Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

We can’t escape the human stain

I am taking a break from blogging on the Catholic scandal, but I think Michael Sean Winters tells us something important about human nature in this short essay on one of the America magazine blogs. While he is quite strong about the need for leaders in the Catholic Church (he writes as a Catholic; America is a Jesuit magazine, in case you don’t know) to repent and do penance, Winters, a liberal Catholic, makes a great point in opposition to Nick Kristof’s thoroughly partly dopey New York Times column yesterday, which blamed the scandal on “patriarchy” and the lack of democracy in the Roman church. Excerpt:

Kristof might take the time to learn a bit more about the early Church. He might learn that it took a while for the Church to figure out exactly what it meant when it called Jesus the Christ. He might, for instance, consult the history of Pope Silverius, elected in 536. He was devoted to orthodoxy at a time when the Empress Theodora was enamored of the monophysite heresy. When her husband’s army recaptured Rome, she had Silverius deposed and exiled, eventually dying of malnutrition. Theodora was a woman and a lay person, the modernist dream, but her effect on the Church was pernicious. Kristof might also consider the history of Pope Symmachus. He was the candidate of the clergy in 498, but the people elected their own Pope and placed Laurence on the throne of Peter. The laity wished for a stronger stance against the Goths and favored working with the Emperor in Constantinople. The lay leaders were, writes the eminent historian Eamon Duffy, “anxious at all costs for reconciliation with the Emperor, and willing to make doctrinal concessions to achieve it.”
Anyone who thinks lay control or female control of the Church is the answer needs to get better acquainted with the history of the early Church. It was not pristine. And, liberals should be especially aware that if there were elections for lay leaders, it is more likely than not that Bill Donohue and George Weigel and Raymond Arroyo would win at the Catholic polls. I will take my chances with the clericalist patriarchy, thank you very much. In his recent book, The Difference God Makes, Cardinal Francis George wrote that a principal problem for liberal Catholics is their willingness to become chaplains to the status quo. Kristof’s article could be exhibit A.

There’s a lot to be said for involving more females in the running of an organization that has shut them out, and maybe there ought to be a more flexible hierarchy. But if anybody really believes that flawed human nature doesn’t corrode the judgment of both women and the crowd, same as it does men and hierarchies, they’re dreaming. We are stuck with … us. As Winters avers, many people think they’re making progress when they’re only exchanging one set of evils for a different set.
I see new Pew study out today showing that trust in the US government on the part of the American people is at a historic low. Really? Who elected this untrustworthy government? Who indeed?

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posted April 19, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Anything human-created or human-interpreted will have flaws. That’s a given. But a system of checks and balances helps. The Roman church has none, doesn’t want one, and, when under pressure, declares that God Himself demands their system.
So what sort of human institution has the better chance of allowing “stain” to penetrate? The one that has checks and balances or the one that is insular and claims it MUST be that way?

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posted April 19, 2010 at 1:33 pm

I agree with Julia. But hierarchical systems of government are an inheritance from the past and will not change quickly. I think as Americans we are extremely impatient with the slow pace of change in other systems. Even within Orthodoxy, there is emphasis on obedience, submission and a strong, top-heavy power system. Just look at the recent Antiochian Bishop’s debacle of the past year…where the Bishops were all made “auxillary” and we were not allowed to pray for them in Liturgy…all in one fell swoop by the Metropolitan. That’s a lot of power. On the other hand, the evil Bishop of Alaska WAS finally removed much to the collective relief of all O. Alaskan, but again it took STRUGGLE!, time and the heirarchy to do it.
This is what it will take in the Catholic Church as well.
About the American’s not trusting their government…well, of course “we” elected them…50% of the 50% who voted…and the root of the distrust lies in how the health care legislation has been handled. The next election will be interesting.

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Franklin Evans

posted April 19, 2010 at 1:46 pm

The history of organized labor in the US might stand in as a cautionary tale here.
In the beginning, the tyranical, wealthy business owners and their hierarchey were the enemy, and unions grew out of the need to protect workers who had no other recourse, not even to government and law enforcement. Over time, unions acquired their own style of hierarchy and bureaucracy, and now one can find examples of union tyranny against some of which companies and their owners have little recourse, not even to government and law enforcement.
A broadly brushed generalization there, but I did introduce it as a cautionary tale… ;-)

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posted April 19, 2010 at 1:47 pm

The Empress Theodora was a “modernist dream”? The fact that it “took a while” (centuries in fact) for the Church to figure out its most basic theological principles supports the idea of an authoritative papacy and clericalist patriarchy? Winters may be a liberal Catholic, but his obscure historical references and forced reasoning strike me as quite traditional.

