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Church in Crisis - Essay

Dallas: the latest remake of Frankenstein


May your life be filled with lawyers ..
-- old Mexican curse

The American summer movie season had an early June start in a Dallas hotel whose lobby had the Multiplex look and whose ballroom had the hottest ticket in town. From the milling dark clad bishops, you might mistake it for “Men in Black III.” It was actually the latest remake of “ Frankenstein.”

That durable moral fable concerns royal figures (remember that Dr. Frankenstein was a baron) who feel that they share air rights with the Divine and can control the rules of nature that bind lesser men. Attempting to fashion something human by transmitting a force they do not understand (for Frankenstein, Lightning; for the bishops, the Law) into ill-matching body parts, they create a monster that eventually turns on, stalks, and destroys them.

As Doctor Frankenstein opened a skylight on the heavens from his castle, the bishops slid one open in their hierarchical palace, were they not called from all eternity to judge the world and command nature? Living on the heights, either of hierarchy or Transylvania, convinces men that they can manipulate nature and control the outcome.

The bishops approached Dallas shaken by the outrage of their own people against them. The most sensitive of them realized that Catholics long ago stopped listening carefully when they spoke, that their never high credibility about human sexuality had bumped into negative territory, and that, by what they had done and by what they had failed to do, they had made a terrible sex abuse scandal into the greatest crisis ever suffered by the American church.

When bad things happen to good bishops

They arrived in Dallas not so much to come to terms with the sex abuse scandal as to rehabilitate themselves and to breathe some life back into their gasping moral authority. Afterwards, the bishops spoke of their meeting and their vote in tones of men who had survived an airplane crash. It was, they said gravely, a “graced moment” and a “new beginning,” and they had agreed on a Zero Tolerance policy for priest sex offenders, watch us now ....

These good men have had a bad season and their behavior may be understood if we examine the classic responses of all hierarchical institutions when, in historical circumstances they cannot control, their authoritarian frameworks fail and the structures collapse down into themselves. The heads of such institutions flounder as their efforts to reassert authoritarianism fail and they search for some force or agency with which to replace it.

Striving to regain their control over the hierarchical wreckage, the bishops made a monster, forgetting that we have seen the movie before and know how it ends. The age of ordinary revelation, that is, revelation about our ordinaries, has not come to a close but continues in this sequel to one of our oldest myths.

Writing a true sentence

All Catholics truly wish their priests and bishops well. They even like them and smile knowingly when the bishops speak of developing a new relationship with their people that would be “transparent. “ This oft repeated phrase, intimating that we can see through them, was apparently crafted as a “talking point” for the bishops by some public relations adviser. Bishops also chanted the mantra “Zero Tolerance,” as witnesses do who have been over-coached by lawyers.

They apparently forgot that the counsel of lawyers and public relations. advisers had led them into the quicksand of the scandal in the first place. As if their memory chip had been removed, the bishops looked for salvation from the Law, calling on its force as Frankenstein did the lightning daggers of the heavens, to ignite life in the charter on sex abuse that they had so haphazardly sewn together.

Catholics, however, do not measure the trustworthiness of their bishops by what they say, or even by what they do. They trust or mistrust the bishops on what they are like in their everyday relationships with them. Ernest Hemingway once said that the hardest thing to do in life is to write a true sentence. Catholics understand that neither the great lord Law or the lesser god of Public Relations can take this basic pastoral test for bishops: Can they do the plainest yet most profound of human things -- form a true human relationship with us?

Assembling a false creature before television cameras is not the equivalent of writing a true sentence. Catholics want the bishops to stand before them, without prepared statements or advisers at their elbows, and to speak one true sentence, I know mine and mine know me. Instead of that, the prelates ended up forging an inhuman statement, a monster that, like Dr. Frankenstein, they think they can manage. Are they really its master or does the monster now master them? Did they write a true sentence bringing forth the New Man of the Gospel, or have they starred instead in the remake of Frankenstein?

