Our Troubled Church and Why Some of Us Stay, by Brian Cahill

March 1, 2015

I received this commentary by Brian Cahill via George Bouchey. First George provides an introduction and then an unnamed source provides another.

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An Excellent commentary!

From one of the lists I am privileged to be on.

Unfortunately, it did not come with a URL,

so if it truncates I do not believe I can help you.

pax . george

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“From a close friend and former seminarian

Subject:      Transcriptof a recent talk re: Church

A group to which I belong, consisting mostly of current priests, former priests, former seminarians, secular theologians and at least one bishop, had a dinner gathering recently in San Francisco. At it, a former seminarian, former Director of Catholic Charities and  San Francisco’s Department of Social Services, Brian Cahill, spoke about the status of our Church today and why he stays in the Church.

I thought you might find the transcript of this talk of interest. He seems to cover all the bases in our evolving Church. Despite all of our Church’s “problems,” this talk gives me hope…”

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Our Troubled Church and Why Some of Us Stay

(Brian Cahill, SemNet Live 2/20/15)


In 1969 my dad was appointed to the first lay advisory council of the U.S. Catholic Conference, the forerunner of the U.S. Bishops Conference. The General Secretary of the Conference was a very young Bishop Joseph Bernardin and there was a spirit of Vatican II renewal and optimism among the group. Twenty-five years later, my dad was no less faithful to his church, but he was far less optimistic. Shortly before he died, and only half joking, he said, “There’s no evidence that the Holy Spirit has been anywhere near the Italian peninsula since Roncalli died.” If my dad were alive today he would certainly be positive about Pope Francis, and he might acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has finally reappeared in Rome, but he would not assume that major change was immanent. He would be cautious, skeptical but I think, still faithful.

For those of us who pay any attention to our Church today, in spite of the positive influence of Francis, we have good reason to be cautious and skeptical.

The anger, disgust and frustration surrounding the child abuse scandal caused thousands of Catholics to walk from their Church. Bernard Law of Boston was removed from office but given a cushy retirement job in Rome. Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali announced that he had no priests in active ministry accused of child abuse. It turned out there were twenty-one. That was ten years after the Dallas Charter. Roger Mahoney was allowed to participate in the election of our new pope. He spent part of his time in Rome trying to tweet his way through the unfolding evidence of his role in the child abuse cover-ups in Los Angeles. Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, convicted for failing to report child abuse, continues in office.

But this tragedy is far from the only failure in our Church today. The history of the church under John Paul II and Benedict, as manifest in the behavior of many American bishops, is one of arrogance, paternalism, flawed logic, sexism, inflammatory rhetoric, hypocrisy, failure of personal accountability, lack of pastoral sensitivity and obsession with authority.

In taking on the role of culture warriors and exclusive possessers of “fundamental truth”, many bishops have lost their credibility and moral authority. Raymond Burke and other shortsighted bishops have used the Eucharist as a sanction against public officials, eventhough then Msgr. Bob McElroy had written about the unintended consequences of the denial of Communion: the perception of coerciveness, the identification of abortion as a sectarian Catholic effort, and the diminishment of the full range and impact of the Church’s social teaching.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, when he was in Denver,  tried to tell us not to vote for Barack Obama, while at the same time banning children of same sex couples from the Denver catholic school system. Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., told us that Congressman Paul Ryan’s  budget proposals involve “choices where intrinsic evil is not involved.” Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix excommunicated a dedicated Mercy nun for making an impossible decision in a tragic, ambiguous medical crisis. After Illinois approved gay marriage, Bishop Thomas Paproki of Springfield conducted an exorcism against same sex marriage.

Oakland Bishop Michael Barber forced the inclusion of a morality pledge in teacher contracts. Jim Purcell’s sister, Kathy had the courage and integrity not to sign. And our own archbishop is trying a similar approach, but it’s not a new idea. Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr’s contract prohibits teachers from “public support of the homosexual lifestyle.” That contract language forced a Catholic teacher who is the mother of a gay son to choose between her son and her job. She chose her son. Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon fired a Catholic high school teacher from her job when the diocese read the obituary of her mother’s death and discovered the teacher was in a lesbian relationship. A Seattle Catholic high school, at the direction of Archbishop Peter Sartain, fired a gay assistant principal after he married his partner. The assistant principal was told that if he divorced his partner he could be reinstated. He moved on. Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt sent one of his priests to speak at a mandatory high school assembly just before Minnesota was to vote on an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. The priest, in attempting to influence soon-to-be voting age seniors, told the students that single parents and children who are adopted are not normal. A married Catholic couple presenting with the priest, compared same sex marriage to bestiality. The students didn’t buy it and the voters of Minnesota rejected the constitutional amendment.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, with his slick Irish charm, explained church teaching on same-sex marriage by saying that he always wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees, but did not have the “right stuff.” He wasn’t suggesting that gays with the range and arm of Derek Jeter could marry, but instead subtly using the lack of “right stuff” as code for “objectively disordered”—the Roman church’s favorite label for gays and lesbians. Dolan, with his smug sarcasm, has also compared homosexuality to incest.

In addition to his Catholic identity crusade, Salvatore Cordileone continues to lead the failed crusade against civil same sex marriage. He repeatedly proclaims that children need a mother and a father, blissfully ignoring both the heterosexual divorce rate and the thousands of children in the foster care system, placed there because of the neglect or abuse of their heterosexual parents—parents who are living proof that sexual orientation is not a reliable indicator of good parenting. He also ignores that the only significant cohort of adoptive parents for the most vulnerable of these children are qualified gay and lesbian couples who want to form family. Ignoring the pleas of major political and religious leaders to cancel his attendance, Cordileone was the featured speaker at the recent March For Marriage in Washington D.C. last June. Cordileone had no problem associating with the folks at the National Organization For Marriage (NOM) and the Family Research Council (FRC), groups known for their vitriolic rhetoric against gays and lesbians.

Cordileone is also busy on other fronts. He has spoken out against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, currently languishing in Congress. This law would prohibit workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians and includes an exemption for religious institutions, but Cordileone opposes this basic protection. Cordileone is also seeking a federal waiver so that Catholic adoption agencies can get back into the business and legally discriminate against same sex adoptive parents. And in a talk advocating natural family planning, Cordileone commented, “It’s not as if we have our bodies here, and our relationships over here, and our souls over here, our emotions here—it’s all interconnected.” This from the man who says it’s okay to be gay but you can’t act on it.

American Catholic bishops are rapidly losing ground on the issue of same sex relationships not just because a growing number of Catholics, especially younger Catholics, disagree with church teaching and feel the church is disrespectful to gays and lesbians. The bishops are losing because they continue to gloss over the infuriating, insulting, wounding and chasm-like dichotomy between regularly expressing respect and compassion for gays and lesbians and at the same time condemning them for acting on their nature.

Cordileone and his allies ignore recent scholarship on these issues. Louis Crompton, in Homosexuality and Civilization, documents ancient civilizations where same-sex relations were accepted. Daniel Helminiak, in What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality, shows how biblical passages apparently condemning homosexuality have been mistranslated and misinterpreted.

Nicholas Cafardi, a civil and canon lawyer from Duquesne University, questions church teaching on natural law and challenges the church “to address the counter-arguments of our fellow citizens who would say that, in their perception of nature, some folks come out of the factory with sexual attraction to members of their own sex. That is their nature. Did the divine creator make a mistake?”

In her book, Just Love, Sister Margaret Farley proposes an ethical framework for sexual ethics where justice is the criterion for all loving, including love that is related to sexual activity and relationships. Predictably the Vatican condemned the book, but many theologians considerJust Love the best book out there on sexual ethics. In a similar vein, Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson has called for a complete overhaul of Catholic teaching on sexuality. He argues that there is no possibility of a change in church teaching on homosexual acts unless the church changes its teaching on heterosexual acts. Citing the church’s claim that God inserted into nature the demand that every human sexual act be both unitive and procreative, he contends that this teaching creates the false image of an angry, sex-obsessed God, and he reminds us that the teaching is simply an assertion with no compelling arguments or proof that it reflects God’s will. Robinson proposes that the Church consider sexual acts in relation to the good or harm done to individuals and their relationships rather than in terms of offending God. He does not suggest that all sex is good as long as it does not hurt anyone, and he shares the church’s concern about casual sex not related to love or relationship. He believes the sexual act should be motivated by a desire for what is good in the other person, should involve no coercion or deceit and should not harm a third party. He believes these requirements can be better met in marriage, but he does not believe that is the only way they can be met. Robinson suggests that either heterosexual or homosexual acts, if they meet these requirements, are not offensive to God but are rather pleasing because they enhance individuals and relationships.

