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.


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