National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Posted: May 11, 2004

Interview with Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk

May 7, 2004

By John L. Allen, Jr.

NCR: You're here for your ad limina visit. How did you find the Holy Father?
Pilarczyk: I found him very alert, very attentive. The impression I have is of this great soul and great mind inside a body that won't cooperate. My auxiliary was with me for our private audience. These are not earth-shaking discussions … how many priests have you got, how many parishes have you got, how many people have you got, are you getting vocations, are there any sisters? Etc. That's the level at which the private audience took place. It lasted 10 minutes. He's got a clock on the table in front of him.

He was formulating these questions himself?
Oh, yeah.

In English?

He was comprehensible?
Yes. You had to listen very carefully. A couple of times I didn't get what he said and Bishop [Carl] Moeddel did. That made it nice, because you hate to ask him to repeat himself.

But he was understanding what you said, processing the information, engaged in the conversation?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Aside from asking for basic data, were you able to discern any particular interest from the Holy Father?
I was not able to, in part because the time was so short. We only had 10 minutes, at most. I did not perceive that this was somebody who was seeking new recondite information that he couldn't get any other way. This was somebody who was being very thoughtful and polite, but not profound in that particular context.

In his speeches to the American bishops, he has made the core of his reflection the episcopacy itself. What have you gotten from that?
As of now nothing, because I haven't had time to read the speech yet. As you probably know, he reads the first two paragraphs and then gives you your gift with a copy of the speech. We've been busy running around and socializing, so I haven't read the speech yet. But I've got a 10-hour plane flight coming up.

Part of the reflection in Rome about the American church has come to focus on the role of the bishop, and especially the need for greater focus on the nuts and bolts of diocesan administration. Is that a helpful reflection?
That kind of reflection is always helpful. Why are you doing what you're doing, and can you do it any better?

As you've moved around the Roman Curia, are there particular themes you've been able to discern, things they're interested in?
Oh, everybody is interested to some degree in the sex abuse stuff, understandably so. But that did not occupy the whole time.

By 'interested,' you mean they were asking for status reports?
Well, it was, 'We know that you guys have been beat up, we think this, or we think that.' Nobody sat down and addressed it extensively for a long period of time. This was just kind of one of the things you said. Those dicasterial meetings are generally like that. I did not perceive any coordination among them, nor did I expect it.

Can you fill in the 'this' and 'that' you heard from Vatican officials?
Oh, I perceived some concern with the norms for which the American bishops received approval, that they might be too strict, too demanding.

You mean insufficiently attentive to due process?
Procedurally, or just basically, is it right to say that somebody who offended 30 years ago one time should no longer be in ministry? I think that's a legitimate question. I think the answer is, yes, it is appropriate that that be done.

Are there such people?
There may be.

Some Vatican officials who've begun to examine the case files say they believe the one-time offender is a myth.
I'm inclined to believe that. I don't want to say anymore, because I've got a couple of guys on the pan at home. Let me put it this way: Most bishops believe that the one-time offender doesn't exist.

As you know, the recognition given by the Holy See to the norms expires in 2005. Based upon what you're hearing, is it your sense that they will have to be tweaked in some way?
No, I did not get that … I suspect that they will, but I don't suspect that because of anything I heard here. The conversation never got to that degree of specificity. The kind of conversation you're thinking of would be the kind of conversation we had when I was vice-president and president [of the U.S. bishops' conference]. There are three people in the room with the prefect and the secretary, and here are the five problems that we want to talk about. That did not happen with our visits to the dicasteries, because that's not the nature of those meetings.

So you're picking up a general concern, but in terms of where that goes, you can't draw conclusions?
That's my impression.

You said the norms probably will be tweaked. What do you have in mind?
I don't know. A couple of things are clear to me. One is that we need to extend those norms. This is a mechanism that was put together to solve a problem, and the problem isn't solved yet, in the sense that there are priests who are still under investigation, priests who are in the middle of a penal judicial process. Every case has to be sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They understandably can't keep up with the volume. So, I am as convinced as I can be that those norms need to be extended. Will they be extended in some new way? I don't know. 'Tweaking' can be anything from changing a conjunction to throwing out half the norms.

Will there be a reevaluation of the zero tolerance stance?
I think there will be some discussion. But I still believe that the decision that the bishops made, and the norms that the Holy See approved, were appropriate. They were appropriate then, and are appropriate now.

You would still support the zero tolerance stance?
I would, yes.

Are canonical trials as envisioned by the norms actually happening?
We don't know that yet, in part because I believe we haven't had enough time.