In a recent book, God and The Gay Christian, Matthew Vines, a young gay evangelical, makes a compelling case for affirming orthodox, scripture-based faith and at the same time affirming committed same sex relationships. With scholarship and clarity he refutes and discredits the well-known passages in Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians and 1Timothy that have been the basis of church teaching on homosexuality. Vines goes on to say, “When we tell people that their every desire for intimate, sexual bonding is shameful and disordered, we encourage them to hate a core part of who they are.  And when we reject the desire of gay Christians to express their sexuality within a lifelong covenant, we separate them from our covenantal God, and we tarnish their ability to bear his image.”

I won’t review our battle over working with same sex adoptive parents before I left Catholic Charities other than to say that Archbishop Levada knew what we were doing until he got to Rome and then he decided he was against it.

A few years ago the United Nations began an unprecedented and long over due interrogation of the Vatican regarding the scale of priestly child abuse. The Vatican was obligated to respond to the UN representatives because it’s a 1990 signatory to the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, which calls for all governments to take adequate measures to protect children. Rome ignored the requirements of this agreement for the last eighteen years until 2012. But there is another story here. While the Vatican blew off this UN mandate when it came to the sexual abuse of children, it took the agreement very seriously when it came to another matter. In 2003, when Rome issued the teaching prohibiting same sex couples from being adoptive parents, the Vatican cited the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child as support for the Roman position and the church’s effort to “protect” children from the “great violence” that would be done to them by gay and lesbian parents.  When it came to priests abusing vulnerable children, the agreement was ignored, but when it came to gay and lesbian couples adopting vulnerable children, it was run up the Roman flagpole.

The US Bishops continue to argue for a broader exemption from the contraception mandate in the Affordable Healthcare Act. Led on this issue by Archbishop William Lori, the bishops have little Catholic support because the great majority of Catholics have long rejected Church teaching on contraception and 95% of Catholic women of childbearing age use contraception. The bishop’s incredible assertion that contraception is a “deeply sacred religious belief” would be laughable if it weren’t for the reality that in their intransigence, leaders of the American Catholic Church, which always has been a strong advocate for health care, have ended up as opponents of health care reform. The bishops want an exemption for agencies like Catholic Charities and for any employer who would have a “conscience” problem with providing contraceptive coverage for employees. Not only is this effort turning religious liberty on its head, it ignores the reality that affordable health care, including contraception, is the most effective way to significantly reduce abortion.

The history here is interesting. The Obama law mandating contraception is exactly the same law California law passed in 1999. Only one bishop sued over that law and the California Supreme Court affirmed the law. Archbishop Levada told me not to worry about it and Catholic Charities continued to provide contraception coverage. If it was not a calamitous religious liberty issue then, why is it now? The bishops are now arguing that contraception is a “deeply held sacred belief” and that the broader service mission of an organization like Catholic Charities is religious and therefore the exemption should apply. While the mission of Catholic Charities is rightly driven by religious values, the bishops’ argument would allow them, in the name of religious liberty, to shove their beliefs down the throats of all employees regardless of their beliefs. The bishops complain that the exemption only applies to Catholic institutions limited to hiring and serving Catholics, and therefore, for an agency like Catholic Charities, the government is setting limits on who can be served. But the government is not telling Catholic Charities whom it can serve. The government is simply saying that if a Catholic agency hires employees without regard to their faith and serves clients without regard to their faith, then it has to play by the rules of the pluralistic society in which it chooses to function.

And religious liberty is not just about contraception. Last year President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians by federal contractors. He did this only after the House Republicans refused to approve a legislative approach to this problem. The President retained a 2002 Bush executive order allowing religious institutions flexibility in hiring for key positions, but resisted the call for a blanket exemption for all religious organizations. Most involved observers consider the language a reasonable and workable solution. Rev. Larry Snyder, then the head of Catholic Charities USA, agreed with the language. Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Catholic University of America also supported the compromise. “We all wanted to find a way to balance the rights of religious identity with the clear moral obligation to end discrimination based on orientation.” But not all parties wanted to find a way. The language was not good enough for the US Bishops. Archbishop Lori, their point man, announced, “In the name of forbidding discrimination this order implements discrimination. With the stroke of a pen, it lends the economic power of the federal government to a deeply flawed understanding of human sexuality to which faithful Catholics and many other people of faith will not assent. As a result the order will exclude federal contractors precisely on the basis of their religious beliefs.” Actually it will exclude contractors precisely on the basis of their prejudice.

In 2010 the bishops’ lobbyists flooded Congress with false claims about the Affordable Health Care Act, including the charge that it would increase abortions. Two groups of nuns—the Catholic Health Association led by Sr. Casrol Keehan and NETWORK, a coalition of nuns organized by Sr. Simone Campbel—set the record straight with reliable empirical evidence that generous funding of healthcare actually lowers the incidence of abortion. Cardinal George was more angered that nuns dared to challenge the power of the bishops’ conference to speak “with one voice” in the name of the church than he was that the bishops’ lobbyists had spread misinformation on Capitol Hill. Shortly after this event the Vatican—in the person of our own William Levada—ordered a heavy-handed “visitation” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. LCWR represents eighty percent of Catholic sisters in the United States. These are women who do so much of the heavy lifting in our church, especially in education, health care and social services. The bishops have worried that the conference’s positions on homosexuality and the ordination of women would “give scandal,” and they criticized the nuns for focusing too much on poverty and injustice while not sufficiently supporting church teaching on abortion and marriage. It took four years of life under a cloud of needless suspician until the final report came out from the Vatican last December clearing the nuns of the false allegations raised against them.

Just a few thoughts on abortion. I believe that in many cases, but not all, abortion is wrong, but I think the strategy and tactics of our American church leaders have been ineffective and at times counterproductive. It’s as though someone wrote a handbook for the American bishops on how to lose influence and credibility in the abortion battle, with the following recommendations:

  1. Keep insisting on church teaching on contraception
  2. Keep ignoring the health care needs of low income women
  3. Keep supporting personhood bills and constitutional amendments that don’t go anywhere
  4. Keep insisting, as the bishops did in South Dakota, that abortion is murder but at the same time fail to propose an appropriate punishment for the mother or the abortion provider, thus showing the world they really don’t think it’s murder
  5. Keep claiming that abortion trumps all other Catholic moral issues
  6. Keep trying to tell Catholics they cannot vote for a pro-choice politician, and keep calling the Democrats “the party of death”
  7. Keep being seduced by the likes of Karl Rove, into naively believing that one day, with the right president in place, the Supreme Court will do the bishops’ work for them
  8. Keep ignoring thoughtful, pro-life Catholics such as Peter Steinfels, the former New York Times religion editor, who argues that insistance on an outright legal ban of abortion will in the long run harm the church and the pro-life cause.


It is impossible to ignore the impact of Pope Francis, a modern-day pope who lives simply, who prefers to spend his time with the poor and the marginalized, who tells his bishops to stop being obsessed with the sexuality issues and who sees his role as pastor, compassionate friend and fellow sinner on the Christian journey.

But Jamie Manson, a Yale trained theologian and a writer for National Catholic Reporter, suggests that we should not get too excited. For her, the bottom line is that in spite of the warmth and sincerity of the Pope’s words, he is not indicating any change in church teaching. She points out that the Pope says that the church does not want to wound gays and lesbians, but “Francis doesn’t seem to understand that it is precisely the teaching of the church that is doing the wounding.” And Manson asks the broader question: “What good is a more pastoral church when ultimately, gays and lesbians are still told their relationships are sinful, women are still barred from answering God’s call to ordained ministry, women in need of lifesaving abortions are forced to die, and starving families in countries like the Philippines are denied access to condoms?”

