Arguments that shed light

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates an evening vigil service in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to mark the end of the Church's year of the priest, on June 10, 2010. A year that has been marred by revelations of hundreds of new cases of clerical abuse, cover-up and Vatican inaction to root out pedophile priests.Thousands of priest from around the world gathered in St. Peter's square in a major show of support for Pope Benedict XVI amid the clerical abuse scandal. During the ceremony Pope Benedict XVI strongly defended celibacy for priests but he didn't directly mention the clergy abuse scandal but he referred to what he called 'secondary scandals' that showed 'our own insufficiencies and sins.' PHOTO by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

I’m not entirely certain how significant the new Vatican norms are for the treatment of crimes considered to be “most serious” within the Church. But I thought it worth looking at just one example of how the church and the secular media exist in two distinct universes.

I think that most of the updates were non-controversial, which makes a reporter’s job more difficult if they’re trying to drum up excitement for a story. I think most everyone agreed, for instance, that the statute of limitations for cases involving the sexual abuse of minors should have been increased from the 5 years it was previously.

But it is kind of curious to watch the apoplexy over the church’s view that ordination of females is a serious wrong. Here’s how the New York Times introduced the issue:

But what astonished many Catholics was the inclusion of the attempt to ordain women in a list of the “more grave delicts,” or offenses, which included pedophilia, as well as heresy, apostasy and schism. The issue, some critics said, was less the ordination of women, which is not discussed seriously inside the church hierarchy, but the Vatican’s suggestion that pedophilia is a comparable crime in a document billed a response to the sexual abuse crisis.

Even if a sizeable number of Catholics actually paid attention to the norm update, the characterization of “many” of them as astonished seems a bit odd.

I began writing this post a day ago, when the story included the following remarks:

The revision announced on Thursday codifies a 1997 ruling that made attempting to ordain women as priests a crime punishable with excommunication.

The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an American priest with the Maryknoll religious order, said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent him an excommunication letter within two months after he participated in a ceremony ordaining women, but that the Congregation had taken years while it considered the requests of bishops to defrock pedophiles.

“What I did, supporting the ordination of women, they saw as a serious crime,” Father Bourgeois said. “But priests who were abusing children, they did not see as a crime. What does that say?”

This has been completely removed from the updated story, which is wise. Not only has it been replaced with a nice back and forth discussion about female ordination and why the church considers it important, this was just an incendiary argument that added nothing to the story.

To compare the public repudiation of church teaching on ordination with the private sin of child abuse is just unhelpful. If child abuse were public, it would be easy to punish the perpetrators. But it’s actually a very difficult crime to punish because it involves few witnesses who almost always are at odds. As anyone who has been abused or who has been close to someone who has been abused knows, it sometimes takes years to navigate through the painful emotional harm to the point that a victim can actually confide in a trusted friend or family member.

That’s why the statute of limitations had to be increased, for instance.

In any case, the new or updated New York Times story is a wonderful improvement. It explains some of that context on the statute of limitations. It includes outrage from those affiliated with liberal Catholic reform movements as well as defenses from those within the church hierarchy. Their arguments are presented so that the reader can weigh the benefits and weaknesses of each. It provides a nice service to readers and sheds light on continued painful discussion points.

Print Friendly

  • Martha

    “The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an American priest with the Maryknoll religious order, said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent him an excommunication letter within two months after he participated in a ceremony ordaining women”

    That might have something to do with making these fake ordinations so in-your-face by sending PR releases to newspapers and spouting off about how you’re every bit as much real Catholics as anyone else and nobody is the boss of you. If you thumb your nose at the boss and dare him, go on, I double-dog dare ya! to do something, you can’t really be surprised when you get handed your sandwiches wrapped in a road-map.

  • Martha

    Although, for one conservative/traditional/orthodox Catholic’s response to the way the release of the norms was handled, see The Anchoress’ blog:

    http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/theanchoress/2010/07/16/the-vaticans-epic-fail/

    “Honestly, do I have to go to Rome and storm the press office of the Holy See, and sit the curia down and pull their hats off to smack them upside the head? Must I bang on their desks and say:

    “stupido! Stupido! PR IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE! On the rare occasion where you’ve done something that will bring you a cautious measure of good will, or at least less-hostile reportage, you don’t tie it in with a controversial issue and allow nonsense equivalences to be drawn by people who do not move beyond headlines and soundbites!”

  • Passing By

    The title of that article a couple of days ago was something like “Vatican equates ordination of women and pedophilia”. This notion is still present in the article:

    caused confusion by also stating that ordaining women as priests was as grave an offense as pedophilia.

    A plain reading of the Vatican document shows the Times article is pushing an agenda instead of reporting news. Of course, since “Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting…”, it’s understandable.

    First, let me say this Catholic was neither confused nor astonished, nor do I read the actual document as some sort of attempt

    to resist any suggestion that pedophilia within the priesthood can be addressed by ending the celibacy requirement or by allowing women to become priests.

    That’s just silly. Again, read the Vatican document. It’s a list of grave wrongs and procedures for how to deal with them.

    I will say that the article does a good job of including comments from both sides, although the bottom line remains that bishops have always been able to remove a priest from ministry for serious offenses. Again, the Times and the victims groups want to push the focus to Rome, which raises another set of questions about their motivations, common sense, and knowledge of the Church and civil law.

    BTW, Fr. Bourgeois still gets his say in the NYT .

  • Ben

    But it is kind of curious to watch the apoplexy over the church’s view that ordination of females is a serious wrong.

    The NYT section quoted immediately after this makes it perfectly clear that it’s the issue of it being declared a COMPARABLE wrong within the CONTEXT of a document billed as a Church response to the sex abuse scandal.

    Getting a bit away from the journalism just to explain this line of thinking a little more: I cannot really conceive how one *could* think these violations are comparable in gravity. One is basically a violation against doctrine — a thought crime practically since such “ordinations” are null and void anyway and aren’t fooling anyone — and the other is a physical and emotional assault on a person that often scars for a lifetime.

    And, at least within the Catholic circle I move within, this did stir up a good deal of outrage. NYTs got it right.

  • Brian Walden

    The thing that jumped out to me is that all the other violations on that list are crimes against sacraments – they’re on there not necessarily because they necessarily cause physical harm but because they’re direct attacks against the Church. So it only makes sense for attempting to ordain a woman to be on that list. The real story isn’t that ordaining a woman is somehow equal to the abuse of minors; it’s that the Church sees the sexual abuse of minors as so serious that’s it’s equal to those other crimes in the spiritual damage that it causes.

    I just realized that my thinking is the exact opposite of Ben’s. Maybe the difference is the expectations of what would be in the document. As far as I know, the other stuff besides women’s ordination and sexual abuse of minors were already crimes reserved for the Vatican. Those two basically just got added to the list. If you that’s what you were expecting to happen, the document isn’t a surprise. If you were expecting something particularly about sexual abuse, then I can see how this document is a shock. As others have noted, the Vatican just doesn’t get public relations.

  • Ben

    Brian, I see the gravity of disrespecting the Eucharist. In the faith, that’s literally the Body of Christ. I also see the serious crime of adultery in the Confessional (if I’m reading that section right). Heresy? Sure, you are endangering people’s souls. But women’s ordinations that are null? I guess I just don’t get it, particularly not at this time where the abuse scandal is front and center. But, I’ll heartily agree that the Vatican either just doesn’t do or doesn’t get PR.

  • Bern

    This Catholic was surprised supposes I shouldn’t have been. The Anchoress is right: these guys need a good clock upside the head and immediate remedial PR 101. At least the USCCB got on the case and tried to salvage what they could, but really, what’s the use? The only concrete changes are the to 20 years after the victim’s 18th birthday (not 5 years)
    and that discipline can include defrocking. But there are no–and probably never have been–and penalties for NOT following the norms. These guys can’t find it in their hearts to condemn their own, or to hold themselves to an accountable standard.

    On the journalism side I like that the Times online links directly to the url on the Holy See site that contains the revised Norms in English so folks can see how charmingly byzantine it all is.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Rachel Donadio reports her own speculation as “news” by writing

    The decision to link the issues appears to reflect the determination of embattled Vatican leaders to resist any suggestion that pedophilia within the priesthood can be addressed by ending the celibacy requirement or by allowing women to become priests.

    This is a flagrant example of the phenomenon Lewis discussed in his “Bulverism” essay. Don’t bother showing that someone is wrong; assume that he is wrong, and proceed to “explain” his purported ulterior motives for being so perverse as to believe what he does.

  • Gabrielle Azzaro

    Bottom line: the Catholic church could have avoided a whole lot of anger and confusion if they had just issued two separate statements. True, ordaining women is a public “crime” easy to prove and punish. And the punishment is swift and grave. Excommunication, according to the Catholic church condemns one to eternal damnation, since heaven can only be reached through the priests. (As re-explained by Pope Benedict this year of the priest.) Sexual abuse by a clergy member or religious is mot public, and therefore, more difficult to prove. But once it is proven, the consequences should be public. The offending priests should be made to register as sex offenders and their dioceses should print their names so that any victims may come forward. Saying that it may take years to sort through the truth is just another excuse, like “we didn’t understand pedophilia back then,” and the church should be ashmed.

  • Dave

    I daresay the “apoplexy” arose from seeing the faux ordination of women as an egregious red herring in the context of clerical pedophilia. A kinder explanation above is that the Vatican still hasn’t grasped PR 101.

  • Julia

    1) I wish people & the news would quit using the term “defrocking”. It gives the impression that unless a priest is laicized he is free to dress and act as a priest even though he has been permanently removed from ministry. That’s not true at all. “Defrocking” is misleading slang and should be relegated to the compost heap.

    2) The Vatican press office, for many years, has had the procedure of announcing every Friday the important acts of the week. This past week the recent revisions to the Canon Law were announced. I don’t think it occurred to anybody over there what the press was going to do with the announcement on the same day of revisions to very different parts of the Code.

    3) Why are attempted unauthorized ordinations considered as very serious infractions?

    If a lawyer, an officer of the court, publicly defies the authority of of a judge, that is treated as a very serious offense in the legal system – because it strikes at the integrity of the system. If a lawyer doesn’t like a law or a rule of procedure, there are ways to try to get it changed.

    Similarly, a priest or bishop who is an official member of the church’s clergy, attempts to ordain anybody, but particularly those who are not eligible for such ordination, without going through channels is a very serious matter. It becomes even more serious if it is done defiantly, publicly and contemptuously. Just like a lawyer defying a judge, it strikes against the institution.

  • Julia

    Little attention was paid to this part of the revisions:

    § 2. With regard to the delicts mentioned above in § 1, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, by mandate of the Roman Pontiff, may judge Cardinals, Patriarchs, Legates of the Apostolic See, Bishops as well as other physical persons mentioned in can. 1405 § 3 of the Code of Canon Law[4], and in can. 1061 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.[5]

    can. 1405 is a section of Canon law that reserves judgment of Bishops, Cardinals, Nuncios and legates to the Pope.
    This means that these guys can get the book thrown at them.

    There is provision in Canon law for judging acts of “administrative power”. Heads may yet roll.

  • Passing By

    I find it rather comforting that the Vatican is lousy at public relations, but then, I find religious marketing generally unappealing.

    In any case, does anyone really believe a better PR strategy would somehow stop the New York Times from their Crusade?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    One of the most common prejudicial tactics the media uses against the Catholic Church is that when a controversy erupts they go to liberal, left-wing, or radical lay groups or individuals for quotes (sometimes identifying them as such, but frequently not doing so). Then they get quotes from Church officials or the Church hierarchy. Presto! you get “the Catholic people” vs. the Church leadership. And nothing is so dear to the American psyche than “the people” vs. anyone.
    Yet there are many, many traditional lay groups such as the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary, religious congregation Third orders, Catholic civil rights groups, Catholic lawyer groups, etc. But their people or leaders are almost NEVER sought out for quotes in defense of Church leadership, doctrines, traditions, or decisions.
    As pointed out the Times story may have improved, but at base–as the facts given here indicated–it was still the old media two step:: get quotes from liberal (mostly lay) anti- Church leadership, anti-Church doctrine or traditions groups or individuals; get quotes from Church leaders; But don’t bother to get quotes from lay groups or individuals which support Church leadership and Church teachings or traditions.
    Yes, it does provide both sides of an argument, as clearly pointed out here, but in the American context in a very typical loaded way.

  • Jerry

    But it is kind of curious to watch the apoplexy over the church’s view that ordination of females is a serious wrong.

    I don’t understand why you characterized the reaction as “apoplexy” since that word means extreme rage/excitement. I’ve not seen extreme rage about that stance about women priests taken in isolation and not connected to the sexual abuse story.

    Even if a sizeable number of Catholics actually paid attention to the norm update, the characterization of “many” of them as astonished seems a bit odd.

    I think you’re right that most don’t care what the norm update said. Since the word “many” is an antonym for “few” and “single”, “many” seems perfectly appropriate.

    I know many believe that PR is part of the problem. But from what I can see, the Catholic church is making a clear statement that destroying the lives of children and attempting to ordain woman are both more grave delicts.

    Reading that statement make the issue quite clear, at least to me. Attempting to ordain a woman results in major excommunication while pedophilia results in him being punished according to the gravity of his crime, not excluding dismissal or deposition.

  • MJBubba

    As a non-Catholic, I can entirely see that if some priest was so far off the reservation as to ordain a woman, then he should expect his insubordination to be dealt with as a crime similar to mutiny.
    I also cannot see why anyone would seriously waste time reading NYT reporting on Roman Catholic developments. They have given up any claim as a credible source of information on matters Roman Catholic. Mollie, thanks for bulldogging the NYT for their shameful attack journalism.

