The Devilís Triple Play:
Clericalism, Secrecy, & Dissent

by Mary Ann Kreitzer

There is little dispute today that the Catholic Church in America is in serious disarray. In major cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York the chancery once bore major influence. Politicians avoided antagonizing the local bishop who could generate enough people-power to pass or kill a bill in the legislature and elect or defeat its sponsors at the polls. Moviemakers and businessmen were careful not to wake the sleeping Catholic giant who could make or break their latest project. No more! Today faithful Catholics, still obedient to Church doctrine, sit in the pews side by side with their cafeteria brethren who pick and choose to suit their tastes. The orthodox don’t trust their bishops; the heterodox don’t care. How did the collapse happen so fast? How could a Church that exercised major influence over the faithful just 50 years ago reach a point where what she says is met by a shrug and ignored? At least part of the answer can be explained by what I call the devil’s triple play: clericalism, secrecy, and dissent.

Cardinal Stafford

Cardinal James Stafford speaks with a prophetic voice that has enraged the enemies of truth. We give him our Lamplighter Award on page 5.

It started long before the clergy sex abuse scandals; they were the caramel on the poisoned apple. But the battered bride of Christ, Holy Mother Church, had already been stripped of her authority. She owns it still, of course, but most of her children, practical heretics, no longer care what she has to say. As Maria Shriver, first lady of California and niece of John F. Kennedy told a reporter in November, “I go to church every week. I went to Catholic schools my entire life,” but as regards doctrine, Shriver said, “I pick and choose… I think I’m probably a ‘Cafeteria Catholic,’” – her and millions of others.

The recent election illustrates that fact. When 54% of Catholics in the United States pulled the lever for pro-abortion Barack Obama last November they sent a wild shot across the bow of the Catholic bishops who urged a vote for life. I say “wild” because I doubt if it was at all aimed and intentional. The bishops and what they think is just irrelevant to most Catholics and their vote reflected their indifference. It’s an indifference that threatens not only American culture and the Church, but the souls of the lukewarm themselves. Disregarding Church doctrine is a quick path to hell. Several recent books offer insight into the reasons behind the collapse of authority that support my theory: Phil Lawler’s The Faithful Departed, Russell Shaw’s Nothing to Hide, and Leon Podles’ agonizing description of the sex abuse scandals, Sacrilege.

Both Lawler and Shaw paint a picture of a Church mired in clericalism and secrecy. Shaw defines clericalism as an “elitist mindset…that takes it for granted that clerics… mainly bishops and priests – are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference.” Shaw stresses that clericalism is not limited to clergy, but is also widespread among the laity. That explains to some degree how the sex abuse of minors could go on over so many decades without being exposed. The laity were convinced to be silent by bishops who put the criminal priests’ welfare above the innocent children’s. This is particularly shocking when you read Podles’ book which provides extensive references to court documents and testimony revealing a level of abuse that can only be described as demonic. And yet bishops enjoined, even threatened, parents to keep the secret assuring them it was for the good of the Church and they would handle the problem quietly. Podles documents many cases of parents and good priests intimidated into secrecy, not for the sake of Holy Mother Church, but for the reputation of the abusers and the chancery. The same continues to be the norm for whistleblowers like Fr. James Haley whose case has been mired in secrecy since he first exposed the problem of homosexuality in the Diocese of Arlington. He and others like him are the spiritual brothers of the invisible unborn – the dumpster babies and the dumpster priests. While the chancery claims its actions protect priests’ privacy, the bishops are often using secrecy to hide their own egregious actions.

The Legionaries of Christ offer a case study in secrecy and clericalism. Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the order’s founder lived a double life for half a century. Nonetheless, he maintained the image of a living saint by requiring his followers to take two secondary vows: secrecy and no criticism of the founder. Meanwhile he abused boys, kept a mistress, and fathered at least one child, possibly more. (He obviously had eclectic tastes.) Despite that, as the revelations became undeniable recently, the Legion not only did not repudiate his actions, but initially made a statement that caused canon lawyer Edward Peters to say he was “aghast at the vacuity of [their] response.” He accused the Legion of treating people “like idiot children.” How much, one wonders, does the Legion’s attitude affect the editorial policy of their newspaper, The National Catholic Register?

Both Shaw and Lawler share anecdotes showing how the habit of secrecy tends toward outright lies. Lawler, writing about the collapse of the Church in Boston, describes a conversation he had with Cardinal Bernard Law while he was editor of the diocesan paper, The Pilot. “My own suspicions about the reliability of the cardinal’s sworn testimony were awakened,” he said, over a reply the Cardinal made when he was questioned about putting an abuse victim who approached him “under the seal of confession.” Law claimed he didn’t recall the conversation and “[could] not imagine ever saying… ‘I bind you by the power of the confessional.’” Lawler, however, “could imagine it very easily, because Cardinal Law had once said something very similar to me.” Responding to a minor personnel question, the Cardinal first warned “I’m putting you under the seal.” Lawler continues, “I was so thoroughly taken aback that the meeting was etched clearly on my memory. In sacramental confession, the priest is bound by an absolute seal of secrecy. The penitent is not….The priest cannot impose the seal on a layman.” How many clergy used this tactic to silence victims of abuse and those who objected?