The Vatican Synod on the Family convened by Pope Francis, opened with refreshing sensitivity and respect for homosexuals and positive proposals relating to divorced and remarried Catholics. Half way through the session, conservatives were fighting back hard, resisting any change in church teaching. Between the start and close of the Synod, language changes give a hint of what’s to come. The phrase “welcoming homosexual persons” was dialed back to the more antiseptic “giving pastoral attention to persons with homosexual tendencies.”

But the charming Cardinal Timothy Dolan explains how the press got everything wrong about the synod. “There must have been two synods. From what I’ve heard and read the real synod was divisive, confrontational, partisan; it dealt only on same sex attraction, cohabitation, divorced and remarried Catholics.” The synod Dolan attended was “a synod of consensus.” In a CBS television interview Dolan enthusiastically stated how great the synod was and reiterated how there really wasn’t that much controversy. “All of this discussion was to help the Holy Father present the timeless, unchanging teaching of the church in a fresh new way. The Church isn’t about no. It’s about yes—yes to everything that is good and true. We just have to fix the language.”

Raymond Burke—no one would ever call him charming—had a slightly different take after the synod: “Under Francis, the Church is like a ship without a rudder.” Later, he offered this pre-holiday advice: “Catholic families should not expose children to the evils of homosexuality by inviting a gay son home for Christmas dinner with his gay partner.”

Following on the heels of the Synod on the Family was a conference organized by the current head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Muller. Invitees included Mormon and Southern Baptist church leaders, Rick Warren, Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, and Archbishop Charles Chaput who had just declared that the “synod confusion was the work of the devil.” Pope Francis opened this conference with a talk acknowledging that marriage and family are in crisis, and the conference went on to be a celebration of procreative, heterosexual marriage. Many observers wondered why the pope, after raising the hopes of progressives at the beginning of the synod, would step into this environment. NCR editors see Francis as calling for a middle ground between doctrine and reality. Others see him as between a rock and a hard place. And some women writers, who appreciate the pope’s efforts to renew the church, are not impressed with his less than enlightened language when he addresses the role of women in the church. And in the same interview when the pope issued his now famous statement, “Who am I to judge?” he also declared, “the priesthood is closed to women.”

So how are we to see this pope? I have no more wisdom than any of you, but clearly he is a breath of fresh air, committed to transparency and a reform of the Roman institutional structure. He may not initiate any change in doctrine, but hopefully he is laying the groundwork for changes in the future. It’s certainly possible that the hardliners, especially the young ones are simply waiting him out with the hope of replacing him with one of their own. But I think it’s also possible that this pope with his modeling a spirit of simplicity, compassion and love at the highest levels of the church, is reminding all of us—lay people, clergy and religious, and especially bishops—that there must be a balance between law and love, that the law is to serve love and can’t be considered as an end itself. I’m reminded what our fellow Semnet member Bob Nixon said about Jerry Kennedy when Jerry died,  “He bent to love over law.” And the pope’s recent homily to the new cardinals makes his pastoral approach crystal clear.

But the hard liners, those who prioritize the law over love, are not slowing down. After putting his own people in place in the seminary and the chancery office, Cordileone and his imported crew of orthodox, smugly ideological and deliberatively provocative zealots are moving to enforce his sex-obsessed version of Catholic identity not just in in Catholic high schools, but it turns out, unbelievably—in at least one Catholic grammar school, apparently trying to root out second grade masturbators, fourth grade fornicators and sixth grade same sex couples.

Leaving aside the bizarre, inappropriate, irresponsible behavior of Star of the Sea pastor Joseph Illo, there is nothing wrong with focusing on Catholic identity. The question is: how does a Catholic organization—a hospital or a social service agency, or in this case a school—which does not limit its hiring or its services to Catholics—how does such an entity manage the tension between what our church teaches in the area of sexuality and how it is expected to carry out its mission, serve its students and support its staff, in the pluralistic society in which it lives and operates? The answer: very carefully, and it’s an ongoing challenge, not conducive to an ideological, non-collaborative, disrespectful, thought-police approach. Bob McElroy, who did his dissertation on the writings of John Courtney Murray wrote, “It is the responsibility of the Church to proclaim the whole Gospel, but it is not the responsibility of each part of the Church to proclaim it the same way.” Cordileone appears tone deaf to this kind of nuanced thinking by the man who is now his assistant bishop. But Cordileone is a true believer/culture warrior who is also playing to his national conservative base.

So why stay? Why stay in a church with such flawed, out of touch leaders? Why stay in a church that treats women and gays as second-class citizens? Why stay in a church that can never admit it is wrong? And why stay in a church that at times seems to represent the opposite of Jesus’ message of love and inclusiveness?

My children, and I suspect some of your children, and thousands of their generation, have answered that question clearly. They’ve walked—many of them as soon as they came of age. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that four out of five Catholics who have left the Church and haven’t joined another church, did so before the age of twenty-four. One can point to an increasingly secular, materialistic culture as a factor in this exodus, but a closer look suggests that young Catholics are increasingly turned off by the attitudes and actions of some American bishops. More recently, Catholic high school students, who can spot dishonesty and hypocrisy a mile away, are reacting with disillusion and disgust at how the Church is treating some teachers in Catholic schools.

So for those of us who stay, do we remain simply because we are too old or too apathetic? I would like to suggest that there are a number of valid reasons to stay in our Church that don’t have to do with old age or apathy.

For myself I could say it’s in my DNA, inculcated in my parents’ home, in Holy Name grammar school, and in my time in the seminary. I could say it’s because of my wife Donna, an evolved soul who loves the Church warts and all. But I think there are other reasons.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Life is full of brokenness, broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful, except by returning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives.” Many of our church leaders are broken, but are they any more broken than many of our political leaders? And are they any more broken than we are?

Don’t get me wrong, some of these guys should be the targets of our anger and some of them have their heads so far up their rear ends they’ll never see daylight. But I wonder if all of us had stayed and went on to the priesthood, and if some of us had become bishops, especially if we were formed during the time of John Paul II, would we be any different from some of them? Could we have avoided the insularity and clericalism that so entraps them?

I stay because it’s my church, because I won’t let these guys drive me out of my church. Maybe that’s a form of pride, but I also stay because of the good guys—Thomas Merton, Richard McBrien who just died, heroes like Bishop James Shannon who had the courage and integrity to resign over Humanae Vitae, pastors like Bishops John Cummins and Frank Quinn. I stay because of retired Archbishop John R. Quinn, who continues his advocacy for the reform of the papacy and with humility and wisdom urges his fellow bishops to consider how their voices can be most credible, describing the pitfalls of bishops functioning as partisan political actors, revving up the culture wars and exclusively focusing on abortion and gay marriage.

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, has not only publicly questioned the bishops’ contraception lawsuit, but has consistently spoken out on behalf of the poor and vulnerable and clearly articulated the deficiencies in Paul Ryan’s budget. Joliet, Ill., Bishop Daniel Conlon, the point man for the bishops on sex abuse, had the courage and integrity to acknowledge that the “credibility of the bishops on the subject of child abuse is shredded.” Bishop Frank Caggiano, newly arrived at Bridgeport CT, told his fellow Catholics: “Rebuilding trust requires transparancy, simplicity and authenticity” and he has gone on to live out those principles, convening a diocesan synod, meeting with all stakeholders and making it clear that he does not have all the answers. John Wester recently reminded his prolife, pro-family colleagues that the Catholic defense of families means aiding immigrant families And Bob McElroy is writing and speaking  strongly and eloquently that poverty and inequality should be church priorities at least equally paramont with abortion and marriage.

I stay because of the good women in our church like the leaders of LCWR, like the theologians Elizabeth Johnson and Margaret Farley; like Sr. Simone Campbell, whose Nuns on the Bus was not just about ministry, justice and charity, but a brilliant model of effective communication and public relations, unlike the bishops’ silly and shallow Fortnight for Freedom. I stay because of Sr. Sandra Schneiders, the author ofProphets In Their Own Country, who in her address to a recent LCWR meeting, suggested that “Gospel leadership consists of leaders who emerge from the community, leaders who practice anticipatory leadership, discerning and preparing the community for coming change, and leaders who not only act efficaciously, but live with “integrity.”

