After Dallas – Disappointment and Hope

Deal W. Hudson

After months of buildup to the bishops’ conference, it seems strange that it has already come and gone so quickly. The best that can be said of the Dallas meeting is that it was the first step. Zero tolerance is a tough policy, and it was adopted against the counsel of no less than Cardinal Avery Dulles. But most Catholics remain dissatisfied! Why?

The Washington Post printed a poll of American Catholics on Wednesday, asking for their opinion of the conference, and two-thirds thought the bishops hadn’t gone far enough in their actions against offending priests. The problem is that the bishops have a very deep hole to crawl out of.

For example, it strikes me as odd–and a bit depressing, really–that the message from the bishops’ conference is that they have made the Church safe for our children. Aside from the obvious irony that the Church should have ALWAYS been safe for our children, it still doesn’t address the problem of why it wasn’t safe in the first place. As for me, I’m wondering why no one wanted to explore the possible causes of this mess: the problem of homosexuality in the priesthood, or the corruption of the seminary system since the 1960s, or the clericalism that is running rampant in the Church, or the bishops’ responsibility in all of this, or… Well, you get the idea.

But fear not! All is not lost–not yet, anyway. For all of the disappointment in Dallas, there were at least two bright spots at the conference that give me hope for the future.

One of these luminaries is Governor Frank Keating from Oklahoma. As the chairman of the newly formed national review board to oversee the handling of sex-abuse cases in the Church, his job will be to keep the bishops honest, and I have every faith that he will. He has a strong pro-family record, and his fresh face will be a welcome relief from what is rapidly becoming a tired scandal. I think we can trust him to be vigilant in his post: He has already promised that if he discovers a bishop shielding an abusive priest, he will ask the pope to remove that bishop from his office. Bravo, Governor Keating!

The other bright light at the conference was Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. While other bishops quibbled about the language of the charter, Cardinal George stood up and cut straight to the heart of the matter. He referred to a culture today of “secularized Protestantism…[one] which is both self-righteous and decadent,” allowing people to act as they will with no fear of ramifications so long as they feel good about it. It is, as he described it, a kind of secularized simul justus et peccator (justified and sinner at the same time).

And isn’t that really where the trouble lies? Hasn’t this whole scandal come about because too many people are so busy justifying their actions that they’ve become blind to the real moral turpitude of them? It’s this “do whatever feels right” attitude that has led to the decay of our seminaries and mass dissension in the ranks of lay Catholics. No charter from the bishops is going to fix that.

But the fact that Cardinal George was honest enough to admit it should give us all hope for the future. The many issues that fall under “self-righteous decadence” may not have been addressed in the small space of time available last weekend, but I think we can rest assured that they will not be ignored in the future.

With a seminary visitation and evaluation plan in the works, questions such as the suitability of homosexuals in the priesthood, the health of the seminaries, and the problem of clericalism will be forced to our reluctant bishops’ attention. And with the likes of Governor Keating and Cardinal George pushing for total honesty, I think it will be sooner rather than later.

Perhaps we’ll get to the root causes of this scandal after all!

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