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Editorial: Reality check was missing at US bishops' retreat

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U.S. bishops listen to the homily at Mass Jan. 3 in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception during their Jan. 2-8 retreat at Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. (CNS/Bob Roller)

It was a highly unusual event when most of the bishops in the United States gathered for a weeklong retreat earlier in January at Mundelein Seminary outside of Chicago. The event was driven by a most unusual and debilitating problem, the clergy sex abuse crisis, which has bedeviled the church in the United States for nearly 34 years.

The event itself may have been the primary goal — gathering a group of men publicly divided over a host of issues for prayer and meditation away from daily pressures. Only time will tell if there are long-term benefits.

More immediately, however, the point of the gathering as it relates to the abuse scandal remains quite puzzling, particularly in light of the 11 talks delivered by Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, official preacher of the papal household.

He began by announcing that the charge he received from Pope Francis was that he "lead a week of spiritual exercises for the bishop conference so that the bishops, far from their daily commitments, in a climate of prayer and silence and in a personal encounter with the Lord, may receive the strength and light of the Holy Spirit to find the right solution for the problems that afflict the church of the United States today."

In that regard, he said, "I am not going to talk about pedophilia or give advice about eventual solutions. That is not my task and I would not have the competence to do it."

It is beyond our competence and the space here to deal authoritatively with Cantalamessa's outpouring of erudition, a river of words that took bishops through discourses on the kerygma, Christian asceticism, prayer, spirituality, conversion, the centrality of the person of Jesus, all laced through with biblical scholarship, modern-era theologians, the work of Francis, references to pop culture, and an unremittingly bleak analysis of contemporary culture.

But it is not beyond our competence to ask questions. And there are questions aplenty, especially heading into the meeting in February in Rome of presidents of bishops' conferences from around the world.

First, why, if the sex abuse crisis and the bishops' mishandling of it was the impetus for the retreat, was it taken off the agenda as a topic to be dealt with? Why couldn't the spiritual exercises involve leading the bishops corporately to the basic requirements of the tradition — telling the truth, repenting, seeking forgiveness — necessary for reconciliation and rebuilding trust with the community?

It appears to us that most of Cantalamessa's oratory presumes that there is not much wrong with the status quo. He seems oblivious to the depth of the problem or how disruptive it's been to the victims, their families and, by extension, the wider Catholic community.

In fact, at the start of things, the pope's preacher, quoting from The Cloud of Unknowing on contemplation, urges the bishops to put "a cloud of forgetting beneath" them, leaving behind "every problem, project or anxiety we may have at the moment." If only the rest of the church had such luxury available.

Cantalamessa sees the possibility that the scandal has led to a "much more Gospel-like and humble" church "more free from worldly power."

The church certainly has been humbled, but that is mostly the result of outside forces. Whether it can actually embrace the humility called for is yet to be seen.

In one section that we find especially unfortunate, Cantalamessa reflects on Christ's agony in the garden.

"Due to the scandals of pedophilia, many bishops in the Catholic Church, starting with the bishop of Rome, are experiencing right now exactly what Jesus experienced in Gethsemane. As we have seen the ultimate cause of his suffering … consisted in taking upon himself sins that he had not committed himself and in bearing responsibility for them in front of the Father."

We leave it to scholars to tussle with that interpretation, but it doesn't take an expert to know that the comparison is woefully out of whack. It might work better had the preacher placed the victims in the garden. The bishops were driven to making a retreat not because they were taking on the sins of others but because of what they and their brothers either did or failed to do over decades. In this instance, they don't compare very favorably with Jesus.

We hope the February gathering delivers a more bracing reality check on the need for deep reform of church structures and clerical culture.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Jan 25-Feb 7, 2019 Reality check missing at bishops’ retreat

Editorial: The lesson of Opus Dei Fr. McCloskey's downfall

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(CNS/The Catholic Spirit/Dave Hrbacek)
(CNS/The Catholic Spirit/Dave Hrbacek)

It is time for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a standard sign to be posted in every chancery office in the country, just outside the bishop's door, reading:


It is time to be done with the breathless wonderment at whatever new revelations show one more holy and wonderful priest has been, in a hidden life, abusive of children, or women, or seminarians, or just a liar about what he knew or didn't know, did or didn't do.