I stay because the Catholic Church, for all its faults, has developed social teaching so significant that it influenced both the work of Martin Luther King and that of the American labor movement, and I stay because our Church has produced the greatest health and social service system in the history of this country.

I stay because of what Frank Norris wrote in God’s Own People: “The Church on earth is a mystery that calls for faith. Only the gift of faith can enable man to see beyond the human element in the Church to the divine presence of Christ within it.” And I recall the words of Hans Kung from his great work, On Being a Christian: “Then why stay? Because, despite everything, in this community of faith critically but jointly we can affirm a great history on which we live with so many others. Because, as members of this community, we ourselves are the Church and should not confuse it with its machinery and administrators, still less leave the latter to shape the community. Because, however serious the objections, we have a found here a spiritual home in which we can face the great questions of the whence and whither, the why and wherefore, of man and the world. We would no more turn our backs on it than on democracy in politics, which in its own way is misused and abused no less than the Church.”

Peter McDonough offers an interesting view of our church today. In The Catholic Labyrinth: Power, Apathy and a Passion for Reform in the American Church, he argues that while there is a conservative and liberal wing in the Church, the folks in between—the largest segment in the Church—are complacent in their participation in their religion and ignore the ethical teaching of the Church in the area of politics and sexuality, and therefore there is no burning desire for reform. His point is that the polarization of liberals and conservatives is somewhat marginalized and most Catholics just do their thing without getting involved one way or the other. He may be right.

But in his recent book, Can We Save the Catholic Church? Hans Kung states, “As long as we truly believe that this is the Church of Christ in which the Spirit of God continues to work despite all human failings and obstacles, there is no reason to doubt that we can and will save it and that the Church will not only survive its present mortal crisis, but that sooner or later, we will once again become what Christ founded us to be.”

In Why Stay Catholic, Michael Leach writes, “Catholicism seen through the eye of a needle is a religion of rules and regulations. Seen with sacramental imagination, it is a unique take on life, a holy vision, a way of seeing the chosen part of things.” He writes about the changing and unchanging teachings of the church, a concept that seems to elude the likes of Burke, Dolan and Cordileone. Leach concludes, “The church has changed. It is changing. It will change. After the dust settles, the gold will remain.”

On a personal note, when I lost my son I found myself raging at God, wondering what kind of god could be so incompetent as to allow this to happen. CS Lewis, writing after the death of his wife, offered this: “Not that I am in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about him.” For some time, in his rage after her death, Lewis referred to God as the “Cosmic Sadist.” My point is this: if I can believe in a God that allowed my son to take his life, then it’s not much of a stretch to believe in a flawed, dysfunctional church.

So what’s the solution for staying and not going crazy? Here are my thoughts for whatever they’re worth:

  1. Pray and try to be in God’s presence.
  2. Go to Mass where there is a vibrant liturgy.
  3. Seek out and find Church. For me Church is in the chapel at San Quentin with a bunch of lifers, but I also have experienced Church at my son’s funeral, at Lenten Vespers at Most Holy Redeemer in the Castro, in a gathering of people from all around the world in Medjugorie, a small town in the mountains of Bosnia where the Blessed Mother has been appearing. And Church can be found in many different settings where we serve the poor, vulnerable and marginalized among us.
  4. Speak out against the leaders of our church when you think they are wrong, or hypocritical and when they are not representing Jesus’ message. And speak out against the nonsense.
  5. Trust in the Holy Spirit, because if you don’t believe that the Spirit of God is in the Church, then it’s all nonsense.

I want to emphasize the need to speak out. Jim Purcell wrote a powerful piece about Cordileone in the San Jose Mercury News. Some of you could try to get a piece in the San Mateo Times, the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, the Marin Independent Journal, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Those of you who are adept enough to be on social media have the opportunity to speak your truth about the Church. You can speak out within your parish. My point is that for those of us who stay and dissent, we have an obligation to speak out.

I’ll close with one of my favorite spiritual writers, Fr. Ron Rolheiser. In The Holy Longing he wrote,  “To be connected to the church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child-molesters, murderers, adulterers and hypocrites of every kind. It also at the same time, identifies you with saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race and gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of the soul…because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.”




Norway’s top Catholic accused in fraud case

March 1, 2015


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I thank Frank Lostaunau for this link.

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Norway's top Catholic accused in fraud case

Bernt Eidsvig, the Bishop of Oslo.
Photo: Jan-Erik Løken, Wikimedia Commons

Norway’s top Catholic accused in fraud case

Published: 26 Feb 2015 22:41 GMT+01:00

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The Diocese of Oslo — which manages the records of the Catholic Church of Norway — is believed to have deliberately added thousands of people to its list of members, boosting funds provided by the state in the predominantly Protestant country.
The city’s bishop and the financial officer of the Diocese are suspects in the case and have been questioned by investigators, Oslo police’s lawyer Kristin Rusdal told AFP.
The fake members — allegedly immigrant names taken out of the phone directory — would have added 65,000 people to the church’s scrolls and awarded it an additional 50 million kroner ($6.57 million, 5.84 million euros) from 2010 to 2014, according to Rusdal.
During that time, the country’s Roman Catholic minority more than doubled in reported size, from fewer than 67,000 members in 2010 to 140,00 early last year, according to official figures.
“We never intended to do anything illegal,” the Bishop of Oslo, Bernt Eidsvig, told the Dagbladet newspaper on Tuesday. “Our challenge was to record the Catholics who come to live in Norway… it is a huge task that was accomplished partly in a wrong way,” he added.
The police began its investigation after receiving a complaint last week filed by an employee of the church.
In Norway, “aggravated fraud” is punishable by a fine for an organisation, and a prison sentence of up to six years for an individual.

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AFP/The Local (news@thelocal.no)

Morals Clause in Catholic Schools Roils Bay Area

February 27, 2015


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Morals Clause in Catholic Schools Roils Bay Area

Archbishop Cordileone of San Francisco Defends Changes

A protest outside St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco against a new teacher conduct clause set by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.

Credit Tim Hussin for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — It is the issue that is stirring San Francisco: The archbishop has specified that teachers at four Bay Area Catholic high schools cannot publicly challenge the church’s teachings that homosexual acts are “contrary to natural law,” that contraception is “intrinsically evil” and that embryonic stem cell research is “a crime.” He also wants to designate teachers as part of the “ministry,” which could, under a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, strip them of protection under federal anti-discrimination laws.

In this city that helped give birth to the gay rights movement, the backlash has been fierce. A top concern is that gay teachers could be fired.

“Our community is in pain; our teachers are scared,” said Jessica Hyman, a senior at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, one of the four schools in thearchbishop’s jurisdiction. She spoke at a candlelight protest that drew more than 300 people outside St. Mary’s Cathedral here last week.


San Francisco’s New Archbishop Worries Gay CatholicsSEPT. 29, 2012

The archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone, made the changes this month and has been under fire ever since. Technically, what he has done is to change the handbook that covers the 318 faculty members in the schools in his jurisdiction, which are in San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo Counties and which educate 3,600 students. The new language about not challenging church teachings takes effect Sept. 1.

Archbishop Cordileone said he introduced the clause because “young people are under intense pressure today to conform to certain standards that are contrary to what we believe.”

Credit Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

On the issue of making teachers part of the ministry, the archbishop wants to change the collective bargaining agreement with the San Francisco Archdiocesan Federation of Teachers.

“We’re not on a witch hunt; we’re not looking to terminate teachers,” Archbishop Cordileone said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

He said he knew that not all teachers at the schools were Catholic, and he affirmed that a teacher’s private life would remain private. He said his concern was that teachers, in their public lives, “don’t do anything to compromise the mission of our schools.”

Archbishop Cordileone has long been a leading opponent of same-sex marriage. In 2008, he was instrumental in placing Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, on the California ballot. He is also chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. Given his views on gay rights, some San Franciscans expressed surprise in 2012 when he was named archbishop here.

