The Cat & The Cardinal: Assigning Moral Culpability When the Will Is Ill

My cat, Carlos, died last week. To be completely honest, I killed him—even though I was 2500 miles away and had not seen him since November.

I found out about his passing in the way so many of us learn about death these days: on Facebook. My former landlady, who assumed the care of Carlos along with the countless other burdens my hoarding left in its wake, posted a picture of him in happier times, with a message that said, “RIP Carlos. You deserved a better end.”

It was a shock, and coming in the midst of a stretch of vulnerability triggered by switching anti-depressant meds, finally coming to terms with the fact that I live in LA now, and nagging guilt because I’m not moving fast enough to get back into therapy, that Facebook post knocked me flat. I sobbed for two days straight, the grief finally penetrating the medication shield. I besieged my son and my friends with self-pitying texts. I wanted sympathy, and I wanted it bad. I wanted the people I love, the people who’ve made themselves responsible for supporting me on the way to healing, to tell me how sorry they were for my pain, and to assuage my guilt by telling me it wasn’t my fault. I wanted them, God help me, to share my anger at my landlady for not breaking the news to me more gently, for the cruel judgment I read into her post.

Because God is good (and my family and friends have their heads on straight), I did not get what I wanted. Their sympathies went where they belonged—with Carlos himself, a sweet, good kitty who forgave me everything but abandoning him, and with my landlady, who did everything she could to love him back to health after the effects of my neglect, who was devastated when she couldn’t, and who has added one more real and terrible grief to the hoard she is carrying for no other reason than that she was my friend.

To me, my family and friends gave honesty, love, and accountability. They know, and helped me to know, that I did not intend Carlos’s death, and that the illness I struggle with made him sick, too. But they also know, and helped me to know, that I could have chosen differently. My will was ill, but not absent. I could have gotten Carlos to a safer home sooner. I chose not to.

My cat did not die because I made a mistake, or because he was unavoidable collateral damage in the course of my disease. He died because I sinned. I was responsible for him, and I failed him, because in my pride and need to conceal how sick I was, I chose not to get him help.

I’m not posting about this to get that undeserved sympathy, but because I think there’s a lesson here for another story that broke badly last week—the revelation, substantiated by documents released after years of efforts to keep them concealed, that Cardinal Roger Mahony participated knowingly and actively in actions designed to protect clerical abusers from the legal consequences of their actions. Ironically, the young people victimized were most often members of undocumented immigrant families—the very people whose rights Cardinal Mahony defended heroically in the public square. In the same week, there was news of Bishop Robert Finn’s pronouncement that the National Catholic Reporter—the independent publication that called for Bishop Finn’s resignation after his conviction for failing to report sex abuse in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese—is not authentically “Catholic” and poses a danger to readers’ faith. Anecdotally, we heard last week that Cardinal Barnard Law—the most notorious protector of clerical abusers in the United States, who now lives in Rome—was chosen to celebrate the Vatican Mass for the Protection of Life on the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade.

These stories unleash the predictable tides of combox venom. “Catholics are a grotesque people who rape children,” insisted one commenter on coverage of the Mahony revelations, and that’s just the printable version of that meme. They also unleash an understandable defensiveness among some faithful Catholics. “When does this end?” a fellow blogger asked in an offline exchange. “Can’t we just forgive and move on?” At first, I admit to siding with the second sentiment. I’m sick of witch hunts, and know enough about how the Church operates to believe, initially, the painful truth of the protestations: “We made mistakes. We didn’t know how to manage the illness of abusers. We thought they could be cured. We pray every day for the victims.”

Then I read the documents the L.A. Times released. And I understood, sickened, that sometimes witch hunts find real witches. There is a difference—one my friends taught me; one my bishops, if anyone, should know—between mistake and sin. I don’t know, or much care, about the legal consequences these men should face, but I do know that a sin unacknowledged cannot be forgiven. We cannot “move on” without real repentance, real humility, acknowledged in as public a forum as the sin itself. This has been done in Ireland, and I would like to see it here.

I would also like to see us stop feeding the beast of scandal. We can begin by calling ourselves to account—or at least refraining from shooting the messengers who do for us what we refuse to do for ourselves. We can look, long and hard, at what our public actions say about our private dealings. And we can remember that we do no one, no matter the degree of his or her illness, any favors by enabling their flight from consequences, by denying them the responsibility for making what good choices the will still allows.

The way I see it, if my family and friends had lavished on me the sympathy I craved—out of love, or pity, or the sincere belief that I was too ill to have any moral culpability in Carlos’s death—they would be mistaken. If, however, they knew (as they do) the level of my fault and took great pains to deny it publicly, they’d be participants in my sin, if not even greater sinners than I.

