Monday, June 20, 2011

The Corapi Matter and the Polarization of the Catholic Church in the United States

Permit me to give some necessary personal context to the reflections that follow.

If you look at the brief biography that accompanies this site, you'll notice that I have been blessed to be a Catholic my whole life, and from an early age I knew I had a vocation to ordained ministry.  For eight years I attended high school and college seminary preparing for diocesan priesthood.  Although I discerned that I did not have a vocation to the priesthood, I remained active in ministry throughout the years as a lay person.  I pursued graduate education in Theology during my off-duty time throughout my Navy career.  Eventually, I was ordained a deacon by Cardinal James Hickey for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC in 1990.  From that time to this I remain an incardinated deacon of that Archdiocese although ministry has taken me frequently to other dioceses for service.  My Ph.D. is in Theology from the Catholic University of America, with a special emphasis on Ecclesiology and Sacramental Theology.  Since 1989, I have been associated with the USCCB headquarters variously as a consultant and later as director of two of the Secretariats there.

Against that background I wish to respond to a couple of recent comments made on this blog.  Here's what the readers wrote.

The first reader stated:  

While I am fiercely loyal to the Church, I also accept the reality that She has been gravely harmed by some members in the USCCB who have championed a liberal/progressive agenda in place of Gospel values.

A second reader then wrote:
And there in lies the problem...with the USCCB and their progressive/liberal ALINSKY tactics in order to protect their agenda. I hear nothing about the PRO-ABORT-CATHOLICS in Congress [] because they, too, are 'progressive/liberal' .... I see what's happening to Father Corapi as "Rule 13" in Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. And it takes the focus off of the USCCB's failures to uphold the Church's Pro-Life teaching and their refusal to own up to their own guilt and complicity in failing to promote and uphold the Teachings of the Magisterium.
The USCCB fails to take today's Gospel to heart. They're too busy allowing sin to run rampant in their diocese and across this nation.
PS this is not an indictment against every member of the USCCB. There are some truly godly men doing their best against the tide of those 'progressive/liberals' who would silence them.
God have mercy on The Catholic Church in America.

The first reader at least qualified his criticism by saying the "some members" of the USCCB were involved in pursuing a liberal/progressive agenda.  The second goes much, much further, eventually only qualifying the indictment in a postscriptum to her remarks.

It is precisely this kind of broad brush and imprecise language which does much damage to the Body of Christ.  I am not saying that all bishops, their staffs, including the national staff in Washington, DC are perfect.  They (we) are not.  And people SHOULD criticize the bishops and their staffs when that criticism is warranted, by all means!  We have, under canon law, an OBLIGATION to do so.  I am not suggesting otherwise.  What I am pleading for, however, is precision in language, temperance and charity in tone, and accuracy in reporting.  Here's one example.

With both writers above: What do THEY mean by the term "USCCB"?  Do they mean the bishops as a body?  Or do they mean just the staff of priests, deacons, religious and lay persons who staff the headquarters in Washington?  Or do they mean both, the body of bishops AND their staff collectively?

Then, we need to ask: How is this language understood by the READERS of the posting?  Do they understand what these terms mean?  Do they understand the term in the same way as the writer does?

We need answers to all of this before we can even begin to assess the validity of the claims being made about whatever this "USCCB" is in the minds of the writers!  As this language now stands, it is clearly based on emotion, is grossly over-generalized, and, frankly, designed to incite to fear and anger.  It appears to be rhetorical, not factual.

Well, let's get to some actual FACTS here.  The USCCB is the assembly of all ordained bishops (and for some matters, this includes priests who are administering dioceses while the diocese is sede vacante awaiting the appointment of a new diocesan bishop) of the United States, and it includes bishops and eparchs of both the Latin and the Eastern Catholic Churches.  Once a priest is ordained a bishop, he is automatically a member of the USCCB (prior to Vatican II, membership in the predecessor organization was purely a voluntary matter).  While the majority of the bishops are serving as diocesan bishops, others are auxiliary bishops, and still others are "retired" bishops (although the preferred term is to refer to them as the "seniores").  As you can well imagine, such a diverse group would be very difficult to characterize as "liberal", "progressive," "conservative" or "traditional," or any other adjective you care to apply.  In fact, even if you tried to do this, you would find that in many cases, the same bishop might -- on one issue -- adopt a progressive stance, while on another issue, he will be conservative.  These broad generalizations about bishops are just as inaccurate as they are about most of us who are NOT bishops!

