Religious Authority in an Age of Authenticity

By Rod Dreher
American Conservative
October 4, 2013

At the risk of going too Catholic-heavy today, I want to point to the latest from the two church scandals, and explore briefly the implications for all church leadership in our present time.

First, news from the Diocese of Trenton, about a 30-year-old Catholic priest who was the object of a sting run by two young Catholic men who were sick and tired of him sexually harrasing them. They pretended to be a 16-year-old boy online. Fr. Riedlinger engaged in graphic sexting with what he thought was a minor. The two men saved all the evidence and gave it to the Bishop of Trenton, to show him that Fr. Riedlinger had no business in the priesthood. Bishop O’Connell yanked him from the parish. The two men pressed the bishop to tell the people of the parish what their priest had been up to, in case he had treated others in the parish that way:

The messages show Riedlinger needed little or no invitation to steer the conversation to sex. He spoke of past encounters and the size of his penis, encouraged Josh to enjoy sex with his boyfriend and repeatedly told him how alike they were in their thirst for pornography and sex.

“I love u dude. Ur a sick (expletive) like me,” Riedlinger wrote.

Riedlinger occasionally sent a message saying he was near Newton, suggesting a get-together. On those occasions, Schmalz declined to respond and made up an excuse later.

The conversations culminated in a graphic, six-hour texting session in the early morning hours of Aug. 3, 2012. The next day, Riedlinger asked to do it again.

Schmalz and his roommate cut off contact two days later and forwarded the transcript and other materials to O’Connell.

On Aug. 7, the bishop wrote back, thanking them for the documents and saying he had personally escorted Riedlinger to a hospital for in-patient treatment. The diocese, citing federal health law, declined to say where Riedlinger was treated or how long he remained in the facility.

Schmalz and Ryan said they continued to press the diocese to notify parishioners at St. Aloysius, saying they worried Riedlinger might have spoken to other teens the way he spoke to them.

Two months ago, the diocese’s victim assistance coordinator, Maureen Fitzsimmons, flatly told Ryan in an e-mail that O’Connell would not do so, according to a copy of the correspondence.

In addition to these two young men, Schmalz and Ryan, three other young men report that Fr. Riedlinger treated them the same way. It’s interesting to read in the story how the bishop fell back on legalistic evasions (e.g., Fr. Riedlinger never actually had physical contact with anyone — as if that would make Riedlinger’s past and future parishioners feel better about their “sick (expletive)” of a priest), and how he didn’t feel that it was any of the laity’s business.

In Minneapolis/St. Paul, there is further fallout from the ongoing scandal there involving a parish priest who is in jail now after pleading guilty to sexually abusing minors. The archdiocese knew all about this guy, but didn’t move against him. And it turns out they may have known even more about other problems with priests and child porn than has been revealed, until now:

Upset that her superiors had refused to take action, a former church official reported to police that leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had kept secret for eight years images of pornography — some of it appearing to show children — belonging to one of its priests.

Jennifer Haselberger, the archdiocese’s former chancellor for canonical affairs, marched the images she’d found into the offices of one church leader after another in May 2012. But none responded.

The last straw for Haselberger came after she provided Archbishop John Nienstedt with copies of some of the images she had discovered in the archdiocese’s files on the Rev. Jonathan Shelley, 52. She said the photos appeared to show boys performing oral sex. The Rev. Peter Laird, the archdiocese’s vicar general at the time, Nienstedt’s deputy, ordered her to hand over the pornographic images.

“I did as I was told,” said Haselberger, who resigned in April. “I went back to my office. I closed the door and I called Ramsey County.”

But when investigators showed up, and the archdiocese handed over computer records, the images were all gone. No charges could be filed because the evidence either never existed, or had been destroyed. But the top canon lawyer, who resigned earlier this year in disgust over the other cover-up, says she saw them. We could be looking at obstruction of justice here. And mind you, this didn’t happen years ago under an old bishop. If it happened, it happened recently, under a bishop elevated in 2008 by Pope Benedict.

Here’s the thing. Conservative Catholics often say that the sins and failings of bishops and priests do not alter the truth of Catholic teachings. That is true, as a matter of logic. But you’d have to be living high up in a treehouse of abstraction to fail to see that the ability of people to believe those truths, or even to consider them as something potentially worthy of belief, depends on the authority of the proclaimers. Not the formal, institutional and ritual authority that all Catholic priests have by virtue of their ordination and office, but the personal credibility. To put it bluntly, how do Archbishop Nienstadt and his priests speak with convincing authority on the Church’s teachings when they do things like this?

It’s not enough to point to the authority they hold by virtue of their office and the institution. Whether we like it or not, in our time and place, authority depends heavily on personal credibility. “Do what I say, not what I do” doesn’t cut it. This is not, I hasten to add, simply a Catholic thing. These days, if people are going to believe that a priest or pastor is worth listening to and obeying, they have to believe that he has authority by virtue of the testimony of his life.