He said he was introducing the new language because “young people are under intense pressure today to conform to certain standards that are contrary to what we believe.” He said he had focused on “hot-button issues” to clear up “the confusion.”

Other church leaders, including those in Oakland, Calif., Cincinnati, Cleveland and Honolulu, have instituted similar teacher morality clauses with far less protest. In Oakland, three teachers quit rather than adhere to the rules. But in San Francisco, in addition to the petitions and protests, eight state legislators from the Bay Area have asked the archbishop to withdraw the clause as discriminatory. Two of them called for an investigation, accusing the archbishop of using religion “as a Trojan horse to deprive our fellow citizens of their basic civil rights.”

The San Francisco Chronicle has editorialized against Archbishop Cordileone’s actions, and a columnist characterized him as “charming, humorous and engaging” and “also dead wrong.”

Amid the criticism, the archbishop has shown some willingness to compromise. Originally, he said he planned to reclassify teachers as “ministers of the church,” which seemed to place them out of the reach of federal anti-discrimination laws. This week, he said he would consider substituting the term “ministry” to describe the job of teachers in spreading Catholic doctrine.

The difference between “minister” and “ministry” is not clear to Michael Vezzali, a teacher who serves as treasurer of the union, which represents most but not all of the faculty. “It remains to be negotiated,” he said.

Expressing surprise at the strong reactions, Archbishop Cordileone said this week that he would form a committee of theology teachers to help “contextualize” the morality clause. But he said that he had no intention of deleting his wording, and that the committee’s recommendations would retain “what is already there.” He added, “This has been a very trying time for all of us.”

While the clause is based on church doctrine, some teachers and students think Archbishop Cordileone wants gay teachers to go back into the closet.

“We pray for the archbishop that his heart is changed,” said Gus O’Sullivan, an openly gay senior at Sacred Heart who spoke at the candlelight protest.

Mr. Vezzali, the union official, who is also chairman of the English department at Archbishop Riordan High School in San Francisco, said that union members were “worried about teachers who are gay and who are not able to live publicly.”

“We want to support our gay students,” Mr. Vezzali added. “We understand we are there to carry out the church’s mission.”

Mr. Vezzali said the archbishop was “a very wise man” and added, “We feel our schools are places where we’re supposed to share the gospel of Jesus and love, no matter what.”

Part of the focus here and elsewhere appears to be online sharing of photos and personal opinions. A number of morality clauses in other dioceses express such concerns, specifying that teachers may not post anything on Facebook or Twitter that contradicts church teachings.

Archbishop Cordileone said that teachers who crossed doctrinal lines would be dealt with “on a case-by-case basis.” Asked if a teacher could post photos on Facebook of her gay son’s wedding, he said that “if someone was upset and reported it,” then “the person with the Facebook page would have to be talked to.”

There are parents and teachers who support Archbishop Cordileone’s actions, but they have been less vocal. He is receiving online support: A petition by Catholicvote.org, a Chicago-based advocacy group, has 14,000 signatures. (A separate petition, organized by Bay Area students and parents who oppose his actions, has 7,000 signatures.)

Archbishop Cordileone’s language “is very, very hurtful,” but “he is representing exactly the Roman Catholic sexual doctrine,” said Lisa Fullam, associate professor of moral theology at Santa Clara University. “Bishops do have a lot of authority in their own diocese.”

Some critics say Archbishop Cordileone should align his priorities more closely with those of Pope Francis, who has emphasized the plight of the poor.

“We sent our kids to these schools because they uphold the fundamental principles of our faith of love, acceptance and respect,” said Kathy Curran, a mother of a Sacred Heart freshman. “This language says some people are not O.K. — and that’s not O.K.”

Michele Dillon, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire who has written a book about American Catholics, said the situation in San Francisco reflected the flux in attitudes among people in the faith.

“The church wants people to be aware of official church teachings because they think there is confusion in the culture,” Professor Dillon said. “A lot of Catholics aren’t confused. They simply ignore the church’s teachings.”

A version of this article appears in print on February 27, 2015, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Morals Clause in Catholic Schools Roils Bay Area.




Why do religious clerics get away with sexual abuse?

February 26, 2015


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A link to this piece appears in the 2.25.2015 issue of the NSAC News.

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Why do religious clerics get away with sexual abuse?

Published: February 23, 2015

Supporters and friends escort Mohammad Abdullah Saleem from the Rolling Meadows courthouse after he posted bail.

For years we’ve made fun of the Catholic priests fondling with young ones. Their ghastly and heinous acts of insensitivity disgust our spirits and we all abhor such practices. I once stopped by and spoke to John Wojnowski, himself a victim, on Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC, who has been protesting for years, trying to bring the world’s attention to the abusive ways of the clergy.

He told me his appalling story of how a priest abused him during his childhood and how difficult it was for him to get over the traumatic event, something that scarred him psychologically for his entire life.

Fast forward to now, the year 2015, we have a 75-year-old Muslim cleric, Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, running the Institute of Islamic Education (IIE) in the small mid-Western town of Elgin, just outside of Chicago. He was arrested on February 17 on charges of felony and criminal sexual abuse but was let go on a $250,000 bail. Saleem obviously denies the charges.

Saleem, Indian by origin, belongs to a generation of immigrants who came to the US back in the 70s and 80s and settled here based on their religious skills. He established the IIE in 1989 and that was actually the time he started to hobnob with young females at the institute, students as well as employees. What one learns from those who are aware of such incidents is that the cleric got away scot-free because the community came to his rescue and mediated a settlement whenever he behaved erratically.

Saleem is a habitual offender. So far, along with the 23-year-old girl who came out of the shadows and reported her abuse by the mullah, there are at least three more women who claim to have been sexually molested by him. It is expected that more people will come forward.

I’ve been trying to reach out to the Muslims of Elgin, those who knew Saleem, to get a comment. However, it appears that the community has decided to stay tight-lipped about the issue. I did, however, get one individual to talk about the nefarious activities of the mullah. I was informed that Saleem believed in the concept of concubines and would often ‘light up’ at the sight of young women. It seemed that he had a monstrous, never-ending appetite, ready to pounce on the prey, at a moment’s notice. His body language said it all. My informant attended a few of the mullah’s sermons and often found him acting ‘awkwardly’.

Saleem, because of his repeated wrongdoing, has found it rather difficult to maintain a dignified stature within the community. Yet, until the night he was arrested, he continued to remain not only the head of IIE but also a revered personality enjoying the trust of tons of followers. According to some, Saleem is like the “Billy Graham of the South Asian community”.

At a time when Islam and Muslims stand in a dire need of some good news and pleasantness, the Mullah Saleem episode has not only come as a shock to the believers of the faith but also as an embarrassing PR exercise, a total image disaster that potentially pales the recently reported raunchy exploits of Bill Cosby with all the beautiful women in the world.

The advances in medical science have enabled folks to express their inner desires and self in a more effective manner and ‘sex up’ their lives even in their twilight years. Saleem, it seems, is no exception to the rule. Maybe he should have moved to a culture that allows polygamy? But then, given his lust for checking out different women, would multiple wives have satisfied his thirst for carnal needs or would he still be loafing around in pursuit of other women?

Granted we all have feelings and emotions and at times find it hard to control our expression of self. Yet, one must never let go of that unique ‘microchip’ that God Almighty has blessed us with and that distinguishes us humans from animals. That distinctive personality trait is called self-control that the mullah in question, being a religious luminary, should have exercised whenever he found himself giving in to the devilish desires. I guess those who propagate, sermonise and take upon themselves the task of reforming and refining humanity are more prone to trip into the ditch of immorality and corrupt ways. In Saleem’s case, it turned out to be fiddling and fondling with young women. Undoubtedly, his institute, his office and his constituents, the community that trusted him, deserved better.

I’m not sure about other parts of the world, but a good number of Muslim parents in North America send their kids on Sundays to Islamic schools like the IIE. This helps them become and stay aware of their religious value and realities. After Saleem’s arrest, one is sure that parents everywhere, if not withdraw their kids, will keep a critical eye and scrutinise the school environment before venturing to start an academic relationship.