Keeping the Law

Dallas offered us a glimpse of how those who learned their work habits in ecclesiastical mazes. They obsess, sometimes meekly and sometimes pompously, about words -- I draw your attention to the word credible in line 100 -- like museum directors so absorbed with the fine filigree of the frames that they overwhelm the paintings they are meant to enhance. The bishops revealed their main hierarchical reflex -- their obsessive need to place form ahead of function, the church as Institution above the church as People, and to allow the clever cast of the words substitute for true sentences. This legalistic wordplay is the native tongue of hierarchy, the secret language in which they summoned the charter monster to life.

The bishops bind the world into words and think it well mastered -- remember credible in line 100 -- so it is understandable that, seeking a stand-in for dead authoritarianism, they should finally turn to the Law, sucking as on a sweetmeat the old canonical aphorism, Keep the law and the law will keep you.

The bishops backed into the Law in Dallas as if it were their last chance to make new life before they were driven out of their laboratory by the anger of Catholic people at their mismanagement and misunderstanding of the crisis of sexual abuse among priests and other religious personnel. Part of making the Dallas Monster was to transform what was fundamentally a pastoral problem into a legal problem. The Law is now Everyshrine for them, Our Lady of Refuge, Our Lady of Chestakova, Our Lady of Lourdes -- and they have hung their pastoral staffs on the courthouse as if it were a grotto of miraculous cures …

Say but the word, they whisper to the Law, and we will be healed. One may legitimately ask what they are seeking in adopting the letter-of-the-law approach. Is it to bring healing to the victims who revealed their wounds to them in public as humbly as the lepers showed theirs to the Lord? Is it to discover the origin of this problem? Or is it rather to weave tightly together with legal thread the garment of their own trustworthiness, so tattered by their own responses to the problem over the last generation? Keep the law and the law will keep us.

Authority loss in hierarchies

In turning to the Law to supply for their own diminished authority, the bishops are following the same sequence observed in other hierarchical institutions as their authority, or, more properly, their authoritarianism, is leeched away by history itself. All hierarchical institutions rummaged for candles or hurricane lamps when the Space/Information Age short-circuited the elaborate grids along which top-down hierarchies transmitted their power, leaving them literally in the dark about how to regain control over that power again.

The reactions of organizations to the power outage of hierarchy -- the authoritarian light that failed -- include, among others, the following elements: Power becomes diffuse, moving away from the center to other locations on the continuum. In Congress, for example, practical power moved in the 80s to the staff members as, in the church, power, so tentatively held by the profoundly impaired pope, has moved decisively to the curial congregations.

When authoritarianism becomes ineffective, as it has in the church, it becomes more difficult to identify real leaders, that is, those, like the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, who understood the difference between healthy authority, that helps people grow , and the authoritarianism that seeks only to contain and control them Since Bernardin’s death in 1996, there has been little distinctive leadership in the American church. The reason: As authoritarianism withered, those who had gained power from its exercise, including the most powerful of American princes, Bernard Cardinal Law, discovered, like a man using a bent key to start a 1910 Bentley, that the age of transportation has changed radically and that his outmoded vehicle is fit only for museum showings and antique car rallies.

The most prominent reaction of disabled hierarchies, in everything from the A.M.A. to the N.F.L., is to turn to the Law as a surrogate authority. In American culture, the Law has become the belt and suspenders of everyday life, the surrogate, or substitute, authority for such troubled but non-legal universes as professional sports, education, labor unions and the arts. It now seems almost natural for a judge to decide when and in what stadium the championship series is to be played, whether Ted Williams’s body is to be buried or frozen, and, in academe, what may be taught, who may teach it and whether tests really measure it. Judges also decide if and when and at the mercy of what injunctions, workers may organize or strike and what paintings may be hung at the museum show. (For an extended discussion of the symptoms of authority failure in hierarchical institutions, see Authority, The Most Misunderstood Idea in America, by Eugene Kennedy and Sara Charles, M.D., New York, The Free Press, 1997)

Does everybody have a lawyer?

