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Editorial: Advent offers chance to rediscover tradition, free from ideologues

This article appears in the How Jews Appreciate Catholics: Three Views feature series. View the full series.

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A sculpture showing an expectant Mary with Joseph en route to Bethlehem is seen in a church during the 2012 season of Advent. (CNS/Lisa A. Johnston)

Through the mists of two millennia the large patterns become the scholars' certainties. Jesus as "the centerpiece binding together Israel and the church" is clear in our time as one contemplates the infant narratives.

The image is Fr. Raymond Brown's in his magnificent An Introduction to the New Testament. Clear, too, are the "bridges," as Brown puts it, constructed by the Evangelist Luke, one tying the figures representing Israel in the narrative to the infant and the corresponding bridge, which "the Jesus of the Gospels comes across … to instruct the Twelve and prepare them for the coming Spirit."

In such certainties — our connections to ancient traditions as well as to the fathomless future — lies our solace and comfort. In a year and on the heels of several decades that we in the Catholic community have just experienced, however, such certainty, which maintains in the long view, is all but overwhelmed in the circumstance of the moment.

Leave the standard images of the crib to our children. Adults in the Catholic community this year might ponder the crib as a memorial to all the innocents in our era and within our church, whose souls have been shattered by the violence of sexual abuse, whose families have been forever shaken and altered by the revelations of cover-up. The clarity of the long view has been clouded for us. We stand, wayfarers, wondering which next steps to take and how to avoid further danger.

A steadying hand

Three recently published essays by Jewish writers might provide a steadying hand as many of us reel under the weight of betrayal and scandal, and wonder just what it means, in this moment in the 21st century, to be Catholic.

It is fascinating that, while not romanticizing the church or its historic and present sins, members of a community so long despised by Catholics also see in us wonderfully redemptive and redeeming characteristics. Menachem Wecker's appreciation of the beauty of our art and architecture and the transcendent qualities of our symbols and rituals draws close to our understanding of the Incarnation and the importance of our sacramental life.

Julia Lieblich, in a complex story of deep personal connection as well as pain, described the powerful allure of our personal pieties and the comfort found through the unshakeable faith her "family" had in Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Rabbi James Rudin has met up close the principal actors who have dominated the stage in the contemporary Catholic drama. He has known, too, many of the layers that are sometimes hidden in the weave of the larger community. And he comes away with profound admiration for women religious and for the church's long social justice tradition. He pleads that the church not lose its commitment to that tradition.

Claiming no scientific weight to this limited "survey" — a request to outsiders profoundly invested in their own tradition to give their informed impressions of ours — it is fascinating nonetheless to discover what about us they consider appealing.

The beauty of our art and traditions; the power of our devotions; the strength of our ministries and, especially, of the women who convey the heart of the Gospel into all corners of the world.

What they see and appreciate had nothing to do with what some in the Catholic community spend so much time and energy fighting about — an obsession with abortion, contraception, the divorced and remarried and resistance to accepting LGBT Catholics as fully functioning, without qualification, members.

One suspects that their view of us is not uncommon, that our "identity" as a community of the people of God has little to do with hierarchy-fueled fights that feed a base that enjoys the conflict.

Our Catholic identity

Too many of us have tacitly conceded that our identity is, indeed, wrapped up in that tick list of "hot button" issues that generates so much of what passes in the wider culture as the Catholic conversation.

We have been wittingly or otherwise persuaded that such a list, which trivializes weighty issues, constitutes a comprehensive definition of "orthodox" Catholicism. "Orthodox" has about it a ring of ancient authenticity. But the orthodoxy of the current era is anything but ancient. It is a construct of rigorists, largely developed in a U.S. context, that narrows the richness of Catholic tradition to the equivalent of conservative political talking points. Those points, providing the bona fides of "orthodoxy," relieve the adherents of responsibility for the remainder — nay, the major portion — of authentic Catholic teaching. The bulk of the teaching is given refuge and partitioned off as a matter of "prudential judgment."

It is faux orthodoxy and has little to nothing to do with authentic tradition. It is grounded in a need for certainty that becomes its own obstacle to faith. We are far more than a punch list of political talking points.

Season of expectation

This season of expectation, of wonder at the possibility of God with and among us, is a perfect time to sink into that authentic tradition and to contemplate where we've gone off track. How did we get to this point of aberration where the clergy culture itself has become the church's greatest scandal, and our identity as a people of God could be so crimped and co-opted by religious ideologues?

Those two aberrant strains originate from the same stock. "[O]f all the doctrines of the church Christology is the one most used to suppress and exclude women," writes theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. "At its root the difficulty lies in the fact that Christology in its story, symbol and doctrine has been assimilated to the patriarchal world view, with the result that its liberating dynamic has been twisted into justification for domination."

That's a sophisticated way of saying that our God, our religious practices, our doctrines have all been imagined and constructed over centuries by celibate men in a secretive culture shaped "according to the model of the patriarchal household and then to the model of the empire."

The infrastructure of the empire, in our case, is crumbling. The sense of security and certainty we once may have felt in that form of hierarchy and the all-male images of God is as vaporous as the eternal rule of a first-century Herod.

If only we were able to crawl through the millennial mist and into the scene, and cough on the dust of travel, and wonder how to comfort the aches and insecurity of a first-century pregnancy. If we had to deal with the doubts and fears of a father who, we are told, is tugged between the skeptical glances of his culture and his dreamed instructions from on high, perhaps we could find an alternative comfort and security for our own time. It is in the confusion and uncertainty and paradoxes of that event, long before the community understood the Christ in that Jesus moment, that we might take our comfort today.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Dec 14-27, 2018 Advent offers chance to rediscover tradition, free from ideologues

Editorial: Bishops' pastoral letter on racism lacks sustained urgency

This article appears in the USCCB Fall Assembly 2018 feature series. View the full series.

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Black Lives Matter demonstrators are seen near Lafayette Square in Washington Aug. 12 during the start of the white nationalists' rally "Unite the Right 2." (CNS/Tyler Orsburn)

Out of the clutter and chaos of the meeting of U.S. bishops in Baltimore came a few bright spots of hope. One of them was the bishops' assent to the effort underway for the canonization of Sr. Thea Bowman, a Mississippi native and the only African-American member of the Wisconsin-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. 

For those who encountered Sister Thea's preaching and evangelizing, she's already a saint. The rest is formality. (For a deeper look at her fascinating life and ministry, go here.)

