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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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Show 31 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Apr. 26, 2007 9:21 AM ET USA

    MA Atty Gen O'Reilly concluded a yr-long grand jury presentation in July 03 & issued a written report. He reported 789 identified complainants, but did not charge Law or any other Boston administrator with a single crime: No charges of coercing parents into silence, no charges of perjury, nothing. This was more than a yr after Law's globally published deposition. JP II posted Law to St. Mary Major a yr later. Did JP II coddle perjurers, or is CWNews drifting steadily to the lunatic fringe?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 07, 2007 9:41 AM ET USA

    When it appeared that his closest aides were going to have to testify before a Senate select committee, Nixon, a lawyer, advised them, "Just be damned sure you say `I don't remember; I can't recall; I can't give any honest, an answer to that that I can recall.'"

  • Posted by: - Apr. 06, 2007 9:36 AM ET USA

    The question here on this Good Friday is once again "What is truth...? Even more so exactly "What is going on here...?" Even if "perjury" or the "willingness to perjure" is not involved, and I think that it could be strongly argued that it is, just what is the civil government doing "judging" Church leadership, as though the judicial arm of the Catholic Church is paralyzed and incapable of performing such a necessary task? Has "the World" become more moral than the Church? We sin...

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2007 2:46 PM ET USA

    You only owe obedience to a Catholic bishop. Men like Mahony and numerous others have demonstrated time and time again by their statements, actions and omissions that they no longer hold, preach or defend the Catholic Faith. You are not bound to obey an apostate or obstinate heretic. In fact, you have positive duty to protect your Faith against such wolves. May God lead you in all Truth in this terrible time of suffering for the Church.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2007 12:11 PM ET USA

    The time has come for the Holy Father to begin removing bishops, especially those more inclined to listen to civil lawyers, who haven't saved the Church a single dime, and will milk it dry for a third off the top. The people who got us into this crisis will not be the ones to get us out. A shortage of bishops will never be a crisis. Begin at the top, and work your way down, and at some point, a commitment to the truth will prevail over the dedication to this antichristian expediency.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2007 11:45 AM ET USA

    Thou shalt not bear false witness------where does it say "except in special cases? The USCCB is silent on this subject----WHY? We have a priest who lies on a regular basis especially in the law suit that he is now defending against (slander). The Papal Nuncio wants no part of it and the local Arch Bishop attempted to "sweep it under the rug". So much for Catholic or Civil Law.........

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2007 11:39 AM ET USA

    If I recall, Mother angelica was implying that Bp.Mahoney only issues orders that run counter to explicit Church teaching and cannot be obeyed.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2007 11:07 AM ET USA

    I love Mother Angelica, too. But her theological red neck frequently shows up against the collar of her brown habit.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2007 10:25 AM ET USA

    O'Solanus--Be careful! Obedience to one's bishop is NOT dependent on the bishop's degree of holiness. Unless one is given a directive that runs 180 degrees counter to explicit Church teaching and advocates committing an immoral act, obedience is one's ONLY option, regardless of whether the priest likes it or not. Even then, the priest should seek recourse with the papal nuncio, not just engage in blatant public disobedience. I respectfully disagree with Mother on this statement.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 05, 2007 7:53 AM ET USA

    I have practiced law for more than 20 yrs. I have appeared in countless court cases, read many 1000's of pages of trial, deposition, & hearing transcripts, & counselled 12's of clients, most substantially honest, who have had to confront prima facie inconsistencies of various kinds in their recorded statements. I have read most of Law's testimony. The talk here of "their readiness to perjure themselves" is the talk of an ignoramus. Diogenes should plead ignorance. He knows not whereof he speaks.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 04, 2007 9:36 PM ET USA

    Considering the facts, Uncle Di shows considerable restraint. Mother Angelica, whose holiness and accomplishments far exceed the Cardinal’s, had his number in 1997 when she said “my obedience in that diocese would be absolutely zero” She recognized what apparently some don’t—many of our dioceses are in the hands of wolves.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 04, 2007 1:43 PM ET USA

    Wait a second! Don't you realize what this guy (Zalkin) has done? He has publicly stated that Catholics are not reliable U.S. citizens. In fact, we view ourselves as above the law. To even allow this statement to stand in open court without an objection is to return us to the era of the "know nothings."