A New Yorker cartoon captures this widespread transfer of judgment to the law in a panel depicting a corporation board meeting at which the chairman asks, “Before we begin, does everybody have a lawyer?”

Do medical residents require lawyers at their side as they treat patients? One would think so reading the recent legislation that decides how doctors should be trained and how they may practice and even how many hours of sleep they need at night. Almost every day, we read of the Law’s efforts to fill the moral vacuum in our culture. Americans, including the leaders of media empires that are estranged from other sources of moral instruction, presume that the Supreme Court settles not only constitutional questions but ethical and moral issues as well. Increasingly, behavior, such as abortion, is given a moral implant by the claim that it is legal. The outcomes result from the collapse of hierarchical structures, rather than of the essential teachings, of many religious institutions, including those of Catholicism.

American institutional Catholicism chose the legal path in its own inner life almost a century ago when it accepted the tablets of the newly codified Canon Law as if they had been delivered by so sacred a figure as Moses himself. American Catholics became famous for following the Law with a vigor found hardly anywhere else in the church. “Scrupulosi Americani!” the Italians chortled, their peace of mind undisturbed by American example, “Scrupulous Americans!” If Americans-in-general took pride in being law-abiding, Catholics in particular felt the same way about their religious practice.

The church, considered a People of God by Vatican II, had earlier been perceived as a Perfect Society regulated by Canon Law, the new Talmud that prescribed, with equal attention, how much nourishment, a measure or a mouthful, would break the fast, the rights of the bride’s pastor to a portion of the offering if she were married elsewhere, and, turning back the clock magisterially, to decide the state of affairs if an Attila-like leader of a pagan horde should sweep into camp and kidnap the bride on the eve of her wedding. It provided wonderful escape routes so that, necessary dispensations could be waived for prospective brides and grooms if omnia parata sunt pro nuptiis, if everything was prepared for the wedding. Canon Law provided a whole tract on cemeteries and their regulation, and, John Gotti take note, on who could or could not be buried in their consecrated ground.

Indeed, the acceptance of the Law as the guardian and bearer of the Spirit was absolute when it became the accepted practice, in major seminaries, to assign the classes in Moral Theology to professors of Canon Law. The latter group led its own courageous reforms after Vatican II when Moral Theology, influenced by the work of such theologians as Bernard Haring, was freed from the legalistic grip of such phonebook length tracts as Justice and Rights. The latter said, for example, that, if you murdered someone you were not obliged to pay for the funeral because victims would have incurred this expense at some time anyway. Clerical wags, exhausted by such tortured and torturing law, settled for, if it isn’t yours, give it back.

Re-inventing authoritarianism

Institutions turn to the Law as their surrogate authority when a vacuum occurs in their own structures that they cannot fill from their own resources. Thus, the vacuum that opened up like a Florida sinkhole in American life during the 60s was not the result of revolutions directed against authority but rather a function of larger social transformations that leveled ancient institutional walls, offering the moment and the means for revolutionary entry and change. When they are unable to supply or support structures of generative authority (the family is a prime example of this) they end up re-inventing authoritarianism.

The Space/Information Age sucked the energy out of hierarchical structures and left vacuums in the cavernous spaces once filled by controlling authoritarianism. As Lenin correctly noted, power lay in the streets of St. Petersburg, waiting to be picked up, for power was the fuel cell of the collapsed Romanoff autocracy and it would be borne into the resulting vacuum, authoritarianism fiercely rediscovered, to fuel the new Soviet autocracy that would itself collapse to leave yet another vacuum 70 years later.

Authority lay in the streets in Dallas, the authority that the bishops had lost because, confounded with authoritarianism, it had collapsed along with hierarchies. Who, we might ask, picked it up in Dallas, the bishops, the invited speakers, the media, or perhaps the victims, the truly transparent, who wrote true sentences in the unadorned honesty of their revelations of being demeaned and despoiled by priests to whom they had entrusted themselves.