The same applies to the national staff.  The staff is also a part of the "USCCB" and the job of the staff is to implement the policies SET BY THE BISHOPS.  No staff member sets his or her own agenda; even if they tried to do so, they wouldn't be around long.  The bishops alone staff the various Committees (some years ago, this was different, but not now), and the Committees set the policies, directions and priorities that they desire, and the staff carries them out.  Let's talk more about the staff.  I will share with you that during my time on the senior staff, we sometimes would find it almost amusing to hear ourselves referred to by some folks as "progressive-liberal"!  After all, here we ALL were, serving the institutional church through her bishops -- not really where you'd expect to find a nest of progressive liberals!  And, as a matter of fact, there weren't.  Did some among us have more progressive views than others?  Of course!  But as diverse as the staff was on the "theo-political" spectrum, we were all there to serve the needs of the bishops; the staff is a professional organization, made up of priests, deacons, religious and lay persons, ALL of whom have extensive diocesan, national and international experience in their areas of expertise.  One of the great joys for me when I worked on the staff was the ability to walk down the hall and have a conversation with such exceptional and dedicated professionals.

All of that is "the USCCB" to me.  To read a comment that somehow there is a cabal trying to implement some "Saul Alinsky" plot is, frankly, just ludicrous.  It would humorous if it were not so tragically inaccurate and, bluntly, libelous.

Dear Readers: We ALL have to find ways of communicating and dealing with each other as Christian disciples, and quit trying to find villains around every corner.  There is enough sinfulness in the world already, and we all are guilty of sin.  But the world -- and the church which is supposed to be the "soul and leaven"  of society -- is just not as black and white as many people would like it to be.  When things are black and white, decisions can be seen as simple things; in such a polarized world, we would be free of struggles and strife, because choices would be so clear and obvious.  But we all know, from our own gained experience, that life is simply not like that.  This side of heaven, we must strive, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to do the best we can, enjoying the good, struggling against the evil, and accepting the bumps along the way.  Just as we can acknowledge such complexity in our lives "outside" the church, we need to accept that complexity within the church as well.

God bless all here, and let us pray for each other!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fr. Corapi: "Soft you; a word or two before you go"

It has never been my intention to comment much on l'affaire Corapi.  We simply don't know enough about the facts surrounding the case to comment intelligently about it.  However, one theme that has run through the various communiques issued by the Corapi camp has been about the ecclesial process looking into the matter.  Essentially, and variously, the process has been described as lacking transparency, as being fundamentally flawed, and even "of the devil" and so on.  While I don't know the facts of the case, I do have some familiarity with the process, and want to comment on it briefly.  I do so out of concern over many of Corapi's "fans" who are now vilifying and demonizing "the bishops" and their process.

Let me begin with full disclosure: I was a member of the USCCB's senior staff for more than five years (2002-2007), and a consultant to the USCCB before that and since.  It is in this capacity that I offer some observations.

1) I readily acknowledge that no human legal process is without flaws, and I'm not suggesting here that the process being followed is flawless or perfect.  On the other hand, it has good points as well.

2) Despite innuendo and even some statements otherwise, this matter is NOT subject to the so-called "Dallas Charter" which address clergy sex abuse cases dealing with children, and vulnerable adults.  So, there should be clarity here: Whatever is going on with Corapi vis-a-vis this particular case -- which as I understand it deals with the claims of an adult woman against Corapi -- it does not involve the Dallas Charter and its provisions.  So, discussions which suggest otherwise are grossly inaccurate and should be discounted.