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Joseph D'Hippolito

posted April 19, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Whatever Winters believes, he must recognize that no system to redress, or even address, legitimate grievances exists in the Church — and hasn’t for centuries. This is why you have stories of corruption surrounding people like Maciel and Sodano — or, for that matter, Cardinal Cody in Chicgo 30-plus years ago. Having such a system isn’t a concession to “democracy” (the Catholic contempt for which is mind-boggling); it’s an admission of the need for checks and balances between all parties involved: hierarchy, clergy and laity.
Of course, such a system means that the clericalist mentality will have to be destroyed — and that will never happen, which means that Catholicism will remain nothing but a medievalist cult.

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Your Name

posted April 19, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Agree that the claim that the Empress Theodora was a “modernist dream”–and, particularly, Kristof’s dream–is stupid beyond belief. And claims that the Church has not, in the past, accommodated changing times seem similarly stupid (though I’m happy to be corrected on this).
It may be that Kristof’s specific points are idiotic. They certainly seem so to me. But if you’re asking whether putting a bunch of men in charge with near absolute moral power is a mistake–and more likely to lead to sexual crimes than putting women in a similar position–I think you’re crazy if you think otherwise. Indeed, I’d love to see how people would react to a powerful boarding school for girls run only by men, and with no input from the parents. I think they’d run screaming from it. And I think the people most likely to react this way would be people we would describe as “religious conservatives.”

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posted April 19, 2010 at 2:41 pm

The assertion that voting for leadership and involving the laity and women at higher levels carries the same risk makes no sense unless, of course, one is voting only for Emperor. I’m surprised that a champion of “localism” would fall for it.
A less centralized Church would exhibit a wider range of management style. Would “the stain” work it’s evil ways? Sure, but not everywhere and/or not at the same time.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Really? Who elected this untrustworthy government? Who indeed?
But who was responsible for giving us such unpalatable choices? Are the Democratic and Republican candidates of the last several election cycles really the best that America has to offer? I certainly hope not. The problem extends beyond the presidential level, too. It seems that every election has become a matter of holding your nose and voting for the less evil candidate, or at least the less evil sounding candidate.

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thomas tucker

posted April 19, 2010 at 3:15 pm

My challenge, Rod, is for you to post only positive, uplifting posts for an entire week. It would be good for you, and for all of us, to spend a week not wringing our hands over disasters, and scandals, and the next regularly-scheduled apocalypse.

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No one in particular

posted April 19, 2010 at 3:34 pm

“We are stuck with… us.”
Excellent writing, Rod. This is one of the most succint and accurate summaries of the pervasive consequences of the fallen condition of humanity, and their intractible nature (excepting divine means and intervention) that I have ever heard.

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NY Barrister

posted April 19, 2010 at 4:03 pm

“Thoroughly dopey”? Mr Kristof praised in glowing terms the real body and soul of the RCC, those religious and lay missioners and organizations working in the most difficult and often heartbreaking circumstances in the developing world. These workers in the vineyard of the Lord are not recognized often enough by the hierarchy or average John and Mary Catholic.
Perhaps Mr. Kristof’s analysis of the source of the RC Church’s troubles and grief is dodgy or simplistic (though I agree with some of it), he is totally correct in raising the core issue of “who is the Church”? This topic is of course a fire bell that always sets the Catholic right (and some center-left types like Winters) off on a fevered defense of clericalism and authoritarianism. I have long felt that though the RC right is also justly proud of the accomplishments of charitable groups, they are reluctant to praise same too heartily as that might give the laity too high a profile or suggest that the RCC’s justice and social advocacy is paramount rather than “prudential”.

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Rod Dreher

posted April 19, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Fair enough, NY Barrister; I liked most of his praise of the religious and lay missionaries too. I’ve changed the original post to reflect that his column was only partly dopey.