Dead form walking

In Vatican II, the hierarchical/authoritarian model that had dominated church structure for centuries, was replaced by the collegial form that restored the earliest form of the church, based on the college of the apostles. The church had intuitively filled the vacuum that was soon to appear everywhere because of the structural failure of hierarchy and the authoritarianism that was integral to it.

The Council fathers did that well before large corporations, such as General Motors and General Electric discovered that hierarchies no longer worked and spent fortunes experimenting with new modes of management. Counter to that universal trend, Pope John Paul II began, shortly after his election in 1979, to restore hierarchy and to suppress the collegiality that had been the signature theology of Vatican II. In a real sense, he was re-discovering authoritarianism, praying at its tomb, Come forth. And so it did, trailing its bandages and smelling of death. .

Not even this remarkable pope could overcome the enormous vectors of historical change that doomed this mighty effort of his pontificate. This rickety restoration collapsed before our eyes in Dallas. The effort to control the sex abuse crisis from the top, the demand for secrecy, the rationalization of the misjudgments of bishops as beyond the reach of civil authorities, the invocation of the hierarchical mantra, for the good of the church, to justify ignoring, putting to the side, or even covering up child sex molestation: These are classic examples of the hierarchical style of privilege and exemption that were already dead and being waked when the bishops checked into Dallas. From such materials, however, the bishops, surely unwittingly, decided to build their monster and push it, blind and stumbling, into the world.

How to make a monster

The reaction of the stunned hierarchs -- this isn’t working and they’re beginning to suspect us -- has been, as with other organizations, to turn to the Law to cinch up the sagging binding of their authoritarianism. That is exactly what happened at Dallas as the bishops, hard pressed to convince their people of even their good will, backed into, in their classically passive fashion, a solution by the Law whose larger effects of church life and practice they did not envision or think through and still show few signs of understanding.

The leaders of the ACLU. who complain that the Supreme Court’s approval of school vouchers remove bricks from the wall of separation between church and State do not understand Dallas either. By fashioning its monster, the church has knocked down the wall of separation and invited the state into the church. The bishops have become willing accomplices in making the church’s records, personnel, and practices into wards of the state.

Aping another classic reaction to the collapse of hierarchical authoritarianism, the bishops have added a new bureaucracy in a central Washington office whose charge will be the protection of children. This may be the most bitter ironic distillate of Dallas -- the Catholic church’s establishing a special office to be sure that children are not harmed. The bishops did not even taste it as they quickly downed this heady Dallas brew. What will we have next, a deputizing of the Knights of Columbus to see that Catholic follow the Ten Commandments?

So committed to the Law as salvation, the bishops convened a national review board, chaired by Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, and including Chicago’s Judge Ann Burke and former President Clinton’s one time lawyer, Robert Bennett, each a lawyer by training, trade, and instinct. Several other lawyers have since been added, along with a psychiatrist and institutionally affiliated Catholics.. That they are persons of integrity does not make most of them any less examples of what, in their need to replace their dead authoritarianism, the bishops did in Dallas, coming down like converts at a tent revival to commit themselves to the Law. There is no evidence that they understood the implications of their embracing a discipline whose practitioners are advocates rather than open-minded and whose style is not to foster trust but to disrupt it by adversarial proceedings.

To make what turned out to be a monster, the bishops exchanged the pastoral heart for the legal mind, by which they could fire the shepherd and hire the judge, refit their cathedrals as courtrooms, and recast Catholics from a People of God into a jury pool. One recalls Peter’s words, preaching in the portico of Solomon, “Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing” (Acts, 3,17).

Old men, monasteries, and grand juries

With a few notable exceptions, including Cardinals Dulles and George and Bishop Howard Hubbard, hardly any bishop raised a question about the wisdom of inviting the Law to enter and dominate the life of the church. Perhaps, on learning, in USA Today, that seven grand juries had been impaneled to examine the actions of bishops, and that prosecutors in some dioceses have already begun to search the files of every office and school, some bishops have grown anxious, or at least moderately reflective, about what they have done.