Secrecy is not limited to criminal behavior, however. Much of Shaw’s book relates to the bishops’ practice of secrecy in everyday dealings with both the press and the Catholic people. While recognizing there are legitimate cases that call for secrecy such as the seal of confession and papal conclaves to avoid politicizing the election of a new pope, Shaw believes most situations would benefit from the openness and transparency the bishops paid lip service to in Dallas in 2002 but often fail to practice. In doing so they undermine their own and the Church’s authority by undermining trust.

There is another aspect to secrecy – its encouragement to silence. How much has the bishops’ example influenced the laity to hide their light under a bushel? Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver reflected in his book Render Unto Caesar on Catholics who “too often stay silent out of a misguided sense of good manners.” While secrecy and silence are not the same things, they are related. How has the bishops’ practice of routinely hiding non-confidential matters behind closed doors both at bishops’ meetings and in their own dioceses affected the laity? Hard to tell: how does one measure the impact of omission?

One thing is certain: secrecy and silence do not build up Christian community, a matter which concerns Shaw. He quotes moral theologian Germaine Grisez who stresses the importance of true communication on relationships and the formation of community (which is the basis for authority). “[I]f partners in communication do not act in ways open to genuine community, that will be because their acts somehow are not loving. Either the other party is considered an enemy and genuine community is intentionally excluded…or, again, the other party is regarded as a mere means to some specific end, and genuine community is considered irrelevant…or, finally, the other party is regarded with indifference, and genuine community seems pointless.” Shaw goes on to paraphrase Grisez’s concern that unnecessary secrecy is a serious problem in an institution that is a “divine–human communion uniting human persons with God in Christ and thus bonding them to one another.” He also quotes Grisez’s opinion that clericalism is another obstacle to community. “All too often the faithful feel themselves to be, not brothers and sisters joined in an intimate communion and full cooperators in carrying out the Church’s mission, but citizens in a rather weak monarchic or aristocratic political society, whose government lacks necessary checks and balances, and whose inefficient clerical and lay bureaucracy often is impervious to advice and criticism.” Bingo! Grisez’s description is spot on. That the bishops often treat the secular media with hostility is understandable, perhaps, even if counter-productive. But what destroys the natural community in the Church is to treat with suspicion and persecution the orthodox lay faithful, especially those actively defending the faith. They are the very ones Dietrich von Hildebrand described as “faithful believers who take up the cause of orthodoxy…who should by all rights be the joy of the bishops’ hearts, their consolation, a source of strength for overcoming their own lethargy.”

I offer a case in point. In 2007, the Catholic Media Coalition, a group of independent print and electronic media including Les Femmes, hosted a hospitality suite at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. We handed out a printed invitation mostly in the lobby during breaks. About a dozen bishops stopped in to converse during two evenings. We also spoke to some of the media outside the press room and invited them as well until USCCB staff asked us to leave. We noticed that The Wanderer had no reporter attending so we called to asked if they’d like us cover the meeting. They agreed and faxed an application to the bishops’ press group who were clearly not happy. Several representatives treated us with open hostility when we submitted the paperwork. Despite that, they reluctantly told us we could pick up our credentials next morning.

When we returned, not only were we denied entry because we’d been designated “lobbyists” (they had one of our invitations to prove it), but when we quietly demurred, they threatened to call hotel security and have us arrested even though we were paid guests. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. We were, after all, from their perspective – the enemy – even more than the secular press. Why? Because we dare to exhort the bishops to be faithful shepherds and openly criticize the USCCB for their rampant liberalism.

Was their draconian behavior the act of a few over-zealous bureaucrats, or do the bishops’ policies naturally lead to hostility and mistrust of the faithful? From my personal experience and the fact that two-thirds of the bishops covered up sex abuse, I suspect the bureaucracy merely reflects the attitude of most of the bishops. Critics are unwelcome no matter how legitimate their concerns. This too undermines authority. When bishops treat the faithful as enemies it’s hard to remember they are our spiritual fathers. Ironically, they often treat dissenters more gently than those who uphold doctrine, a scandalous example to the clueless in the pews. When clergy use their authority, not to defend the faith, but to silence good men and women who beg them to take action on dissent, they become spiritual eunuchs.

And isn’t that what’s happened? Despite a number of clerics warning that Obama’s win would usher in the most anti-life government in history, Catholics in large numbers stopped their ears and jumped on the bandwagon to elect the first black (actually half-white) president in history despite his abortion militancy. Clerical admonitions, including those of several bishops that a vote for Obama was gravely evil, fell on deaf ears. Why should the laity take such talk seriously when other bishops and lay leaders like Doug Kmiec used the USCCB document, Faithful Citizenship, to rationalize supporting Obama? In “good conscience” they could vote for a man who championed infanticide of tiny abortion survivors.

