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Remembering Uncle Di

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 03, 2021

A year has passed since the sudden death of Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, whose insights as “Diogenes” delighted our readers for years. This morning I found myself re-reading my own tribute to my old friend, and I thought it might be appropriate to reproduce here, as I did in that piece, Uncle Di’s explanation of his approach to current Catholic controversies:

Among orthodox Catholics concerned about reform one can identify two main approaches to the job: nutrition and surgery.

Nutritionists believe that the Church’s ills can be cured by fresh air, moderate exercise, and green leafy vegetables. Surgeons believe the patient has an aggressive cancer that demands cutting and cautery—the sooner the better.

Both nutritionists and surgeons understand that Christ’s Church cannot die. We’ve all had a peek at the last chapter of The Book (see Rev 22:1ff) and know that she ultimately triumphs in the bottom of the eleventh inning. We realize too that there’s much suffering ahead of her in the interim.

The history of the Church shows that every crisis is confronted by nutritionists and surgeons. Sometimes the nutritionists are right, and the surgeons cause unnecessary damage by over-reacting and amputating still-healthy members. Sometimes the surgeons are right, and the nutritionists cause unnecessary damage by underestimating the virulence of the disease and delaying the needful intervention, so that once-savable limbs rot off.

With hindsight it’s easy to say when the nutritionists were wrong and when the surgeons were. But at the time of the crisis the evidence is almost always equivocal: some aspects of the Church appear healthy or on the mend, other aspects appear corrupt and progressively toxic to the entire organism. Today nutritionists point to signs of vitality found in thriving new congregations, excellent papal catechesis, the comparative orthodoxy of younger priests, and a documentary commitment to reform. Surgeons are more impressed by the nature and scale of clerical depravity, the incapacity of bishops to remove heretics and criminals from their own number (plus their apparent unwillingness to deal with any corruption except under pressures of public scandal), and the widening gap between the Holy See’s instruction on doctrine, morals, and liturgy and the actual efforts of bishops and priests, who defy this instruction with impunity.

Note too how even undisputed truths are ambiguous in interpretation; the fact that most bishops side with nutritionists and very few with the surgeons is taken by each side as corroborative of its own diagnosis.

Nutritionists and surgeons have the same goal: the full health of the patient. But each believes the other is almost willfully obtuse in ignoring the important symptoms and in talking up the marginal ones. Each believes the other impedes the cure by giving the patient bad advice. “Why do you discourage the faithful by publicizing scandal?” ask the nutritionists. “Why do you divert the Church’s eyes from her danger by minimizing it?” the surgeons reply. Each can point to innocent persons who have left the Church in disgust because of blundering by the other side. A certain mutual exasperation is inevitable.

Most Off The Record contributors are surgeons. In blogdom, at least, we (entirely predictably) provoke dismay and unfriendly comment among nutritionists. Speaking for myself, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. While I believe the surgeons are right and the nutritionists mistaken, I admit to fallibility in matters big and small, nor do I doubt that nutritionists want the Faith to prosper. They may not return the compliment, but that doesn’t especially bother me. Those who lance festering boils (or indulge in sarcasm when untreated boils burst of their own accord) must expect to be viewed with suspicion and alarm; it comes with the job.

A final point. The OTR surgeons of my acquaintance share this characteristic: we wish we were wrong. We would be ecstatic if it turned out that the apparent villainy we decry had an innocent explanation, that ecclesial corruption was a phantasm, that we had misread the signs and had a long list of apologies to make. Where the important matters are concerned, we would love to eat crow.

By the way, Ignatius Press has produced a collection of essays and reviews written by Father Mankowski (under his own name), edited by George Weigel. Jesuit at Large is on sale now. Fans of Diogenes, be patient; my own collection of those gems will be coming soon, also from Ignatius.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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