In modernity, almost all authority is under suspicion. I say “almost” because the authority of science is an important exception, because its claims can be empirically justified. Religious authority is the kind of authority that depends on subjectivity. That is, the authority must be external to be binding — that is, it must be perceived by the subject to be objective — but it must first be internally accepted. In other words, if the authority of the Bible is to have any sway over my decision-making, it must be seen as something that is not only true, but also true for me. This, per Charles Taylor, is what it means to live in a secular age: we are inescapably aware that to believe in God is a choice.

This puts a great deal more responsibility on the shoulder of the individual believer than in ages past. As a general matter, it is much more difficult to accept authority on the basis of its mere assertion. If religious authority is to have binding moral force over those under it, it must be experienced as convincing on a personal, subjective level.

It’s like this: when I was a child, I obeyed my father because he was my father. He had physical power over me, true, but I also obeyed him because I respected him unquestioningly. Now I’m a middle-aged man, and the extent to which my father has authority over my decisions is the extent to which I love him and trust his judgment. We exist as equals in this sense. I mean, he is still my father, but that relationship is more equal now that we are both adults.

It doesn’t work this way on paper within hierarchical religion. The bishop is still your sovereign, no matter how much more learned you may be than he, or how degraded his personal conduct. Nevertheless, the concrete reality of the matter is that if a bishop or pastor has shown himself to be untrustworthy, we are far less likely to yield to his judgment in anything. In 2002, I got into a fierce telephone argument with Fr. Neuhaus over my reporting about Bishop Timlin’s handling of the Society of St. John matter. Fr. Neuhaus was genuinely upset by the things I was writing. He couldn’t believe I was continuing to pursue the story, even after Bishop Timlin told me there was nothing to it.

“But Father Neuhaus, why should I believe the bishop?” I asked.

“Because he is a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church!” he thundered.

I do not for one second believe that Father Neuhaus was being a cynic. He really did believe that the bishop’s word was as good as his office. Neuhaus turned out to have been wrong about Bishop Timlin, and a lot of things.

In the past, when control of the media was in the hands of a relative few, network executives and publishers could sit on information that would have compromised the authority of a powerful official. Think of JFK’s enablers in the press hiding their eyes from his extramarital dalliances. In an earlier era in the Catholic scandals, it often took a mere phone call from the bishop to the publisher to keep stories about abusive priests taken out of the papers (this happened to me once). But now, with the Internet and with social media decentralizing the flow of information, far more things will be known by everyone. Churches will find that their authority depends far more on the personal credibility of their leaders than on anything else. This will require bishops and others in pastoral leadership to be men who walk the walk, so to speak.

In the Orthodox Church in America over the last decade, the bishops pissed their own authority away by refusing for years to deal with serious wrongdoing in the institutional church, and then engaging in lying, cover-up, and ecclesiastical gamesmanship. In the end, they had lost an immense amount of respect among the faithful, even those inclined to think the best of bishops. They had made a laughingstock of their leadership. Similarly with the Catholic bishops and their handling of the abuse scandal. This is a grandiose comparison, but I think it’s like the loss of faith in the institutions of Western civilization after World War I. In The Great War and Modern Memory, his masterpiece of cultural analysis, Paul Fussell wrote about how the scale of the catastrophe destroyed the 19th century’s faith in progress, civilization, hierarchy, and social order. Fussell:

Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and dates.

Similarly, abstract theological truths sound obscene beside the concrete stories of clerical abominations, and the names of sex abuse victims, pedophile priests, and the bishops who covered up for them. The knowledge that he has been sexting with what he thought was a teenage boy about his penis and such does not render the ordination of Fr. Riedlinger invalid, nor the sacraments he confects. This is true, and an extremely important truth to hold onto, because it protects the integrity of the holy sacraments. But honestly, in terms of spiritual authority, who wants to take anything a cretin like that says about Jesus seriously? In terms of authority, every word coming out of his mouth is suspect. Similarly, when Archbishop Nienstedt troubles to teach his flock about holiness, what kind of credibility will he have, if it is established that he buried the evidence of a child-porn priest, and misled police investigators? And: Bishop Finn.

In the future, the kind of bishops and priests who rebuild confidence in the Church’s spiritual authority — and I’m not just talking about the Catholic Church, but all churches — will be the kinds of bishops and priests who testify to the truth of Christianity by the integrity of their lives. As Kierkegaard said, religious truth is the kind of truth that can only be grasped subjectively. In this sense, the saints are far greater testimonies to the truth of Christianity than books of theology or mitred mediocrities. In a secular sense, I didn’t really become convicted of things I professed to believe about the importance of place and community until I saw those things lived out in my hometown in the long death of my sister. Those truths, which I held in my mind, did not come alive for me until they entered my heart — and they didn’t enter my heart until I saw what it meant to live as if they were true.

The problem with so many religious leaders today is summed up in something a Catholic priest friend told me years ago when I asked him if he could explain why so many of the bishops failed so miserably when faced with pederast priests. He said, and I paraphrase: “In the end, I think they just don’t believe in God.” Because if they did believe in God, they would have acted differently. In an age when authority is thin, deeds carry far, far more weight than words.








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