Opus Dei priest Fr. C. John McCloskey III, for whom the prelature paid a $977,000 settlement to a woman who accused him of sexual misconduct, is the latest to cause former associates and friends to go all aflutter with "How could he have?" And "How did we not know?" And "Why didn't those who did know speak up?" And "How could someone like that also do so much good?"

He could do such things, first of all, because he is human, all that nonsense about ontological differences to the side. Human frailty is not a function of theological or political ideology. Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton, luminaries of the Catholic left, for instance, were also examples of lives that combined great goodness with sexual indiscretions profoundly contradictory to their station in life. We are all capable of good and evil. That's the easy part.

The answers to the other questions reside primarily in understanding the culture in which all of those actors, McCloskey included, operated: the Catholic clerical culture. It is highly secretive, highly privileged, believed to be distinctive from the rest of human kind, allegedly celibate and, until recently, enjoying from members of the Catholic community as well as from civil authority in this country a level of deference that is normally reserved for the highly privileged. It is not without consequence that for too long that kind of deference extended to most of the media.

The old culture dies slowly and unevenly. McCloskey's manipulative behavior with vulnerable women was certainly, in hindsight, telegraphed in things he wrote and in a series of interviews done for an ultraconservative presentation on marriage preparation for Catholics. For the discerning, red flags were popping everywhere (and YouTube provides abundant examples), but the sirens are blaring and lights are flashing in one particularly weird segment that can be found here:

Fr. C. John McCloskey - Seeking A Woman Who Wants To Be a Wife

McCloskey is explaining to the unseen interviewer his understanding of why "Catholic men, truly Catholic men" take off for places like Latin America and the Philippines, "where you can find, fairly easily, wonderful women who are — pardon the expression — submissive in a healthy sense, and that just love being women and just love being mothers and love being spouses. Not that they're unintelligent or unattractive or even have a good education. But they recognize that as women they have gifts that men don't have, above all that possibility of conceiving and nurturing children that is the most important function in any family."

You see, he explains, in those regions of the world, while feminism has made "inroads," it is nothing like it is here in the United States. So that's why these truly Catholic men who "cannot find a good Catholic American woman who they would feel comfortable with" go searching for properly submissive women elsewhere. While those same men may not have looked hard enough around the home turf, often American women they find attractive are interested in careers, he asserts, not staying home and raising children.

That is the language and thinking of someone who became the face of one of Pope John Paul II's favorite organizations. McCloskey was a perfect model of what the late and hastily sainted pope saw as "heroic priesthood."

So was Thomas Williams, the face of the utterly corrupt Legionaries of Christ, another favorite organization of John Paul, who fathered a child and eventually left the priesthood after the reports became public in 2012. The problem for the community is not so much broken vows, but that the culture hid that reality for years. The organization and its very visible spokesman continued asserting a spirituality of absolutes and superiority as if nothing was amiss. That was the fraud perpetrated on the community.

The disgraced and disgraceful Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a serial pedophile who abused his own young seminarians and who also fathered two children, is in a category all to himself. Yet the culture not only tolerated him but advanced his demented ideas about leadership and priesthood until the dimensions of his fraud and corruption could no longer be hidden.

McCloskey and Williams were out front, absolutely certain, media-savvy Catholic TV personalities and possessed of all the answers one might need. They were the charm and the smilingly urbane face of the new evangelization. They were thoroughly indoctrinated with John Paul's ideas about the meaning of ordination and the pope's strange and strained insights into women expressed in his personal writings and a series of sermons that he delivered on his "theology of the body."

McCloskey for a few years personified that muscular priesthood. Characterized in a New York Times headline as "An Opus Dei Priest With a Magnetic Touch," the people he drew into the community were high-profile conservatives, politically and economically well-placed and powerful. There was a genuine appeal for many in his highly dualistic and rigorist, not to mention antifeminist, approach to the faith.

We are paying dearly for all of that right now. The peculiarities that came with John Paul's notions of priesthood — his insistence on rebuilding a cult separate and apart from ordinary people and the utter lack of judgment he showed in choosing his models for that project — became deeply woven into the fabric of an already corrupted clerical culture. What he advanced actually reinforced the worst characteristics of the culture.

It is not the sins of the individuals that should now be the focus. All humans fail; we are all capable of deception and worse. It is the institutional corruption that they came to represent. The failings hidden for years by the institution, in the case of McCloskey, Williams, Maciel and others. The power of money, in the case of Maciel and, more recently, of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, to buy them cover in the Vatican. The refusal on John Paul II's part, time and again, to listen to serious and credible allegations against Maciel and other abusers. He set the template in this era of scandal for how church leaders should proceed.

