Sunday, June 10, 2012

Abby's busy; ask a bishop about sex

Launching the wire service.

© A.E.P. Wall

           Ask a Catholic bishop to describe the Trinity and you’re likely to be told that it is a mystery.

            But ask about sex and you may be told all about it, beginning with the notion that it is generally restricted to procreation, that remarriage after divorce is a scandal, that homosexual acts are sinful, that God favors celibates even though they refuse one of his most engaging gifts.
            Well, not all of them refuse.

            Priests and religious who break their vows get little help from the church, which is stuck in the whispered sexual science of a couple of millennia ago.

            More than half a century ago I was working on the copy desk at the Worcester Telegram when the phone rang. John J. Wright, the Catholic Bishop of Worcester and future Cardinal Prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Clergy, was calling from his Jaguar while he was being driven home from nearby Boston. He had heard a radio news report announcing The Pill. He asked me to read details of the news account to him, telling me that this might be the most explosive news of the time.

            He was right about many things, and he was right about the consequences of marketing the contraception pill. His Jaguar, by the way, was a gift.

            Availability of The Pill sent shock waves through the church, which was able to adapt to such things as radio, electric lights, penicillin and the printing press, but it could be stubborn about science.

            After Wright was promoted to the larger Diocese of Pittsburgh in the mid-1960s I met his brand-new assistant, fresh from the seminary. Donald Wuerl was a brilliant priest who accompanied Wright to Rome as his secretary, eventually became Bishop of Pittsburgh and now is the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington. He’s a likeable and persuasive conservative with the theological instincts of a pope.

            After he came to dinner at my home years ago, my daughter said she had never met a priest who was more enthusiastic about priesthood.

            He is securely attached to the ancient church, and an admired communicator with the skills of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin but a more traditional commitment. Both men understood the politics of advancement in the hierarchy, while accommodating their leadership to differing world views.

             Bernardin was general secretary of the conference of bishops in Washington, D.C., when he hired me as director and the first editor in chief of the National Catholic News Service, which was operating at a loss and losing clients. It provided daily news packets via the U.S Mail. My job was to balance the budget, regain lost clients and convert the operation from mail to wire. When that job was finished the conference of bishops gave me a special award as “founder of the NC wire service.”

            After Bernardin was appointed Archbishop of Cincinnati his Washington job went to his assistant, a priest. Along with others on his staff I went to his home diocese for his ordination as a bishop. He confirmed two of my children in Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption, once the home of Cardinal James Gibbons and the legendary Baltimore Catechism.  He was a frequent dinner guest in my suburban Washington home. It was numbing to discover that his interest in my sons was not limited to ecclesial responsibilities. He never touched, but his stares were on amber, hoping for a green light.

            The confrontation happened to come just as John Cody, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, offered me a job as editor of The New World, now called the Catholic New World. I couldn’t stay in Washington with that bishop as my boss, and when I shared my concern with the president of the conference I was encouraged to leave it in his hands. This was 1976, when I still believed that God spoke through senior prelates and that the answer to all their opinions was Yes, Sir. I believed that the Catholic church was always right, even when it was wrong.

            Not all Catholics see the same thing when they look at their church. Many of the millions who have departed for other religions or for no religion see the church as a big organization with a good purpose, like Rotary International. Many others see it as the foundation of all legitimacy, not just huge and not just more permanent that any government anywhere, but the final arbiter.

            Many Catholics become so distressed by the lack of democracy and the treatment of women that they just quit. Others see their Catholicism as God-given and non-refundable, their membership in the body of Christ as more basic than national citizenship or racial inheritance. They understand bishops to be fathers and pastors to all of their priests, those whose sins are trifling and those whose sins bring horror and shame. Redemption may not be the business of a Rotary club, but it is the business of the Catholic church. A priest who goes astray is for many Catholics just like a lawbreaker sibling, loved if not admired.

