||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,
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.