It was fitting to celebrate this champion of African-American Catholics during the same meeting that the bishops issued another letter on the country's original sin, racism (three previous are listed in the document's footnotes).

The letter, in many respects, is a worthy addition to the corpus. It will serve as a solid introductory teaching document both in terms of its reading of history — including some of the church's role in engaging that original cultural sin — and its depiction of the need to raise the issue anew.

"Racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart," write the bishops. "This evil causes great harm to its victims, and it corrupts the souls of those who harbor racist or prejudicial thoughts. The persistence of the evil of racism is why we are writing this letter now. People are still be harmed. So action is still needed."

If only the sense of urgency so correctly conveyed in those few lines were sustained throughout the rest of the document. If only the call to action involved more than personal development and education and instead challenged the community. Truthfully confronting racism requires personal conversion. But racism is also a social sin that requires action in the public square. It is no secret that the sin today is being embraced at the highest levels of government and tolerated for political gain.

The letter certainly contains hints of where this should go: "The evil of racism festers in part because, as a nation, there has been very little formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often, a neglect of our history."

Institutions, laws and practices still exist that deny equal access and justice to too many people. "We cannot, therefore, look upon the progress against racism in recent decades and conclude that our current situation meets the standard of justice," the bishops write. "In fact, God demands what is right and just."

Following a recitation of historic details, the call to action is a rather safe and repeated call to education — for ourselves, for others, for the country. The bishops seek a reworking of societal structures so that life is more equitable to all, including people of color.

There is little attempt to connect what is going on in the culture, such as White House outbursts, displays of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia, and other very real events.

Reading the times today isn't difficult. Racism that once may have remained politely sub rosa, a kind of muted theme in everyday life, has risen again to the surface, a blatant affront to human dignity and all that is decent.

Why not say that the letter is needed today because we have, in the Oval Office, a president whose comments have gone from dog whistle to bullhorn and that those comments are used regularly to energize his political base?

Why not say that the letter is needed because we have in office a president who does not distinguish between violent white supremacists and those who become their victims, or that the language he uses to vilify and denigrate immigrants of every ethnicity, but particularly Hispanics and Muslims, spawns hatred and leads to violence?

Why not say the letter is needed because people of color are the primary targets of deliberate campaigns to disenfranchise voters?

Is it possible that the bishops could not find in our sacred texts strong words that condemn oppressors? Could they find no prophetic witness in our history to emulate? Why the reticence?

The letter is reminiscent of the cautious approach taken by white religious leaders in the South during the civil rights era, one of them a Catholic bishop, who consequently received the Rev. Martin Luther King's stirring 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail. There was no longer any persuasive case to be made for moderation and waiting.

"I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate," wrote King. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom."

This is not a time to be politically cunning or exceedingly patient. The sin, we know, must be named. No number of conservative judges is worth the tradeoff in hatred and bigotry being generated by this president and some of his followers.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Nov 30-Dec 13, 2018 Pastoral letter on racism lacks sustained urgency

Editorial: US bishops have yet to find their collective moral core

This article appears in the USCCB Fall Assembly 2018 feature series. View the full series.

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Bishops prepare to begin the general session meeting Nov. 14 in Baltimore. (CNS/Tennessee Register/Rick Musacchio)

This is how upside down and inside out things have become in the church: The U.S. bishops passed, by an overwhelming vote, a pastoral letter against racism during their recent meeting in Baltimore. Unfortunately, it was birthed in the shadow of the sex abuse crisis, discussion of which overwhelmed the conference meeting, and it will struggle to gain any notice amid the rubble of the ongoing fallout from the crisis.

It is a passable document and necessary, given the emergence of racism, xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate talk emanating not only from the corners of society but from the culture's corridors of power. It was one of the few items on the original agenda that wasn't scrubbed because of the need to discuss the abuse crisis.

In the current atmosphere, however, it felt like an afterthought, the discussion out of place. It was a statement of moral purpose by a group of men who have yet to find their collective moral core in dealing with the most perilous danger to the church in modern history.

Some blame the lack of action on the Vatican, which ordered the bishops to not vote on any of their proposals until after an international summit of bishops on the issue in February. It became apparent, however, in the discussion that did ensue about the proposals that the bishops were hardly of one mind about them. In fact, there is every possibility that, according to one line of thought, Pope Francis sought the delay because he considered the proposals so inadequate. If that is the case, he inadvertently may have spared the bishops from coming away empty handed of their own accord.

The culture of the Catholic clergy and the state of the episcopacy have come under intense scrutiny as a result of the crisis, especially as it has dragged on for more than three decades and spread through the global community. And neither the culture nor the leadership level of the church comes off looking good.

We've posted an open letter to the U.S. bishops saying: "There is nowhere left to hide." "It's over," we wrote. "All the manipulations and contortions of the past 33 years, all the attempts to deflect and equivocate — all of it has brought the church, but especially you, to this moment. It's over."

What's left to do is the only thing the bishops can't be forced to do, and that is the interior work familiar to all of us because of our shared sacramental tradition: a deep examination of how the culture got to the point where bishops could turn their backs on abused children to hide the guilty clerics. Confronting that question honestly will go a long way toward pointing the episcopacy in the direction of needed reforms.

In a panel discussion prior to the bishops' meeting, Fr. Clete Kiley, who once served as executive director of the committee on priestly life of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and as principal staff person in the late 1990s on what was then the ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, got to the heart of what's missing in the ongoing discussion of abuse. "I'm going to keep returning to this idea of [clerical] culture," he said, "because we haven't unpacked that enough. We've changed policies and procedures and, to some degree, they've been effective. But we did not really analyze culture."

That last is the most difficult bit and one that keeps escaping the bishops' agendas. Perhaps they will get to it in January when they're scheduled to go on retreat together in Chicago to reflect on the problem.

It is easy to take solace in what has been done to this point — and the bishops have done a lot, as Kiley points out. Psychologist Thomas Plante notes those procedural and structural changes and says they've contributed to the sharp decrease in the number of cases reported — "barely a trickle" — since 2002.

One of Plante's primary points about the recently stoked furor is that it is based on reporting of incidents that are decades old and that are repeated for effect by popular media. A certain amount of that critique is valuable — a lot of the recent reporting is just a regathering of old incidents and data. But the unraveling of previously unknown old incidents — and the bishops' complicity in a cover up of those crimes — will continue to roll out as diocese after diocese either voluntarily or under some form of grand jury subpoena release documents or unlock previously secret files.