Presumably you know if it's happening in Cincinnati.
Here's the history we've had. We had some priests who had offended, and who had been put back into ministry after psychological evaluation and treatment. After Dallas I needed to remove those men. I did that. I called each one in and said, 'Look, I have to get you out of ministry. I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. Now, you can either have a trial, or you can ask for laicization. You think it over for a week or so and tell me which you prefer.' They do that. Now, I have to send that dossier to the Holy See. I will say, 'This guy wants to be laicized, or this guy wants a trial.' But I haven't gotten anything back yet.

How many cases do you have over here?
Oh, half a dozen or so, with more still to come.

Your impression is that relatively few trials, if any, have begun because there is a wait for a response from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
That's my impression. Another piece of it is that in our American culture, we say, you make the decision as expeditiously as you can. You implement it, you publicize it, and you get it over with as quickly as possible. Well, 'as quickly as possible' is not part of the Roman curial vocabulary.

I've called it the difference between a microwave culture and a crockpot culture.
Yeah, and we need both.

Is the sex abuse crisis over?
No, no, no. There are those boxes of dossiers at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I don't think it will be over in my lifetime. I don't think we're going to see vast tidal waves of new allegations, but …

The aftershocks will continue.
Yes. We will see some.

Are we at a point yet where we can say what all this has done to us?
I don't think we're there yet. It's not just what has it done to us negatively, but what blessings have been here. For example, I think the average person is a lot more aware of the reality and pervasiveness of the sexual abuse of children than they were two-and-a-half or three years ago, due in large part to what the church has gone through. Secondly, and I have to say this carefully, [people have learned that] that priests are vulnerable also to sinfulness. The fact that somebody is a validly ordained priest does not make him a semi-divinity. I think that's important. Sometimes when I talk to victims they say, 'We thought the priest was God. We hung on every word. Then we found out he was messing around with the five-year-old.' Well, there's a lesson in that. I think also there will be more transparency and openness in the church. It seems to me that no bishop in his right mind is going to try to cover up any of these things in the future.

Some would suggest the missing element in your analysis is the question of accountability for the bishops, which somehow has not been addressed. Do you share that?
No. I gave a speech at the University of Dayton [about this] last month. I think to say, lay it all at the door of the bishops, may be an understandable psychological stratagem. Whom do we blame? Blame the bishops. When you've got somebody to blame, you just feel better because you know it's their fault. Well, it's not that simple. We've got the psychological community, we've got the role of lawyers, we've got the role of the media. I think we have to be careful not to generalize. [People say] 'the bishops.' Which bishops? Are you talking about two or three here, two or three there, or did every bishop in the country mess up?

But there are individual bishops who clearly made bad decisions, and other than a couple of high-profile cases, many of those men continue to be in place. Will the community ever accept that accountability has been achieved as long as that's true?
I would want to know who and how many and where. You can continue to say that forever if you want to. I think it's more just to say, what do we really know about what this bishop did? Where do we know that from? Do we know it from the daily paper, which is no friend of the bishop? Do we know exactly what he did? It seems to me that you don't want to simplify, you don't want to generalize, and you don't want to engage in what I call 'presentism,' meaning judging the behavior of the past by the criteria of the present.

If there were a cathartic cleaning of the house, would the church be transformed by that?
Oh, the Lord has been transforming the church for 2,000 years, and he's not finished yet.

Let me shift gears. One thing you did not mention hearing in Vatican offices was any curiosity about the American political situation, and specifically the question of Catholic politicians and the Eucharist. Did you hear anything about that?
Not much. We were at Bishops, the Second Section [of the Secretariat of State], Worship … there was some small observation there, but not much. The impression I got was that the curial officials choose not to enter that swamp at this time.

One curial official did enter it a couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Francis Arinze. In response to my question about Kerry, he said it's for the American bishops to interpret, but in response to a more general question he said pro-abortion Catholic politicians should not be given the Eucharist. What was your reaction?
I guess I wasn't really ecstatic about it. Then when I got here, I found out that this second question came almost on his way out, over his shoulder as he left the room. Now, you were there and I wasn't …

That's not completely accurate, though it did come towards the end of a press conference largely on a different subject.
Often American media are very naοve about the Holy See. 'The Vatican said …' I guess I would say this: It is my understanding and my impression that Cardinal Arinze did not intend to solve an extremely complex theological and sacramental question with a one-liner at the end of a press conference.

Let's talk about that problem. Ohio is 'in play' in this election, which means you'll be seeing a lot of these candidates.
Hopefully on weekdays!