  • str

    Of course, coupling the two changes was a stupid move PR-wise, especially since one can easily expect what church-hating publications like the NYT will do with it.

    But that doesn’t make the bigotted, angenda-driven actions of that paper any less horrendous. I also don’t see it a legitimate concern for a reporter “to drum up excitement for a story” if there is nothing exciting about that story to begin with.

    The question of X being a worse offence than Y is anyway a stupid one (which has been addressed even by the Apostles and Jesus himself), but one could make a far better case that for the NYT child abuse is a far worse crime than murder (unless of course, the abuser is cineastic genius)- and unfortunately the paper is not alone in this view.

    That imitating a sacrament is indeed a grave delict should come as no surprise (and these cases also involve heresy and schism too).

    Vatican’s suggestion that pedophilia is a comparable crime in a document billed a response to the sexual abuse crisis.

    “The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an American priest with the Maryknoll religious order, said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent him an excommunication letter within two months after he participated in a ceremony ordaining women, but that the Congregation had taken years while it considered the requests of bishops to defrock pedophiles.”

    Yes, a great idea to interview someone who has an obvious axe to grind. Akin to interviewing the aforementioned film maker on the U.S. legal system.

    But even worse, excommunication is incurred automatically. The letter is merely confirming this. Defrocking, as I have said before, is a completely useless practice and nobody is helped or hurt by a abusing priest being defrocked.

  • str

    Gabrielle,

    “Excommunication, according to the Catholic church condemns one to eternal damnation, since heaven can only be reached through the priests.”

    That is complete and utter nonsense.

    The church never condemns anybody to eternal damnation.

    If somebody is excommunicated, he has committed certain actions which automatically put her outside the state of grace. In a wider sense, anyone committing a mortal sin excommunicates himself. In a narrower sense, formal excommunication just makes it harder for someone to be reconciled. Those formally excommunicated cannot just go see a priest and confess everything would be fine.

    But it has nothing to do with some sinister tool to put people into hell.

    That punishment should be public is not that obvious as you think it is. Modern man, who thinks himself oh-so evolved, once in a while switches back to medieval market square mode, especially if the media for purely sentimental reasons declare that something is really a crime.

  • str

    Jerry,

    “I don’t understand why you characterized the reaction as “apoplexy” since that word means extreme rage/excitement. I’ve not seen extreme rage about that stance about women priests taken in isolation and not connected to the sexual abuse story.”

    Not true. As even comments on this page suggests, there are two possible concerns with the announcement:

    1. that the Vatican press office engages in another PR failure

    2. that ordaining women is not a serious thing

    Just look at comments 4, 6 and 7: somebody thinks these ordinations are no big deal and hence they are enraged that the Holy See could consider them in that manner. But they are very serious indeed.

  • Dan

    Perhaps the Vatican just enjoys getting a rise out of the NYT.

  • Julia

    Perhaps the Vatican just enjoys getting a rise out of the NYT.

    What a great idea. ha ha
    I wonder if that does ever happen for real?

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    I’m not Roman Catholic. Have never been Roman Catholic. KNow very few Roman Catholics. Yet even I understand why the Roman Catholic Church thinks ordaining women is a grave wrong. I think some people a the the NYT just disagree with the Roman Catholics and want them to change. That or they are incredibly ignorant.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Those who complain about TheVatican’s lack of “PR sense” are being naive. Ideologues will find a way of declaring anything, even “2+2=4″, objectionable, as long as it is said by someone they have made up their minds to hate. This is a phenomenon I have had the unenviable opportunity to observe “under the magnifying glass”, where members of [organization omitted to avoid arguments], on being told that “THEY said NOT to jump off a skyscraper”,would promptly start climbing.

  • str

    Sure, Will, haters will always find things to hate, even make things up. However, the problem lies not with the hard core of haters but with the masses that are inclined to believe bad things about the church.

    One could avoid create too many situations that could be misconstrued. Or was it absolutely essential to declare these changes now.

    (But I am with you that simply two separate declarations in close proximity would not have changed things.)

    And for my part it’s not a complaint but a “I wish they would…” kind of thing. Complaints go to the NYT for using another opportunity to misconstrue.

  • Dave

    Will, it is true that some folks will snark whatever the Catholic Church does, but why give them such an opening? The Vatican turned a potential “Look, they’re cleaning up their act on pedophilia” moment into an actual “Look, they’re dismissing women again” moment.

    This story just hit the Cleveland Plain Dealer and that’s exactly the slant they took, with go-to quotes from around Ohio.