Theologian and lawyer Cathleen Kaveny of Boston College, in that same panel discussion, said she believes there's been a kind of "paradigm shift" in how Catholics view the scandal. It once was perceived as the crimes of a small and disturbed group of clerics, but it became clear that the problem was widespread, not only in this country but throughout the globe with a similar narrative from country to country. As a result, Catholics began seeing it as a systemic problem of tolerated and accepted crime. And if that were the case, then a great many presumptions about who we are as Catholics and what the church and clergy mean are called into question.

The fate of the pastoral against racism — as an agenda item that couldn't be dumped but also could not be given the prominence or the robust discussion it deserves — is but the latest indicator of how off-the-rails we've gone as an institution. That condition was not going to be solved in a few days under the bright lights of public scrutiny. It will require a longer process. But to discover the bishops are still so far from discovering the right path back only adds to the flock's discouragement and bewilderment about their shepherds.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Nov 30-Dec 13, 2018 Bishops have yet to find collective moral core

Open letter to the US Catholic bishops: It's over

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(Dreamstime/Kts)

Dear brothers in Christ, shepherds, fellow pilgrims,

We address you as you approach this year's national meeting in Baltimore because we know there is nowhere left to hide.

It's over.

All the manipulations and contortions of the past 33 years, all the attempts to deflect and equivocate — all of it has brought the church, but especially you, to this moment.

It's over.

Even the feds are now on the trail. They've ordered that you not destroy any documents. The Department of Justice is conducting a national criminal investigation of how you've handled the clergy sex abuse scandal. It is a point in our history without precedent. We want you to know that you aren't alone in this moment, you've not been abandoned. But this time it must be different. This time it won't be easy.

From fable to sacred text, we know how this goes. The point is reached where all realize the king wears no clothes, the righteous accusers read the writing in the sand and fade away, the religious authorities receive the Master's most stinging rebukes. As a class of religious rulers, the loudest among you have become quite good at applying the law and claiming divine authority in marginalizing those who transgress the statutes. The prolonged abuse scandal would suggest, however, that you've not done very well taking stock of yourselves.

We have no special insight into why this moment — the Pennsylvania grand jury report, the downfall of Theodore McCarrick — has so captured the public imagination and pushed the church to this outer limit of exposure and vulnerability. There are theories, not least of which is that the opportunists among us are attempting to use this moment to bring down the only pope who has actually dethroned bishops and a cardinal for their crimes and indiscretions.

But that's an issue for another time.

The reality, we all know, is that it has been going on for a long time. The first national story appeared across four pages of this publication in the summer of 1985. The worst of it occurred during the pontificate of the hastily sainted John Paul II, a giant on the world stage, but a pastor who let wolves roam his own flock. His idealized concept of heroic priesthood apparently left him incapable of hearing the truth from credible witnesses, including the few bishops who dared disturb that idealized world with troubling reports. He promoted to the end Marciel Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, and a persona who came to represent the worst of the abuse scandal. Maciel, an accomplished sycophant, kept scrutiny at bay with his ability to spread a lot of young priests and a lot of money around the Vatican.

This is about a rot at the heart of the culture entrusted with leadership of the Catholic community.

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The point beyond dispute is that we are at a moment in U.S. church history — and perhaps in the history of the global church — without precedent. This is not about debatable matters — celibacy or the filioque clause, or the primacy of Scripture or whether the Earth is the center of the universe or whether women should be allowed ordination or any of the hot button issues that have kept us roiling and at each others' throats these past decades. This, instead, is about a rot at the heart of the culture entrusted with leadership of the Catholic community. A rot so pervasive that it has touched every aspect of the community's life, disrupting all of the certainties and presumptions about who we are and who you are that helped hold this community together.

Those who worked so ardently in the past to enable you — the faithful, so betrayed, who just couldn't believe you would engage in such a deliberate cover up; the likes of George Weigel and his blind, uncritical hagiography of Pope John Paul II; Dr. Mary Ann Glendon and the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and their naive celebration and defense of Maciel; the rest of the chorus at First Things and like publications; the telling silence of so many other Catholic outlets; the absurdity of charlatan William Donohue and his silly "Catholic" League — they helped sustain your weak narrative as many of them denigrated those who raised the tough questions and pursued the truth.

It's over.

None of them any longer has a persuasive case to make. Some of them now try to blame the crisis on gay priests. You might be tempted to latch onto that diversion, but it will only prolong the already intolerably long agony.

Gay priests and bishops are certainly among us — probably a greater percentage of gays in the Catholic clergy, if anecdotal evidence and the private chatter of seminary rectors and heads of orders is to be believed, than one would find in the general population.

The clergy culture is in deep need of serious conversation and education about that issue and much more regarding sexuality. That discussion is unlikely on any significant scale because too many bishops and too many priests, if they were honest, would have to admit to an orientation that the church still calls "disordered." Unless the preponderance of credible experts has suddenly flipped its understanding of things, however, sexual orientation is not one of the topics that match with sexual abuse.

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Detail of Page 20 of National Catholic Reporter issue date June 7, 1985, jump page of Jason Berry's article "Pedophile priest: study in inept church response"

Orientation is not a determining factor in abuse of children. If it were, we'd have to be investigating heterosexual orientation as a cause because a lot of abuse is perpetrated by heterosexual men upon boys and girls. So, take that path if you'd like, but be prepared to lose whatever bit of credibility might be left in the tank.

It's over.

You've been ensconced in a culture that has for too long protected you from the consequences of your worst instincts. The boundaries that once kept your culture safe from scrutiny have become as irrelevant today as the moats and walls of previous centuries. There is no hiding any longer. You've been imbibing the excesses of power, authority and privilege that have accrued over centuries and, like the addict who hits bottom, a fundamental decision for recovery is essential to your survival.

It's over.

You've hit bottom not because the latest gush of bad news resulted from a resolve to come clean and tell the truth. It resulted from yet another investigation. In short, you were moved to words of contrition because you were, once again, caught. Yes, most of it is old news. Yes, the coverup was engineered mostly by bishops who are no longer in office or have died. News organizations once reluctant to take you on for fear of being labeled anti-Catholic are no longer reticent.

You've become certain clickbait. And you will continue to be as, in diocese after diocese, more documents are released and revealed and more grand juries look into the inner workings of this institution over the past 50 years or so. It is self-inflicted pain.

