay community.

At the heart of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church—at the heart of the corruption that runs clearly right to the top of the Catholic church—is a story about financial wheeling and dealing that has nothing at all to do with the gospel. Until lay Catholics and other groups apply serious pressure to the church to account for the funds it receives and how these are used, not much is going to change for the better in the Catholic church.

The second story to which I want to draw attention has to do with ongoing discussion of Archbishop Burke's recent visit to the U.S. As I noted last week, Burke used this visit to fire political salvos at the Obama administration and Democrats in general. Among Burke’s recent remarks, his implicit attack on his brother bishop Sean O’Malley of Boston has drawn particular attention. Burke maintains that Catholics who openly support same-sex marriage and/or the right to abortion should not receive Christian burial. This implies that Cardinal O’Malley made a pastorally indefensible decision when he chose to grant Senator Ted Kennedy a Catholic funeral.

Blog threads with postings by Fr. James Martin at America and Cathleen Kaveny at Commonweal have followed up on this discussion. Both have generated extensive discussion. I recommend both discussions for those seeking a feel for where the Catholic center is right now on issues like these. (Hint: it still enfolds more folks from the right than the left, though people like Burke are nudging the discussion a tiny bit to the left. Neocons welcome; progressives, not so much.)

I’m struck, in particular, by a comment of one respondent, Jack M., on the America thread, which closely parallels my own argument that Burke and other right-wing American Catholics are undermining the pro-life cause by linking it to attacks on their gay brothers and sisters. Jack M. writes,

I am disappointed in moral equivalency implied in Burke's statement “the inviolability of innocent human life or the integrity of the marital union.” How is a politician who supports civil rights (emphasis on civil) for gay people, i.e. gay marriage, committing a grave violation of moral law? Even if it is “grave” it is certainly not nearly as grave as the taking of innocent life, right? Where is the confusion that a Catholic politician might foster if he or she supports civil, legal protections for same-sex couples? Seems to me pretty clear - civil union/civil marriage is something very different from sacramental marriage. The staunch pro-lifers in the Church are offended when people try to equate other social evils like war and poverty with abortion. Isn't Burke doing the same thing when he lumps gay rights with abortion?

Another commentator who has jumped into the fray re: Burke’s implicit attack on Cardinal O’Malley is Fr. Richard McBrien, who published a piece at National Catholic Reporter two days ago arguing that Burke’s attack on a stalwart anti-abortion figure like O’Malley is proving to be a felix culpa, a “happy fault.” In McBrien’s view, the venom demonstrated by Burke and his supporters in going after O’Malley is creating a teachable moment in American Catholicism, in which we are seeing—just as we saw when Notre Dame invited President Obama to give its commencement address this spring—how extreme the Catholic right has become. And how little interested in authentic Catholic values, as opposed to scoring political points.

Finally, I want to make a note of a resolution the House of Representatives passed this week in support of Catholic women religious. Jim Martin reproduces this document on the America blog.

As I’ve noted in previous postings (here and here), American nuns are currently under attack by the Vatican, which has mounted an investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious, the umbrella group to which the vast majority of American religious women belong. Some commentators are suggesting that this attack is ultimately politically motivated, and is being engineered by influential right-wing Catholics in the U.S. who want to curb the political influence of women religious, insofar as it departs from the right-wing script.

Rome recently created quite a furor by asking the U.S. bishops to foot the bill for this investigation. As Tom Fox notes, commentary about most issues at the National Catholic Reporter website is often lively and even contentious, but about this matter, there appears to be widespread agreement among American Catholics that it is outrageous for Rome to ask us to foot the bill for an investigation about which we were not consulted in advance.

The House resolution in support of American religious women is a welcome statement about how much these faithful women are appreciated by many American Catholics, at a time when the leaders of the church are giving them definite signals of unwelcome.

Once again, my colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker is all over this story. Her take:

It's becoming more and more apparent that this LCWR investigation is all about who has influence and power in the Vatican and just how secure those interests feel that they can be this blatant about exercising that power. Pretty freakin' blatant.

On the other hand, the silent majority really is finding their voice. It's probably only fitting that the issue which is motivating that voice centers on the very sisters who were so instrumental in raising that majority in the Catholic faith. Pope Benedict may very well be the Pope on whose watch the Church once again fractures because of the corruption with in the hierarchy. No amount of papal perfume concerning positive evangelization can mask the stench coming from the Vatican curia. So be it.

A quotation that my colleague Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic featured yesterday as his quotation of the day . . . .