What do conservatives really think about Cardinal Mahony?

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Yes, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles will be in Rome and will vote in the process to select the next pope. In fact, as part of his social-media campaign against his critics, he plans to tweet whenever and wherever Vatican officials will let him get his hands on a keyboard.

Meanwhile, I am still following, with great interest, the mainstream media’s attempts to describe Mahony’s starring role in the North American Church and, especially, his approach to Catholic life and doctrine, which has for decades made him a figure of some controversy. Click here, for some background information related to this topic, especially the contrasting personalities of Mahony and current Archbishop Jose H. Gomez.

Both supporters and critics of Mahony would agree that, to understand the cardinal’s legacy, one has to wrestle with the history of the giant Religious Education Conference held in Los Angeles. Simply stated, it has long been a symbolic gathering of the progressive leaders of American Catholicism.

Thus, The New York Times dispatched a team to cover this year’s event. Here is some summary material from the resulting report to set the stage:

… This is a defining moment for Archbishop Gomez, who took over from Cardinal Mahony two years ago and is universally described as low-key and quiet, particularly compared with his predecessor. His public rebuke of Cardinal Mahony stunned observers not only for its content, but because the normally mild-mannered archbishop would react so swiftly and dramatically. …

Now, many see this as a first turn in the spotlight for Archbishop Gomez. Cardinal Mahony was known for marching in public rallies, cultivating allies in politics and Hollywood and an almost larger-than-life public persona. By contrast, Archbishop Gomez has only rarely appeared in the press over the last two years. He declined to be interviewed for this article and his staff declined to allow a reporter into the Religious Education Congress without an escort.

Once again, Mahony is described merely in terms of style, while Gomez receives both a style nod and, later on, an accurate theological label.

But here is the passage in this lengthy story that caught my eye:

Many here questioned whether Archbishop Gomez, a theological conservative shaped by his membership in the movement Opus Dei, would move quickly to undo Cardinal Mahony’s more liberal policies, like appointing women and lay people to powerful positions and supporting a robust AIDS ministry. But two years after taking the reins, he is often praised for not acting along ideological lines and has made changes only slowly. Last year, for example, he changed the name of the Office of Justice and Peace to the Office of Life, Justice and Peace. …

For many, Cardinal Mahony has long been a lightning rod in the church. He has deep wells of respect among Latinos, largely because of his role as a champion for immigrants. But traditionalists resent him for his liberal stances.

Now the key to this story is that the Times never appears to have actually interviewed any conservative Catholics in order to learn why they considered Mahony to be a liberal in the church. Instead, as is often the case, readers are given that reference to his “appointing women and lay people to powerful positions and supporting a robust AIDS ministry.”

Well, that’s interesting.

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Westernized Zen and the art of hiding sexual abuse

So many details will sound terribly familiar. At the heart of the news story is a powerful religious patriarch, surrounded by disciples who view him with a reverence that helps support an iron-clad climate of silence and secrecy.

In this case, however, the leader is Joshu Sasaki Roshi, one of the most famous Zen Buddhist monks in the world and a teacher who has had a tremendous impact in American elite culture. Now, it is being alleged (and in some cases confirmed) that since the 1960s he has sexually abused many, perhaps 100s, of his followers in Southern California and elsewhere.

Here is a key passage from a report in The Los Angeles Times:

A recent investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders has suggested that Roshi, a leading figure in Zen Buddhism in the United States, may have abused hundreds of others for decades. According to the group’s report, that abuse included allegations of molestation and rape, and some of the incidents had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which had taken no effective action.

“We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret,” the council wrote, adding: “We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished.” …

The council of Rinzai-ji oshos — senior Zen teachers ordained under Roshi — however, responded with a public statement: “Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough, and our practices were not strong enough so that we might persist until the problem was resolved. We fully acknowledge now, without any reservation, and with the heaviest of hearts, that because of our failure to address our teacher’s sexual misconduct, women and also men have been hurt.”

The allegations had lingered, literally, for decades and were allowed to become, in the words of one figure in the scandal “a tribal secret for 50 years.”

In this story, the details of the alleged abuse are described with hints, but that’s about it. Where this Los Angeles Times piece — for me — fell short was in its lack of crucial background material capturing the impact this man had on culture in Hollywood and among other cultural elites. This paragraph in particular intrigued me (in part because of what one Buddhist leader told me about a decade ago, that the whole New Age phenomenon in American culture was essentially Buddhism stripped of ethics and moral content):

Roshi arrived in Los Angeles 50 years ago and was among a wave of Japanese teachers to tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners. He quickly became an exalted figure and opened about 30 centers, including one on Mt. Baldy that is known for its rigorous training regimen. It was commonly thought, Martin and other critics said, that if women left Mt. Baldy it was because they weren’t tough enough to handle the demanding conditions.

What, precisely, is meant by the statement that he was willing to “tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners”? This would seem to be a crucial area to explore, in light of the ways his abuse was woven into his teachings. This piece is all but silent on this point.

However, a far superior New York Times piece has some fascinating material on what, precisely, Roshi was teaching and doing.

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