Dreher v. Neuhaus

Some time ago, Rod Dreher wrote a lament for the Wall Street Journal called “The Pope Has Let Us Down

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus replied to this in First Things:

It is the exaggeration that offends, and the self-pity that galls. Rod Dreher of National Review has played a prominent role in publicizing Catholic scandals, and has made valuable contributions along the way. He writes about the difficulty in getting his family “through the present storm with its faith in Catholicism intact.” For instance: “You try—humiliatingly—to figure out how to tell your little boy that it can be dangerous to his body and soul to trust priests, the foremost icons of Christ in the daily lives of Catholics.” He should stop figuring. He should not tell that to his little boy. Sexual abuse, in the vast majority of cases, is perpetrated by relatives and by friends and members of the immediate family. Should a father tell his little boy not to trust his uncles or, for that matter, his teachers? A sensible parent who has any reason to believe that his child may be endangered by a particular adult has ways to make sure that the child is never alone with that adult. It is a cruel thing needlessly to instill in a child distrust toward those whom they admire. It is a scurrilous thing to suggest, as Mr. Dreher does, that priests in general, as distinct from the one or two percent who stand convicted or in any way accused, are to be suspected of abusing children. In the same article, Dreher blames John Paul II, who “retains in office a host of American bishops defiled by their indifference to the victims of depraved priests under their authority.” He is wrong again. Many bishops did not do all they should have done or did what was then, but is not now, thought to be the right thing to do. But “a host” of bishops “indifferent” to the sexual abuse of children? That is not true. The Pope could, says Dreher, remove such bishops “with a stroke of his pen.” That, too, is not true. Then the “host” of wicked bishops becomes a “legion.” The scandals, we are given to understand, have been very difficult for Rod Dreher. “Unless [the Pope] takes dramatic action to restore the Church to holiness—starting with deposing this legion of bad bishops—his criticism of modern society will ring hollow in the heart of this faithful American Catholic. And that is painful beyond words to say.” Does Mr. Dreher really mean to say that the heroic life and witness of John Paul has been for naught? What the Pope says, for instance, about the culture of life vs. the culture of death rings hollow to Rod Dreher, faithful Catholic. Or, as he puts it, faithful American Catholic. So very American. Of John Paul he writes, “I find it impossible any longer to give him the benefit of every doubt, as is the custom of many papal loyalists.” If there really is doubt, one might think that faithful Catholics would give the Pope the benefit of it. Dreher, on the other hand, appears to have no doubt about the charges he levels against the Pope and a host of bishops, nor about the distrust deserved by priests in general. We know that Mr. Dreher has had a difficult year. A lot of people are hurting, some even more than Mr. Dreher. It should not be denied that Rod Dreher is on many matters a talented and very professional journalist. Loyal friends—Dreher loyalists, so to speak—should give him the benefit of the hope that he will in the future write more honestly, informedly, and responsibly about the Church that he undoubtedly loves.

Now, Dreher’s response has been published (along with a brief reply from Neuhaus) in the February FT:


One must expect to be attacked when one writes an op-ed piece as controversial as my Wall Street Journal column “The Pope Has Let Us Down” (August 25, 2002). But one ought to be able to expect an attack coming from someone of the stature of Richard John Neuhaus to be fair, at the very least. His broadside against me (While We’re At It, November 2002) is inaccurate in its facts and unjust in its conclusions.

If the only acquaintance First Things readers had with my Journal piece was through Father Neuhaus’ selective rendering, they would not know that I wrote of my “tears and awe and gratitude for this holy Pope,” a pope whose writings I described as “a treasure for all mankind,” and of whom I predicted that “my descendants will surely and rightly call … St. John Paul the Great.” I wrote those things because I believe them. Yet Fr. Neuhaus ignored these words. Why? Because, I believe, those words make it harder for him to advance his hysterical straw-man thesis that I wish to say “that the heroic life and witness of John Paul has been for naught.”