  • Posted by: - Apr. 04, 2007 1:22 PM ET USA

    I don't think you can call this bishop-bashing. It's truth and it IS sad. But Diogenes didn't cause it, he informs us of it. If the truth is not before our eyes, how will we resolve to change ourselves, our lives and our world? I need to know the truth before I can teach my high school Religious Education students what it is. That bishops are not infallible, that priests are not infallible, that Holy Mother Church (and those bishops in communion with Her) is infallible, is Truth.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 04, 2007 9:32 AM ET USA

    This is a revolting piece of bishop-bashing. It is sad that an author with such talent composd it. It is all the more sad that a site calling itself Catholic published it. I urge Phil to reconsider his mission statement (May 11, '04, 'Why I Worry ...') & turn his zeal & talent to illuminating all the faithful rather than torching our bishops. I urge Diogenes to ponder the differences between a flame-thrower & a soldering iron & between a painter's broad brush & an etcher's burin or burnisher.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 04, 2007 9:00 AM ET USA

    One must be reluctant to criticize moderate Islamists for their failure to confront their radical brethren when one sees the failure of the majority of bishops to confront their lying brethren

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 11:26 PM ET USA

    Off the Record should be renamed: "Dante's Blowtorch" Pinpoint Flame, Uncle Di. Are you using Acetylene or Butane these days?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 9:38 PM ET USA

    I'm scandalized, but not sure by whom. I am really sad about these bishops' wickedness. I am really sad that Diogenes tells these tales on the bishops -- over and over again. I am just really sad.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 8:37 PM ET USA

    Reading this article, in the light of today's news that Speaker Fabian Nunez has endorsed assisted suicide for the terminally ill in California, reminds me again that Roger Mahoney is in over his head. His weakness in the face of evil is astounding. I don't believe that "Roger the Dodger" is a bad or evil man, but we need much stronger leaders if any Catholic teaching will survive the coming persecution.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 6:48 PM ET USA

    I for one am a priest who indeed preaches--and teaches--on the existence of hell, and mortal sin, and the need for frequent confession as a font of graces that helps us to live obedient lives. Just because I commit a mortal sin does not mean that I should no longer preach against it. On the contrary, it means that I should confess it, and preach all the more fervently. Lent and Holy Week is the perfect time for us to repent of our sins, do penance and amend our lives--starting at the top.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 6:39 PM ET USA

    Clergy, like politicians, have learned the fine art of massaging the language in order to get the most out of it. Think Bill Clinton and the word "is." Or Clinton's statement that he "...did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Whether he did or not depends on his definition of sex. It takes a good lawyer or journalist to stay focused and on topic because these folks have a way of dancing around the truth big-time.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 5:50 PM ET USA

    Way to go, Uncle Di!

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 5:43 PM ET USA

    Harsh truth...??? Come now.... First of all... "lies" are not damned... Only people are... And in this case the canidates happen to be Bishops... Speaking for myself I would prefer a slap in the face that would save me rather than the sweet poison of false affirmation.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 4:54 PM ET USA

    "Diogenes, the severity of your language is worthy of an ayatolla. Fr. Pat Dowling." Worthy, rather, of Jeremias or St. Paul.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 4:53 PM ET USA

    Breathtaking, Di. Breathtaking. Until just now I had not adverted myself to the view that perjury is not a confessible sin. And your delineation of the various parties in this cesspool is perfect.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 3:54 PM ET USA

    The bishops will not read this or any article that makes sense. They will pay for another PR firm to lead a PR campaign telling us what a great job they are doing. It is sad that they believe their own denial of the real facts.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 1:48 PM ET USA

    That is exactly the point uncle Di. These "teachers" themselves must have failed the mid-term exam on the existence of Hell. We need teaching that the "feel good, do everything and all go to heaven" line is mistaken, that real mortal danger exists, that souls will and are being lost (though we know not who), and most importantly that the battle rages daily. Pray that the pulpits teach again.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 1:16 PM ET USA

    Amen, Diogenes. I pray every bishop in the US & throughout the world will read your essay. The bishops need to realize that this is very serious, not just because we say it is, but because it is objectively grave/serious matter. Callistus: pray for your priest; tell him that you are praying for him; & if the bishop is threatening the priest, urge the priest to write to the Congregation of Bishops & the Papal Nuncio (certified, notarized mail). He can leave the diocese, but not the priesthood.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 12:28 PM ET USA

    Diogenes, the severity of your language is worthy of an ayatolla. Fr. Pat Dowling

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 11:53 AM ET USA

    I know for a fact that in one parish a priest has been warned several times not to mention mortal sin from the altar and not to call bearing false witness a mortal sin. He is always in hot water with the bishop's office for calling certain actions for what they are: mortal sins. He will probably leave the active priesthood and with him goes daily recitation of the rosary, weekly exposition and benediction, weekly novenas, a rigorous CCD program, etc. etc. None before him, 8 in 15 years, did it

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 11:12 AM ET USA

    "twisting slowly in the breeze of their perjury" The baseness of the corrupt Bishops is inversely proportional to Uncle Di's artistic talent in describing them.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 03, 2007 10:53 AM ET USA

    Uncle Di goes from strength to strength. The spectacle of ecclesiastical lying has done immense harm to souls. Ordinary Catholics have been stunned by the clear evidence that Cardinals and Bishops have lied to them and to the authorities. We were told by the Bishop Wilton Gregory a few years ago that the history of clerical sexual abuse is history. How wrong he was. What unholy discredit the body of bishops have brought upon themselves by standing by idly while fraud is perpetrated!