Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Anne Burke's Advice for Catholic Laity as New Year Begins: Keep Faith in Truth

Given our short attention span and truncated memories, I'm not sure many of us in the U.S. recall some of the most significant revelations of the past decade, when it comes to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church.  Do many of us remember, I wonder, the shock of learning, as the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas in 2002 when the abuse cases in Boston were breaking wide open, that two-thirds of sitting bishops had knowingly shielded a credibly accused priest who had molested minors?

And then, as the legal discovery process in the Boston cases showed that, even if that archdiocese was the epicenter of the abuse crisis, the crisis implicated bishops and dioceses across the nation, do we recall the bishops' attempt to deal with the crisis by creating a national review board with Oklahoma's Republican governor, Frank Keating, as its chair?  Keating's journey of discovery as head of the review board is fascinating, as a journey towards dark truths he did not expect to find when the bishops appointed him head of this board.

As Keating told members of SNAP at their 2009 annual meeting, he began his service on this board sympathetic to the bishops, persuaded that allegations of an episcopal cover-up were misplaced and due to anti-Catholic media bias.  But he ended his term of service being asked by the same bishops who had chosen him to head the review board to step down, after his interaction with many U.S. Catholic bishops had convinced him that many bishops had engaged in criminal behavior, and that some were capable of acting like members of the Mafia, rather than as pastoral leaders.

And then along came Anne Burke, who, as Thomas F. Roeser has noted, was chosen to succeed Keating in a move the U.S. bishops considered politically adroit, since she was from an old Chicago Democratic establishment Catholic family, and would in all likelihood give the bishops a free pass as head of their review board.  But that's not what happened.  Burke's dealings with the bishops led her to the same dismal conclusion that Keating had reached: after several months of service, Burke had concluded that the bishops had intended all along to manipulate the review board, withholding key pieces of evidence from it while using it as a public relations mouthpiece to make their behavior in the abuse crisis appear noble.

As a judge of many years, Burke knew courtroom shenanigans all too well.  She knew when she was being played by advocates intent on shielding evidence and manipulating testimony, rather than getting at the truth of a matter. After working with the bishops for months, Anne Burke came to the considered judgment that "Those who said bishops were never serious about breaking free from the ... bad judgments of the past will be vindicated" when the full story of the bishops' attempt to cover evidence and manipulate their review board was known.

I rehearse these facts both because I suspect they're in danger of being forgotten today, and because they illustrate for me something important for all of us to keep in mind in wake of the horrific Arizona shootings last week, with the politically charged shouting across partisan divides that has resulted  from that shooting: this is that, in the story of the U.S. Catholic bishops' review board, both a Republican and a Democratic chair of that board, both prominent Catholics closely allied to the bishops and with strong initial sympathy in favor of the bishops, eventually came to the same conclusion about many U.S. Catholic bishops, vis-a-vis their pastoral leadership: namely, that the bishops as a body have been far more interested in protecting their reputations and the assets of the church than in exercising faithful pastoral leadership, when it comes to Catholics who have experienced abuse at the hands of priests during those Catholics' childhood.

Frank Keating and Anne Burke are truth-tellers who have not permitted their ideological presuppositions to act as blinders.  And so they are role models for what all people of faith ought to be, as we approach issues like the abuse situation in the Catholic church, and other contemporary issues that call on us to work to get at the truth, to commit ourselves, and to engage in action based on what we have found to be true and right.

I'm saying all this as a preface to commentary about Anne Burke's latest powerful statement on the role of lay Catholics in the church today.  Last Friday, Burke published a statement entitled "Keep Faith in the Truth" at the blog site of U.S. Catholic.  This statement is a must-read essay for anyone who wants to find a path forward for the Catholic church today, as dismal evidence of a mass exodus from the Catholic church in wake of the abuse crisis continues to mount up (87,400 Austrian Catholics officially resigned from the church in 2010; though statistics aren't available, the movement of Belgian Catholics to "de-baptize" themselves following nasty revelations about the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church in their country last year is very strong now).

And what does Anne Burke have to say in the middle of this crisis, which is shaking the faith of lay Catholics to its foundations across the world today?  She notes that the church itself has taught us a virtue we're now shocked to find lacking in many of the same pastoral leaders who have taught us this virtue: this is the virtue of speaking and living the truth.

As Burke notes, from the time she was being prepared for first communion, she was taught that living truthfully is more than a matter of avoiding lies.  It's a matter of caring about how our words affect others, of being honest about what we intend and not manipulating language to disguise fundamental dishonesty underlying misleading words.  "Heady material" for a seven-year old to learn, Burke notes, but material that set the course of her own life, and which predisposed her to approach her work as head of the national review board with an intent to find and tell the truth, and not to serve as a p-r mouthpiece for bishops intent on hiding the truth.

Burke also notes that she has been revisiting her early catechetical formation recently, as she reads about the Vatican's recent behavior in the Wikileaks leaks.  These leaks suggest, Burke concludes, that the Vatican is more concerned with protecting its own "sovereignty" as a nation-state than with dealing with the abuse situation honestly and effectively.  

Burke notes,

The same people who said that the ordination of women as priests was equal to the crime of the sexual abuse of children believed that any intrusion by any legitimate government into the affairs of the Vatican, an "independent nation" of .17 square miles only since the 1929 Lateran Treaty signed with Benito Mussolini, was a moral outrage. Protection of the Holy See, not the safeguarding of innocent children, was the priority of the "government" of Benedict XVI. Is there any limit to the sanctimonious and self-righteous self-protection of the world's only man-state?

And knowing that this is the case--that this is the quality of leadership that lay Catholics have today, from the very center of their church--what does Burke advise as a response?  Keep faith in the truth, she advises.  Keep telling the truth, in season and out of season.

Remember, first of all, that "[i]t is heresy to pretend that the man-state and the church are one and the same."  The pope is not the church itself.  No matter how belligerently bishops now seek to assert their waning power and control, bishops are not the church.  The church transcends its leaders, and includes all the baptized faithful--even women, whom the church hierarchy continues to target in events like Bishop Thomas Olmsted's excommunication of Mercy Sister Margaret McBride last year, as a preliminary to removing the Catholic label from the hospital where she concurred in a decision to save a mother's life by a medial procedure that terminated a dangerous pregnancy the mother was likely not going to be able to carry to term. 

Even women, whom the pastoral officials of the Catholic church continue to target in an investigation of the faithfulness of American Catholic religious women--while there has been no such investigation of the fidelity of the U.S. bishops, even after we learned that two-thirds of them had shielded clerical abusers of minors.  Continue seeking and telling the truth, Burke concludes, because,

Instead of ejecting women from the sanctuary, silencing discussion among the baptized, or blurring the lines between the earthly Vatican City-State and the Body of Christ, let's tell the truth. Let's focus on not fibbing for the sake of the Kingdom of God and not lying for the sake of the One who died and now is Risen. Let's leave the clerical theocracy behind and trade it for the Kingdom of God; let the grace of our sacramental life carry us further than we can see. A good dose of dignity and truth would do us all good.  

In my view, if the Catholic church in the U.S. has any future at all, its future lies in voices like Anne Burke's.  I do not have much hope that the bishops will be listening to what she says here.  I do hope some lay Catholics will listen.  And will act.  There is no viable future for American Catholicism otherwise.

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