My cat died, and I was responsible. I do not expect my friends to lie to me or others about that. I do not expect them to put other cats into my care, and to lie to shelters who ask about my previous record of pet ownership—or worse still, to make me the international spokesperson for the protection of abused and neglected animals. I do not expect them to vilify my landlady on Facebook for demonstrating her concern for the real victim. I do not expect them to be concerned about tarnishing my legacy as a defender of the rights of stray cats.

Maybe that’s simplistic. But Jesus said it more simply than I. Not “You did the best you could under the circumstances.” Not “Don’t worry, kids (or cats) are resilient.” Not “Whatever you do, don’t let yourselves get hauled into court.” Not “The image of the Church (or the Cardinal, or me) is more important than the life of some Mexican kid (or a cat named Carlos).” Not “Enough already, move on.” No, what Jesus said is this:

“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:1-3)

I don’t want to hang a millstone around Cardinal Mahony’s neck, or my own. But Jesus’ next words in Luke have merit:

“Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.”

Love rebukes, and endures the rebuking. Truth repents of sin—not makes slick apologies for “mistakes”—and invites forgiveness.

I would like to share with Cardinal Mahony, Bishop Finn, Cardinal Law, and others who have left this moral wound open the words that my friend The Hermit gifted me with last week, when I confessed to being overcome with grief and guilt:

For what it’s worth, here is what I think. You and me do the best we can with what we have to work with at any given moment and sometimes our best is not all that great . . . It ain’t even all that good sometimes. As a result people and other living things and not a few inanimate objects suffer. We grieve because we still have a heart—broken at the moment but a heart nevertheless; we feel guilt because we still have a conscience that knows right from wrong even if we don’t always do right from wrong. So, we take both our broken heart and our guilty conscience to our blessed Lord and ask him to heal them both. And He will. In His time and in His way we shall be made whole again. . .or at least some reasonable facsimile thereof, given that we are made of dust.

My brother bishops, if you would have the courage to repent publicly, there are many, many of us who would stand by your side and share the burden of the grief and guilt. I would be one of them, as I pray for the grace to cooperate with my healers and make amends. And how wonderful it would be if, somewhere within the soaring walls of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels—the landmark known as Taj Mahony among those who have been given the right to cynicism by our scandal—there were to be dedicated a chapel of perpetual atonement, where we could all “take our broken hearts and our guilty consciences to our blessed Lord.”

Rest in peace, Carlos. You deserved a better end.


  • Woodeene

    Ah, beautifully written. The pain of knowing that our sin has harmed others and that even when we are forgiven, there are still consequences. My prayers and cyberhug.

  • Stefanie

    Agree with you about much of what you wrote, Joanne (although I can’t answer about Carlos). As a native Angeleno, I wrote this to myself after the release of the documents by the L.A. Times:
    “I love the Catholic Church so much – what I have come to learn about it since I returned to it 16 years ago– the history of it and the truth it protects, grows every day. But she is not a Bride of convenience — she is a Bride that is to be true to its Spouse in all ways — not to be self-perserving…the Holy Spirit will perserve it –the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it — but because faithfulness is required of all spouses to one another.

    No one wants to think badly about a priest, a bishop, a scout leader, a parent, a neighbor. But punishment must happen. To not be punished means that your free will goes unpunished when you used your free will to lie, steal, cheat, condemn, or wiggle out of responsibility.

    The response by my archdiocese is just pitiful. The response is just words. A sinner –in the confessional –is absolved of sins via the Sacrament of Confession. This satisfies a Church law, not a civil law. Just as marriages require civil license and church annulments require a civil divorce, so actual trial and due process in the civil court must take place. Neither process completely satisfies a victim or a perpetrator because the memory of what happened won’t ever go away. Just as a death penalty doesn’t restore the victim to life, the money paid out in lawsuits was and will never be enough for victim or perpetrator or gatekeeper. The pain continues. ”

    So what should we do? How can a Catholic respond?
    In 2005, I volunteered for and was trained as a facilitator who — once a year — instructs the children of our archdiocese who attend our religious classes– how to protect their bodies, minds, and souls against predators, bullies, and others who may harm them psychologically or physically. In fact, it’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow for our 3-6th graders. Every four years, facilitators must attend a re-certification class. Each month, we facilitators receive a special bulletin updating information so that we can be aware of protecting our children due to the changing–often decaying– morals of the world.
    Yet it still amazes me that parents will continue to send their children out of Mass alone for bathroom trips — or allow them to wander the entire church plant after Mass while the parents are visiting their friends and acquaintances. Our parishioners continue to believe that the church grounds are somehow ‘protected’ –but I could identify a good 20 places in and around the church grounds where a predator could pull an innocent child into a secluded area. I confront the parents of these wandering kids all the time, but they look at me indulgently as if there is something wrong with my thinking. And these are parents well aware of ‘the scandals’ as we call them. Therefore, we must maintain our vigilance and to teach children what is ‘icky’ and what is acceptable behavior in adults or younger people. And how to say ‘no!’ and how to report unacceptable behavior.