Bishops, you were certain enough about what was going on and its potential consequences that you employed individually and corporately legions of lawyers.

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And please stop asserting that you did not know what was going on before 2002. If the scandal exploded in 2002, it was because a long fuse had already set off explosions in city after city and state after state and been chronicled widely for 17 years before the spark hit Boston. In the aftermath of those explosions, you were certain enough about what was going on and its potential consequences that you employed individually and corporately legions of lawyers. You knew enough to keep secret files under lock and key. You knew it was evil enough that you had to hide it.

It's over.

There is no denying you've done a lot of adjusting to the bad news. You put together a charter to protect youth. (Fair to note that it's taken you 16 years to get around to considering including yourselves among those to be held accountable.) You've instituted a national office, paid for elaborate studies, instituted national and local review boards, held reconciliation services and required child protection training and background checks, and paid billions in settlements. The church is indisputably a safer place for kids for all of that effort. But it was all done in reaction to outside forces.

The only thing you can't be forced to do is what you would say our sacramental tradition requires: a deep personal examination, telling the truth, begging forgiveness and a resolve to amend.

The examination begins with the question that only you can answer, individually and as a group: How did we and our brothers in the past, as leaders of this clerical culture, reach the point where we could rationalize turning our backs on children who had been sexually tortured by our priests to protect those priests and our culture? One of your brothers, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, has already laid out some appropriate steps. Bishops must "cede authority," he said, to allow for greater accountability to outside authority. He also said that "privilege, power and protection of a clerical culture" have to be "eradicated from the life of the church" or "everything else is a sideshow."

Those are worthy points to consider. The retreat you've scheduled for January would be the perfect place to do just that as a body. A suggestion: attend in mufti and leave all the trappings, the collars and black suits, all the silk and lace and pectoral crosses at home. God will recognize you. Take that little step in humility and actually meet as brothers. Seek out those among you who have suffered, who have known what it means to come through pain or addiction or illness. Ask them to help lead you out of this dark moment. They would know the way.

When it is over, and here we make a suggestion that runs contrary to journalistic interest: Be quiet. No grand pronouncements.

In the months to follow, as the federal investigation likely forces out more documents and that burning fuse continues to set off explosions, some of you may pay dearly for what you have or have not done in the past. We'll know how your retreat went by how you act in those moments.

We'll know whether you've really hit bottom and are on the mend with the best interests of the community at heart or whether you're still in search of cheap grace and the easy way out.

It's over.

In the name of the child victims, the families torn apart, the parents who know no end to their agony, the body of Christ subjected to relentless humiliation for decades, it has to be over. This time has to be different.

We pray for you,

Your sisters and brothers, your fellow pilgrims, the church.

Editorial: We can restore health to democracy

This article appears in the 2018 Midterm Elections feature series. View the full series.

The significance of this year's midterm election is not that Democrats regained control of the House, though that will provide a welcome brake on the reckless and dangerous impulses of the Trump administration. Given the historical reality that the president's party usually loses congressional seats in this election — and sometimes experiences massive losses — and the passionate opposition President Donald Trump has inspired in some quarters, the surprise would have been if the Democrats had done anything less.

And while retaking the House is widely seen as a repudiation of the Trump agenda, we remain a government and country divided, with the Republicans increasing their grip on the Senate and thus on important foreign policy matters and judicial appointments.

The real significance of the midterm results — as well as some hope for the future — lies deeper in the details of who won, where the Democratic wins occurred beyond the national offices, and how it all happened. The repudiation of Trump is significant in that it occurred at a time when all the economic indicators would invite voters to be complacent and unwilling to roil the status quo.

The opposite was the case, and important wins occurred often against record amounts of dark money. Another more important factor that evidenced itself in state after state was unusually high turnout for a midterm election. That basic component — despite undisguised attempts by some Republicans to suppress the vote, particularly among minority communities — was essential in some of the significant wins for Democrats.

The adjustment effected by voters was significant particularly at the level of state house races and governorships, offices that have failed to draw the interest of Democrats in recent years. Yet they are the offices, as Republicans have demonstrated, upon which national success is predicated. In governor's races, the Democrats won seven seats and the Republicans lost seven.

The Democratic Party's efforts were undergirded by grassroots fundraising that well outpaced traditional fundraising means and by newly energized volunteers and candidates, especially women.

It is tempting to overstate the value of the adjustment that occurred. The Washington Post, for instance, hailed the Democratic takeover of the House as a sign of "health for American democracy," as well as a sign of "political health" in general. That is true only to a point.

The body politic is certainly in failing health when the president relies on race baiting, diminishing the institutions of the democracy he leads, bullying and persistent lying to project a narrative that inspires hate and is simply false.

The illness approaches contagion when members of the party he leads give assent by their silence to such behavior. Trump, regardless of what his authoritarian tendencies might suggest, will one day be gone from that office. The question for Republicans is "What will be left of us?"

Perhaps the antidote lies not only in the fact that the Democrats took back control of the House but that they also did it with a record number of women, who represent but one of the constituencies whose activism was seeded by Trump himself. The backlash that began the day after his inauguration, when at least 500,000 mostly women showed up at his White House door to say they didn't like what he represented, wasn't a fluke or a one-off moment.

The big question for Democrats, of course, is can they bring a new sense of gravity and dignity to the governing process. Or will we just see a toggling back and forth between extremes?

The heartland might suggest an answer. Sam Brownback's disastrous term as Kansas governor (2011-18) could well prove a harbinger of what we're seeing play out on the national scene. If that's the case, the GOP is in for a rough ride in 2020.

Brownback, in what he once infamously described as his "red-state experiment," slashed taxes for the wealthiest, nearly destroyed public education by underfunding schools, reduced access to affordable health care as well as access to abortion and ultimately was one of the primary reasons the state turned blue in the midterms. Brownback resigned the office earlier this year after Trump appointed him ambassador at large for religious freedom.

Kansans this time around elected Democrat Laura Kelly and soundly rejected Republican Kris Kobach, a candidate in the Brownback/Trump mold, who closely allied himself with the president and whose rhetoric was aimed at raising fears about immigration and election fraud.

The Kansas State House, which went hard right in the initial years of the Brownback tenure, has also moderated over the past eight years as voters in the solidly red state rejected his extreme approach.

"There will be a lot of talk around America about the blue wave," Kelly said in her victory speech, "but I don't believe that's what's happened here in Kansas. What happened in Kansas was a wave of common sense, a wave of bipartisanship."

