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The Tangled Ecclesiastical Web

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Dec 08, 2005

When the news broke in October that the Boston arm of Catholic Charities was actively helping homosexual couples to adopt children, most serious Catholics were surprised. When these same Catholics learned that Fr. J. Bryan Hehir was justifying the practice, their surprise quickly changed to understanding. The highly successful Fr. Hehir has been a thorn among the roses for over three decades. His Catholic prominence bears witness to much that is wrong with the Church.

The Matrix Unleashed

The network which leads to promotion and prominence in ecclesiastical offices and related roles in the American church remains essentially a liberal Democrat network. At the lowest levels, classified advertising to fill minor Church offices has been far more widespread in the "socially aware" (and dissident) National Catholic Reporter than in publications which pride themselves on Catholic fidelity. At the highest levels, the round of referrals and recommendations which lead to the selection of major administrative officials and even bishops is still largely dominated by worldly-wise clerics for whom doctrinal purity often appears to be an afterthought.

Positive change in this regard occurred only extremely slowly throughout the pontificate of John Paul II, and while the center of gravity in the American episcopate shifted somewhat toward orthodoxy and discipline during this period, the media-friendly old boy network remains largely unbowed despite occasional loss of blood. The advancement of Fr. Hehir in ecclesiastical and academic life offers striking proof of this claim.

On the Ashes of Orthodoxy

Fr. Hehir first rose to fame as a leader of resistance to Humane vitae at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. In 1974, he wrote a weighty article for Theological Studies arguing that the Church should be silent on the issue of contraception. According to the keenest observers, there has been nothing since to suggest that Fr. Hehir has changed his mind on this critical issue, which is a veritable weather gauge for positions on everything that matters in both the Catholic and the culture wars.

When he wrote his article, Fr. Hehir was near the beginning of a 20-year career with the U. S. Catholic Conference, where he successively held positions as director of the Office of International Affairs, secretary of the Department of Social Development and World Peace, and counselor for Social Policy. During the second half of his USCC tenure, he also served on the faculty of Georgetown University as Joseph P. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics in the Kennedy Center for Ethics. Thus was he rewarded with a stellar career at the highest levels despite his dissent from the moral tenets of the Catholic Faith.

In 1993, Fr. Hehir took his professorial talents from Catholic Georgetown to the more prestigious (and possibly less Catholic) Harvard Divinity School, where he serves as Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life. His worldly success has been accentuated by the reception of more than a score of honorary degrees. In 2001, he became the CEO of Catholic Charities USA. Later he reduced his role and became Secretary for Social Services and President of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Boston, a position perhaps more compaptible with his continued faculty position at Harvard and his many public speaking engagements.

Ideas Have Consequences

While enjoying such great success, Fr. Hehir has repeatedly raised concern among orthodox Catholics with a series of questionable opinions on everything from sexual morality to social services and from practical politics to just war theory. He has also been a proponent of reinterpreting the Second Vatican Council by insisting that its “spirit” requires a decisive and welcome break with the past. All of this culminated in his predictable defense of the placement of children in the homes of homosexual “couples”. This, he says, was necessary to ensure continued funding for all the other important work Catholic Charities performs: “If we could design the system ourselves, we would not participate in adoptions to gay couples, but we can’t. We have to balance various goods.”

But placing a child with a homosexual couple is not a “various good” but a specific evil. What would a parent’s reaction be if he knew that, should he die, his child might be made the toy of a homosexual couple playing house? And on this logic, one wonders whether Fr. Hehir would also arrange abortions for consumers of Catholic Charities if it were necessary to keep his funding. Such proportionalism is not only impossible to implement because of the incommensurability of the goods at stake, but it is in direct violation of all sound ethics—including the Catholic moral tradition—which holds that one may not do evil in order to bring about good. In a nutshell, the end does not justify the means.

Untangling Everything

Bad ideas, boys and girls, have evil consequences. The evil in this case was recognized a few days ago by the Vatican, which instructed Boston Catholic Charities to cease and desist. But far more is required. The Church cannot regain her health until churchmen stop promoting those who are uncommitted to her teachings and values. When someone with questionable antecedents is finally identified as complicit in an intolerable evil, the chain of advancement needs to be traced back to those who had every reason to know better. Their records too must be regarded as blemished so that their future recommendations will be ignored. This is the first step to untangling the web of ecclesiastical promotion, which is also the key to straightening out nearly everything else.

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