cross-posted at http://dagblog.com
The Bishop of Rhode Island has told Congressman Patrick Kennedy not to take Communion at Mass any more. They are now publicly feuding about whether or not the bishop ordered his priests not to give it to him. Forty-nine years after JFK promised not to take orders from the Church hierarchy, that hierarchy is sanctioning his nephew for not taking orders. The nominal issue is abortion. The underlying issue is the Church's sexual abuse scandal.
It's no accident that the vogue for Catholic bishops denying American Catholic politicians Communion, or announcing publicly that Catholic politicians should not take Communion, began in 2004, during the first national election after the abuse scandal came to light in the Archdiocese of Boston during 2002 and 2003. Nor is it any accident that the first major target of ecclesiastical ire, Senator and then-Presidential-candidate John Kerry, was from the Boston Archdiocese, where the . It might seem strange that the Catholic hierarchy would decide to strike the tone of moral condemnation shortly after epic revelations of child abuse and serial coverups, but at least some of the hierarchy reputedly came away from the national scandal furious that the Church had not been given more political cover by Catholic politicians. And the fall of Bernard Cardinal Law, who has since risen again in Rome, seems to be regarded by at least some bishops as a grievance.
To be fair, the Church has put some needed and belated reforms in place, as a safeguard against future child abuse. But those reforms do not extend to the mindset of the Catholic magisterium, which is very much a top-down, self-replicating hierarchy, and which has become far more traditionalist and far more centrally controlled during the Papcies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. (John Paul served so long that most Catholic bishops, and virtually all of the power players, were appointed or advanced by him, and reflect his own conservative and hierarchical mindset.) They certainly don't want anything like the scandal to happen again, and of course think child molestation is terrible. But the idea that their own autocratic approach to leadership, their lofty unaccountability, might be near the root of the problem is beyond them. The tacit principle that the bishops are to judge and not to be judged is deeply embedded in the institutional culture of the current Church. They mourn the suffering of the victims, but are still far from anything like insitutional humility or repentance.
This can be gleaned from the pattern of high-profile Church promotions since 2003, in which bishops who were fairly unresponsive to the abuse victims have been advanced, and many who were sympathetic to the victims have not. The most glaring example is Bernard Cardinal Law, leader of the conservatives among the American bishops, who presided over Boston's pervasive enabling of sexual predators and was forced to resign in 2002. In 2004, just before some American bishops decided John Kerry wasn't fit to take Communion, Law was appointed to a lucrative and prestigious sinecure in Rome (as cardinal archpriest of a basilica), and given even more administrative power in the Vatican than he had held before. In 2005, during the election of Benedict as Pope, someone apparently cast a vote for Law. As in, a vote for Law to be Pope. It came on the last ballot, when the winner was clear, and was therefore a strictly a symbolic vote. But since Cardinals may not vote for themselves, the symbolic gesture was not Law's own. (But could easily have been a gesture by Benedict XVI himself, who could only vote symbolically by the same rule.)
If Benedict and his Vatican have been warm and forgiving toward Bernard Law, they have been just the reverse to the Boston Catholic politicians who preferred the law rather than Law, and most of all to the Kennedys. Benedict was notably chilly after Ted Kennedy's death. And in 2005 the Vatican even took the spiteful step of overturning Joe Kennedy's annulment, granted in 1996. (This doesn't affect the legality of Kennedy's second marriage, which is governed by civil rather than canon law, and so late after his remarriage it's primarily a symbol of displeasure.) Time magazine even allowed one Vatican official to trash Ted K anonymously after the funeral:
One veteran official at the Vatican, of U.S. nationality, expressed the view of many conservatives about the Kennedy clan's rapport with the Catholic Church: "Why would he even write a letter to the Pope? The Kennedys have always been defiantly in opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium." (Magisterium is the formal term for the authority of Church teaching.)
"Here in Rome, Ted Kennedy is nobody. He's a legend with his own constituency," says the Vatican official. "If he had influence in the past, it was only with the Archdiocese of Boston, and that eventually disappeared too."
That blind quote is absolutely delusional as an assessment of Kennedy's political influence, except his influence with the Catholic hierarchy itself. And the blindness of the quote is an enormous problem, since the American official at the Vatican is either Bernard Law's close colleague and compatriot or else Bernard Law himself. But the talk about lack of influence makes sense if the Mystery Cardinal is thinking of Kennedy's inability to shield the Boston Archdiocese from the consequences of its misdeeds.
Of course, the idea that Catholic politicians could protect the hierarchy from the abuse scandal is deeply unrealistic. Any elected official who seemed to sympathize with the coverup, even remotely, would be political toast. But it's only slightly more realistic to insist that pro-choice politicians, elected by pro-choice voters, abandon their supporters because a bishop told them to. But abortion isn't the whole story here. The point is for Patrick Kennedy, and other politicians like him, to be taught obedience.