There have been many times that I have extended offered to shake hands with South Asian women only to find myself feeling embarrassed a second later that they’ve been instructed by their religious leaders – the mullahs – that shaking hands with a man is against the precepts of religion. The mullahs, in many parts of the world, force woman to don hijabs. In the meantime, this cleric, Saleem, in our backyard, is forcing young women to undress and sit on his lap. What kind of example is he setting for future faithfuls? What type of signal is he sending out to those who are already sceptical about Islam?

Muslims should wake up and smell the coffee. Very often I feel that they give way too much respect to mosque imams or the heads of madrassahs or, to use a dandy term, the ‘rectors’ of Islamic institutes. They tend to turn Islam into a cult and hence these mullahs become the cult leaders. Whatever the ‘maulvi sahib’ teaches the kids or the women of the household is the word of law. No one questions the rationale of the logic presented and no one ever dares question the integrity of the instruction process followed in the religious schools.

While the mullahs mess around with young women, accept donations, live in palatial dwellings, they contaminate the minds of the youth who end up in the darks confines of the ISISs and al Qaedas of the world. The Islamic world needs to revisit the goal behind the role of the mullahs in their spiritual lives.

Perhaps don’t use these guys as a medium to reach God?

Perhaps just try to connect to the Supreme Being without the crutches of the maulvi sahib?

How about getting rid of the Skype mullah?

Let’s try to swim out of the shallowness and question what one is told instead of trusting blindly. It’s just like breaking the code and giving ourselves a chance to survive the dreadful onslaught.

After his arrest and subsequent bail, Saleem has been asked to stay away from anyone under the age of 18. I suggest he should stay away from humanity entirely. It is highly shameful that even at the ripe old age of 75, this cleric couldn’t exercise control over his mind and body. But he is not the first Muslim cleric to fool around or behave abruptly and would certainly not be the last one to do so.

In my years as an active journalist in Asia, I got to know an incredible number of religious clerics maintaining extramarital links and ties and yet preaching piety and spirituality to their followers. Naturally one’s initial reaction is that of shock and awe but then it should never be forgotten – such people are master manipulators who play with the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of their followers without ever revealing, reflecting on or being critical of their own vices.

We are all God’s creation. We are ‘Ashraf-ul-Makhluqat’ (The best of creations). Why not cut the mullahs out of our mainstream lives? Why not think with our hearts and souls and not depend on people like Mohammad Saleem for our spiritual needs? Be the masters of our own destinies and reach out to God and indulge in a conversion with the Higher Power on our own without anyone’s help. Trust me, it is all very doable.

In the meantime, while the Pope keeps seeking forgiveness for the acts of these imbeciles in a Church, I don’t expect anyone will apologise on behalf of Saleem. He would, however, do a huge favour to humanity if he lets his head control the matters of his heart, and not the other way around.

Whether it is a mosque, a church, a temple, a synagogue or a religious school, people view these places as sacred. To take advantage of their trust in this abhorrent manner is disgusting. There was a time when these religious institutions were sanctuaries for the faithful and the faithless – a place for prayer, safety and self-reflection. It would be very sad to see them reduced to another dark alley in which people would have to exercise utmost vigilance.

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Ahson Saeed Hasan

The writer is a Washington DC based journalist who has written extensively on US foreign policy and South Asian affairs. He tweets @tweetingacho (twitter.com/tweetingacho)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

No Faith Is Free From Child Abuse Scandals or Cover-Ups

February 24, 2015


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A link to this piece appears in the NSAC News, 2.23.2015.

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What has been happening in Sydney and Melbourne is doubly shocking. First, there have been revelations over a rabbi who abused children at a yeshivah, Jewish learning seminary over many years, which was then followed by a cover-up when allegations surfaced.

Second, it is a wake-up call to Jewish communities in the UK to be vigilant about a problem from which, until now, we thought we were immune. It was all too easy to think that paedophile ministers were rife in the Church of England and the Catholics, but not really an issue for us.

Almost as disturbing as the crimes are the cover-up by others in the hierarchy, across all faiths, who certainly regard the offender with disapproval but are motivated by fear that if one person is exposed, then that will tarnish the rest of the group – be it the church, synagogue or mosque. In fact, the opposite is true: colluding with a perpetrator is what really tarnishes the group at large, while it also denies justice to the victim, which should have been the prime concern.

What causes such warped responses? Is it the naivety of hoping they could handle the problem and so there was no need to bring in outside authorities; or is it the nervousness of thinking that if one crack was exposed in the faith-group, then the entire edifice would collapse; or is it the hubris of reckoning that on balance the faith-group do more good than evil and so should be excused any failings; or is it that they felt under attack already, battling so many secular enemies, that they could not afford to show any weak spots, especially clerical failings?

There is another big question: but how to keep going despite the child abuses scandals – because actually there are plenty of vicars, priests and rabbis that do not abuse children, but are being stymied because of the suspicion that surrounds every inter-personal action.

It is good practice for classrooms or offices in religious buildings to have windows put into the doors, so that anyone passing by can check that nothing untoward is going on inside. Personally, I always leave my study door open whenever doing one to one interviews, so that there can be no suggestion of any impropriety. But I dislike the implication that being alone with someone is now potentially dangerous for them.

It is certainly been a long time, since I patted a child on the back at the Religion School, lest a gesture of encouragement or warmth be seen as ‘touching up’. But I resent having to stop, as it is giving in to a culture of fear, and letting the evil committed by child abusers poison the minds of the overwhelming majority that abhor it.

Yes, we have to be aware of abuse and guard against it, but we also have to protect values such as trust and friendship – be vigilant but also maintain a generosity of spirit – and getting that balance right is difficult for civil society, but is especially problematic for faith groups as a religious approach tries to assume the best in people.

But there is no doubt that religious whistleblowers are to be admired rather than ostracised, as so often happens. The Book of Leviticus does not use that word, but certainly backs the cause: ‘You shall not stand idly by wrong-doing…you shall speak out against those who commit evil, otherwise you share in their guilt’ (19. 16-17)

The problem is not that we lack religious guidance, but that individuals do not always follow it, and religious institutions sometimes put self-interest above their own principles. What has happened to the Jewish community in Australia is an important warning that none of us can ignore.

Survey finds serious flaws in diocesan financial management: Many diocesan pension funds seriously underfunded

February 24, 2015


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Here’s more evidence of incompetent Catholic Church management, lack of transparency, and overall organizational malaise and decline.


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Survey finds serious flaws in diocesan financial management

The Catholic priesthood is aging at an alarming rate, and thousands of U.S. diocesan priests are expected to retire within the next few years. With most diocesan priest pension plans significantly underfunded, questions over where the money comes from to support them may point to a major crisis in the making.
Table 1.jpg
Fewer than 26,265 diocesan priests remain in the U.S. today and of them, only 68 percent — about 17,900 — are still in active ministry (Table 1). Only about one-third as many new priests are being ordained each year to make up for the ones who are retiring, dying or leaving active ministry. Dioceses now have one retired priest for every two active priests, and half of all priests in active ministry are over the age of 60.Half of all priests currently in active ministry also expect to retire by 2019, and most of them expect to receive the pension payments they’ve been promised. Church leaders have known for decades about the looming priest shortage and its implications for sustaining Catholic parishes as eucharistic communities. Another, more hidden crisis lurks in diocesan pension reserves that are underfunded, many of them seriously.Thousands of priests retiring in the next few years could discover that the pension and post-retirement money they expect from their dioceses is not available. I reviewed the results of the USI Consulting Group’s 2012 Diocesan Retirement Survey of priests and lay employees, focusing on priests. USI Consulting Group, founded in 1981 and headquartered in Glastonbury, Conn., provides retirement and employee benefit plan services throughout the United States.The survey was sent to 194 archdioceses and dioceses. Responses were received from 97 dioceses, a 50 percent response rate, in 42 states as well as Canada, the Bahamas and Guam. The survey asked about defined benefit and defined contribution plans, but did not ask about post-retirement benefits (e.g., medical, dental, continuing education, and life insurance benefits).