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Loudon is a Fool

posted April 19, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Excellent comments all around. Institutions entrusted with preserving universal truths throughout the ages are frequently best served by implementing a decentralizing system of checks and balance and democratic reforms. For example, in Texas the State Board of Education votes on what is and what is not history. Which is nice. I can’t wait until they start on the math curriculum. Who says 2+2=4? Fascists, that’s who.

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Don Altobello

posted April 19, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Believe it or not, I’d say the fact that the Pope in consultation with the bishops makes episcopal appointments absolutely has a moderating effect. One big practical problem, theological issues aside, with laity making these decisions is that I think they’d be prone to extremes. You’d get Weakland or Law, when the actual pastoral situation may call for someone with a differing temperament. Additionally, having a three branches type of system within a religion would not work in the same way it does for a nation-state. A religion needs to be, more or less, on the same page. The state ought to be more concerned about just distribution of resources, enforcement of the common good/social contract (as opposed to upholding a deposit of doctrine).

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Don Altobello

posted April 19, 2010 at 6:06 pm

And by the way, once the laity elected their man, especially if it was ideologically based, guess what we would have a lot more of? Administrative idiots (again, *more* of) for bishops and laity who would defend the man they elected.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 6:29 pm

not so sure I would swallow the “woman shut out from the Catholic Church” kool aid. When I was a kid my uncle was the chief administrator of a public hospital – each year he would go to their annual convention and would endure family jokes about poor behavior at conventions – his retort would be that the only women who showed up at Hospital Administrator conventions were Catholic Nuns. The story illustrates a reality – that for a long time the only women who occupied roles of power and influence were woman from religious communities. woman have always occupied important positions in the RC Church. They run hospitals and colleges ( until woman’s lib arrived they were among the only woman who ran hospitals and colleges). They run religious orders, they run almost all Catholic elementary schools and most Catholic High Schools. More than half of all Parish Directors of Religious Education are woman. Half of the administrative positions for the US Conference of Bishops are filled by women. Women teach in Catholic seminaries, sit on the screening committees of seminaries and manage the finances of a number of RC dioceses. There are women theologians in the RCC. Woman have served as advisers to popes – Mother Theresa being a recent example. When there was little opportunity for woman outside the home – the Church was a place where woman could escape abusive husbands, run major monastic communities, and have real power and influence. There are some pretty amazing females in the churches history – Elizabeth Bayley Seton and Dorothy Day being somewhat contemporary examples here in the US. Hence I found Peggy Noonan’s recent column to be uninformed – especially the notion that woman would prevent sex abuse from occurring. Uh Peggy – most abuse occurs in the family with the female obliviously allowing her hubby or boyfriend to do the abusing.
It is reductionist to view the Church only as the priesthood and the hierarchy. And it is foolish to think woman prevent sexual abuse of children from happening.
There was a point in time when Catholics actually elected their bishops – this stopped after the reformation which ought to be a clue as to how good these elected bishops were. There was even a time when Cardinals did not have to be ordained priests. The current Papal configuration is a product of the reformation – or rather – the reaction to the reformation and there is much discussion among the Catholic intellectuals (including Benedict) about returning to the historic definition of the Pope as “first among equals”. ALL institutions change and for sure the RCC has and will continue to change. Frankly – I doubt that applying democracy to the Church will do much to improve things. Cause unless I am mistaken – corrupt elites sure do manage to hang around our democratic institutions. It seems to me that few humans are ennobled by being given power or wealth. There is a reason why the old cliche about power corrupting has been around so long. I like to think that people with power get away with what they do because of most people’s apathy – but since such apathy also seems a human condition I am not overly optimistic that the problem of humans behaving badly is one we can really eliminate.