3) So, what process IS being invoked?  Rather simple, actually: it is the process contained in the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church (the Eastern Catholic Churches have their own Code of Canons).  When a cleric is accused of a crime, he is subject both to ecclesial law ("Canon Law") and to civil law.  The legislator for a cleric is either his bishop (if he is a diocesan deacon or presbyter) or his religious superior (if he is a member of a religious order).  When religious orders minister within a particular diocese, of course, they do so under the authority of the diocesan bishop.  For example, if the bishop has asked the Franciscans to staff a particular parish in the diocese, the Franciscan superior will make the actual assignment (he'll pick the priest to be assigned), but the priest will be responsible both to his own superior and also to the diocesan bishop.

4) Now, I'm not too clear about Corapi's arrangement.  (I was never aware of him until this whole thing broke in the news.)  However, what I'm told is that he was not living in community with this order (SOLT), and so I must presume that his religious superior had agreed with whatever arrangement was in place, and of course, the diocesan bishop would be informed of it, and have to agree with it, as well, especially if he was functioning as a presbyter in the parishes of the diocese.  The local bishop would extend faculties (authority) to exercise priestly ministry within the diocese, and so on.

5) Now comes the complaint.  Ultimately, the religious superior is the responsible person, and it appears that the complaint was given to the diocesan bishop, who took the steps he needed to, and then referred the rest of it to the superior for HIS action.  When a complaint is levied, an investigation is made.  It is not uncommon to ask the cleric (presbyter or deacon) to step away from ministry until the investigation is complete and the disposition made.  This, of course, is not a question of "presuming guilt" in the matter; it's simply prudential judgment pending the outcome of the case.  While it's not a perfect analogy, it's not unlike what happens when a police officer is suspected or accused of wrongdoing; or sometimes just when he discharges his or her weapon in the line of duty.  Such an officer is suspended from duty pending the outcome of the investigation; if everything is found to be in order, he is returned to duty.  THE REASON FOR THIS IS TO ENSURE THE CONTINUED SAFETY OF THE COMMUNITY, not to "presume guilt" of the officer.

Similarly, the bishop/superior's main concern must be the CONTINUED SAFETY OF THE COMMUNITY pending the conclusion of the investigation.  So, the priest or deacon is asked to step aside from ministry for the good of the community; if he refuses to do so voluntarily, he may be temporarily suspended, exactly as in the case of the police officer.  Again, it's about the safety of the community.  Once the investigation is complete, and if there's no problem, the suspension is lifted, he "gets his badge back," and returns to serving the community.

6) Now, what has happened in the Corapi case?  It appears that, hurt and wounded as he surely is, Fr. Corapi has decided to forego the investigation altogether and simply walk away.  No one has asked him to leave the priesthood, nor as any religious superior sought (yet) to have him returned to the lay state.  All of this seems to be HIS decision, not ecclesial authority.  To use my secular analogy: it would be the same as if the suspended police officer simply decided not to wait for the end of the investigation, and he or she just resigned from the police force altogether.  Again, HIS initiative, not the Chief of Police's decision.

Is this a perfect system?  Of course not.  But I don't see anything in the facts made available to us that suggest the process is in any way unusual or inappropriate.  I know that Corapi and his fans are hurting, but in their pain, they should not perpetuate further damage to the Body of Christ.

Oremus pro invicem -- Let us pray for each other.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fr. Corapi speaks: “I’m not going to be involved in ministry as a priest anymore…”

Fr. Corapi speaks: “I’m not going to be involved in ministry as a priest anymore…”

Deacon Greg Kandra, and many others, have now reported on the latest developments in the Corapi matter.

No matter where you fall on your opinion of this man, it is time now to pray for everyone concerned. In particular, we should be praying for the many people who placed so much faith in his ministry. They are finding all of this quite devastating.

Let us pray. . . .

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Some of my former students, now brother deacons

The news is eveywhere: new deacons being ordained in the Dioceses of Pittsburgh, Venice, Atlanta and elsewhere.  Here's still another!  Bishop John Noonan ordained five new deacons this morning for the Diocese of Orlando.  I highlight them especially, since I was privileged to be one of their professors of Theology during the academic component of their formation. 