That wave included the election of Sharice Davids, the first Native American woman to serve in Congress — she shares that distinction with Deb Haaland of New Mexico, another Democrat who won. Davids, the first openly LGBT person to represent Kansas, toppled four-term incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder in the state's 3rd Congressional district.

There is more than a little truth to Kelly's claim about bipartisanship. A Democrat win in Kansas doesn't happen without Republican support. Republicans there, including office holders past and present, have crossed party lines to yank the state back from the extremes of the Brownback era to a more centrist position.

If such a realignment can happen in Kansas, one is tempted to imagine it could happen anywhere. And that would be a real sign of returning health.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Nov 16-29, 2018 We can restore health to democracy

Editorial: 'Knock, knock. Who's there? More than half the church!'

This article appears in the Synod on the Youth 2018 feature series. View the full series.

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Swiss Guards stand in front of the doors to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel as cardinals begin the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI in March 2013. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
Swiss Guards stand in front of the doors to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel as cardinals begin the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI in March 2013. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

"Knock, knock. Who's there? More than half the church!"

There is a sense of inevitability to the point behind the chant that grabbed global attention when it was shouted out during a peaceful protest at the Vatican Oct. 3 as bishops and cardinals made their way to the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on young people.

Organized by the Women's Ordination Conference, the protest highlighted the fact that no women were permitted to vote at the synod sessions.

"Knock, knock. Who's there? More than half the church!"

It's a catchy meter.

Speaking of women, as it does, it's true. Visit any church, anywhere, any Sunday. No one needs a scientific survey to accept the claim.

And guys — you in the purple and red who to this point in Catholic church history have enjoyed the luxury of sitting in male exclusiveness and pronouncing as princes for the nearly 1.3 billion Catholics in the global church — you haven't heard the last of it.

The women aren't going away. And in this particular instance, you were caught in the web of your own illogic. As Josh McElwee reported recently, Lasallian Br. Robert Schieler, a voting member of the synod, asked a synod official prior to the gathering why women religious attending the meetings were not allowed to vote.

Responded the official: "Well, because you have to be ordained to vote."

But Schieler, as a brother, isn't ordained. So, Schieler wondered, "is that the reason or not?"

It's not. The real reason has nothing to do with ontological differences or any tradition that makes sense. It has to do with biological makeup. Let's call it what it really is — it's sexism. And the church's brand of sexism is no more persuasive than any other for being wrapped in male-conjured theology that teeters atop an exegesis that largely ignores the women who were first to the empty tomb — the very first to carry the Resurrection story — and Jesus' unusual (for the era) reliance on women throughout his ministry. It makes less and less sense with each passing year.

If the wider world's acknowledgment of how mistaken cultures and other theologies have been about the place and value of women is not convincing enough to spur significant change, perhaps the utter scandal to which an all-male clerical culture has subjected the church will force a change.

The U.S. bishops, who have stumbled through layer upon layer of that scandal, will attempt a new and admirable approach when they go on retreat in January. The retreat will be led by a venerable spiritual master, yet another man. Would they dare invite a strong feminine voice to the gathering? We could suggest some.

In a few weeks, the bishops will fill a large ballroom in Baltimore to conduct their annual business meeting, and the only women in the room will be on the sidelines.

Save for overhead screens and electronic voting, one might be heading into a scene from several centuries ago.

Most Catholic women are long over papal constructions of "feminine genius" or being cast as strawberries atop a cake or interpretations of Mary that stop at some magical virginal docility and ignore the harsh reality of a mother dealing with an itinerant preacher son who ends up on the wrong side of civil and religious law.

Knock. Knock.

More than half the church wants in. They have a lot to offer that's been missing.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Nov 16-29, 2018 'Knock, knock. Who's there? More than half the church!'

Editorial: Ouellet vs. Viganò exposes right wing's anti-Francis strategy

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Pope Francis listens as Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, speaks during a meeting with recently appointed bishops from around the world at the Vatican Sept. 13. (CNS/Vatican Media)
Pope Francis listens as Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, speaks during a meeting with recently appointed bishops from around the world at the Vatican Sept. 13. The pope spoke about updating the processes of selection, accompaniment and evaluation of bishops. (CNS/Vatican Media)

Cardinal Marc Ouellet's concise and sharply worded refutation of the now infamous Viganò letter is the very point needed to burst the bubble of fabulist concoctions spinning around the Catholic far right. Those theories, which wouldn't pass for bad fiction, are easily unveiled as clumsy attempts to discredit the Francis papacy.

Ouellet's out-of-the-ordinary pronouncement is fitting for these extraordinary times. Its very existence signals with some finality the end of the pretense of unity with which the hierarchy in recent decades attempted to mask deep divisions in its ranks.

It also bares as pretenders those who previously claimed the high ground of "orthodoxy" as defined, in their world, by unquestioning loyalty to the pope and the magisterium. In fact, their orthodoxy extended only so far as their agreement with prevailing papal tendencies.

Ouellet dissected the letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, who claimed a widespread cover-up of allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The letter was quickly found to be an ideologically loaded screed with claims that Ouellet termed "incredible and absurd" as well as "unjust and unjustified."

The letter had been fashioned with the help of several right-wing figures who attempted to make the case for Viganò apparently so they could, in turn, use the case with the authority of a former nuncio. The whole mess has backfired.

Ouellet, however, speaks with legitimate authority as the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. He is able to build his case from actual documents held by his congregation.

Further, Francis, the pope who ultimately dethroned McCarrick, has ordered a thorough investigation of all of the steps along McCarrick's rise through the hierarchical ranks as rumors swirled everywhere about his inappropriate sexual behavior. Those alleging cover-up may regret the investigation, since McCarrick's rise came about through appointments made by Pope John Paul II, who sent him to head the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, and then the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, and finally the Washington Archdiocese.

Discrediting Viganò is the easy part. Conducting a credible investigation will be more difficult, requiring a degree of transparency within the Vatican that is perhaps unprecedented. But the crisis requires unprecedented responses.

Quite apart from the investigation, Ouellet's intervention was valuable in dealing with other oddities of the moment. The most telling line in Ouellet's response is the one that directly addresses Viganò groupies in the United States: "In response to your unjust and unjustified attack on the facts, dear Viganò, I conclude therefore that the accusation is a political frame job lacking a real foundation."

