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Interpreting the News: Adoption, Sex Abuse, Liturgy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 08, 2011

We come to the news with our own personal and cultural predispositions which, on no few occasions, cause us to miss what the news really signifies. I mentioned in yesterday’s Insights message that I thought three of Tuesday’s stories called for further interpretive comment. Here, in a nutshell, is what I see:

Illinois Dioceses Sue to Stop Same-Sex Adoption Requirement
Illinois dioceses sue to stop enforcement of same-sex adoption rule

Here the issue is simply more complex than it may at first seem. I agree, as a general rule, that charitable organizations doing work that is useful to the social order should not be forced by the State to violate their own moral principles in doing that work. I certainly do not think adoptive children should be placed with same-sex couples, as an arrangement so contrary to the natural law must inevitably do psychological damage to the child, at the very least. Moreover, every new attempt to place same-sex unions on a part with true marriage is another blow at the long-term health and stability of the social order.

But the case is complicated by the immense involvement of governmental funds (that is, tax monies) in Catholic social services. When the government sponsors programs for the common good, it naturally wishes to hold the performing organizations to what it regards as reasonable standards of service. For example, what would we think of a charity, operating substantially from public funds, which had the purpose of offering food and clothing to the needy, but as a matter of policy excluded Hispanics or Blacks? The case is weaker, but still a legitimate factor, for purely private charities, especially since they often receive a public benefit through tax-exemption. At what point does the message sent by certain methods of operation outweigh the benefits provided?

It will be difficult, then, to argue this case on the principle outlined in the story, though in legal cases and politics every avenue should be pursued, because you never know (and it may not even be logical) which angle will be judged favorably. The larger problem is not government meddling in state-funded charitable activity, but the moral falsity of the position of the State of Illinois in this case. Yet that falsity is becoming increasingly difficult for our culture to perceive, much as early 19th century Southern culture in the United States (as well as many cultures in previous periods) had difficulty perceiving the moral falsity of slavery. But as the government goes increasingly astray of the natural law, even as we work to educate and convert those who vote and those who judge, it becomes even more important for Catholic organizations to free themselves from tax subsidies of every kind.

Bishop Finn’s Apology
Bishop Finn apologizes for handling of priest’s cases

Here the potential pitfall is to see the forest clearly enough while but ignoring the trees. We may think this story represents simply another sexual abuse problem. Bishop Robert Finn has now apologized twice, even though he alerted both legal counsel and local police authorities as soon as he possessed evidence of the problem. But Finn is an exemplary bishop, and he presumably realizes he could have been more sensitive to a potential problem before the evidence in question emerged, and that he could also have confronted the priest himself rather than relying on lawyers and local authorities to determine whether this was necessary. Yet he has not stated that he failed to do these things. What he has stated is that he must somehow find a way to do more. But is more really possible? There is something decidedly different about this sex abuse story, and we ought to be very wary of too strong a reaction.

[Update 6/10/2011: I now know that one of his Catholic school principals had tried to warn Bishop Finn in a letter that the priest in question fit the profile for child sexual abuse, so that is certainly something that could have been responded to differently than it was. But it remains fair to note that Finn's handling of the case is still far more proactive and responsible than has been the case in the past.]

With this in mind, the tree in this forest that is leaning the wrong way appears to be the one represented by diaconal candidate Jim McConnell, who will now have nothing to do with the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph because of what he calls an “inexcusable” breakdown of clerical oversight which makes it impossible to promise the necessary “respect or obedience.” I repeat again that Finn, a priest of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, has already proven himself an outstanding bishop in many respects, unquestionably orthodox, quick to report sex abuse to the proper authorities, willing to suspend pastors when necessary, and clearly hard at work in shoring up the priesthood and ending reliance on parish administrators.

Are we to promise respect and obedience only when things are absolutely perfect? If so, the Church would never have had a bishop, priest or deacon in the first place. In leaning and ultimately falling the wrong way, Jim McConnell seems to be responding to a different storm—very likely a personal storm that has not been covered, and will never be covered, by Catholic World News.

Archbishop of Glasgow on the Extraordinary Form
Scottish archbishop discourages use of extraordinary form

Here our headline is, I think, somewhat lacking. The first impression on reading this news story is that here is another bishop who is disobedient to Pope Benedict’s wishes with respect to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. If you read the interpretive blog entry linked as one of the sources for the story, by Damian Thompson of The Telegraph, you’ll see that Thompson drips with contempt for Archbishop Mario Conti even as he complains that Archbishop Conti drips with contempt for the Extraordinary Form.