So, to my new brothers Israel Colon, George Ferraioli, Mark King, Scott Lindeman, and Bill Timmes: Congratulations, and ad multos annos!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

More on Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Diaconate

As a much lighter sidebar to my last posting, there is an interesting tidbit of diaconal history with the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

The first (permanent) deacon ordained in the United States following the diaconate's renewal by Pope Paul VI in 1967 was Michael Cole, who was ordained by then-bishop Fulton Sheen for the Diocese of Rochester, NY on 1 June 1969.  Unfortunately, Deacon Cole soon returned to his former ministry as Canon (Father) Michael Cole of the Anglican Communion, eventually pastoring a parish in Canada.  The next ordination of a (permanent) deacon was that of Paul McArdle, who was ordained in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by Bishop Charles H. Helmsing on 24 May 1970.  Paul, a true pioneer of the renewed diaconate, died last year.

You may read more about this remarkable man here.

An Agonizing Decision in Kansas City-St. Joseph

My good friend and brother Deacon Greg Kandra reports on the recent decision of a candidate for ordination to the diaconate to decline ordination.  Read about it on "The Deacon's Bench" here.  In summary, the candidate in question agonized over the decision to "promise respect and obedience" to Bishop Robert Finn and his successors; such a promise is made by every candidate for diaconal ordination, and even under the best of conditions this is a most profound and challenging promise to make!  Given the recent scandals in the diocese, and Bishop Finn's own admission of negligence in reporting recent cases of abuse by a particular priest of the diocese, an open-ended promise of "respect and obedience" to this particular bishop and all future unnamed and as yet unknown holders of that office, becomes particularly challenging.

Of course there is much involved here, and we can spend a lot of time going over it if people wish.  First, there is the theological understanding of "obedience" which is quite different from the more common understanding we hear every day.  Second, we can reflect on the nature of the relationship between the bishop and his clergy, and third, the presence and action of the Holy Spirit working in and through the bishop, the ordinand and the entire church.  In other words, this is so much more than someone promising some kind of "blind obedience."

In the deacon candidate's letter to his fellow parishioners, he refers to the fact that he is not going to be able to "respond to the call to orders which he had received."  Many comments have been posted on Deacon Greg's blog and I'm sure elsewhere which take the candidate to task for not responding to God's call.  As I tried to explain, though, this is highly technical and canonical (legal) language.  Here's what I wrote:

I will not enter into the substance of this debate, other than to say that I applaud the man’s decision. This isn’t a question of ex opere operato or anything else. Consider the way the ritual flows at ordination. The candidates are first questioned, and they respond AS A GROUP. But then comes this last question, and the liturgical action changes. Each candidate steps forward individually, kneels in front of his bishop, places his hands in the bishop’s, and promises respect and obedience to the bishop and all of his successors in office. It is a profoundly PERSONAL moment between bishop and candidate. If the man cannot, after wrestling with all of the issues in the crucible of his conscience, make such a promise, he is right not to do so.
But the main reason I’m chiming in is to give a technical response to the question, “From whom does the call to orders come?”
Overall, of course, the call comes from God, AS DISCERNED BY COMPETENT CHURCH AUTHORITY. Both aspects are necessary. I can’t simply say, “God is calling me to be a , , , and that’s all I need.” But what the candidate in THIS case is saying is technically quite different.
See, shortly before ordination, the ordaining bishop will issue a formal document known as a “Call to Orders”; it is what officially informs the candidate that he’s supposed to show up at the ordination ceremony. For example, when I was ordained in 1990 by Cardinal James Hickey for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, my wife and I went through our final round of interviews with him personally THE DAY BEFORE ORDINATION WAS SCHEDULED. At the end of those final interviews, the Cardinal opened his door, called in his photographer, and presented me with the official document calling me to orders. I was in the church the next day.
When I read the candidate’s letter in this case, it seemed perfectly clear to me that he was not speaking theologically or sacramentally but canonically: he had in fact received the official “Call to Orders” from Bishop Finn, but that he was not going to accept it.
Perhaps, in the future, he will.
So, what do you think?  Comments?  Questions?