Bishop Accountability
  What I Told the Bishops: Thoughts on the Crisis in the American Catholic Church

By Peggy Noonan
Wall Street Journal
September 15, 2003

A week ago today Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, Bishop Wilton Gregory, the head of the U.S. Catholic Bishops Council, and a handful of bishops met in Washington with a few dozen Catholic laymen to discuss the future of the church. The official name of the conference was "A Meeting in Support of the Church," but everyone knew the context.

Two months before, in July, Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Gregory, both influential leaders in the church, held another meeting with laymen. That meeting, alas, was secret, and they had invited only those who might be characterized as church liberals. The story leaked, as stories do. Many, I among them, thought that holding a secret meeting to discuss a scandal borne of secrecy was ham-handed and tin-eared, at best. Why were only those who share one point of view asked to attend? Why was there no follow-up in terms of a statement from the participants on what was discussed, suggested, declared?

The cardinal and the bishop were said to be embarrassed when news of their meeting broke. Those often characterized as conservative asked for a similar meeting; the cardinal and the bishop obliged. And so last Monday's meeting, which thankfully was on the record, although participants were asked not to quote from the speeches they heard but rather to characterize them.

Last week several participants came forward to quote what they themselves had said at the meeting, and to give their general views. I've been asked what I said, for I was one of the speakers. And so, here is what I said to the bishops.

First, I think in some small way the meeting was historic. The non-Catholic public would probably assume that bishops and cardinals frequently talk with conservatives in the church. The non-Catholic American public would probably assume bishops and cardinals are the conservatives in the church. But this is not so. Conservatives in the church often feel that they are regarded, and not completely unkindly, as sort of odd folk, who perhaps tend to have a third hand growing out of their foreheads and tinfoil hats on their heads.

We say, "Please, we must speak more as a church about abortion," and church leaders say, "We may possibly do that after issuing the report on domestic employment policy." We ask the church to teach Catholic doctrine, and they point out that the press doesn't really like the church. We ask them to discuss the pressing issues of the moment, such as cloning--we're entering a world in which industrial fetal farms may grow replacement people for replacement parts--and instead they issue new directives on how it would be better if people sang songs during the mass after communion, and hugged each other instead of shaking hands during the moment of peace.

So it was real news that Bishop Gregory and Cardinal McCarrick met with conservatives and heard them out for almost an entire day. And it was important that the conservatives assembled were so earnest (it was Princeton's Robert George who warned of a future that could include fetus farms) and so direct, too.

I had planned to address the teaching of Catholic doctrine, which is something the American Catholic Church doesn't really like to do in any depth, at least for the people in the pews. But it seemed to me that earlier speakers had so much to say on so many topics that are crucial and pending that the scandals were given short shrift. So I rearranged my speech as others spoke.

There were some central questions behind my remarks. Do these men understand the extent and depth of the damage done by the scandal, and is still being done by it? Do they understand the church must move comprehensively to stop it?

To speak of a problem so difficult and yet so delicate, and to do it in front of men who lead the wounded church, and who came up through a system that we now know to have been marked by institutional sickness, seemed to me--well, delicate is the best word I can come up with. And so I thought the only fair way to begin was to say that I meant to speak with candor, as one does among friends, that we all love the church and love Christ, and that candor demands candor about myself, too. I said that I speak from no great moral height, that I was certain I had "the least impressive personal biography in the room," that I am no moral exemplar, "far from it." I said I wanted to make this clear because "Who we are both as individual people and as a church, who we really are, is at the heart of things."

Then I said my piece. I told them the scandal was in my view "the worst thing ever to happen in the history of the American church"; I told them they had to stop it now, deal with it fully; that if reports of abusive priests "continue to dribble out over the next two and four and six years, it will be terrible; it could kill the church." I spoke of how terrible it is that just the other day a priest in Maine was finally removed from his parish two years--two years!--after it was revealed that he was one of the priests who had set up the pornographic Web site "St. Sebastian's Angels." I said, "Two years after he was found to be doing what he was doing--and he's still in business!"

I attempted to paint a picture of a man in the suburbs of America, taking his kids to church. He stands in the back in his Gap khaki slacks and his plaid shirt ironed so freshly this morning that you can still smell the spray starch. He stands there holding his three-year-old child. He is still there every Sunday, he is loyal and faithful; but afterwards--away from church, with his friends, at the barbecue and the lunch, he now feels free to say things about the church that only 10 years ago would have been shocking. "He thinks the church is largely populated by sexual predators, men whose job now is to look after their own." And then perhaps he says, "But not my priest." But maybe these days he doesn't say "but not my priest" anymore.

