Who Are the True Agents of Apostasy? (The Catholic Right, Twenty-first in a Series)
Frank Cocozzelli printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 01:44:54 PM EST
The PBS Frontline documentary, Hand of God., is the story of pedophilia victim Paul Cultrera. It is a disturbing illustration of an arrogant Catholic Church hierarchy that does not always practice what it preaches -- as well as a clear-cut case example of why no religious denomination should be allowed to exempt itself from equal justice under the law by pronouncing itself as its ultimate arbiter.
As I watched the horror of the film unfold, I was reminded of when I first learned of the scandal. More so, I recalled how many of the Catholic Right provide cover for a dysfunctional, but reactionary portion of the hierarchy. Instead of cauterizing the pain by taking responsibility, they tried to shift the blame upon both the violated children for whose protection they were entrusted as well as those seeking accountability within the Church.

Filmmaker Joe Cultrera's dark, but moving portrait of his older brother Paul's ordeal stirred many of my personal adverse feelings for certain church hierarchy. I recognized the lack of explanation, the arrogance, the second-class treatment Italian-American Catholics are often subjected to; as well as the detached coldness of some of my church's leadership.  But there was one experience Paul had that I could not relate to: being molested by a priest.

The ordeal of the victims has only been exasperated by pastors, bishops and cardinals who still shirk responsibility often while trying to shift the blame to a secular society for what they often incorrectly misinterpret as hyper-individualism. The obvious question is raised: by evading full accountability, isn't is now certain clergy, the not society at large that is pursuing a reckless a course of self-interested behavior?

It is impossible to miss the film's justified anger and bitterness. This is not the story of an individual who just walked away from his religion out of convenience -- but of a once-faithful man who in 1964 was abused by priest whose behavior was known to the local hierarchy and was not stopped and properly disciplined. Shockingly, Paul's abuser, priest Joseph Birmingham who was first alleged to be a child abuser in the early 1960s, was instead assigned to duties that put him within greater access to potential victims, eventually rising to the level of pastor. Instead of punishing the abuser, certain clergy of the hierarchy chose to ignore the victim, and reward the predator with greater opportunities to further his serial crimes.

An overall theme emerges in many of these pedophilia cases: a Catholic hierarchy that continually seems more interested in protecting the church as an institution rather than her flesh and blood members. Power always seems to come before the personal well-being of her congregants. Accountability is avoided. In its place, members of the Church hierarchy brazenly seek to be exempted from the rules -- make that the laws -- that apply to everyone else.  No wonder why many on the Catholic Right rail at the notion of keeping church and state separate.

And the Catholic Right uses this scandal by attempting to use it to further an ultra-orthodox agenda as well as making homosexuals in general the scapegoats. In Rove-like fashion they are trying to turn a disastrous weak point into a strength. Many of the hard Right leadership deride ordinary Catholics who simply want the violators and their enablers held accountable as "a culture of dissent," as if their primary goal were the Vatican's demise. We hear of bishops and cardinals who falsely describe this shameful chapter as being the result of the aggiornomento of Vatican II or worse, as the logical outcome of living in societies built upon American liberal democracy.

This outrageous claim just doesn't square with the facts. Joseph Birmingham and one of his primary enablers, Bishop John McCormack both graduated from St. John's Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts in 1960-two years before Vatican II effected the changes so disdained by ultra-traditionalists. Several generations back, there was a disturbingly similar incident within the Catholic community in Australia that was well-documented by the CBS news magazine Sixty Minutes. Pedophilia among clergy has been known to exist in a variety of societies.

Organizations such as the Catholic League try to use red herrings by stating that there is an increase in pedophilia incidents in public schools or miscasting the severity of the scandal by claiming the victims were mostly teenagers instead of pre-pubescent children--as if that were to lessen the already inflicted damage. As historian Garry Wills observed, "Priestly pedophilia is also set apart from other varieties by the fact that the seduction technique employs religion."