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Charles Curtis

posted April 19, 2010 at 6:54 pm

The idea that women are cut out of power in the Church is an amusing one. Check out any chancery staff or Parish Council in the world. There will be women on virtually all of them, in positions of authority and influence.
The idea that having more women or lay people in power reminds me of those suffragettes back in the day who used to argue that war would become obsolete if women were enfranchised.. Women got the vote in most of the West as the 20th Century began, which proved the most violent century on record.
If you go re-read the stories of Fr. Murphey, who molested 200 deaf kids at the school of the blind, you’ll notice that the nuns on staff at that school went to bat for Father when complaints reached the bishop.. They loved Father because he was so good with the students, and such a fund raiser.
One other thing, to people like Joseph D’Hippolito, who call the Catholic Church a “medievalist cult” as though that were a bad thing, let me just say that without the institutions developed by people in the Middle Ages such as universities, parliaments, hospitals, nation states, courts of law and legal traditions, banking systems, monastaries, and so forth, we would all be living much more brutal and brief lives.
We all owe our civilization to the Middle Ages, to those so called barbarians.. Which is another way of saying that we all owe our Civilization to the Church, who midwifed all of it.
We’ll all miss her if she’s gone. Mark my words, it’s true.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm

This argument is exceptionally stupid.
It creates a strawman: that the argument for women’s equality in the Church = the claim that a women-run church would be perfect. It then argues against that non-claim by pointing out that once this one time a woman had power over the church and messed it up. Because women aren’t perfect.
Therefore a patriarchy is best.
Repeat re: monarchy vs. democracy.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Cannoneo – is it not equally stupid to assume that anyone who suggests
woman are not cut out of the RCC is making an argument for patriarchy?
Think me that your strawman just jumped to a conclusion.
Yeah – brillant.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Cecelia, I concede your description of women in the Church. They are indeed not “cut out” of its life. But they are cut out of its power structure. The hierarchy is the very definition of a patriarchy.
Winters is insisting that, because Kristof ignores instances were women damaged the early Church, patriarchy can’t be the problem. We should look only at individual errors (“the actual culprits”!) and not pay any attention to structural qualities, ie the “patriarchy” he puts in quotation marks as if it doesn’t exist.
He is using *Hitler’s Willing Executioners* as if it is 1945, and we should be responding to the Holocaust as a set of crimes by individuals *to the exclusion of* the ideological and structural factors that might have made them possible.
It’s a transparently desperate and defensive argument.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 9:02 pm

I certainly would not want to see would-be bishops campaigning for office as politicians do, but there’s a reason for that quaint old custom of the congreagtion crying “Axios!” when a bishop is consecrated– once upon a time there was a possibility that the shout would be “Anaxios!” and the bishop-elect would be dismissed. We also read about congregations in the early Church sacking their bishops when they turned to heresy or sinful living. If I could suggest an eccesial reforms I would suggest that a bishop should have to be approved by a vote of the congregations (not of individuals per se) in his prospective dicocese, and similarly a non-confidence vote of the congregations should oblige the Church to consider replacing a bishop.

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posted April 19, 2010 at 11:08 pm

It’s a transparently desperate and defensive argument.
but it wasn’t my argument – I appreciate that one will find Winters argument unpalatable – so do I – but why then assume every other poster who takes issue with statements made here is joining in with Winters?
Of course the hierarchy is a problem – but the hierarchy is not the whole of the Catholic Church. And most Catholics ignore them anyway – as witnessed by how many use birth control. I’d say too that the hierarchy is not the only problem re: the sex abuse. Nuns who stood up for molesting priests? Parishioners who reviled the accusers because they liked their parish priest? Catholics who did not en masse walk out of Churches when Law was sent to his Renaissance Palace in Rome? As for woman being cut out of the power structure – power structures are not just formal – there are informal structures too. Consider that the institutions run by woman in the Church are 1) the money makers and 2) the means by which the mission of the Church is expressed and 3) the stuff most Catholics interact with and hence donate to. And yet folks think they are cut out of power structures? I think we tend to view things in simplistic ways and hence miss the essence of the situation.

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Sloboda Man

posted April 20, 2010 at 12:11 am

Did you ever think of this: if the hierarchs, many of whom from young age felt the call of God to serve the Church, who were educated, who had many years of experience dealing with people in the Church could give in to temptations, how much more it is likely to happen to lay people. Is the answer to these problems in handing over the judgement of the hierarchs into the hands of those who never dedicated fully their life to the service of the Church?

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posted April 21, 2010 at 1:22 am

My Dearest Beloveds –
“taking a break from blogging on the Catholic scandal” – Really, Rod?
“And Jesus said unto him, ‘No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God'” (Luke 9:62).
Let us pray that no additional children are molested during your break from vigilance against such heinous crimes.
Bless you!

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