Most of them returned home to boast mildly about the law-ridden policies that they summarized as Zero Tolerance. This would be less ambiguous in its moral tone, had the bishops not exempted themselves from the principles they are now applying to priests throughout the land. This automatic ejection and defrocking of clergy accused of sex abuse has so far affected mostly older men, many of whom have repented and have undergone successful treatment, and, in their advanced years find that they are the equivalent of the pigeons sacrificed to hallow the noisy trading bedlam of the temple precincts.

That this embrace of the authoritarian Law was not thought through carefully may be read in its casting the best of American priests into the role they know so well, that of the Prodigal Son’s taken-for-granted brother. The nation’s faithful priests have been virtually cut out of the will, for what rights have they, they wonder, when they may be hauled into the equivalent of Judge Roy Bean’s courtroom on the basis of accusations alone? Do the bishops think that they have bolstered the morale of their most important personnel by setting the monster loose in the land? Not since the early days of the 20th-century when, after pope Pius X’s condemnation of Modernism, vigilante committees were established to keep their eyes on priests and what they were saying and reading, have good hardworking priests been subjected to such bad faith treatment.

That, of course, is what authoritarianism re-invented delivers, a willingness to suspend the rights of defendants, a readiness to accept accusations at face value, and a wholesale handing over of the internal life of the church to the external agency of the Law. It is the rough equivalent of that bewildering Gospel story of handing a man over to the torturers until he shall have paid the whole of his debt. The ethos of Dallas is absolute, the quality of its mercy does not fall like the gentle rain but sweeps through parishes like a flat plains tornado.

It is time to ask just what is being accomplished in this authoritarian implementation of policies that do not address the basic causes of the plague of sex abuse, do not protect the rights of accused parties, and define sex abuse in a way so broad as to render questionable the kiss of peace as a Catholic gesture. In many of the cases, the priests have made amends and have served well for many years. In others, the accusations are so old and vague that they demand what they do not receive, a careful investigation before the sentence is handed down and carried out. And, in the broad searches for letters and other documents that prosecutors have initiated in certain diocese, the outcome of Dallas is, according to many observers, best described as a witch hunt.

This process, under way now throughout the country, leaves no room for consultation with the parishioners, many of whom offer strong support for these priests now being mustered out, their collars removed like the epaulets on disgraced officers, and shipped off, each to his own Elba-like monastery. Are monasteries now to be considered penal colonies or concentration camps, providing holding cells in which old men can live out their exiles? These priests are dying for their bishops’ sins.

This, however, is what the Law does for a church when it is welcomed -- as if it were the Prodigal Son and entitled to the fatted calf, the silverware, innocent priests, too -- to deal with a problem that the bishops refused to deal with for over a generation. The bishops do not even seem embarrassed by their exempting themselves from the policies they now pile like dead weight on the backs of their priests. Was that a sigh of relief we heard\when Oklahoma’s Governor Frank Keating backed off like a matador who has an understanding with the bull from his initial tough talk about punishing bishops who knowingly transferred priest who had abused children sexually.

On Independence Day, the fireworks started as Justice Robert D. Krause, of the Rhode Island State Superior Court, ruled that the diocese of Providence could not seal its records under the First Amendment, that it offered no “blanket shield protecting the church from requests for information in inquiries into priestly assaults on children.” (“Ruling on Diocese’s Privacy May Open Flood of Material” by Sam Dillon, The New York Times, July 4, 2002).

They show no comprehension that they edged into this unfortunate relationship to the Law in an effort to bolster the authority that they had squandered by accepting, without protest, the present pope’s authoritarian demands that they accept and implement without a murmur his restoration of hierarchical forms in the church. No bishop has been appointed for over a generation who did not accept without reservation the hierarchical model, no matter how ineffective it would prove, with its top down control, as an instrument of generative authority in the modern world. They have given over to lawyers rather than parishioners the task of making judgments on the pastoral fitness of the priests who serve them. I know mine and mine know me. The words mock them as the Law already has.