Viganò was able to rattle the church with his fanciful claims and gather around him some of the more eccentric expressions of Catholicism in the United States because of the leadership vacuum created by both the deeply compromising damage of the clergy sex abuse scandal and the lingering effects of John Paul II's episcopal appointments. It is known that the late and sainted pope valued loyalty far more than leadership in his bishops. In the United States, that meant a national conference that once wrestled with major cultural issues was reduced to much internal squabbling over minutiae.

Other beneficiaries of that vacuum were lay forces on the right wing of the church that figured out how to manipulate the Catholic narrative in this country by funding a host of new nonprofit organizations with narrow political and ideological ambitions. NCR has begun cataloging the money and the messages in stories documenting the funding and interwoven interests of such groups. A connecting thread among them is a version of the Gospel unabashedly at the service of Republican Party politics and unbridled capitalism.

One of the brashest operators among this relatively new breed of Catholic lay involvement is Napa Institute founder Timothy Busch. He is a successful and wealthy entrepreneur who, when he is not tending to his boutique winery, high-end resorts and investment business, is bouncing about the church as if it were an arcade and he was in search of a favorite game. His current corner of choice in the arcade is the Catholic University of America, where his name is affixed to the business school and where he conducts conferences on how to dress up libertarian economics in a Catholic costume.

We have been reporting on and monitoring the activities of Busch for several years because he is among the most aggressive of that cast of U.S. Catholics whose primary ambition, it seems, is to convince the rest of us that the Christian Gospel was actually promulgated to justify the most extreme expressions of American-style capitalism.

It used to be that in pursuit of those ends, he drew his bona fides from hobnobbing with just about anyone in fine silk and fancy lace beneath a red or purple skullcap. His ecclesiology embraced a clericalism of the highest order. He was the kind of hierarchical toady who had the money to court the highly placed and treat them to his institute's summer gatherings in the California wine country for bouts of what he called "in-your-face Catholicism."

But at some point this year, he got the memo that bishops didn't necessarily hold the keys to the kingdom, especially not hierarchs like his organization's "independent contractor," Archbishop John Nienstedt. Napa took in Nienstedt after he resigned as archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis for mishandling abuse cases and amid an investigation into allegations that he had engaged in sexual misconduct. The Napa Institute only recently cut ties with Nienstedt.

Busch is not alone among those who, having virtually ignored the sex abuse crisis for more than 30 years, now seize on the mess as an opportunity to smear the current pope and to plant the church of their dreams. It is a church, ironically, that would return us to the high notions of ordination and clericalism that led to the scandal in the first place.

Busch's new cause — reform — is a scattershot effort of misappropriated language ("We are the church!" the newly minted revolutionary declares); a staggeringly inappropriate model (he'll have respect for clerics "to the extent they are compliant with normal business acumen and behavior"); wrapped in a juvenile tantrum vowing anarchy (he will end this scandal "regardless of what civil and canon law says"). And he is a civil lawyer. And, of course, he won't do anything of the sort.

What he will do is host, as he did recently in Washington, a collection of the newly emboldened, and take as his lead the already discredited.

"Viganò has given us an agenda," declared Busch, "We need to follow those leads and push that forward."

One of the participants, Patrick Lencioni, founder of Amazing Parish, which provides consulting services for parishes, declared, "The moral authority of Pope Francis has been greatly tarnished and damaged, no doubt." Amazing arrogance, and God help the parishes that follow that lead.

Another, the equally unfiltered Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, one-upped Lencioni when he postulated that the problem today is that "there is too much talk of love in the church and too little hatred of evil."

Morlino and a range of other speakers at Busch's reform conference are convinced that the sex abuse crisis is rooted in clerical homosexuality, which, in turn, justifies unleashing torrents of ugly and perfectly inane assertions about members of the LGBT community within the church and at large.

Of course, it is the widely held view of experts, some of whom conducted a survey paid for by the bishops, and the view as well of members of the clerical ranks with impressive psychological and medical training, that the root of the crisis is not gayness. It is, rather, an illness that was allowed to flourish in the church because of the deceit and cover-up of a clerical culture desperately in need of fundamental reform.

The leadership vacuum is sucking into itself realms of Catholic oddities and peculiarities that have accumulated over recent decades as the community lives through a fundamental transition. Old and unsustainable parochial structures and unrealistic expectations of the ordained and vowed state are fading. We have reached bedrock. At that level, the questions are no less essential than what it means today to be ordained and what it means to be Catholic.

The work ahead is too serious and critical to be left to the charlatans and religious carny barkers who have, all along, been a large part of the problem. We are glad to see that institutions such as Georgetown University and Fordham University are holding open discussions newly exploring ways of dealing with the scandal. We'll be reporting more on those developments in the coming weeks.

The work ahead will require more than bluster and misappropriated slogans. It will require accessing the deepest levels of our sacramental tradition. It will require the imposition of unprecedented accountability from bishops. It will also require bishops with the will to confront the toughest questions about how the clerical culture arrived at this point.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Nov 2-15, 2018 Right-wing anti-Francis strategy exposed

Editorial: Dangerous saints for desperate times

This article appears in the Memories of Romero feature series. View the full series.

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(Julie Lonneman)

The significance of the canonization of Archbishop Óscar Romero cannot be underestimated as the bridge Pope Francis needs to convey a universal church trapped in the past toward a future that will purify it and align it with the global poor. And the joining of Romero and Pope Paul VI is no mistake or public relations ploy to balance a radical with a traditionalist. Remarkably, these two saints shared a martyrdom that built the bridge that supports a single trajectory, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that will renew the church and reveal again the mystery of Jesus as the engine of history. It is a thrilling story, and some key figures helped it happen.

When Romero was murdered in 1980, American Jesuit Fr. James Brockman saw the urgent need for an accurate biography of the slain archbishop of El Salvador. Brockman, former editor of America magazine, knew that Romero had been the focus of intense controversy during his brief time as archbishop. He also knew that despite the near-unanimous acclamation throughout Latin America that Romero was a saint, revisionists were already at work to contain his impact. His critics argued that this pious, conservative prelate had been duped by left-wing radicals during a dangerous drift toward Marxism sweeping Latin America. His assassination had been the tragic but predictable result of his meddling in politics, and the abdication of his primary spiritual role as a bishop.

In 1982, to counter these lies, Brockman published the first version of a definitive biography documenting Romero's three years as archbishop. He was aided by Romero's own meticulous paper trail preserving every official statement, homily, pastoral letter, the minutes of every meeting he attended, and his correspondence with government officials, his fellow bishops and the Vatican.

