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Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

The Mote-Plank Factor

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 17, 2004

Having vainly urged Boston auxiliary Bishop John McCormack, throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, to notify parishes in which known abusers had worked, Sister Catherine Mulkerrin ruefully conceded, "I know I sound like a broken record." It's a distasteful task to keep sounding the same unwelcome note and earn the reputation of a crank. Most Off The Record bloggers will sympathize with Sr. Mulkerrin on the hardship of admonishing an unreceptive bishop. For all that, it needs repeating: until the episcopacy addresses the serious moral problems in its own ranks, it will continue to lose its moral authority, which is the only authority it has.

In a discussion at Amy Welborn's blog, Rod Dreher put the problem of the "team player" bishops in a nutshell: "For their rest of their careers they'll be dogged by the Mote-Plank Factor every time they open their mouths."

The reference, of course, is to Jesus' hard saying: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye." It doesn't matter what subject the bishops may choose to instruct us on -- abortion or gay marriage or capital punishment or homelessness or even fidelity to liturgical norms -- at the barest hint of a call to moral seriousness or self-discipline they will be laughed off the stage.

Picture a newly married couple, presented with the Church's teaching on contraception. "Bishop, you seem not to grasp the hardships involved in following this teaching, the expense of a large family and the emotional cost of sexual continence. Where is the hardship in your own life or the evidence that you have called your brothers to austerity?" The Mote-Plank Factor.

Picture policemen in a big city force, urged to break the code of omertà whereby they perjure themselves and cover for one another in incidents of brutality or racism: "Hey, why should I risk my job and my neck by ratting out a fellow cop? I don't get into the head-cracking stuff myself. Look at you bishops: what's the worst thing that could possibly happen to you by denouncing another bishop? Nasty looks. And yet there's not one example of your getting rid of your own felons, for God's sake." The Mote-Plank Factor.

Picture a CEO, asked to delay relocating a factory out of concern for employees too old to find another job. "Look, your Excellency, labor and production costs are 36% higher here than they are in Carolina, and there'll be no factory, no jobs, and no pensions at all unless I keep my costs down near the level of my competitors. And don't give me the song-and-dance about 'justice.' I pay my bills. Your man Rembert Weakland nicked half-a-million dollars in donated monies in order to keep his gay lover sweet. That cash could have gone a long way toward relief of the unemployed you're so concerned about. If I'd fiddled with our pension fund to that extent, even to create new jobs with it, I'd be in prison now. But Weakland retired with full honors. He hasn't paid the money back. And he's still in good standing. Now, your Excellency, explain to me again my obligations in social justice." The Mote-Plank Factor.

Here's the rub: we're writing as Catholics who want strong bishops, who think that it's a good thing that a bishop, like Jesus, "speaks with authority, not as the scribes." But lots of people don't. Most half-Catholics and all anti-Catholics are gleeful at the "team player" approach because it means the teaching episcopacy will keep melting down before their eyes, like the Wicked Witch after she was doused by Dorothy. For the Frances Kisslings and the Garry Wills it's a win-win situation: if the bishops cave and go into "healing and reconciliation" mode, reduced to "suggesting" that the Church's law be followed -- great, they're harmless. If they try to bluff and pretend a baritone and a wagging finger will work the old magic -- great, they're laughing-stocks.

There's one way forward. Bishops have to cut the cancer out of their own midst, without a formal mechanism for doing so. That means that those who have moral authority have to prevail on those who don't to give over their miters. I know I sound like a broken record.

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