Employers sponsoring a defined benefit pension agree to provide vested participants with a set amount of income for the duration of retirement. A defined benefit pension plan describes the benefits priests will receive when they retire. The benefits are a function of their years of service and age at retirement. Employers sponsoring a defined contribution plan state that they will provide a certain amount each pay period, and employees manage their own retirement funds. Plans such as 401(k) are defined contribution plans. Employers sponsoring defined benefit plans take on much more risk than those who sponsor a defined contribution plan.

Table 2.jpg

As shown in Table 2, 87.6 percent (58.4 percent plus 29.2) of priests are offered a defined benefit pension plan.

At first, the high percentage (87.6 percent) of priests covered by defined benefit plans seems reassuring. However, an important next question is the level of plan funding. The USI Consulting Group’s survey also asked for the plan’s funded ratio from the most recent valuation. The funding ratio is calculated like this: If pension obligations are $100 million, and the assets available to meet those obligations are $55 million, the plan would be 55 percent funded. Funded ratios apply only to defined benefit plans.

There is reason to be concerned if the pension plan is severely underfunded, because the employer may not be able to meet the financial obligation as employees retire. In the secular world, employees in defined benefit plans enjoy some protection under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 and the Pension Protection Act of 2006. ERISA established a federal agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which had the power to place liens on corporate assets for unfunded pension liabilities. The agency could also administer terminated pension plans. That is, if the secular employer went bankrupt, the agency would step in and pay a fraction of the pension due the employee.

In the secular world, the Department of Labor requires certain disclosures about pensions that are not required in the sacred world. If a plan is more than 80 percent funded, it is categorized as being in the green zone. If a plan is 65-80 percent funded, it is categorized as being in the yellow zone, or in endangered status. Yellow zone plans must adopt a funding improvement plan.

Defined benefit plans that are less than 65 percent funded are categorized as being in the red zone, or in critical status. Red zone plans must adopt a rehabilitation plan and must notify all those enrolled in the pension plan. The Department of Labor provides a listing of all red or yellow plans for for-profit firms on its website. The department provides no such disclosure for religious organizations.

Neither the Department of Labor, nor ERISA, nor the Pension Protection Act offers any pension protection to priests. Dioceses are not required to disclose any pension funding information to enrollees, and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will not step in to supply benefits if dioceses do not or cannot. Therefore, I was especially interested in reviewing the funding status of priests’ defined benefit pensions. The USI Consulting Group survey provided this information in the aggregate for all survey respondents.

table 3.jpgTable 3 shows that 36.8 percent of diocesan defined contribution plans were in the green zone, while 63.2 percent are in yellow (endangered) or red (critical) zones. If these plans were subject to the Department of Labor requirements, most of them would have to adopt either a funding improvement plan or rehabilitation plan.

While the survey information was interesting, I wanted to know the health of specific diocesan priests’ retirement plans in the U.S. In the secular world, the best way to determine the financial health of such a plan is to check the financial statements of the employing organization.

Catholic dioceses, however, are under no obligation to release any financial information whatsoever, in the form of audited financial statements or IRS-mandated disclosures. While other nonprofits must file Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) with the Internal Revenue Service, or IRS Form 5500 (Annual Return/Report of Employee Benefit Plan), the church is under no such obligation. Any diocesan financial disclosures are purely voluntary.

Still, I searched for the financial disclosures of the 178 Latin-rite dioceses that belong to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. To find out the status of the priests’ pension funds, a search was done of the websites of the dioceses for any sort of financial disclosure for fiscal year 2013. Of the 178 dioceses, only 102 have financial information available. The other 76 release no financial information, as far as I could determine.

The quality of financial disclosures varies dramatically. Some dioceses post a full set of audited financial statements on their websites. Others post unaudited “stewardship reports,” “annual reports” or “financial reports” on their websites or publish them in the diocesan newspaper. These are useless for determining diocesan financial health, let alone the pension plan’s health. The laity think that they are obtaining useful information by reading them, when in fact they are obtaining nothing.

A stewardship report, annual report or unaudited financial report is nothing more than an unsupported assertion by the diocese. In the secular world, an audited financial statement provides support for management’s assertions with numbers and explanations. A stewardship report, annual report or unaudited financial report may be incomplete, and thus useless.

A report is incomplete if it lacks a statement of financial position that quantifies diocesan assets (like cash and buildings) and liabilities (like amounts owed to clergy abuse survivors). It is also incomplete if it lacks a statement of cash flows, which shows if the diocese has sold assets or borrowed or loaned money. Finally, it is incomplete if it lacks disclosure notes, which state exactly what is being accounted for — for example, just the chancery — and what is not being accounted for — for example, the priests’ pension fund, parishes, cemeteries and lots more. The New York archdiocese’s Financial Services Report is a good example of an unsupported and incomplete set of assertions.

Of the 102 dioceses providing some level of financial information, only 61 have pension information that they make publicly available. According to the Official Catholic Directory for 2014, there are 11,093 diocesan priests domiciled in these 61 dioceses. Given that the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) says there are 25,634 priests in the U.S. Latin-rite dioceses, the information I gathered relates to about 43 percent of the total U.S. diocesan priests.

Almost without exception, U.S. dioceses end their fiscal year on June 30 and they are typically a year in arrears in reporting financial results, meaning that by August 2014 they were just releasing financial statements for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013. When the diocesan website had no financial disclosures, I sent an email to the chief financial officer of the diocese, asking him or her to email me the fiscal year 2013 financials. Most of my emails received no reply.

Accountants take an entity perspective with regard to financial reporting. This means that financial statements prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles must state in the disclosure notes what is being accounted for and what is excluded. The majority of dioceses define the accounting entity very narrowly. This allows for the omission of a great deal of information.

Typically, the diocesan entity was defined as only the chancery, central ministries or central administrative offices. The disclosure notes to the financial statements usually state that parishes, schools, cemeteries (there are 1,900 Catholic cemeteries in the United States), old-age homes, and sometimes pension funds were excluded. This is the case for the dioceses of Cheyenne, Wyo., and Detroit, for example. Dioceses are allowed to exclude these other entities by asserting that they do not have “direct operational control” over them.

The 102 dioceses that provided financial information are shown in this spreadsheet. (If a diocese is not included on the chart, I could not obtain the information.) The spreadsheet shows the known benefit obligation and the pension funding ratio. The pension funding zone then reflects the pension funding ratio.

The spreadsheet next provides what is known about post-retirement benefits: the post-retirement obligation, the funding ratio, and the funding zone.

Note that the total unfunded pension liability is $820,848,371. The unfunded post-retirement obligation is $509,030,297. The total unfunded obligations exceed $1.3 billion.

Of the 61 dioceses releasing pension information, 33 were less than 65 percent funded (in the red zone or critical), 12 were 65-80 percent funded (yellow zone or endangered), and 16 were in the green zone. The percentages are given in Table 4.table 4.jpg

With regard to post-retirement information (e.g., medical, dental, continuing education, and life insurance benefits), only 30 dioceses provided financial information. This may be because they did not provide post-retirement benefits or they chose not to disclose these benefits. We applied the Department of Labor classification scheme to these 30 dioceses. Of this total, 27 are less than 65 percent funded (in the red zone or critical), one is 65-80 percent funded (yellow zone or endangered), and two are in the green zone. Twenty-four of the 27 dioceses have zero funding of post-retirement benefits (Table 5).

Looking at just 61 of 191 dioceses, we found more than $800 million in defined pension benefit underfunding. As mentioned above, $800 million in underfunding relates to about 43 percent of the total number of U.S. Catholic priests. I extrapolated this underfunding by dividing $800 million by 43 percent, to estimate the total amount of pension underfunding in the U.S. to be about $1.9 billion.

I applied the same approach to estimate the total post-retirement underfunding in the U.S., dividing $268 million by 43 percent to get about $623 million. I estimate the total pension and post-retirement underfunding for U.S. priests to exceed $2.5 billion.

table 5.jpgThe problem of pension and post-retirement underfunding is not insurmountable, but major change is needed. To paraphrase Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, there is no “return to the bad old days.”