Updated in 1989, the book was supplemented by personal diaries in which Romero anguished over the growing violence in El Salvador by state security forces, death squads and opposition groups that claimed hundreds of innocent lives in the lead-up to the country's brutal 12-year civil war (1980-92).

Romero endured constant vilification in the media and subversion by four of the country's bishops aligned with the government and the country's wealthy elites. The papal nuncio sent a steady flow of negative reports to his superiors in Rome, accusing Romero of promoting so-called "liberation theology" and supporting violent revolution.

Romero defended his pastoral leadership by citing the Second Vatican Council and the application of its principles to the lived reality in Latin America by its bishops, who had met with Pope Paul VI at Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, where they proclaimed "God's option for the poor" and challenged the entrenched structural injustices that were causing widespread poverty and violence in the region.

Romero found further support from Paul VI's 1975 exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, which strongly affirmed liberation from oppression as integral to the church's mission. Despite death threats, pressure from Rome and the flow of arms from the United States to support the military against a perceived communist insurgency, Romero remained a faithful shepherd to his beleaguered flock until his death on March 24, 1980, while saying Mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador.

Canonization holds up heroes of faith who confront us with what theologian Johann Baptist Metz called the "dangerous memory" of the crucified and risen Christ, who interrupts history in every generation to summon disciples to hear God's Word and keep it.

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Nine years later, six members of the faculty at the Central American University in San Salvador, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by elite, U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers. A central target of the assassins was Jesuit Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, a brilliant apologist for the martyred Romero as a good shepherd to his church, even at the cost of his own life.

Not present on campus by chance during the executions was Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, who took up the task of extending the logic of Romero and Ellacuría's witness to a church deeply reluctant to acknowledge the kairos moment these martyrs had revealed.

Another crucial witness arrived in San Salvador in 1990 after the campus murders. American Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley remained on the faculty of Central American University for the rest of his life, welcoming thousands of North American pilgrims and college students, daring to remind them of U.S. responsibility for so much of the violence in Central America, and for the desperate surge of refugees fleeing north.

Before his death from pancreatic cancer in 2010, Brackley, in an interview with NCR, prophetically gauged the importance of Romero's then-stalled canonization:

One has to suspect that if Romero were not a bishop, he might have an easier road to canonization, because not everyone in the Catholic hierarchy is comfortable with presenting him as a bishop to be imitated. …

Romero modeled the "church of the poor" that John XXIII called for at the start of the Second Vatican Council. The conferences of Medellin and Puebla fleshed out what that church should look like in Latin America. Romero followed that lead.

The message, though, is universally valid: The church will only be bearer of credible hope for humanity if it stands with the poor, with all who are victims of sin, injustice and violence. If we walk with them, as Romero did, we will embody the good news that the world so longs for. We do not need a church that invites us to hide from today's horrors, to escape the problems of this world, but to bear its burdens.

That is what Romero did, inspiring countless others to collaborate with him. This will invite persecution and misunderstanding but that is the fifth mark of the true church. Romero sought not what was best for the institution as such but what was best for the people. In the long run, that is what is best for the church, too. The institution that strives to save itself will lose itself. If it loses itself in loving service, it will save itself.

Like the 75,000 martyrs of the civil war in El Salvador, Brockman, Ellacuría and Brackley did not live to see our Latin American pope. But in the first hours after his election, Francis invoked Pope John XXIII's dream of a "church of the poor," saying he would like "a church that is poor and that is for the poor." It is now his turn to dream of such a church, shepherded by bishops who smell like their sheep, servant pastors and vibrant parishes filled with disciples who share the "joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties" of the modern world, especially young people on fire to live authentic lives.

But all this would only be an idea if Romero had not lived it and a cautious Paul VI had not suffered his own martyrdom of vilification from both progressives and traditionalists for insisting that church unity was more important than winners and losers after the council.

Canonization holds up heroes of faith who confront us with what theologian Johann Baptist Metz called the "dangerous memory" of the crucified and risen Christ, who interrupts history in every generation to summon disciples to hear God's Word and keep it.

Sts. Oscar and Paul did it in their time. Their witness is not just that they crossed the bridge of the paschal mystery to a different and necessary future, but that they are inviting us all to follow.

This story appeared in the paper... Oct 19-Nov 1, 2018 Dangerous saints for desperate times

Editorial: Bishops' plan to address abuse falls short on accountability

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U.S. bishops listen to a homily during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore on the eve of the November 2017 general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CNS/Bob Roller)
U.S. bishops listen to a homily during Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore on the eve of the November 2017 general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (CNS/Bob Roller)

After a horrible summer of depressing news about how the church hierarchy has mishandled the sexual abuse crisis and misled the faithful willfully and through neglect, expectations were high for the action plan the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promised to deliver this fall. The four points outlined are, for the most part, good beginnings.

Given the intensity of feelings on this subject, probably no plan could satisfy Catholics in pews, but even with that caveat, we had hoped the plan would be stronger and more specific than what was delivered.

1. A confidential, third-party reporting system will be created to receive complaints of sexual misconduct and abuse by bishops toward minors or adults and "will direct those complaints to the appropriate ecclesiastical authority and, as required by applicable law, to civil authorities."

This appears to be a rather straightforward proposal, and it is especially important to include the requirement of reporting to civil authorities. Unclear, however, is "the appropriate ecclesiastical authority." Who is that authority, and where is that office housed? The tribunal Pope Francis authorized in 2015 to hear such cases would fill this need, but it was never implemented.

2. The bishops' committee on governance is to draft "policies addressing restrictions on bishops who were removed or resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse of minors or sexual harassment of or misconduct with minors or adults."

This is an obviously good idea, and we recommend that the restrictions imposed on any cleric with substantiated claims of abusing a minor be extended to bishops, namely: laicization and no public ministry.

What this proposal does not address are bishops who resign for covering up or enabling abuse. Without public restrictions for "negligence in the exercise of his office" (see point three below), we find that Cardinal Bernard Law can resign from Boston and retire to high offices in the Vatican. Cardinal Roger Mahony can defy the wishes of the sitting ordinary of Los Angeles and carry on in public ministry. Archbishop John Nienstedt can resign from St. Paul-Minneapolis and find safe haven in a Catholic think tank and lead pilgrimages to Poland. Bishop Robert Finn can resign from Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, and give retreats for altar boys in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It is essential that these restrictions are made public. The day after the administrative committee met on the action plan — the day the conference leadership met with Francis — the Vatican announced the resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, who had reached 75, the mandatory retirement age. A separate announcement came from Baltimore Archbishop William Lori that he was investigating allegations that Bransfield had sexually harassed adults. Was the resignation because of age or the allegations? This lack of transparency has characterized the abuse crisis for decades.

