Bishops, Fight Your Own War (Or Better Yet, Remember Who You Are)

Bishops, Fight Your Own War (Or Better Yet, Remember Who You Are) September 4, 2018


Bishops, Fight Your Own War (Or Better Yet, Remember Who You Are)

Before August 14, 2018, I used to wake up and immediately experience a sense of gratitude. Even when I was exhausted, or knew we might be late for school or work, I would awake sensing the presence of Love, and of purpose. In the midst of waking up to news of worsening climate change, or violence against my neighbors, I would experience fear, and much sadness, but I sensed I was fighting on the right side, and that the day would prove fruitful. Somehow, I would join with others that day in the work for justice and compassion, because I work for the Catholic Church. And I have believed, with childlike (childish?) hope, that that means working for God.

Then the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report dropped, detailing not only decades of gruesome sexual abuse of children by many members of the clergy, but also revealing a strategic and arguably universal coverup of the crimes. As PA attorney general, Josh Shapiro, puts it, something like a “playbook” seems to exist in every diocese with documented clergy sexual abuse.

The “case studies” in the report detail the complicity of men I have worked with. I couldn’t keep myself from crying when I read of Bishop Zubik and Fr. Bob Guay assisting in the production of “letters of good standing” that would send child sexual predators to other dioceses. Bishop Zubik looks Confirmation candidates and waitresses directly in the eye when he shakes their hands–this is a man I have trusted to stand with integrity and care for all of God’s people. Fr. Bob Guay worked as our regional vicar up until last year. I still have beautiful Christmas cards signed by him.

My shock and grave disappointment turned quickly to horror, revulsion, and grinding sadness when Bishop Zubik’s statements started to roll in. No clear repentance for his personal complicity, no begging for forgiveness from the People of God, asking in humility for our input on how to redress the situation. Instead, we have been granted a savvy press conference, statements about how the Diocese has changed, how we do really great on sex abuse now!
Instead of personal accountability, we have heard about how “if” the Diocese has hurt anyone, Bishop Zubik apologizes on the part of all of “us.” While we, the faithful, are expected to detail our sins in number and specificity in the sacrament of Penance, we have received in return a vague PR statement from our highest local pastoral leader.

For over a week, I woke up disoriented, driving to work feeling shame and irony. What was I doing? Who did I work for? To what extent did working in a Catholic parish mean serving the People of God, and to what extent did it mean endorsing a hierarchical institution largely based on secrecy and unbridled power?

These questions remain with me. But in the midst of my very real existential crisis, I have found myself doing ministry. There have been youth group gatherings to co-lead, where I pray with and accompany teens as they examine their life experiences. There have been social justice meetings and action planning sessions. There are liturgies that make present the Eucharist, in the bread and wine, and also in the People of God gathered together. And aside from the necessary participation of our pastor in the confection of the Eucharist, all of this work
of “being church” has happened without one iota of clerical involvement.

I had felt so powerless in the face of all the clerical abuse, upon being reminded of just how hierarchical the Catholic Church really is. As law professor Nick Cafardi puts it in a recent U.S. Catholic article, “Decisions are made by the patriarchs, often in secret, about what will protect the patriarchy and their own careers and rewards within it . . . No concern is shown for those outside the patriarchy.” On a systemic level, there is no change that I can effect within the
hierarchical, institutional Church. And that is not okay with me. But getting back into the work of the church in the midst of this crisis has helped me to see that patriarchal, institutional power is not what the church is. The hierarchy does not own the power of Christ.

On August 26, 2018, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano released a now-infamous letter accusing Pope Francis of having been aware of the sexual abuse allegations against Cardinal McCarrick while allowing McCarrick to continue in ministry. Beyond knowing about the allegations, Vigano alleges that Francis deliberately lifted sanctions imposed against the prelate by Pope Benedict XVI. And so the soft American Catholic Civil War has begun. While neither Francis nor Benedict has made a definitive statement concerning the veracity of the claims, by August 27, bishops were already weighing in with their own “official statements.” These statements have been quickly and forcefully passed around Facebook by their respective loyal followers. Suddenly, from the left and the right, ordinarily level-headed public figures and friends have been spilling pages and pages of ink, speculating about whether or not Pope Francis is guilty. The Franciscan Fr. Daniel Horan immediately took to Facebook to try to clear Cardinal Cupich’s name, who is implicated in Vigano’s letter, sharing Cupich’s official response, which seemed to amount to, “Archbishop Vigano has always been cordial to me in person–why does he implicate me in his letter about Francis?”  A right-leaning friend shared a statement from her bishop, Thomas Olmsted, which read like an irrelevant character witness for Vigano (“Bishop Olmsted thinks Archbishop Vigano is a trustworthy, stand-up guy, so the allegations against Francis must be true!”). Friends on the left write and link to a flurry of articles denouncing Vigano, pointing to the reasons his letter was strategic, meaning to divert attention from his own guilt. Meanwhile Cardinal Burke states publicly that it is “licit” to pressure a pope into resigning.

It is a full-blown hierarchical bitchfight, and all I can think is, “I’m not playing. I’m not on ANY of your sides, because at this moment in history, YOU are not the ones who are important. YOU need to LISTEN. And when you’re done listening, to victims, to the laity, to the district attorneys all over the country, THEN you can start to speak. And what you say had BETTER be true, clear and verifiable.”

But taking sides is exactly what’s happening among so many of the faithful. Almost every Catholic I know has taken a side, pro-Francis, anti-Francis, pro-Cupich, anti-Cupich, pro-Burke, anti-Burke, and so on. And I want to scream at them, “Don’t you realize they’re collecting us as pawns? This is THEIR war, THEIR power struggle, not ours! We have our instructions, to do the works of mercy, to love one another, and to walk humbly with our God. THIS IS NONE OF OUR AFFAIR. If they want schism, let them have their own schism. Let’s just be church, as their own dumpster fire burns.”

I have loved Pope Francis, Bishop Cupich, Bishop Tobin, and Bishop McElroy. I want to believe in their innocence. But I will not put my energy into defending them. The infighting is making the whole body of bishops into rotting vestigial organs. It threatens to burn down the entire vineyard with its self-referential wildfire, and in so doing,  marginalizes the very meaning and purpose of pastoral leadership.

In his sermon “On the Anniversary of His Ordination,” Saint Augustine writes, “Where I’m terrified for what I am for you, I am given comfort by what I am with you. For you I am a bishop; with you . . . I am a Christian.”

Bishops, in the midst of your fighting and reputation-saving, you act neither with nor for us, or for God. I pray you remember who and whose you are.

Holly Mohr lives and works in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and two children. Lately she has
been struggling to hear the voice of God, discern her own call, and try to find the grace to pray
not only for victims, but also for the bishops, with whom she is pissed as shit.

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