I had a sense of déjà vu recalling the acrimonious assault on Humanae Vitae in 1968. Dissenters framed that too in the language of “conscience,” like renegade priest Charlie Curran, whose recent book is titled Faithful Dissent, an oxymoron. Curran’s “dissent” is heretical. He opposes Church teaching on a wide range of issues including the indissolubility of marriage, euthanasia, homosexuality, fornication, abortion, masturbation, and contraception. But Curran was coddled for years before finally being banned from teaching ethics at Catholic U. in the ‘80s. He continues to function as a priest in good standing from the diocese of Rochester, a bastion of dissent for decades under Bishop Matthew Clark. Curran is the poster boy for clerical dissent. His tactic of using full page media ads signed by priest and lay dissenters is now standard fare in the heretic’s bag of tricks. And dissent in the U.S. continues to rage while the bishops, except for a handful, fiddle. The recent Vatican study of U.S. seminaries found that, while things have improved generally, dissenters still fill many teaching positions and “quite often… [mock doctrine without] “speaking openly against Church teaching.” This stealth dissent has served the heretics well and the silence of bishops has enabled it.

The bishops have also failed to take any serious action against Catholic colleges and universities robbing young people of the faith. While the number of Catholic schools featuring The Vagina Monologues is down this year to 15, that it enjoys any Catholic support is scandalous. Add the fact that those opposing Church teaching are still provided a platform and one can hardly be surprised at the Church’s loss of authority and the laity’s rejection of the truth. They are simply following their leaders. The bishops have not spoken with a clear voice since before Vatican II. The wishy-washy language of the ambiguous document Faithful Citizenship gave free reign to liberals in the Church who wanted Obama elected. Some Church insiders have opined that most of the Catholic bishops themselves voted for the culture of death candidate. I think they are probably right.

Shaw believes with other concerned Catholics that “orthodoxy and morality matter more” than clericalism and secrecy, “but the historical record strongly suggests that where secrecy is systematically abused, orthodoxy and morality sooner or later will suffer.” It’s a chicken and egg story. Which came first? Did dissent lead to a clerics circling the wagons in secrecy? Or does the clericalist/ secrecy duo come from dissent? The three are so closely linked it’s hard to tell. Regardless, all three are alive and well eating away at the authority of the Church and the faith of those in the pew.

What’s the solution? Certainly, clericalism and unnecessary secrecy must be eradicated. Clericalism violates the virtue of humility and treats the laity like minor children. In a culture where many laymen are as well or better educated than the clergy, this is just plain foolhardy. The clergy are called to imitate their Master. Consider how Jesus treated the woman at the well, the Roman centurion, and little children – with absolute respect. He didn’t talk down to them or make them run the gauntlet of hostile liberal staffers, although he was firm in correction when necessary. (Actually, there should be no hostile liberal staffers; they should all have to pass muster for both orthodoxy and charity.)

Secrecy should be rare. For the faithful to discover their bishop is implementing a scandalous program like Good Touch/Bad Touch (as happened in Arlington) only after the chancery trained 70 facilitators, is outrageous! Never should people have a parish or school closing sprung on them out of the blue. Decisions that affect the people should be discussed with the people – sincerely discussed. We’ve seen too much manipulation, for example in the wreckovation of churches where talking sessions used the Delphi technique to give the appearance of consensus while suppressing opposition to reach a foregone conclusion – decidedly unchristian!

Cover ups must be verboten! A priest’s sudden removal is sure to lead to presumptions of the worst. It is unjust to both the priest and the people he served to simply whistle in the wind, particularly if the priest himself welcomes openness about his case. More trust, more respect, and more honest communication with the laity is essential. As Chris Manion recently noted acerbically in his column in The Wanderer, “Many bishops appear to trust their lawyers more than they do the laity.” And many use their staffs as defensive blockers against those who are supposed to be their spiritual sons and daughters.

In my opinion, ennabling dissent is the worst part of the devil’s triple play. For years the faithful have begged the bishops to implement canon law 915 against pro-abortion Catholic politicians whose public scandal attacks both the authority of the Church and promotes the murder of the unborn. Yet only a handful of bishops have spoken, even though Vatican leaders like Cardinal Francis Arinze and, more recently, Archbishop Raymond Burke, clearly call for discipline. Most of their brothers just ignore them. Take the two bishops of the D.C. Metropolitan area, Donald Wuerl and Paul Loverde who are particularly remiss considering that most pro-abortion Catholic members of Congress and the administration live in their dioceses and attend Mass at their parishes. Yet neither Wuerl nor Loverde acts to protect either the Eucharist from sacrilege or the souls of heretical Catholics from damnation.

Silence and empty words, when not backed by actions, undermine authority, which explains why Catholic voters in the recent election figuratively thumbed their noses at the bishops. They were simply illustrating a sentiment described by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he wrote, “Don't say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” That is the legacy of the devil’s triple play. When bishops take literally their title of “prince” rather than “servant,” when they practice secrecy rather than openness, when they are silent toward dissent as heretics ravage the Church; then the faithful will ignore them even hold them in contempt as so many do today. Until the shepherds eliminate the evils of clericalism, secrecy, and dissent the sheeple in the pews are likely to keep bleating for the devil in lambskin.

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