I don’t intend to rewrite the column here, but Fr. Neuhaus’ reading of it is so prejudicial that the record should be set straight. The clear meaning of my column was that the Holy Father’s lack of effective governance of the Church over the course of his long pontificate has contributed to the catastrophe now upon the Church in America — and that, given the goodness and greatness of the man, is a profoundly sad and tragic thing. Indeed, I began my column praising the Pope for his homily preached days earlier to two million Poles, which condemned modern man’s embrace of “freedom without truth or responsibility.” However (I wrote), it is painfully difficult to square the man who has so bravely witnessed to these truths as Universal Pastor with the man who has presided over an episcopate that has ignored his clear and welcome teaching — and has suffered no penalty for its defiance of papal authority and Church teaching. Not even the rape of children by deviant priests, and the effective tolerance of same by bishops, has moved the Pope to discipline these men. How is it that a holy man like John Paul can appear to care so little about the suffering his bishops have allowed to be visited on Catholic children and families by sexually abusive priests? It is a question that troubles all of us who love and obey this Pope, but I don’t see how it can be ignored for the sake of keeping our consciences untroubled.

A secondary point I made — but which was ignored by Fr. Neuhaus — was that this neglect has also made itself manifest in other areas of Church life, such as liturgical abuses and the rejection of Catholic teaching by Catholic institutions. This is what I meant when I wrote that it is hard to tell my little boy “that it can be dangerous to his body and soul to trust priests.” I have little fear that a priest will molest my son. Yet it is still an outrage to be put in the position of having to explain to a child after Sunday Mass, time and time again, that the Church actually teaches something different from what Father said in his homily — in other words, that Father is something of a fraud. John Paul cannot be expected to police every pulpit in Christendom, of course, but the decay in catechesis and Church discipline that has occurred on his watch is undeniable.

My message in the column was that the Pope, by his misgovernance, is hollowing out the meaning and authority of his prophetic witness. Who is supposed to take the Holy Father seriously when he thunders against he evils of the modern world when he cannot, or will not, move against the evils perpetrated by his bishops? For years, I and Catholics like me have found every possible excuse for the Holy Father’s inaction. “Oh, if only John Paul knew!” I’ve said to myself on many occasions. Well, he knows. What are we supposed to make of this? Is it so far off the mark to wonder if the protection of the perceived interests of the institutional Church means more to the Holy Father than the faithful and their needs?

If asking those questions makes me “so very American” as Fr. Neuhaus puts it (with a barely veiled accusation of disloyalty), then I proudly accept the label. I affirm that I am a believing orthodox Roman Catholic, but if being American means anything, it means not acquiescing in being treated like chattel by one’s supposed betters. The laity and their children are not mere subjects meant to be at the unquestioned disposal of ecclesial monarchs. Why is it disloyal to protest the way that the Catholic hierarchy, including the Pope, has treated us in the matter of the sexual-abuse scandal? If Fr. Neuhaus does not perceive that this is a question on the minds of very many faithful Catholics, then he is even more out of touch than I thought. And if he does not recognize the justice of that question, and the pain asking it causes a Catholic father, then such hard-hearted clericalism makes him — well, possibly a candidate for the episcopate.

Speaking for myself, I cannot think indifference to the harm suffered by the victims of clergy sexual abuse or to the harm done to the Church itself would in any way be consistent with my profession of faith as a Catholic or my calling as a journalist. Along those lines, I note that Fr. Neuhaus has spilled buckets of ink writing about the scandal, but surprisingly little of it addressing the plight of sex-abuse victims and their families. Fr. Neuhaus has no children, obviously, but I cannot help thinking he spends little, if any, time talking to Catholic lay people as well as fellow clerics and theologians. I hope that he will avail himself of the opportunity to contact grieving Catholic mothers and fathers like Horace and Janet Patterson of Wichita, Kansas, whose testimony helped my understanding of this crisis tremendously. Their son Eric committed suicide at age twenty-nine — one of five men, all suicides, molested by the same priest in the 1980s, a priest (now in jail) known by his bishop to be a molester, yet assigned to parish work anyway. Does what happened in Wichita have nothing to do with Rome? Maybe the Editor-in-Chief of First Things thinks so, but if that is the case, he is not only wrong, but is circling the wagons around increasingly smaller company.


Brooklyn, NY

RJN REPLIES: It is true that I quoted and criticized those parts of Mr. Dreher’s article with which I disagreed, not those with which I agreed. I leave it to readers to judge whether what I have written about the scandals as been unduly deferential toward or defensive of bishops and indifferent to the victims. Any fair-minded reader of Mr. Dreher’s essay, I believe, would have concluded that he does fear that priests might molest his son, not that bad homilies pose a danger to the boy’s body. Mr. Dreher will, I trust, be pleased to know that I have had many more discussions of these matters with lay people than with clerics. As for my analysis of the sins of clericalism, please see last month’s commentary on that, “The Bishops in Charge.”