But if Archbishop Conti drips with contempt for the ordinary form, it is nowhere evident in the citations Thompson provides. And in fact, everything that Archbishop Conti says about the requirements of the current Vatican directives is absolutely correct. There is nothing in the Vatican statements that suggests bishops and priests are supposed to promote interest in the Extraordinary Form. The current directives simply affirm that it is to be made available to groups of lay persons who desire it, and that priests may use it themselves, if they wish, without any further permission.

Archbishop Conti’s instructions to his clergy read, to me, like those of a man who: (a) Prefers the Ordinary Form; (b) Recognizes that the Ordinary Form, by Pope Benedict’s own wish, is to be the normal or usual form for the celebration of Mass; (c) Understands that liturgical differences can be a source of deep divisions; and (d) Wants therefore to emphasize to his priests that they should not misinterpret recent directives as a call to stimulate a greater interest in the Extraordinary Form among the people of the Archdiocese of Glasgow.

He further suggests that there is not now any significant desire for the Extraordinary Form in his diocese, implying that he does not want divisions to develop where none currently exist. Others may argue with his assessment, but there is nothing in his instruction to his priests that contradicts either the Pope’s stated intentions or the resulting regulations, which Archbishop Conti himself unequivocally states “we must respect”. If it is really true that Archbishop Conti is poisoning the well, he ought to be criticized for what he does wrong, not for getting the current legislation right.

Other interpretive insights? Please Sound Off! below.

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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Steve214 - Jun. 17, 2011 8:13 PM ET USA

    This is a straw man: Pastors attempting to promote interest in the ER is not something that occurs among dioceses who have--somehow--never seen any basis to have the traditional Latin Mass. Moreover, why and how could there be a total absence of requests for the Extraordinarily Form? Again, this is not how reality works. It is, as a practical matter, not simply possible that absolutely nobody wants it. So, what has the chancery done which would cause nobody to request it?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 17, 2011 4:55 PM ET USA

    This item has been on the home page far too long because of my vacation. But to respond to Steve214, the Archbishop's stated point was not that those interested should be denied (in fact, he said the Pope's rules must be respected), but that in the absence of requests for the Extraordinary Form, the legislation does not call upon pastors to attempt to promote interest in it among their people, which is clearly the correct reading of the norms.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Jun. 16, 2011 8:02 PM ET USA

    It simply is not within the realm of possibility that there could be a whole diocese in which there is NO interest in the Extraordinary Rite. So, if I understand your point properly, depriving those desirous of the Extraordinary Rite does NOT cause divisions?

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Jun. 11, 2011 12:52 PM ET USA

    "... it becomes even more important for Catholic organizations to free themselves from tax subsidies of every kind." Well said and [IMO]including the Catholic Church's tax exemption. If I took 2.6 billion in Fed/State funding [as Catholic Charities did in 2000], wouldn't I expect some strings? From their perspective, no falsity at all. When you take Caesar's money, Caesar makes the rules.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 10, 2011 11:25 PM ET USA

    It is pretty clear from his narrative that Archbishop Conti is not a fan of the "old" Mass, and while there might be some truth to the suggestion that there is no directive to "promote" the EF, Pope Benedict's 2007 MP does state that "it behooves ALL of US to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church's faith and prayer" (my emphasis) regarding the EF. Regarding Bishop Finn, I respect his work, but this story doesn't add up. At this stage of the game, you gotta ask: "Really??!!"

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Jun. 10, 2011 10:32 AM ET USA

    I couldn't agree more that Bishop Finn's handling of the recent case in KC-St. Joe was/has been dramatically more responsible than previous instances of Episcopal negligence, with the result that classifying the former as simply another example of the latter is absurd on the face of it. While outrage at the scandal itself is certainly called for, the failure to acknowledge what Bishop Finn did right in this case is a gross lapse in justice and charity.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Jun. 10, 2011 7:42 AM ET USA

    "... implying that he does not want divisions to develop where none currently exist." I did not read the Archbishop's statement as "implying" that adherence to the EF Mass constitutes a "division". That would appear to be your inference, not his implication, and a tendentious one at that, sir.

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