By Greg Erlandson
Even for those of us who have a masochistic compulsion to discover how wrong secular news reports and commentary can get a Church story, July was something special.
It all started with news reports of a Vatican document with the unalluring title of “Substantive Norms.” The document, released July 15, was a series of legalistic addenda to the Church’s Canon Law in a variety of areas. Much of it was an updating of norms governing sexual abuse. The norms codified the reforms encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI or norms already implemented in local churches such as the United States (see Page 4 for a list of the revisions).
By any definition, these are good things. They institutionalize throughout the whole Church a series of steps that many had advocated, most importantly expediting procedures for removing and even laicizing abuser priests.
So, of course, the reaction of the press was a loud Hosanna and a strong editorial assertion that other societal institutions should do likewise? Alas, not on this planet.
The Vatican’s unforgivable mistake, you see, was including other canonical changes and clarifications about the Eucharist, about confession and, most importantly, about women’s ordination (all prohibitions against various types of sacramental misuse). So headlines across the United States yelped that the Vatican was equating the ordination of women with child sexual abuse.
OK, I agree with those critics who say that the Vatican should have seen this one coming. There are simply not enough of us public-relations cynics advising Vatican officials that no good deed will go unpunished when you are judged by the grand inquisitors of middlebrow newsprint to be on the wrong side of history.
Hence (to borrow an Anglican phrase) the “despicable enormities” published on blogs and in The New York Times and Time magazine these past few weeks. Without shame and with ideological agendas aflame, the worst of these writers seem not to have even read the offending document, much less discussed it with a canonist or two. And the worst of the worst were Catholics.
Times’ columnist Maureen Dowd, who has apparently ordained herself Chief Scourge of the Patriarchy, on July 18 peered into the deceitful hearts of unnamed Vatican officials, rejecting their contrition as false. She dismissed the words and deeds of Pope Benedict in addressing the sexual abuse crisis as so much “spin.” But what really got her knickers in a twist was the Church’s temerity still to believe that ordination is reserved for men, calling 2,000 years of Church teaching “misogynistic poppycock.”
Not to be outdone in the “Isn’t our Church terrible” department, Tim Padgett of Time magazine was, if possible, even more outrageous. He repeated the lie that the Church has put ordaining women as “sin on par with pedophilia,” but abuse was not his primary concern either. He used “The Da Vinci Code” as theological retort, opining that the Church is “threatened by claims of Mary Magdalene’s ministerial status,” and lambasted the Church for homophobia and misogyny.
OK, I get it. Some Catholics disagree with Church teaching, even very old Church teachings. And many are upset at the sexual abuse horrors that at one time were tolerated, mishandled or even covered up. So am I. But the snide ad hominem attacks, the stubborn refusal to see the Church’s genuine and far-reaching efforts at reform, and the absolute inability to diagnose the sex abuse plank in society’s eye has got to stop. And maybe it is time for Catholics to start calling their brothers and sisters out when they are the source of the enormities.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.