3. A Code of Conduct for bishops will be developed "regarding the sexual abuse of a minor; sexual harassment of or sexual misconduct with an adult; or negligence in the exercise of his office related to such cases."

It would seem to be relatively easy to extend the code of conduct and canon laws established by the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms to include bishops, so perhaps this can be accomplished quickly. Adding "negligence in the exercise of his office" to the list of offenses is welcome and long overdue. However, what body will oversee this code, and who will enforce it? Will its proceedings be shared with the wider church? How? Transparency and public reporting must be the watchwords for each of these proposals and for the development of these plans.

4. The committee said it supported "a full investigation into the situation surrounding Archbishop [Theodore] McCarrick ... as well any responses made to those allegations."

This sounds much weaker than the call Galveston-Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the bishops' conference, made Aug. 16 and reiterated Aug. 27 for an apostolic visitation in concert with lay experts, chosen by the National Review Board "and empowered to act." What happened to the apostolic visitation? Why has this been watered down? If this "full investigation" does not carry the full weight and authority of the Vatican, we fear it will become little more than a public relations showcase.

The bishops' administrative committee has proposed a few small steps, barely a beginning on the long, arduous journey out of this quagmire of a crisis. The protection policies and procedures that the U.S. Catholic Church has implemented over the last 15 years in most dioceses have made the church a safer place for children and vulnerable adults. But what has been accomplished so far addresses only the crimes and sins of individual actors.

This plan doesn't approach the deep examination of conscience by those who have held power in the church these last 40 years. What was outlined won't lead us to the full truth-telling that is needed so healing can happen.

We repeat our call: The U.S. church needs a process similar to Australia's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse or the examination Chile went through under the specially appointed papal delegate Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta.

The U.S. church should invite a Vatican-appointed apostolic visitation team, assisted by competent lay experts, to review all documents at all levels of the church, to take testimony in parishes and chanceries, and to visit every seminary and formation house in the country. Participation must be mandatory for all. Anyone bound by a pre-existing nondisclosure agreement should be freed to speak to the visitation team.

The work of the visitation has to be made public at the end of its investigation. We would expect — like in Chile — for resignations to follow, but, more than that, we would expect to see a church in public penance.

The revelations we have experienced this summer have brought us face to face with the clerical and patriarchal structures of the Catholic Church that made this outrage continue for so long. That is what must be addressed.

This story appeared in the paper... Oct 5-18, 2018 Bishops' plan does not deliver accountability

Editorial: 'Historic numbers' mask fuller economic story

"We've accomplished an economic turnaround of historic proportions," President Donald Trump boasted from the White House steps in late July, announcing that the economy grew at a 4.1 percent pace in the second quarter of the year, nearly double the first quarter rate and the strongest pace in nearly four years.

Similar hyperbole followed the August jobs report: an unemployment rate of below 4 percent since April, numbers that haven't been seen in a generation.

"Once again, we are the economic envy of the entire world," the president said. Certainly, members of his party running for re-election this November would like to focus on these kinds of numbers (and take credit for them). Those who do run on the economy, especially those who call themselves fiscal conservatives, should be questioned by the electorate, because these "historic numbers" mask the fuller story of the U.S. economy, which is far from rosy.

The 4.1 percent gross domestic product growth in the second quarter could well be a blip — we won't know for another couple of quarters — and spurred as it was by a surge in consumer spending, most economists agree that this is a one-off growth spurt, unlikely to be sustainable. The growth would well be a bubble created by the tax cuts Congress passed in December.

The unemployment number also masks deep flaws in the economy, two sinister and longer-term trends.

First, part of the reason the unemployment rate is lower is because fewer people are searching for jobs. The labor participation rate — the percentage of the entire population, working age or not — either employed or actively looking for work is holding steady at about 63 percent. A strong economy should be producing more jobs, but ours isn't, not over the long term.

Job growth is happening in call centers and distribution/warehouse operations — another sign of our economy's future — while jobs are being shed in the manufacturing sector, supposedly the centerpiece of Trump's economic and trade policies. The auto industry, which is particularly vulnerable to trade, eliminated 4,900 jobs in August after cutting 3,500 in July, according to The New York Times. (Some economists also say that Trump's erratic talk and inconsistent management of trade relationships is actually working against GDP growth.)

The second trend is wages. Despite nine years of economic recovery and growth, wages have stagnated, barely keeping ahead of inflation. This trend, well-documented over many years and studies, tracks with another years-old, well-documented trend: the growing gap between rich and poor.

Looking at these rosy economic numbers, then after lifting our colored glasses, we find a fragile economy made even more fragile by the key (the sole) achievement of the Republican-controlled Congress, the December 2017 tax plan. That plan, rushed through the legislative process with virtually no scrutiny, gave lip service to the middle class, but its tax cuts benefited the richest households and profitable corporations. And as predicted, it has set federal deficits soaring. Even the record growth we see now can't offset the deficits.

It's the "perfect storm," Stan Collender, a financial journalist, told National Public Radio. "You've got more spending. You've got less revenue. And the deficit is just getting bigger and bigger, to the point where it will be at least a trillion dollars every year during the Trump administration and beyond."

Instead of fixing the problems in the December 2017 plan, however, House Republicans are doubling down. They have proposed a "2.0" tax plan that would make the 2017 law's individual tax provisions, which are to sunset in 2025, permanent.

As we have noted before, these tax cuts are just the first part of the Republican leadership's plan to cut programs that support low- and middle-income Americans. Eventually these leaders will decry the ballooning deficits, and they will call for deep cuts in Medicaid, Medicare and basic assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Republicans have spent years whittling away at these programs, but now budget plans call for cutting funds from education and training programs, transportation and other infrastructure, medical research, child and elder care, and other priorities that benefit nearly all Americans.

Congress must withdraw the tax plan 2.0 before more damage is done to our economy. The next Congress can then begin the work of real tax reform that benefits the majority of citizens, not the wealthy elite and corporations.

This story appeared in the paper... Sept 21-Oct 4, 2018 'Historic numbers' mask fuller economic story