             Such was the atmosphere I knew because of my work, which gave me many clerical friends. It was the atmosphere I knew when I was a trustee of St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, chairman of the board of regents of Chaminade College (now University) in Honolulu, president of the International Federation of Catholic Press Agencies and editor of various Catholic periodicals. A close personal relationship with Bernardin led to my writing the first book about him, The Spirit of Cardinal Bernardin. Curiously, when Cardinal Cody was my boss in Chicago he drew me away from some of my responsibilities as archdiocesan editor in order to be his ghost writer for a planned autobiography.

            I was not happy about that. Cody was resisting a federal grand jury investigation at the time. He believed that church confidentiality was absolute, never subject to government probes. And he believed that as corporation sole he owned and operated the archdiocese. He once pointed to a Catholic cemetery as we drove by, saying, “I own all this.” When he offered to sign my son’s application to attend Quigley Seminary North he reassured me that he owned the school. The rector, admirably, did not see it that way and David was admitted via the usual application process, eventually graduating Number One in his class.

            Cody wanted me to live within walking distance of his residence, but not in his neighborhood of mansions—including, to his dismay, the Playboy Mansion. The No Trespassing sign in Cody’s front yard was to discourage lost tourists from ringing his doorbell, mistaking one mansion for another. When I found an ideal condo across from the Lincoln Park Zoo, a mile or less from the cardinal’s residence but in a lesser economic zone, Cody whipped out his checkbook. He wrote a check to cover the down payment and sent me to a senior bank official to arrange a mortgage.

            During hundreds of hours of interviews, Cody told me about his beliefs and commitments, even about his amazing idea to blackmail the pope. The holy father was being pressured to replace Cody as Chicago’s archbishop, but he didn’t do it. Cody also fought off a Vatican proposal to install a coadjutor archbishop.

           About the time I took on the Washington job, symptoms of the unpronounceable ailment appeared. Neither my doctor nor I recognized olivopontocerebellar atrophy/multiple systems atrophy, a rare disease in search of a cure. The next best thing to a cure is the kind of care I’ve been given by my family, friends, medical and church folks, along with providers of a power chair and a four-wheel scooter that eats up the sidewalks at 4 or 5 miles per hour.

             Virtually all of the gay priests I knew showed no unusual interest in my boys. There were some, including a prominent educator and a priest in my long-ago parish who invited my youngest to go camping with him. I still feel, as I did then, that the church should do more to screen candidates for priesthood and, when there are failures, it should provide professional care, just as it does for other kinds of addicts. Nobody wants to be an alcoholic or a pedophile. Nobody should assume that a gay priest is either one.

            A kind of global warming within Catholic Christianity is getting headlines, but not much corrective attention. The church spends hundreds of millions on lawyers and settlements with victims, men, women and children. It spends little on the study of human sexuality and it blinds itself to science. This is not new.

            In 1977 a study commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America was introduced with, among others, these words: “The church’s tradition is marked by an historical development extending some three thousand years… Inadequate knowledge of biology, as well as religious taboos, the tradition of subhuman treatment of women, and a dualistic philosophy of human nature have all left a distinct imprint upon Catholic thinking.”

            Back in 1968 I served on the Abortion Committee (that’s what he called it) appointed by Cardinal Lawrence Shehan. It included prominent members of scientific and theological communities. Its job was to help Shehan develop a position paper for his service on a commission appointed by Pope Paul VI. It was to address, head on, the vital question of contraception, or what the church called artificial birth control.

             In Rome Shehan voted with the majority. Paul VI rejected the Majority Report when he issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which was loudly rejected by countless priests and quietly rejected by the laity in general. The consequences of Paul’s rejection are widespread today, including an attitude that if one papal ruling could be so conspicuously incorrect, maybe church authority in general isn’t all that reliable.

            The church has frittered away its position of spiritual and strategic power in Europe and may be doing the same in North America. When this happens, bishops aren’t the only losers.

            Catholics for centuries have engaged in persecutions and suffered from them, have shaped education for the better and not-better, have sustained nations in worship and have lost nations, and many believe today’s turmoil is only a ripple in the Catholic centuries.

            The church did not get its start with a cross of serenity. It has been looking for a few good men longer than the Marine Corps has. Unlike the Marine Corps, it still isn’t looking for a few good women.


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