The Sacred and the Sacrilegious
It’s been more than two decades since I last saw Fr. J. Donald Freeze, S.J., now deceased, at the Jesuit Retreat House in Faulkner, Maryland. I was there with Trinity’s senior staff on a working retreat and did not expect to encounter the former provost of Georgetown University, someone I knew and admired at a distance when I was a lowly assistant dean at Georgetown Law Center. But by the mid-1990’s, Fr. Freeze was supervising the retreat center and he greeted us warmly and made sure we had everything for a successful meeting. He had been a popular figure on Georgetown’s campus, and had a magnetic charm that clearly carried into his work at the more remote Loyola House.
So it was with much sadness that I read an email from Georgetown’s president and trustees this week revealing that Fr. Freeze, who died in 2006, has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by an alumnus of Georgetown; the incident allegedly occurred more than 30 years ago. Georgetown is investigating the case and, meanwhile, stripped Fr. Freeze of his honorary degree. And so, one more name joins the roll of thousands of credibly accused priests, leaving a trail of pain and betrayal and damage that the Church has yet to repair.
Before that news broke, I was debating whether to write about the small group of bishops who are trying to force the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to pass a declaration that is the equivalent of excommunication against President Biden and other Catholic politicians whose political decisions are at variance with Church teachings on the issue of abortion. But the sad tale of Fr. Freeze came on the cusp of this week’s meeting of the USCCB and throws into sharp relief, once more, the plain fact that some bishops are ignoring the realities plaguing our Church while engaging in shockingly inappropriate political gambits. The juxtaposition of these two dramatic story lines — the ongoing crisis of sexual abuse by priests v. the demands of some bishops to deny Holy Communion to certain Catholic politicians — exposes a crevasse in the heart of our Church that grows wider each day, to the sorrow of many of not most faithful Catholics including clergy, religious and lay persons.
Coincidentally, last week’s news also brought the extraordinary letter of Pope Francis to Cardinal Marx of Germany. In a stunning act, Cardinal Marx had tendered his resignation as a statement of the “systemic failure” of the Church to deal with the abuse crisis. Pope Francis rejected the resignation but agreed with Marx that the abuse crisis is a “catastrophe.” The Pope went on: “The whole church is in crisis because of the abuse affair…the church today cannot take a step forward without taking on this crisis….every bishop of the church must take it up and ask himself ‘What must I do in the face of this catastrophe?’”
I’ve written about this catastrophe before (see: Cardinal Sins, Clericalism’s Comeuppance, Letter to Pope and Bishops at the Clergy Sex Abuse Summit).
Some bishops are ignoring the real catastrophe while building a pile of kindling that, once ignited, could burn the whole house down. As the Pope and Cardinal Marx both stated so eloquently in their own ways, the Catholic Church has yet to atone for the utterly appalling catastrophe of sexual abuse committed by priests abusing their power over children and adult victims alike. Those crimes have wreaked significant collateral damage on the credibility of the hierarchy and willingness of Catholics to support Church leaders without question; the number of Catholics who have simply stopped attending Church grows greater each year. Many don’t “leave the Church” in some dramatic exit scene, but rather, they just stop showing up while still tending to their faith in more personal ways.
Meanwhile, as if to distract attention from that core mortal sin of the Church, some bishops are trying to wield their spiritual powers to condemn politicians for not carrying out their orders. If they are successful in this misguided endeavor — observers doubt they will be successful, but the story line itself is so damaging — the Church will only continue to grow smaller as increasing numbers of Catholics abandon the organization (but not the faith).
The Magisterium is the moral teaching authority of the Church — and, yes, the moral authority of the bishops to teach about the grave sin of abortion is unassailable. But the Magisterium is a teaching authority, not a license to engage in public shaming and condemnation, and worse, using a sacrament as a cudgel to score political points. The same bishops who want to deny the sacrament of Holy Communion to President Biden and other politicians seemed to have no problem with exgregious abuses against truth and human life of the previous administration; some of the same bishops had no qualms heaping praise and honors on former Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic whose taste for the death penalty toward the end of his tenure seemed insatiable.
Misusing spiritual authority to pursue a political end cheapens the moral teaching and spreads a kind of cynicism that becomes sticky, oozing across many facets of the relationship between the faithful at their Church. The bishops would do well to spend their time together (not on zoom, but together in a real meeting) examining their own consciences in relation to the question of why so many Catholics today pay little or selective attention to the moral teachings of the Church. Perhaps that reflection might illuminate the problem of the sticky cynicism that flows from the still-fresh wounds of the abuse crisis, a scandal that unfolds in endless shapes across decades, a “catastrophe” for which there has yet to be a genuine reckoning between Church leaders and the body of the faithful.
The bishops would also do well to reflect on the effectiveness of their pastoral example, the ways in which they have (or have not) walked in the shoes of the people, been first responders in the “field hospital” that Pope Francis so eloquently described as the Church of his vision when he first took the papacy. “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”
The field hospital is crowded and overflowing with human need. The bishops should ask themselves how ardently they have called out the racism and racial injustices that stunt and and ruin and eradicate so many lives in our society. Racial hatred, too, is a pro-life issue! What have those same bishops done to confront one of the most devastating of all scourges against life in American society, the prevalence of gun violence that will not end? The bishops should ask themselves how many among them have actually welcomed and supported and helped undocumented persons — not just issued statements, but actually helped with advocacy and money and services. The bishops should ask themselves what they are doing to raise up concerns about the present danger to human freedom and dignity in the efforts to suppress voting rights in the states — the tenet of Catholic social teaching about the responsibility to participate cannot be fulfilled if the rights of the people to vote are stifled Those same Catholic social teachings, whose root principle is human life and dignity, demand care for God’s creation — what have the bishops done to advance a real environmental agenda even insofar as our own churches are concerned?
The question of how to reduce or eliminate abortion is surely one of our society’s serious moral challenges — but not the only one. As with so many intractable social questions, reasonable people can have different tactical approaches to finding solutions. Regardless of what the law says, the moral teaching remains the same: abortion is a grave moral evil and no one should choose abortion. The bishops confuse the issue when they seek to impose on lawmakers the same spiritual penalty they impose on the person who commits the sin, itself. By equating legislation with the sin, itself, the bishops have reduced their moral teaching authority to just one more political rant in the loud cacophony of American politics.
I grew up in the strictest of Catholic households and schools in Philadelphia, and yet, I was always taught about conscience and free will, and the strict privacy protected by the seal of confession. Politicians have conscience and free will, and if they have sinned, they have the sacrament of confession. It’s not up to any individual priest or bishop to stand before the congregation to declare that they know the state of any person’s soul, to condemn any person before the whole of the Church, to publicly deny participation in sacred sacraments because of the bishop’s a priori judgment about the state of a person’s soul — a person who has not confessed directly to that bishop.
Using what is sacred to carry on a political argument is truly sacrilegious.
Let us pray for the bishops as they gather once more this week, that they will find it in their hearts to do the kind of reflection on their work, their pastoral obligations, the needs of their people that will lead them away from this obsession with destructive political engagement. We must pray that they find in themselves the humility and grace that characterized Cardinal Marx’s action to acknowledge the “systemic failure” of clergy sex abuse that remains a deep gash in the heart of the Church. They must repair the damage, not inflict more.