It is, indeed, the clergy culture that is at the heart of the church's problems. It is in dire need of radical reform.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Jan 25-Feb 7, 2019 The lesson of McCloskey’s downfall

NCR's Newsmaker of the Year: Theodore McCarrick

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Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick prays during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall assembly in Baltimore, Nov. 14, 2011. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

He has used the power of his arm,
He has routed the arrogant of heart.He has pulled down princes
From their thrones
And raised high the lowly.

Woven deep into the fabric of this prayer of Mary is a disposition about God, informed by the Hebrew Scriptures and consistent throughout the life and ministry of her son, Jesus, that turns the presumptions of the world on end. This young Jewish woman is given audacious words that put the powerful, religious and civil, on notice.

Her words have a searing significance this year for U.S. Catholics who learned that one of the mightiest princes of the church, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was being removed from ministry, stripped of his title and sent off to a remote friary in the wake of credible accusations of sexual abuse of minors and inappropriate sexual activity with seminarians.

Theodore McCarrick is NCR's choice for Catholic newsmaker of the year.

His fall from grace, deeply disturbing in its details, would have warranted special notice if only because he was the first U.S. cardinal so disciplined. But his story takes on a greater significance because it unmasks, in ways that previous cases of episcopal malfeasance have not, the secrecy, deceit and corruption of the clerical system. It illustrates the inability of two previous papacies to deal seriously with bishops and archbishops who were abusive themselves or complicit in covering up abuse by others.

McCarrick's biography, when finally put under microscope and with the aid of documents and testimony previously unavailable, unveils a culture that knew something was terribly amiss but failed to act. It not only protected one of its own but promoted him turn by turn for two decades. He rose through the ranks until he became, in the words of The New York Times, "one of the most prominent public faces of the Catholic Church in America."

Unlike others who were disciplined less severely for covering up abuse, McCarrick was removed from ministry for his own acts of abuse, that allegedly included molestation of the first child he ever baptized, abuse that allegedly began when the boy was 11 and continued until he was 31.

He also was credibly accused of abusing a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 and two former seminarians. One of them, a former priest, had received an $80,000 settlement in 2005. The other received a $100,000 settlement in 2007.

The harsh reality couldn't be avoided. The secretive, all-male, allegedly celibate clergy culture, where bishops can enjoy privileges once reserved for royalty and the extremely wealthy, was coming apart. There is no place left to hide.

Regular readers of this publication will know that for years we have held that the root of the problem lies beyond all of the institutional adjustments forced upon the church by legal proceedings and public indignation. The scandal, horrible as it is, is merely symptomatic of deeper maladies within the clerical culture, especially at the hierarchical level.

McCarrick's story provides ample demonstration of that point. We know from Catholic News Service reporting that a papal nuncio was informed as early as 1994 of the rumors of McCarrick's sexual misconduct, which included inappropriate behavior with seminarians at his beach house in Sea Girt, New Jersey. But in-house investigations in the Archdiocese of New York cleared him.

By that point, McCarrick, had already served (1981-1986) as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, appointed to that post by Pope John Paul II, who later moved him to the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, where he served from 1986 to 2000. John Paul named him to head the Archdiocese of Washington in 2001, the same year he made him a cardinal.

Throughout his climb up the episcopal ladder, there were whispers and rumors and worse — credible accusations that ultimately resulted in settlements. McCarrick is among a list of cardinals — Hans Groër, Keith O'Brien and Bernard Law — appointed by John Paul who were removed either for sexual misconduct or covering up abuse. Another, George Pell, is on trial in Australia for charges that he abused youngsters. It just took the world a little longer to learn about McCarrick.

That delay could be an advantage for the church. The timing is important, and McCarrick's case, which broke in June, may have created the fault line that opened wide with the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report in August. While reporting on the scandal has been thick on these pages and the pages of a lot of newspapers around the country for 33 years, something snapped this summer. Maybe it was that after decades of accumulating evidence, the reality became undeniable.

After all of the denial, lying, cover-ups, excuses, promises to change, apologies for "mistakes made," and looking for blame and causes in every imaginable corner of the church, the harsh reality couldn't be avoided. The secretive, all-male, allegedly celibate clergy culture, where bishops can enjoy privileges once reserved for royalty and the extremely wealthy, was coming apart. There is no place left to hide.