Paul Cultrera wonders how folks such as his parents could remain faithful to the Catholic Church. The answer is simple. They know that the Church is not about Bishop Lennon, Father Birmingham or Bernard Cardinal Law-members of a hierarchy who flagrantly seek exemption from the rules of our pluralistic society. Instead the true Catholic Church is Joe and Paul Cultrera's parents, folks who in the best tradition of American liberal democracy play by the rules and merely ask that everyone else do the same, even princes of the Church. Someday, good people such as they will better be able to contribute to the direction of that great institution. But this will only come about when individual Catholics realize that without dissent, accountability is an impossibility-even at the risk of excommunication.

In Part Five of this series we examined how the issue of clergy pedophilia is a clear illustration of how theocracy can easily translate into physical and psychological danger to our most vulnerable loved ones. And in Part Twenty we examined the Aristotelian belief in inequality that still permeates the traditionalist Catholic mindset, paternalistic in its belief that only holy philosopher-kings, not the common men truly understand what constitutes the common good. The logical implication of a theocratic society built upon this autocratic thought would be an increase in such immoral behavior simply because there would be no secular society to ensure accountability.

IRD stalwarts of the Catholic Right, such as Robert H. Bork, rail against Liberalism's faith in equality. Yet it is this very adherence to equality that prevents self-exemption from the law by those evoking the unenlightened grounds of heredity or non-meritoriously arrived at privilege. It almost seems bizarre that those whose actions are the most repugnant and close-minded have the audacity to attack loyal, reasoned dissent as attacks upon the Catholic Church.  It is astounding that they would attack those who--as Christianity's Founder questioned His  religious hierarchy's powers-that-be did--call for internal accountability. Why is it that they are so threatened by a secular society that merely requires equal justice under the law?  If threats of eternal damnation and excommunication could be used to avoid justice when sectarian beliefs are not carbon copies of secular laws, what greater evils could be advanced if that were to change?

But in closing we must return to the aggrieved, victims such as Paul Cultrera. It is for him and others who have been first violated then alienated as if they, not the pedophile clergy were the perpetrators who must be made whole. Justice, both sectarian as well as secular has a duty to them before it considers the Catholic Church an institution: that much is owed to them for a continuum of psychological pain, broken marriages and the moral confusion that comes from the misplaced threat of damnation to buy silence. It is only through such a placement of priorities that the Church could redeem its reputation. And if the church hierarchy fails to do so in this age of falling church attendance, perhaps they should look into the mirror if they seek the true agents of apostasy.

The Catholic Right: A Series, by Frank Cocozzelli :  Part One  Part Two  Part Three   Part Four  Part Five  Part Six   Intermezzo   Part Eight   Part Nine  Part Ten   Part Eleven   Part Twelve   Part Thirteen   Part Fourteen   Second Intermezzo   Part Sixteen   Part Seventeen   Part Eighteen   Part Eighteen   Part Nineteen   Part Twenty

I think you describe very well why those of us who are Catholic stay that way. I try to have an informed conscience and to remember that the hierarchy isn't the church, but that the church is the people of God. It often seems that many of our fellow Catholics appear to be rather passive or are disinclined to rock the boat. I tend to tune out the hierarchy and to concentrate on the liturgy and Jesus' teachings.

One thought I had about the scandals-I wonder how many lay Catholics have left the Church over this. I think there has been a quiet attrition over the years.


by khughes1963 on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 07:44:24 PM EST

It's a lot of work, but knowing that you and others are listening while providing feedback makes it all worthwhile.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 08:00:00 PM EST

Once again, I love this series.  It's so gratifying to know that others notice the things that troubled me so much during my years as a Catholic.

But what can we, as laypeople, possibly do about any of it?  The Catholic Church is all about power, all of which is in the hands of the clergy.  A layman's only access is to buy the favor of high-ranking clerics.

 The brave members of Call to Action and similar organizations have been struggling for years.  But all they seem to accomplish is to occasionally get themselves excommunicated.

I apolgize for this whining rant.  But I love the Church, (even if I'm not a part of it) and it hurts me that I can't bring myself to raise my children as Catholics.  

Is there anything to be done, other than pray for a liberal Thomas Monaghan to buy some change? 

by mkerby on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 02:42:00 PM EST
Isn't that what Frederick Douglas said when asked something quite similar?