    By the way, for years, the cathedral used to have a side chapel with the photos of some of the victims which covered a simple cross. It was tough to see that every time I visited the cathedral, but there it was. Votive candles were available for prayers.

    Sorry for the long post — in preparing for tomorrow’s class, I’m very much processing how I will craft the lesson so that I’ll have done my job properly.

    • bill bannon

      I agree with you on wandering children. Their parents are in denial but maybe that’s how most cope with modern life. Centuries ago people didn’t watch the nightly news which is often an obituary related to local car crashes and crimes or international incidents. The news tells us nightly that life is fraught with sudden evil then we flee that dose of news into tv fiction or comedy….a roller coaster of reality and flight from reality. The anabaptists block out all that and go back into the previous centuries of no media but they have denial too in other areas.

  • Fr. Andy

    Regarding the revelations in California, and the rest of the country as well…Episcopal arrogance, the idea that they knew better than victims and a complete focus on their career and not the cross brought the US Church to where it currently reside, on its knees.

    Truthfully, when Cardinal O’Malley was in Ireland when that horrific scandal broke, I prayed that there would have been some type of reconciliation here in the US. It would have been beautiful to see the cardinals, and bishops of the archdioceses of Boston, NY, Philadelphia and LA lay prostrate in repentance and reconciliation (like Cardinal O’Malley in Ireland). But it was not to be; the Church hierarchy went into damage control, threw dead priests under the bus by putting the blame on them, they hid and sometimes destroyed evidence, obstructed investigations and then my favorite: “I am the bishop of the diocese; I will tell you what will happen and you will listen and then obey.” I could go on and on but I think you get the idea.

    As for today’s Church. I work in Catholic higher education and I see the damage that this attitude has done. We have many, many faithful Catholics. But, don’t tell them they are sinning because they question; or, tell them things that they know to be a lie because they will be gone in a minute. The irony is that they don’t need the Church like their grandparents did; they want it as a source of faith, spirituality and community. But, when what they want treats them as if they are uneducated and unintelligent, is so inflexible that it is either the Church or the highway, they leave.

  • Terry

    Joe Paterno was my boyhood hero. When the sex scandal broke I was devastated BUT Joe did tell his superiors about it and I think he thought that was all he had to do. Whether that was right or wrong he ended up being stripped of everything. Now – time and time again our Cardinals & Bishops found out about sexual perverts and they did everything to hide them. Transferring them from place to place and hiding the whole thing. YET, they are never punished! My wife and I are both converts of some 30 years and if the Catholic Church wasn’t the ONE TRUE CHURCH we would be long gone. I could have told you about Mahoney years ago because of his actions and lack of HUMILITY.

  • Karen

    You and Carlos are both in my thoughts and prayers.

    • Subsistent

      Regarding Carlos, and non-human animals in general: I readily admit that a dog, for example, really knows, in a sensory way, its owner, and can have a real bond of sensory affection for that owner. But is there any evidence at all that the dog actually judges — not necessarily in words — that the owner is real, and actually judges that it really has that affection? If a St. Francis spoke to his brother-birds, they really heard his voice. But did they themselves know and judge that they really heard it? I submit there is no actual evidence that a non-human animal can judge that it itself is real, or that any other being is.
      Why don’t such animals ever talk, if not because they have nothing to say? Altho some parrots can form words, is there any evidence at all that they’re expressing their own judgments (even erroneous ones)?

  • peicurmudgeon

    In my opinion, there are two issues with the way the hierarchy of the Chruch as handled the abuse issues. First if all, the shuffling of priests is the most obvious. That never should have happened. The other issue, hidden just a little deeper, is the lasck of moral leadership of everyone involved.
    If the priests bishops, and others were to come forward of their volition and turn themselves over to secular authorities, they might be able to say they were weak succumbed to temptation and ask for forgiveness.
    As it is, I am not aware of a single individual who actually did this, either on their own, or at the urging of their peers. All were only uncovered through investigation, and most fought the accusations in court.
    For those of us outside the church, this type of lack of responsibility counters any amount of ‘moral authority’ that comes from church leaders.

