Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

lies, damned lies, and the bishops

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 03, 2007

"Insulting to all Catholics," protests the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in reference to a tendentious and theologically leaky article in the LA Times. The story in question centered around a tort lawyer's claim that Catholics believe the notion of "mental reservation" permits them to lie under oath to protect the good of the Church:

"You really don't know," [plaintiff attorney Irwin] Zalkin said. "You put somebody under oath; you assume they understand that under civil law they would be committing perjury to lie. It complicates that process when there is a doctrine that allows for a lie to avoid scandal to the church."

I'd have to agree with those making the counter-claim that raising the mental-reservation question in connection with the Church's witnesses isn't a serious argument, but rather a lawyerly way of rattling cages. For all that, the willingness of ecclesiastics -- and cardinal archbishops in particular -- to perjure themselves is genuinely shocking. And the shock is delivered to serious Catholics who see their bishops as pastors of souls, not to the tactically modulated feelings of attorneys who stand to carry home a third of the white meat off the Church's carcass if the cards fall right.

Zalkin's suggestion that ecclesiastics have lied "for the good of the Church" is stupid -- or would be stupid, were it tendered in earnest. It's not the Church that has benefited from the perjury but the perjurers themselves, who have in fact grievously harmed the Church in order that they might stay out of jail.

No one not a thorough cynic who has read through the depositions of Cardinals Law and Mahony can fail to be stunned by their readiness to perjure themselves. You find yourself gasping two or three times per page. Their testimony (while under oath to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth") simply does not permit belief. Think of Law's failure to remember a memo he sent to the Vatican Secretary of State asking for the laicization of a priest who'd molested six boys; think of Mahony's inability to remember the two abuser priests he'd advised to flee the country, or to recall the police reports he'd received about Oliver O'Grady. One might possibly accept the fluke that both men suffered from some organic brain injury that impaired their memory to such an extent, but both men had perfect powers of retrieval when a past incident served to exculpate them from some misdeed -- or even from a personality flaw. Were a man both harmed and helped by consistently fuzzy memory, or both harmed and helped by consistently sharp recall, we could take him at his word. But we can go through hundreds of pages of testimony by Law and Mahony without coming on a single instance where either their memory or their forgetfulness works to their disadvantage: to their personal disadvantage.

Why is this perjury so harmful to the Catholic faithful? Because of what's at stake in the oath that it violates. An Australian moral theologian told me that aborigines used not to be permitted to testify in courts -- not because of an idea that they were racially inferior, but because it was thought that aborigines had no belief in an afterlife in which there was punishment for evildoers, and consequently the oath required of witnesses was meaningless.

Here's how that oath works: I, the witness, call upon God to send me to hell, eternally, if I do not deliver on my present undertaking, namely, to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in answering questions in court. I'm mortgaging my soul in order to buy the power to be believed, even when appearances are to the contrary (that's where the "credit" is extended to me, as a function of my "credibility"). To default is to be damned. Nor can I do a bounce-pass so as to lie in the witness stand to my advantage today, and then clear myself at confession tomorrow. My confessor has no power to absolve me -- I deprived him of that power in taking the oath -- but can only urge me to amend my testimony. A perjurer can avoid hell only by undoing his perjury: an act which is as public as his oath-taking.

The upshot is that almost no perjurer can have both a well-formed notion of hell and, at the same time, a genuine belief in it. For this reason the indignant objections by lying ecclesiastics and their flaks compound the harm by rendering farcical what is at bottom a grave situation. The following is from the LAT piece:

"Cardinal Mahony has always insisted and will always insist that honesty always prevails in giving testimony under oath," his spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said Friday. Tamberg said asking the question was "insulting and unprofessional" because it suggested that Mahony wasn't being honest.

And unprofessional. Right.

It should be noted, and figured into the calculation here, that not a single bishop has made anything like a robust defense of Mahony or Law (or Grahmann, or Daily, or Imesch, or McCormack ...). Now this is a loud silence. No bishop who read their testimony could fail to see how grotesquely improbable it must seem to the faithful. That means, if a bishop was really convinced that his brother was truthful, but that exceptional circumstances made it appear to the contrary -- to the scandal of the faithful and the detriment of the Church -- he would do whatever possible to remedy the situation. He'd phone other bishops and say, "You read Law's testimony? We can't let him take a hammering like that without getting the real story out somehow." But the fact is that the bishops have left the perjurers to hang from their own depositions, twisting slowly in the breeze of their perjury. They simply couldn't let this happen unless they were as convinced as Uncle Di that there's no honesty to rescue, no honor to defend. All the statements of all the spokesmen of all the dioceses put together don't outweigh that passivity.

"Insulting to all Catholics ..." thunders The Tidings. Is it?

Zalkin and company find the perjury a nuisance. The LA Times finds it a curiosity and a juicy addition to the Church-as-hypocrite file. The perjurers themselves find it important to their self respect and indispensable to the project of avoiding an early retirement with an orange jump-suit and weed-whip. Whom does it harm? Those Catholics who've never heard their bishops mention the possibility of damnation -- for any soul, under any circumstances -- and who now have excellent reason to conclude that their bishops couldn't care less.

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