Standing in the Cesspool: The Complicity of the Commentariat



Like you, Dear Reader, I was angered and sickened by the Pennsylvania grand jury report. But the lynch-mob mentality that quickly formed among the chatterati struck me as off-kilter. Especially bothersome has been the demand that the U.S. bishops follow the lead of the Chilean bishops and resign en masse, on the grounds that they all either knew or should have known about this cesspool of sin. “Kill them all; God knows His own”? And now I know what’s wrong with this too much stridency: We the Catholic commentariat are shocked, shocked! to discover that there’s been an elephant in the room for the last 16 years.

“We Were Lied To and Betrayed”

After the European fighting ended, [psychologist Capt. Gustav Mahler Gilbert] had been quartered in a private home where he engaged in conversations with ordinary Germans about the war. He quickly grew weary of their teary rationalizations. None of them had ever wanted war. None of them had favored persecution of the Jews. Their familiar, rhyming refrain became burned into his memory: “Man hat uns belogen und betrogen [We were lied to and betrayed].” (Joseph E. Persico, Nuremberg, 86)

I remember the “Long Lent” of 2002. I remember how it seemed that, at least once every other week, some new allegation would surface and another bishop would be under the media microscope. Since at the time I hadn’t yet found New Advent (and through it the Catholic blogosphere), I can’t tell you who the major players were or how they reacted. But this I do know: That year of scandal gave us enough reason to suspect that the archives of dioceses other than Boston held damning records of predator cover-ups. That was the time to start demanding a thorough, nationwide investigation.

If there were ever a move among the Catholic laity and the Internet Magisterium to dry out the cesspool, it had dissipated and gone silent by the time I started Outside the Asylum in 2008. When anyone outside the faith mentioned predator priests and complicit bishops, we sighed and rolled our eyes; it wasn’t our fault since we were lied to and betrayed. Occasionally a new accusation would crop up, and we’d start growling if the bishop didn’t throw the priest under the bus fast enough. Otherwise, we weren’t interested in the possibility that other chanceries might have time bombs of their own.

Silence Gives Consent

We didn’t know about the atrocities in Pennsylvania because we didn’t want to know. We wanted the 2002 scandals to be over and done with. We wanted to get on with the New Evangelization, not keep searching for old sewage. The elephant wandered into the room, and we wondered a bit about it, then pointedly ignored it. We were too busy trying to recruit people into the New and Improved Catholic Church that gets rid of predator priests almost as soon as they’re discovered. Pay no attention to the cesspool behind the curtain. Our ignorance was not only vincible but studied.

Qui tacet consentire videtur [Latin, “who remains silent must be seen to consent”]. That’s the principle on which we base our condemnation of all the bishops, priests, laypersons, and journalists who said and did nothing. By that principle are we the Catholic chatterati also condemned: “Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors” (Matthew 23:29-36). I’m committed to Christ and to the Catholic Church; I hope for the grace of final perseverance. But if I were a generic atheist, I would say to the whole lot of us, the Catholic commentariat:

You have no right to your moral posturing or your pious pharisaic outrage. Your claim to have been lied to and betrayed is a load of self-serving horse-hockey. You let yourself be lulled to sleep because it was easier than exposing the unknown depths of corruption within your hierarchy. You had the opportunity 16 years ago to demand an accounting and you willingly let it slip.

And now you’re hurt and angry because the Pennsylvania grand jury forced you all to face the cesspool you’re standing in? Boo-frickin’-hoo. I’ll save my tears for the 1,000-plus real victims.

Standing in the Cesspool

In one of the monastic communities St. Antony the Great founded (if I remember correctly), a monk was discovered to have violated his vow to chastity. In the presence of the assembled brothers, the prior ordered the fallen brother out of the monastery. But as the humiliated monk was leaving, an old and venerable brother got up and started to leave with him. When asked why, the ancient brother replied, “I, too, am a sinner.”

How quickly all our burbling, pious chitchat about the mercy of God and the Church as a “hospital for sinners” goes right out the window as soon as we are confronted by the depths of human depravity within our own house! At that moment, we go full Jonathan Edwards. Why such fury? Because such a cesspool of corruption can have nothing to do with us! Man hat uns belogen und betrogen. Off with their heads!

Our theology does distinguish between venial and mortal sins, but it doesn’t permit of greater and lesser damnations for different gravities of mortal sin; Hell is one-size-fits-all. Put differently, it doesn’t allow a semi-pharisaism in which we can say, “I may be a sinner, but I’m not as much of a sinner as those fellows over there.” Isn’t it bad enough that you’re a sinner? We’re all standing in the cesspool; there is no moral high ground for us to take.

Cleaning Up the Church

There’s no diminishing the profound evil committed by the predator priests and the bishops who enabled them. But as one atheist said in effect to me all those years ago, “If you (Catholics) want to take credit for the good, you have to take the blame for the bad.” We laypersons permitted the theory of apostolic succession to absolve us of responsibility for running the Church. So we oughtn’t to be shocked or offended that our abdication led to an unaccountable hierarchy. We don’t get to pretend that the sins and failures of the hierarchy have nothing to do with us.

No, I’m not suggesting we do away with apostolic succession or that we democratize the Church. Authentic reform would require finding a way to respect and maintain the apostolic authority of the bishops while increasing lay responsibility in diocesan administration. Rather, I’m saying that the status quo model of episcopal authority exists because we the laity allowed it to exist. Our general silence gave our general consent. So it’s too late in the day to complain about the lack of episcopal accountability. However you look at it, we own the suck.

The only thing that will show the bishops’ commitment to clean house is for them to actually clean house. The principles and actions USCCB president Cdl. Daniel DiNardo laid out on August 16 are a promising start. However, I believe the role of the Apostolic Visitation needs to be expanded into a full investigation—dare I say, inquisition—into the archives of all the remaining dioceses, however long it may take and however much it may cost.

That’s right … however much it may cost. If you think forcing the bishops to resign will make the cesspool dry up, you’ve got another think coming. As my dad (God be good to him) used to say, “It’s your mess; you clean it up.” We won’t get a clean Church on the cheap.

Summary: “All Stand Equally Condemned”

By no means do I say that there should be no ecclesial penalties for the bishops and priests most directly connected with the Pennsylvania atrocities. But demanding the mass resignation of the entire USCCB, especially in absence of evidence implicating each and every one of them, is unreasonable and unjust. Our outrage doesn’t justify it. One of the reasons anger (or wrath) is traditionally classified as a capital sin is because it encourages sins against charity and truth like rash judgment and calumny. We gave up all entitlement to anger when we claimed Christ for our Savior.

But moreover, such a mass virtual execution will not cleanse the rest of us of guilt. If silence and studied ignorance equal complicity in evil (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1868), all of us who ignored the elephant in the room stand equally condemned; we are also besmirched by the filth of the cesspool. While we’re demanding penance from the priests and bishops, let’s order some sackcloth and ashes for ourselves.

The time for moral posturing is over. Let’s eat our share of humble pie, then get to the serious, hard work of reforming the Catholic Church in America.

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1 thought on “Standing in the Cesspool: The Complicity of the Commentariat”

  1. Pingback: Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: VVednesday Edition – Big Pulpit

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