One final verdict

Frank Bruni wrote a pretty blistering op-ed in the NY Times last week on the Catholic church’s funny way of veering between theocracy and secularism depending on which is most convenient at any particular moment. He pointed out things that don’t get pointed out nearly often enough, especially by hyper-respectable newspapers like the Times.

On the one hand, he notes, you have the bishops shouting about contraceptive coverage in health care plans, and on the other hand, you have lawyers for a Catholic hospital chain arguing that fetuses aren’t persons. And then you have those pesky child-raping priests…

We’ve been getting a fresh and galling peek into that with the court-compelled release of documents from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which engaged in a pattern of willful blindness and outright cover-up so egregious that the current archbishop, José Gomez, took the shocking step last week of publicly reprimanding his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony.

The documents show that Mahony and his lieutenants repeatedly failed to report allegations to law enforcement officials and urged accused priests to leave or stay out of the state, lest they face prosecution. They decided, in short, that the church’s representatives and reputation mattered more than justice: that the church could hold itself above laws that governed everybody else.

Because free exercise. It’s in the Constitution! It totally means that churches can just make up their own laws and ignore all secular laws and legal institutions!


Around the country, the church has beaten back lawsuits by priests’ victims and tried not to furnish information about priests’ wrongdoing by claiming that such scrutiny violates the free exercise of religion, said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims over three decades. “It’s audacious, it’s bold and it’s across the board,” he said.

But the church has simultaneously reserved the right to behave just like any other institution, leaning on legal technicalities, smearing victims and demonstrating no more compassion than a tobacco company might show.

Having it both ways is totally part of free exercise, which is in the Constitution.

From my extensive reporting on the sexual abuse crisis in the 1990s, I don’t recall any great push to excommunicate priests who forced themselves on kids. But when Sister Margaret McBride, in 2009, was part of a Phoenix hospital’s decision to abort an 11-week-old fetus inside a 27-year-old woman whose life was gravely endangered by the pregnancy, she indeed suffered excommunication (later reversed).

So a fetus matters more than the ravaged psyche of a raped adolescent? And Sister McBride deserved harsher rebuke than a rapist? It’s hard not to conclude that a church run by men shows them more mercy than it does women (or, for that matter, children).

Definitely children. That woman with the life-endangering pregnancy? She has four young children. Their lives wouldn’t have been improved much if she had died along with her fetuses, I think.

One final verdict is already in. On the charge of self-serving hypocrisy, the church is guilty.



  1. says

    The secularism of the Catholic church is jurisdiction – as well as subject – dependent. During the recent debates in the UK over gay marriage the Catholic line has very much been “hey, those guys have got civil partnerships now, and that’s cool, so can’t we pretty please just keep weddings for the straights?” – as moderate a position as their bigoted theology permits them. Meanwhile I’ve not heard that the Vatican has tried to call its attack dogs in India off Sanal Edamaruku, condemned for pointing out that statues don’t cry.

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