Granted the complexities involved, the practical reality is that you're going to have candidates crossing the state over the next few months. What do you do?
Well, the first thing I'm going to do is to wait to see what Cardinal McCarrick's committee comes up with. Secondly, it seems to me we need to be very cautious about denying people the sacraments on the basis of what they say they believe, especially when those are political beliefs. So Kerry believes abortion is a good thing for our society, let's say. Do you refuse him communion on the basis of his opinions? What about people who don't like "Humanae Vitae"? What about people who don't like the church's teaching on the death penalty, or on homosexual marriages? Are we going to refuse them?

There's a swath of Catholic opinion that would say yes to that question.
I know there is. But there's also a justice issue here. It seems to me that the last thing any church, or any representative or agent of the church wants to do, is to deny the sacraments to anybody unjustly. It seems to me at this point that it makes a lot more sense to presume people's good will, presume erroneous conscience or perplexed conscience and give them communion, rather than say, 'I think you think such-and-such.' Now, there is another issue here, however, which complicates it a little further. That is, there are people who are in invalid marriages, clearly invalid marriages, people who have publicly gotten married outside the church. For example, two Catholics who went and got married by a Justice of the Peace. This is all public stuff. It is not an opinion, not a thought, this is behavior, and a state of sinful behavior. Well, it seems to me that maybe you do deny people communion for that. On the other hand, there are those who would argue still again: Do you know whether they had sex last night or not? Are they living as brother and sister? Is there some other factor here? So, I'm hoping that Cardinal McCarrick's committee also talks about that, because it's a very germane issue.

Yet whatever Cardinal McCarrick's commission comes up with, you're still the Archbishop of Cincinnati.
That's correct.

Is there a danger that the strong fraternal desire to act together will lead bishops to dislodge their personal responsibility and place it in the hands of this commission?
No, I don't think so. What the conference committees and commissions come up with is a posture, an opinion, maybe a teaching that is that of the members of the committee, maybe the administrative committee of the conference, maybe the conference as a whole. But it's up to me as diocesan bishop to determine if that's what we're going to teach in my diocese. So what I'm looking for from McCarrick's committee is not some decision that I can then hide behind, but rather some thoughtful material that I can use to give direction to my people.

In the meantime, what if the John Kerry campaign bus rolls into Cincinnati next week and he goes to Mass?
I think you presume he's in good faith and you give him communion until the issue can be more definitively resolved.

A number of bishops around the country have given different answers to this question. Is that a problem?
Yes and no. It's bad from the point of view of people who want simple answers with complete surety, readily available. On the other hand, [it's good] for people to realize that these are complicated questions to which bishops may not all have the same answer, and that our Catholic faith is not a whole series of black and white positions. There are some gray aspects in it. I think that's a good lesson for people to know too.

So there may be some room for pluriformity on this question?
Yeah, with some rationale. I don't think it would be responsible to say, 'Hell, I don't know what to do. You guys do what you want to do.' Well, I don't think that's right. At some point, I will need to say something. But I want to see what kind of ammunition Cardinal McCarrick can give me.

In the meantime, your position is, give him communion.
Yes. Give him the benefit of the doubt.

Kerry has met with both McCarrick and Cardinal Roger Mahony, which seems to suggest some willingness to work with the bishops. On the other hand, he could make the issue go away by simply promising to stay away from communion.
Or by getting on the pro-life bandwagon. That would be even better.

But in a sense, Kerry is driving the train?
It would seem so. Although Kerry is not the one writing the newspaper stories. It seems to me this is one of those little neuralgic issues that when you've said everything you want to say about his policies and the speech he gave yesterday, [you add], 'Oh, and he went to church and we couldn't see whether he went to communion or not.' It's filler.

It reminds me a bit of the flap when Blair came to see the pope, over whether John Paul gave him communion.
It's hard for a priest to stand there and judge everybody. If Kerry comes, do you give him communion? Maybe you give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe you refuse him. What about his chief of staff? What about the people who write his speeches?

You mean, how far does the chain of cooperation go?

Let's prescind from Kerry's case. Is it at least possible that a politician can be both pro-life, fully accepting the church's teaching about the inherent immorality of abortion, and also convinced that the legislative strategy of prohibition in this particular cultural moment can't work?
The Holy Father makes very careful provisions for that. For example, can you vote for a law that says you can have abortions under these three circumstances? Yes, you can, if the alternative is a law that says you can have abortions in 10 different circumstances.

Yes, but what I had in mind is this: Someone who draws the prudential judgment that making abortion illegal would not reduce the incidence of abortion, and would create other grave effects. Is that the kind of political judgment about which good people can differ?

So at least conceptually, we have to say that the mere fact of voting against measures to outlaw abortion, until you know more about the person's motivation, does not indicate a break with communion?
It does not necessarily indicate a break, I would say. It could.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: