Why the '60s Went Wrong; Candid Cardinals

Russell Shaw on the Church in the U.S.

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, MARCH 25, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Russell Shaw was press secretary for the U.S. bishops' conference from 1969-1987. He is the author of 16 books, most recently, "Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone by Name," published last year by Our Sunday Visitor.

Shaw's unique understanding of the workings of the bishops' conference and long experience as a Catholic writer and journalist position him as an authoritative commentator on the crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States today.

In Rome recently for a week of lectures, Shaw candidly shared with a group of Vatican journalists his views on "squishiness" in some American seminaries, the Vatican's "uncollegiality," and the future of Catholicism in the United States.

I asked Shaw about the underlying causes of the sex abuse scandal.

"About two weeks ago back in the States, I saw an Associated Press story out of Springfield, Massachusetts," he said. "It was one of these rare stories where someone inadvertently speaks the living truth and you say to yourself, 'Oh my God, that's it.'"

The bishop of Springfield had resigned due to allegations of sex abuse brought against him, and a veteran priest of the diocese was put in place as the administrator, Shaw explained.

"So this monsignor got himself quoted by the AP on the subject of sex abuse and the good man said in so many words: You know, back when I was in the seminary in the 1950s and '60s, people didn't make a great deal of this kind of thing. I mean -- and I'm quoting now -- 'the word was sort of out that if a priest chose to engage in a bit of sexual activity with an adolescent boy, that wasn't so bad.'

"Then the AP ran a story the next day that was a sort of correction. The heavens must have opened on the poor monsignor because he was quoted as saying, 'I didn't mean to say it was all right!'"

"But I said to myself reading that story," added Shaw, "'Golly, I bet that's a large part of the explanation.' The word was out in some American seminaries and clerical circles that this sort of activity was OK; it wasn't so bad."

He continued: "Things started to go sour in moral theology in the late 1960s. But was it already going bad in the 1950s and that kind of thinking begun to infiltrate the seminaries.

"Sometime back in the '50s you began to have a mixed picture. Some seminaries and dioceses were still quite sound on these matters, and some were starting to go bad."

"So the ground was laid apparently even before the turmoil of the '60s and the sexual revolution and dissenting theology and the 'Humanae Vitae' controversy," Shaw said.

"You bring those factors to bear on a pre-existing state of affairs in which there was a squishiness at least in some seminaries circles on the subject of priestly celibacy and the obligations of priests, and you can see fairly clearly why the disaster that happened did happen," he observed.

Shaw was critical of the U.S. bishops' institutional response to the sex abuse crisis, and found fault with Vatican timing vis-à-vis the recent release of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice investigative reports.

"I don't think the policy that the American bishops adopted in 2002 is a very good policy," he said. "I think there are some serious things wrong with it, and if the Vatican shares that view, as apparently it does, then the Vatican and I are of one mind in having severe reservations about the American sex abuse policy. But the policy is up for review this year and they are going to get another shot at it then.

"Against that background, I thought it rather odd that as the American bishops were preparing to release the new half-century study on the incidence of sex abuse in the U.S., the Vatican chose just that moment to release word of a forthcoming new compilation of papers. Non-Catholic authorities: psychiatrists and sociologists and so forth, who are highly critical of just the sort of policy that the American bishops have put in place.

"Sometimes I take the Vatican side in these arguments and sometimes I take the American bishops' side. This time I take the bishops' side.

"This is supposed to be a fraternal and collegial Church but, intentionally or not, that sort of thing struck me as rather unfraternal and uncollegial."

"The Church has been hurt very badly by this affair," Shaw continued. "It has been hurt over here [in Rome] and back where I come from, and a lot of the damage has been done by officials in the Church. Sometimes I intuit that the view over here is: 'Those crazy Americans, why don't they just shut up?'"

"That's not a view that is universally held, I know, but I think that view is present here in the Vatican and it's an attitude that has prevailed for a long time here about the Church in the United States.

"So as a concerned Catholic laymen I feel I have a right and an obligation to speak up and say to my leaders: 'Come on guys, stop sniping at each other. It's the interests of the Church which are at stake.'"

Although he disagrees with some solutions proposed by the U.S. bishops, Shaw applauds their efforts at transparency.

"I tend to think transparency is a little bit like pregnancy, you can't be a little bit pregnant and you can't be a little bit transparent," he said. "And I'd like to see the bishops apply this policy of transparency to the rest of the Church, partly as a media relations strategy. But also I think it would be much healthier for relationships among the members of the Church.

"Unnecessary secrecy is a large part of the explanation for why the sex scandal turned out as badly as it did."

"If there had been less unnecessary secrecy about this problem many years ago, the problem would have never reached the dimensions it did reach."

Shaw contends that some current U.S. bishops have been unfairly implicated in the sex abuse crisis, since many of them were not bishops 20 years ago, when many of the abuses were occurring.

"I would go so far to say that the sex abuse crisis in the U.S. is largely a product of the bungling and mishandling by an earlier generation of bishops and the present generation of bishops are stuck with it. They've been given the unhappy task of cleaning up somebody else's mess," he said.

The real crisis, according to Shaw, has been taking place for the last 30 to 40 years in Catholicism in the States, and the sex abuse crisis has "metastasized" into a crisis that involves more than just the sexual crimes of priests.

"There's a question which no one ever seems to talk about -- I raise it occasionally," he said. "And that is: What about sexual abuse by clerics in the U.S. which is not a crime -- which does not involve minors but involves consenting adults? It's not against the law, it just happens to be a serious sin. Nobody is discussing that."

Catholic lay people, Shaw thinks, are also implicated in the general crisis.

"American Catholics generally -- if the public opinion polls are to be accepted as truthful, and I think they should be on this matter -- long ago bought into the sexual ethic of secular America," he said. "'Humanae Vitae' is widely rejected in theory and practice by American Catholics. Abortion rates among nominal Catholics in the United States are quite high, etc. etc.

"In terms of sexual behavior or sexual misbehavior American Catholics look very much like their non-Catholic fellow Americans and it's not a very edifying picture."

One of the effects of the sex abuse crisis has been financial: Dioceses are paying large amounts of money to settle cases. Shaw thinks that might not be such a bad thing.

"The Catholic Church in the United States is a Church which somehow over the decades has become much too fond of money and much too fond of the little comforts which money can buy," said Shaw.

"Harsh as it may sound, I would say that although I'm very, very sad that in the settlement of sex abuse cases so much money has ended up in the pockets of lawyers, on the whole I'm not at all sorry to see the money go," he said. "I think it will be a good thing for the Church in the long run to have a little less and maybe a lot less money to play around with."

In mid-June, the American bishops will gather in Denver, Colorado, for a special assembly held every few years, to consider, in closed-door discussions, a plan to address the greater crisis in American Catholicism today.

Shaw outlined three choices of action that the bishops may take:

1. Request the Pope's permission for a new plenary council in the United States.

"The last plenary council took place in the late 19th century, 1873, I think," said Shaw. "So this would be the fourth plenary council and the bishops who propose the idea have suggested a very large agenda dealing with issues of sexual morality as they apply to priests, as they apply to Catholics generally, and dealing with the authentic reception of the Second Vatican Council, something we haven't bothered to do yet in the United States."

2. Seek Pope's authorization for a regional synod of bishops, which would probably take place in Rome under the presidency of the Pope.

"The advantage of a regional synod of bishops," Shaw commented, "is that the only participants would be bishops. And it would be a close, controlled meeting. The plenary council, according to canonical provisions I've read, could involve as many as 2,000 people, which is an awfully large number of people in order to have a productive and even coherent meeting."

3. Turn the whole thing over to unspecified new initiatives on the part of the episcopal conference.

"Although I worked for the bishops' conference as press secretary for 18 years and I'm fully cognizant of the need for and the value of the bishops' conferences in the Church today, nevertheless, among the three options, this is the one I would favor least; in fact, I would be against it," Shaw said.

"The reason is pretty simple," he explained. "You're then turning a crisis over to a complex and slow moving network of committees and a group of staff people who are certainly competent and highly committed to the Church but who have their own agendas and their own ways of doing things. I don't think it's the way to elicit the kind of new thinking dynamic action that the bishops are looking for."

The proposals of the Denver meeting will be voted on in November at the bishops' annual business meeting in Washington, D.C.

"So we may very well know by the end of this calendar year what the American hierarchy is going to do about this crisis," Shaw said. "We may have reason to go out and dance in the streets or we may have reason to don sack cloth and ashes."

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When Red Hats Huddle

It is rare that the entire College of Cardinals gets together and rarer still that one gets a glimpse of their closed-door discussions.

A new book was published last week containing the addresses of Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Angelo Sodano, Bernardin Gantin, Alfonso López Trujillo and Ivan Dias during a two-day meeting of cardinals last October to reflect on the major themes of this pontificate.

The penultimate entry in "The College of Cardinals for the 25th Anniversary of the Pontificate of His Holiness John Paul II" is Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano's toast to the Pope at a luncheon following the conference.

"A great English writer gave us the noted work, 'All's Well That Ends Well,'" Cardinal Sodano said. "Well, then, ends these days of the conference of cardinals if it concludes with a meeting with Your Holiness."

"Certainly, the years pass, even for the pastors of the Church," Cardinal Sodano continued. "But I remember reading one day a homily of St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, who said that in the Church, old age is very useful: 'in Ecclesia senectus valde utilis est.'"

The cardinals gave the Pope a gift of 1 million euros, the distribution of which was left to the Pope's discretion, although the cardinals were not without their own ideas.

"Many cardinals asked me," said Cardinal Sodano, "that the offering or a part of it, be destined for the Church in Jerusalem, to help those who suffer in the land of Jesus."

Cardinal Gantin, dean emeritus of the College of Cardinals, provided some clue in his talk as to what the Pope might do with that money.

Remembering previous "ad limina" visits of the bishops to Rome, Cardinal Gantin said, "Certain pastors from poor countries return with a discreet but heavy envelope in their pockets, as economic assistance ... on the part of the universal Pastor who thinks of the smallest and most needy."

Cardinal Gantin spoke on the Petrine ministry and communion in the episcopate, and his talk was full of personal memories of his own work in the Curia and with John Paul II.

"I once heard someone ask," the cardinal said, "'Due to the long absences from Rome, and the many celebrations that take up the time of the Holy Father, how can he know and follow the Curia and its activity?'

"I feel that I am in a privileged enough position to be able to testify that if there exists in Rome someone who knows perfectly the Curia and its collaborators, its activities and its studies, it is the Holy Father."

Cardinal Gantin remembers the Pope's visits to his offices at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which are found in Trastevere, some 15 minutes from the Vatican.

He also remembered a visit in 1971, when then Archbishop Karol Wojtyla came from Poland with another priest, to the office of Propaganda Fide where Archbishop Gantin was then president.

"It was not usual for bishops, who have their own dicastery, to come to visit the missionary dicastery," said Cardinal Gantin. "We spoke of the life and evangelization of the missionary Church in Africa. They had come also to have news of their priests and religious whom they had sent to Congo. ...

"The future Pope was happy to see in my presence in Rome a prophetic action of the Council that opened the doors of the Curia to the internationalization of those immediately serving the Supreme Pontiff."

Again, when Cardinal Gantin was prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, he was received every Saturday evening by the Pope, a practice which he says is continued today by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. And he testified to John Paul II's personal and definitive decision-making in the choice of bishops.

"It is necessary that we put an end to certain diffuse but false ideas according to which the cardinal prefect of the congregation or the apostolic nuncio or some influential characters nominate the bishop," Cardinal Gantin said. "It is he [the Pope] and only he, who nominates each bishop, after a profound and never rushed examination."

"In Rome, we know, everything is urgent, always more urgent, ... but when it comes to episcopal nominations, I can testify that things go in step with wisdom rather than according to the fever-inducing modern velocity; to the extent that some complain that certain dioceses live a painfully extended vacation."

Cardinal Gantin returned to the question of the relationship between the Pope and the Curia.

"We must stop saying or believing that the Curia is not in perfect communion with the Pope and with his directives," he said. "It is another falsity to think or allow to circulate the legend according to which, 'The Pope, yes; the Curia, no.'

"What a strange way to conceive of our Church, divided at its summit in two parts: a type of High Church and another of a secondary category. One that would be obliging and available, and the other that would be only carreerist and never satisfied.

"Some books and newspapers have spread such arguments, since the time of the Council. I hear them again today, not without surprise; misinformation has a long life."

"But after 31 years in the service of three dicasteries of the Pope, I am not ready to change my opinion," Cardinal Gantin concluded.

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Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at delia@zenit.org.