Insiders knew that — many of them saw it coming — and wondered when the scales would tip toward total disclosure. But it remained largely a deep-in-the-Catholic-weeds understanding of things. Theodore McCarrick helped move it into the open. The gregarious, charming, globe-trotting clerical diplomat, who helped raise enormous sums for the church and its agencies, was everyone's idea of the sophisticated modern churchman. He could walk through all levels of society, high and low, and across faith boundaries with grace and confidence.

When he tumbled off the pedestal, the wider world noticed. So many felt utterly defrauded. The anger and betrayal went off the charts. If there is a sentiment that now bridges the divides in the Catholic Church it is this: Things must change.

Exactly how is quite another — and at the moment, unknowable — piece of the ongoing trauma that Catholics have endured. But the sentiment seems set in an unshakable way: Things must change.

It would be a mistake, however, to view McCarrick and his fate with any degree of satisfaction. For while he symbolizes hierarchical corruption and the "arrogance of heart" that has taken the clergy culture so off course, he also represents a complex challenge to the Catholic community. McCarrick, for all of the failings that have been revealed, was in many ways a good man who accomplished a great deal for the church. In that sense, the story is not so simple nor dualistic as McCarrick-the-sinner and the rest of us. It is just as much about all of us, capable of evil and good, as well as the clergy who inhabit a terribly damaged culture.

McCarrick's fall provided the world with a rare look at a privileged life, protected by clerical secrecy and advanced by accumulated power and access to monied interests. It was all fertile soil for corruption. He was the beneficiary of a system that remains in place. If it is not radically reformed, changed well beyond alterations to institutional structures and norms, the corruption will continue in one form or another.

Theodore McCarrick paid a huge price for his deception and betrayal of trust. He did not, however, act alone. He was enabled by peers who operated within an ethos that encouraged secrecy and protection of hierarchical privilege at all cost.

We'll see in the coming weeks if our U.S. bishops, who hold a retreat in January, and the bishop leaders globally, who meet in February, have the will, not to mention the faith, to confront the now undeniable corruption in their culture. They won't have many more opportunities to engage the radical reforms necessary to begin rebuilding credibility and trust within the community.

For the moment, the rest of us will take solace in the conclusion of Mary's prayer, which envisions a God of boundless love and of mercy that extends from Abraham to all of his descendants for all time.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Dec 28, 2018-Jan 10, 2019 NCR's Newsmaker of the Year: Theodore McCarrick

Editorial: Trump tweets, Mueller indicts

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FBI Director Robert Mueller in the Oval Office of the White House, July 20, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons/White House/Pete Souza)

The Donald Trump administration, a maelstrom of deceit and amateurism from the very first day, appears to be in a new period of disintegration. Special counsel Robert Mueller's rather ample net, already bulging with much of the cast of Trump's pathetic presidential reality show, is now closing in on the main characters.

Trump is increasingly portrayed in court filings as at the center of plots to conceal both his extramarital affairs in order to protect his presidential run and his associates' and family members' contacts with Russians intent on tilting the 2016 election his way.

It is reassuring that some of the most important pillars of a democratic society seem to be not only holding firm but robustly imposing the rule of law on members of an administration and a president who clearly viewed themselves — at least for a time — as well above it.

As quickly as adjectives pile up in attempts to describe Trump, they just as quickly become ineffective. Chaos in the moment lies beyond description, its elements scattered and indistinct, its form shifting and shapeless. It is only in the aftermath, as first responders approach, that the effects of chaos can be assessed. What they'll find in this case no one knows.

Diagnoses aplenty have been advanced for the cause of the chaos. Some of the most severe have come not from the natural antagonists among Democrats, but from long-time loyal Republicans and the most eloquent apologists for the conservative cause. A sampling:

Conservative Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson:

Given what we know about the collusion — and there is no other word for it — between then-candidate Donald Trump's most senior advisers and what they thought was a Kremlin-tied lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton, the most shocking thing is that no one on the Trump side was shocked. The most offensive thing is that no one took offense. … It is the banality of this corruption that makes it so appalling. The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things. (PennLive, July 14, 2017)