Here is what I do:

A) Go back to your church, raise your kids Catholic and be active in your parish. Remember: their whole gameplan hinges  upon them driving us out of the church. Don''t let them do that. Your continued presence alone frustrates that tactic.

B) Do some homework. Read whatever you can about aggiornomento, Vatican II Catholicism. Fr. Charles Curran's Loyal Dissent is an excellent place to start as is Thomas Cahill's biography of Pope John XXIII. Read Sister Joan Chittister's NCR columns. This will give you the vocabulary to make your arguments within a Catholic framework--something way more effective than screading or ranting whatever comes to mind. Then with this knowledge become more active in your parish.

C) Remember: practice self-discipline. If an Opus Dei priest or someone from Priests for Life comes to your parish and gives an extreme homily, at the end--in a very dignified manner--say, "I loyally dissent." See if he engages you. Remember: Jesus also dissented, as did Thomas Aquinas, Rev. John A Ryan and Hans Kung.

D) Learn everything you can about IRD/EPPC Neocon Catholics such as George Weigel, Michael Novak and John Neuhaus. Explain to fellow Catholics how these smorgasbord Catholics pick and choose what they believe on a much grander scale than any liberal Catholic.

E) Give strong, vocal support to grous such as SNAP and Voice of the Faithful. Defend them from the lies of the Catholic Right. It is the former, not the latter that will restore the good name of the Church.

F) When a gasbag such as William Donohue or John McCloskey goes on a cable news show or one of the morning news programs,  call or send an E-mail to the show's network telling them that you are a Catholic and that this man does not speak for you. It wouldn't hurt to ask that a more enlightened Catholic voice (Fr. Curran, Diane DiNocala from the Opus Dei Action Awareness Network, Sister Joan Chittister) be given the chance to provide a counter argument.

How's that for a start?  

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 03:33:01 PM EST

Thank you! This gives me some hope.  I'm still not sure that laypeople can accomplish anything in this church, because so much has been done specifically to prevent it.  But at least my children can say I tried...

by mkerby on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 04:17:04 PM EST
Only after years and years of agitation did the floodgates open up with Vatican II. Our system of government developed only after a revolution and years of Enlightenment principles were digested by great minds. Change often requires patience and time.

Whether it be the Catholic Church or safeguarding American Liberal Democracy two things are required--constant effort and knowing your opposition inside and out.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 04:45:26 PM EST

It also takes time for us all to learn; and to learn to get better at what we do; and to gradually become greater than the sum of our parts.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 04:54:31 PM EST

Much of what I have learned about the more modern NeoCon history is that they are posing as religious, and encouraging others that they are more religious than anyone, but are at heart Nihilists and believe that they need only to preserve the image of that religiosity, and not the actuality.

It is that very duplicity that so often finds trouble, sometimes spectacularly like Mark Foley, or Ted Haggard, but more often in the likes of Bishops Law or McCormack as they share sly winks, that it is only the image and not the reality that needs attention at all. The "Philosopher Kings" are not supposed to be bound by rules for ordinary people. They do not show concern because they are not concerned with actual people, only the Image of concern.

My point here is that for many of these, there is no Christianity, just as a silk flower can look good at first glance but fail on close inspection, they can cover some but they cannot "be" real. By focusing on this and calling them out as fakes, you destroy the only part they care about that is their Image, because that is the only vessel that holds their power.

If those who can be seen to follow Strauss are noted and spoken of in their congregations for what they are, and refuse to give them honor, the result can be very infectious.

Of course they would not take kindly to this, and as well they would do as they have always done, that is only what restores image, and only enough to do so, and then attack their critics. But this can only be done from authority, and that can only come from at least the acquiescence of those who they would be authorities over. A slave can be created with gun and whip, but without those tools there is only moral authority, and an outed Nihilist cannot have that, certainly not in a church.

Such non-violent resistance has a long and honored history. I am not scholar enough to list saints who were martyred by standing up for their faith, but it is my guess that more than a few were excommunicated as a part of their trials, and those who did so found it a problem for their image.