  • The Other Weirdo

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more perverse and sickening use of the term “witch hunt” than right here in this very post, glibly playing off real tragedies that beset innocent people who are caught up in a wider society’s psychological meltdown. Whether it’s Christians hunting witches during the fun period of European and American history, Christians freaking out over satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s and ’90s, or Africans abandoning, abusing and killing their own children who’ve been accused of witchcraft, there is one fact that was absolutely true: none of it was real. Not the witches, not the SRA. If there was a witch hunt of Catholic priests, they would be turned out into the street and forced to prove that they never abused any children.

    That you think it was a witch hunt, one that happened to snare some guilty priests, shows how divorced you were from the world. At least 3 Popes were involved in the current cover-up, one of whom wrote the rules that governed it. Who knows how far back it really goes.

    There are many periods of Christian history whose defining features should never be used to minimize the significance of modern events. Witch hunts, a terrible blight on Europe and to a lesser degree, the New World, is one such event.

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  • Gail Finke

    Lovely post, Joanne!

  • Subsistent

    Ms. McPortland’s post here seems to me eloquent, instructive, and valuable food for thought. Nonetheless it seems to glide too easily from acts and omissions that are in themselves unspeakably heinous, to a judgment of internal sin on the part of those committing them. While I’m not sure but what G. K. Chesterton is overrated by “Chestertonians”, I do think this advice from him is sound: Never attribute to malice what can perhaps be sufficiently explained by stupidity. Or by mental illness, I would add. (There seems to me a tendency for some brilliant but mentally ill men to feel themselves called to ministry, Catholic or non-Catholic.)

    • joannemcportland

      I hope I didn’t slide too quickly from illness or stupidity to sin. I am going by the evidence–contradicted again this morning by Cardinal Mahony, but damning in his own handwriting–that he DID know all the things he claimed not to know, and acted (for whatever reasons, with whatever level of consciousness, though it’s hard to believe he had less moral culpability than the abusers suffering from mental illness) deliberately to break the law as well as to betray the victims. I dare GK to tell me that’s not sin.

  • naturgesetz

    Saying, “Cardinal Barnard Law—the most notorious protector of clerical abusers in the United States, who now lives in Rome,” may be accurate in the sense that he has that reputation, but it is also true that he instituted new procedures to deal with abusers (instead of just shuffling them to new parishes) early in his tenure as archbishop of Boston, and the numbers of incidents fell from 28 per year before he arrived to about 10 per year for his first 8 years. Then he toughened the procedures, and the rate fell to about 4 per year. And for his final two years in Boston, there were zero incidents reported. This was reported in the Boston papers at the time the grand jury reported that there was nothing for which he could be criminally indicted. There were some cases where accusations that should have been believed were not, but known abusers were dealt with in ways which were intended to stop the abuse — ways which were increasingly effective.

  • KSOH

    Patheos (Pathetic??) Are you self absorbed enough?
    Could you find more transparent devices to grab attention? We know that you neglected your cat and let him die. Somehow you’ve aligned yourself with the Church’s heinous abuse of children (maybe you have that right).
    Your parable has no intellectual value, no entertainment potential, no moral lessons to teach. Why not reflect on the fact that you’re a callous person. Your values were formed before you needed this medication. Your lack of compassion for other living beings is not treatable by outside means. Don’t seek to blame your medications for allowing your cat to die and seeking to make a story from it.

    • joannemcportland

      For whatever truth is in your accusations, I am grateful. If this post came across as blaming medication for my lack of compassion for other living beings, or blaming anyone but myself for deliberately causing Carlos’s death, then please blame my inadequacies as a writer. And believe me, I reflect on the fact that I am a callous person every day.

    • Subsistent

      Vatican II’s constitution *Gaudium et Spes* states (in Section 28), “[God] forbids us to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone.”
      My application here of this is, God forbids us — including “KSOH”, even if he be non-Catholic — to make judgments about the internal guilt of anyone — including judgment about that of Ms. McPortland.

    • Melody

      KSOH, did you listen to today’s reading from I Corinthians at all? Seems to me that there is some food for thought there. Your comment fails the “Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary” rule on all three counts.

  • Y

    Nine Cradle Catholic children abused by the church; not one public apology. Contract to treat family with a RC therapist (conflict of interest, I would say) not disclosed and short-lived. Only one practicing catholic remains. Three dead (two suspected suicides). – Testimony of one of the nine, still reeling with pain at the age of 61.