Trump's inner circle has always been a cesspool. And there is a reason for this — a reason Trump has traditionally employed unethical people to serve his purposes. It is because he has unethical jobs for them to do, involving schemes to remove political threats and gain electoral advantage. And there is every reason to believe that Trump has fully participated in such schemes. (The Washington Post, Nov. 29)

Conservative columnist George Will:

America's child president had a play date with a KGB alumnus, who surely enjoyed providing day care. … [J]ust as astronomers inferred, from anomalies in the orbits of the planet Uranus, the existence of Neptune before actually seeing it, Mueller might infer, and then find, still-hidden sources of the behavior of this sad, embarrassing wreck of a man. (The Washington Post, July 17)

Conservative columnist and board-certified psychiatrist, the late Charles Krauthammer:

I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully. I was off by about 10 years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied. He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him. (The Washington Post, August 4, 2016)

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks:

Trump's emotional makeup means he can hit only a few notes: fury and aggression. In some ways, his debate performances look like primate dominance displays — filled with chest beating and looming growls. But at least primates have bands to connect with, whereas Trump is so alone, if a tree fell in his emotional forest, it would not make a sound.

It's all so pathetic. (The New York Times, Oct. 11, 2016)

You're beginning to see a lot of Republicans who are looking seriously at 2019, with a lot of Fridays like this one, and Trump really hurting himself, and maybe not serving out the term. (Interview on the PBS NewsHour, Dec. 9)

The chaos of the bully is beginning to wear thin. According to The Washington Post, "A new CNN poll finds that Trump's approval rating is mired at 39 percent, and it shows that even as ongoing investigations involving Trump and his orbit are bearing fruit, the American people continue to support the probe and believe it is turning up evidence of wrongdoing."

Some of the numbers from that poll: 50 percent say Mueller's investigation is "very or somewhat" likely to implicate Trump in wrongdoing; 59 percent believe Russian interference is a serious matter; 54 percent said Trump's comments characterizing the investigation are completely or mostly false.

It appears a day of reckoning is approaching. And the religious community at large will eventually have its own reckoning and a lot of explaining to do to rationalize its complicity in so much fraudulence. Trump has been able to con Evangelicals, Catholic bishops and priests along with significant numbers of Catholics in the pews into believing that he somehow represents a pro-life view and is a defender of religion. He's great at selling himself, or limitless versions of himself. Mueller apparently isn't buying.

The contrast between the two men at the center of this struggle — Mueller and Trump — is so glaring as to be almost blinding. It also explains a great deal. Trump is unable to engage Mueller, as he has so many others, in his reality drama because Mueller doesn't play. He doesn't need to, doesn't need the notoriety or fame. An actual war hero with multiple decorations, he has not risen to the bait of Trump's cheap combat theatrics. Trump tweets tantrums and assertions most often untrue; Mueller issues documents pages long containing detailed and precisely articulated charges backed up by hours and hours of interrogations and exhaustive analysis of financial and other documents. He and his investigators give no interviews, and in a city where leaks are as common as breath, the Mueller team has been leakproof.

Trump blusters; Mueller indicts. Trump demeans the institutions of democratic governance; Mueller has not only respected but also worked through them for decades.

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President George W. Bush announces Robert Mueller to be director of the FBI during an event in the Rose Garden, July 5, 2001. (Wikimedia Commons/White House/Eric Draper)

Trump, we increasingly know through disclosures of some of those documents, built a career on fraud, stiffing contractors, floods of Russian money and multiple bankruptcies. Truth, as perceived during his presidency, has been put on the critically endangered list. Mueller's career has been built on the pursuit of truth and the endorsements by two presidents from different parties and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle.

The most searing characterization of Trump is perhaps contained in his dismissal of the CIA's assessment of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel was detailed and disturbing enough to convince a handful of senators, including influential Republicans, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly involved in the gruesome assassination, including dismemberment, of the U.S. resident who wrote for The Washington Post.

Trump's is a life of transactions calculated only on the basis of personal benefit. He has perfected the creation of chaos to both distract from and call attention to himself, depending on the need of the moment. But the techniques that have served him well to this point have become useless and now serve to provide new, fresh fodder to the investigators. The law is unmoved by temper tantrums, tweet storms and name calling.

Donald Trump keeps lashing out.

Robert Mueller keeps doing his work.

A version of this story appeared in the paper... Jan 11-24, 2019 Trump's techniques are backfiring

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.


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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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!'