And so, I said, we must move. "We use buzzy phrases from the drug wars like zero tolerance" for sexual predators, but maybe we should use words that reflect who we are and where we stand--"defrocking," and "excommunication" being good words that speak of who we are as a church.

I told the bishops and the cardinal that we are a demoralized church, and--I told them this was hard to say--that they too must feel demoralized. "Imagine a leader of our church. He became a priest to help humanity, to bring it Christ. And he became a priest and did great work and rose to a position of leadership. And now he is in the meeting where the archdiocese lawyer muscles the single mother who brought suit against the local priest who molested her son after she took the boy to the priest so he could have a "good male role model--and learn of the greatest male role model, Christ."

So, we are demoralized. But there is help. I spoke of the scene in Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion," which I knew some in the audience had seen in screenings. Mr. Gibson had attempted, obviously, to base his film on the Gospels. But there are a few moments in which what might be called his art asserts itself, and he does it his way. There is one scene like this that for me was the great moving moment of the film. The broken and brutalized Christ falls under the weight of the cross. He is on his way to Golgotha. He's half dead. When he falls, his mother runs to help him, and he looks up at her, blood coming down his face, and he says, "See, mother, I make all things new again."

I quoted this dialogue to the bishops and the cardinal. And when I said the words Christ spoke in the film my voice broke, and I couldn't continue speaking. I was embarrassed by this, but at the same time I thought, Well, OK.

What choked me was thinking of Jesus. And thinking of how we all want to be new again, and can be if we rely on him; but it's so hard, and deep in our hearts while we believe we do not believe, could not believe, or else we'd all be new again.

Anyway, I regained my composure and concluded my remarks with some hard advice. I said the leaders of the church should now--"tomorrow, first thing"--take the mansions they live in and turn them into schools for children who have nothing, and take the big black cars they ride in and turn them into school buses. I noted that we were meeting across the street from the Hilton, and that it would be good for them to find out where the cleaning women at the Hilton live and go live there, in a rent-stabilized apartment on the edge of town or in its suburbs. And take the subway to work like the other Americans, and talk to the people there. How moved those people would be to see a prince of the church on the subway. "They could talk to you about their problems of faith, they could tell you how hard it is to reconcile the world with their belief and faith, and you could say to them, Buddy, ain't it the truth."

I didn't know if this had hit its mark until the meeting was over, when an intelligent-looking and somewhat rotund bishop spoke to me as I waited for a cab. I was trying to rush to the airport and make the next shuttle home. He said, "I'd give you a ride but I don't have the limo!" I laughed. Now I think perhaps I should have said, "You will."

I was asked privately after my speech if I meant to suggest the church should divest itself of its beautiful art and cathedrals and paintings and gold filigree. No way. We are neither Puritan nor Protestant; Catholicism is, among other things, a sensual faith, and it is our way to love and celebrate the beautiful. Moreover, regular people have as much access to this finery as the rich and powerful. But the princes of our church no longer need to live in mansions in the center of town. Those grand homes were bought and erected in part so the political leaders of our democracy would understand the Catholics have arrived. But they know it now. The point has been made.

Anyway, the response from the bishops and the cardinal was not clear to me. They did not refer to any of my points in their remarks afterward. When the meeting ended I tried to find Cardinal McCarrick to speak with him, but he was gone.

I don't imagine any of the laymen left the meeting with a feeling that great progress had been made in any area. I left with a feeling that some progress may have been made in some area, but I couldn't say what area or why.

I did not come away angry, as some have, or depressed. I came away satisfied that I'd said what I thought needed saying, somewhat sad and perplexed. Why would this be happening? What does God want us to do? And how can flawed and ridiculous people like us help?

Someone at the meeting quoted the historian Paul Johnson saying some years back to a new Catholic, "Come on in, it's awful!" We all laughed, but you know I think it was the one thing everyone in the room agreed on.

Anyway, I've been asked what I said, and this was it. There has been no reporting of remarks from the meeting in July with the liberals of the church, and I hope there will be. It would be good if some of those who were there would report what they said, and how it was received by the bishops and cardinal. That might be helpful, as this old church finds its way.

Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and author of "A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag" (Wall Street Journal Books/Simon & Schuster), which you can it from the OpinionJournal bookstore. Her next book, "John Paul the Great," will be published by Viking in November. Her weekly column returns soon.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.