First, as the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” In this case, the sunlight will illuminate the financial state of each diocese (including priests’ pension and retirement benefits) in a timely manner. Presenting financial results one year in arrears is unacceptable. Each diocese should post a full set of audited financial statements on its website within 60 days of the close of the fiscal year.

Second, priests and laity must assume the roles of financial watchdogs over diocesan resources. In the secular world, shareholders scrutinize audited financial statements to assess the stewardship of corporate leaders. Diocesan leaders should be held to this same standard. For generations, the laity have provide material resources, while the priests provided pastoral care. Both groups apparently trusted that the financial house was in good order and retiring priests would be well cared for.

Third, the audited financials must accurately depict the entire diocesan accounting entity. This may include the chancery, parishes, schools, seminaries, cemeteries, old-age homes, and priests’ pensions. Auditors must adopt appropriate professional skepticism when diocesan leaders dig their heels in, arguing that the reporting entity is just the chancery. Suggesting that the accounting entity is just the chancery results in incomplete financial reports.

Fourth, beginning immediately, all dioceses with a pension and/or post-retirement funding shortfall should engage the services of a qualified professional to assist them in developing a plan to fully fund all shortfalls within a reasonable period, preferably the next five years. This must be a priority of diocesan leadership, and the hierarchy must own up to the fact that they may not have been good stewards of retirement resources.

The hierarchy must admit that changes are needed in financial management. At the same time, priests and laity must demand more financial transparency and accountability. Pell, referring to anticipated changes in the Vatican bank said, “There need to be changes in the economic area — not just with the so-called Vatican bank — but more generally there is work there to be done [and] a need to ensure that things are being properly done.”

Let’s hope the American hierarchy gets the message.

[Jack Ruhl is a professor of accountancy at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.]

Book Review: ‘The Evil Hours,’ by David J. Morris

February 21, 2015


* * *

Henrik Drescher


The field of psychiatric studies exploded during World War II because of an influx of traumatized soldiers. War is a kind of grand opening for studies of the mind. Historically, interest in trauma studies rises sharply during wartime, then wanes in its aftermath. But this time, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan recede from public attention, rates of post-traumatic stress disorder have continued to increase. PTSD is currently the fourth-most-common psychiatric disorder in America.

“And yet,” David J. Morris, a journalist and former Marine infantry officer who suffered from PTSD, writes in his stunning new book “The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” “like many mental health disorders, there is a broad disagreement about what exactly PTSD is, who gets it and how best to treat it.” “The Evil Hours” is a provocative, exhaustively researched and deeply moving analysis of traumatic memory and how we make sense of it. This book will teach you that a failure to understand this disorder is a failure “to acknowledge that trauma is part of the human condition,” and that to turn away from its history is to make yourself complicit in a plague of American disengagement. “No other people in history is as disconnected from the brutality of war,” Morris writes, “as the United States today.”

When Morris returned home for treatment, he discovered that most Veterans Health Administration workers were unfamiliar with the literature from which an awareness of PTSD emerged, “nor did they possess an even rudimentary understanding of the global war on terror.” At one point, Morris gave a copy of Thomas E. Ricks’s “Fiasco” to his therapist to make sure he understood the war in Iraq.

Without a decade-long campaign led by a group of anguished Vietnam vets, “PTSD as we know it,” Morris writes, “would not exist.” PTSD was not recognized as an official disorder until 1980. And when it did not exist — when it did not have a name — the sufferers were thrown into erroneous categories. During World War I, traumatized soldiers were viewed as cowards, and 306 hysterical soldiers were shot; hundreds more were subjected to electric treatment. During the Vietnam War, such individuals were considered schizophrenics. In the 1970s one V.A. psychiatrist called the idea of PTSD an “insult to brave men.”

Now is an important time to reflect not only on America’s folly in Iraq and Afghanistan but also on the way the wars have influenced us at home. Just how individuals respond to terror and are cared for by their country is largely a product of culture; the wake of grief is always wider than the individual, and as a nation we ought to engage communally in looking after our own. And, Morris says, when the grief of trauma is experienced by persons with “a lack of ritual and authentic public engagement in the war-making process,” the likelihood of PTSD increases. How can people bear such weight without social support? In the end this is a book not just about the health of the survivor, but also about the health of the entire culture.

“In retrospect, it seems that PTSD spoke to something in us at the end of the 20th century, as if the diagnostic concept held up a fractured mirror to ourselves, revealed how fragmented human consciousness had become. In time, PTSD would break out of the V.A. clinics and begin to insinuate itself into the dream life of the culture in a distinctly civilian fashion.”

Though it has taken decades for PTSD to be recognized as an official psychiatric condition, the sharp rise in cases may suggest that “it’s a medical concept that serves (however crudely) a deeper mythic need.” Perhaps these are wounds we fail to heal because PTSD actively destroys a self-preserving narrative. “Soldiers,” Morris writes, “are ultimately vessels and vassals of the state, and they do not go to war of their own accord, so why shouldn’t the state or the community help relieve them of their guilt when they return home?” Morris’s use of the word “guilt” draws on the work of Jonathan Shay, a prominent trauma scholar, who coined the term “moral injury,” expanding on the idea of PTSD to include injuries of the moral conscience. Shay believes PTSD is not an illness but a normal reaction to an abnormal event — and he defines moral injury as a result of the “betrayal of ‘what’s right’ in a high-stakes situation by someone who holds power.” PTSD, Morris comes to believe, “is, in a manner of speaking, a way of institutionalizing moral outrage.”

Morris takes the reader through several survivor stories: from the mountain climber Joe Simpson to a friend who was raped at 19. He introduces us to modern and archaic theories of trauma and to the “psychological supermarket” of alternative treatments. (One of the most controversial but promising of these is a common heart drug called propranolol, which can reconsolidate and dampen intense emotional memories.) Morris also turns to literature to understand PTSD, going to works as far back as “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and as recent as Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones.” One senior V.A. psychiatrist told Morris that the “central image” of PTSD takes place at the end of “Moby-Dick,” when Ishmael is floating atop Queequeg’s coffin, staring off at the vastness of the ocean. “In a sense,” Morris writes, “nothing has changed, and today’s trauma survivors can take great comfort in knowing that they are confronting the same horrors that Achilles faced 4,000 years ago.”

But it’s Morris’s personal experience of Iraq and its aftermath that lends “The Evil Hours” its impressive essayistic quality — setting it apart from other clinical literature on the topic and making the book compulsively readable. The narrative is driven by a constant authorial intelligence and a genuine curiosity. We can see Morris’s mind working through questions on the page — and this is a great pleasure because it invites the reader to do the same.

In 2004, Morris was present as a reporter for bloody battles in Fallujah and Ramadi. “Spooky,” he writes, “is just a word in your mouth until you have heard the sunset call to prayer in a half-rubbled city surrounded by Al Qaeda fighters.” He was shot at, blown up and lost many friends. Back home, the love of his life told him, “You go off into this other place, and it’s like I can’t reach you.”

In the succeeding years, Morris has continued to feel as if it’s 2004. The past infiltrates the present. And because there is no cure for traumatic memory, Iraq will continue to make itself known. He describes it this way: “Once it enters the body it stays there forever, initiating a complex chemical chain of events that not only changes the physiology of the victims but also the physiology of their offspring.” Morris enters what he calls a “liminal” state, a kind of “underworld” where time warps and dreams are intel briefs from the unconscious. He thinks about apophenia, a coined Greek term for finding patterns where there are none. He becomes “a watcher of night skies, of cloud formations, of shooting stars.”

“The war had hurt me,” he writes. “I wanted the country to feel some of that hurt.” Yet, at home, he could barely begin to describe what he had seen because no one in America was listening. “I realized that the problem wasn’t just that they didn’t understand the war but that they didn’t want to understand it. What I had to say was not only inconvenient to their peace of mind but a tangible threat to it.”

“The Evil Hours” is an essential book not just for those who have experienced trauma, but for anyone who wants to understand post-9/11 America. Reading it will make you a better and more humane citizen.


A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By David J. Morris

358 pp. An Eamon Dolan Book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.