On a separate but similar point, the work of Robert Altemeyer can have a similar effect in identifying and outing Right Wing Authoritarian pathology, and removing moral authority from it as one removes such authority from a drunk, if you spot it, out it, and refuse to enable it, you can at least diminish the effect.

by FreeDem on Mon Jan 29, 2007 at 03:38:35 AM EST

"If those who can be seen to follow Strauss are noted and spoken of in their congregations for what they are, and refuse to give them honor, the result can be very infectious."

Sage advice. This is exactly what we must do.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Fri Feb 02, 2007 at 06:02:27 PM EST

This one film encapsulates many of the on-going struggles that exist both within Catholicism as well as within the greater secular society. Joe Cultrera's film clearly illustrates why the Church's hierarchy requires more input from the congrgants and why we as Americans can never let any denomination become the sole arbiter of morality.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 01:51:32 PM EST

I've asked it of Catholic friends and never gotten a satisfactory answer. I've been reading your posts and haven't found an answer there either - in fact have become more puzzled. Why do Catholics put up with this stuff?

There are a lot of Protestant denominations, major divisions within Judaism, the same for Islam. This makes some sense since, even within a religion, people have different beliefs, goals, and theology. At times, members have left a particular denomination or group because they don't agree with the hierarchy or beliefs espoused by current leaders. This occurred, certainly, within the SBC, after reactionary leaders staged a coup. People who leave may start their own groups or join other existing denominations.

There is also the issue of international control - a big problem for the ECUSA right now. Is it reasonable to assume that people living in very different social, political, and economic circumstances will see their religion in the same way?

Do Catholics really need a pope? Why is one human being invested with so much power? Would it be a better investment of time and energy to form a new church, say, Catholic Church USA, rather than constantly doing battle with a recalcitrant, reactionary behemoth that has shown little desire to adjust to the modern world? Are there enough Catholics who would support ordination of married priests and women, liberalizing of views of women and reproductive choice, etc. Have Catholics been so thoroughly conditioned to obedience that they can't even consider these options.

I'm not a Catholic (as you may have guessed). In fact, I was raised in a liberal Protestant denomination that gives a lot of autonomy to local churches so it is very difficult for me to understand why bright, liberal, thoughtful people continue to support a church that is so authoritarian in nature and so disrespectful of the wishes and needs of many of it's followers. Of course, some of them haven't - the numerous "lapsed" Catholics. Perhaps you can help me to understand this dynamic better.

by Psyche on Sun Jan 21, 2007 at 06:26:25 PM EST

First and foremost, I belive that Catholicism's track record is not all that bad. For example, on issues of science we accept evolution. In Catholic School I was taught to read much of the Bible as metaphor and not literally.

True Catholic notions of economic justice--Monsignor John A. Ryan's formulation of the minimum wage, the living wage and distributive justice capitalism for example, are very much progressive concepts--folks like Santorum, Weigel and Deal Hudson are the ones that get it wrong. My church is that of Sr. Joan Chittister, Fr. Curran, Yves Conger and Hans Kung. And if Catholics work hard enough the latter, not the former will be Her future face.

I also know that the Church will not go away and in fact when She is on course--as She was during the reign of John XXIII--She can do wonderful things. During the Cuban Missile Crisis John XXIII was key in being a backdoor conduit between JFK and Kruschev. While I do not believe in Papal infallibity (only decreed approximately 135 years ago), pontiffs can be strong voice for morality. The task is get Her back on course where She is lost.

Catholic Charities does an awfully lot of good work.

As an Italian-American Catholic the Church is culturally important for me and my family. My mother-in-law is a 78 year-old woman who goes to Mass every day and still supports birth control, embryonic stem cell research and choice. Perhaps more importantly because of my Southern Italian heritage I can separate the hierachy from the message. We Italians and Italian-Americans have learned how to find the good folks and deal with the bad ones.

I'm not a quitter and I love my Church. Besides, aren't the most difficult endeavors the ones that are really worth doing?

by Frank Cocozzelli on Mon Jan 22, 2007 at 10:15:46 AM EST

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