Between the rock and the hard place

There has been no anticipation, much less debate or discussion, about this radical change in the atmosphere of Catholicism that is sure to occur as the Law is employed, not so much in pursuit of justice as in support of the collapsed authoritarianism of the bishops. When everyone who volunteers or sacrifices to work in or with a Catholic institution is suspect from the start and new teachers may smudge the first papers they correct with the ink from being fingerprinted they will wonder what kind of church this has become. Is the answer to be found in the computers of the criminal justice system, in which their names will live forever? Catholics will soon pause and inspect the high, disastrous, and stopgap nature of the bargain the bishops made at their Dallas meeting.

Has the invitation to the Law bolstered the authority of American bishops? Or has it rather made more obvious its faltering and failing nature in recent years as these men signed on to the disastrous papal program to breathe life into an hierarchical era on which history has hung a sign: Do Not Resuscitate.

The bishops are caught between the Rock of Peter and a Hard Place, that is, between the demands of a pope -- now too disabled to understand that, in reimposing hierarchy, he reinvented law strangled and strangling authoritarianism -- and the Law, that the bishops loved both too late and too well in Dallas, whose aggressive prosecutors now talk of seeking jail time for the mitred class. If this looks like the best thing since the tobacco settlements for personal injury lawyers, it resembles an unparalleled political opportunity for ambitious U.S. attorneys.

Had we not heard the Massachusetts Attorney General, Tom Riley, say that he wanted to get his office involved in the selection and training of seminarians, we might have scoffed at the idea that the bishops could become targets for zealous prosecutors. Some of the latter have already spoken of moving against the confidentiality of pastoral conversations, including those in sacramental confession, using the same theory that the bishops embraced as drowning men do barrels staves in a dark and churning sea. If a priest has come into possession of knowledge of a crime, is he not compelled to reveal it? And can priests now be forced to break the seal of confession by a State given free legal run of the inner life of the church by the bishops themselves?

Dallas, the movie

Dallas was the grim outcome of generations of neglect of a major problem, and a generation of attempting to time travel back to the great period of Hierarchy triumphant. The results of Dallas will play out rapidly as the excessive reliance on the Law becomes more obvious within the church itself.

Dallas as remake shows hierarchy being strapped to the laboratory Gurney and the bishops trying to bring it to life with a thunderbolt of lightning from the Law. Dallas was undeniably a re-enactment of the Frankenstein myth, yet another sequel with the same theme: the misbegotten monster has been set loose and we, the uneasy audience, already know that the creature inevitably turns on his creator.

The bishops have lowered the drawbridge and let the Law in and they will have a difficult time ever getting it out of the church. They feel that they have used the Law as a shield for their impaired integrity, to prove that they abide by it, and to use it as a substitute for their lost moral authority. The monster has already taken a seat at their own table with them, Can you explain, Bishop, how you transferred a known pedophile from St. Mary’s to St. John’s? Just what did you know, when did you know it, and have you ever heard of obstruction of justice?

If that does not keep them busy enough, other phalanxes of lawyers will now file actions that the bishops never anticipated, even though there is ample precedent for them in other fields. Doctors who have been removed from hospital staffs for some alleged negligence have often succeeded in civil actions against hospitals and hospital boards for depriving them of their livelihood. It is only a question of time before some priest, depressed and defrocked against his will, files a similar suit against his bishop.

Dallas is turning into Frankenstein for the bishops who thought that they could regain control of this problem and of their own authority by substituting that of the Law for their own compromised authority. They created, out of old parts, an inhuman legalized carrier of authoritarianism. The problem of sex abuse remains unsolved, those wounded by it remain unhealed, many good priests are demoralized, and the monster has torn down the wall that had separated church from State, bidding to transform American Catholic life into Hard Time for everybody.

Like all remakes, Dallas as Frankenstein was not as good as the original. Indeed, it proved to be something less than a coming attraction. For, as the screen was filled with the opening scene of the great laboratory-like hall where bishops as experimenters sat at rows of white sheeted tables preparing to reawaken the authoritarian monster with a jolt of the Law, a true sentence at last appeared on the screen: The End.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of the recent book The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, posted August 9, 2002