Thursday, July 22, 2010

Phoenix Bishop Failed to Grasp "Toxemias of Pregnancy," Denver Physician Tells NCR

A posting here in May covered the unfortunate case of Mercy Sister Margaret Mary McBride, declared excommunicated by Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmstead, who said she had endorsed an abortion to save a mother's life. Olmstead based his position, in part at least, on advice given him by Rev. Brian Johnstone, the diocese's ethics advisor.

The July 9th print edition of the National Catholic Reporter had a letter to the editor from Denis L. Keleher, a medical doctor from Denver, which challenges Olmstead and Johnstone's understanding of the medical condition which the mother and her developing child both faced.

Keleher's input is important in two ways: first, it shows that Sr. McBride was misjudged; second, it highlights the inadequacy of the official church policy on abortion in such circumstances. Keleher sheds major new light on the issues in the case. His letter deserves a lot more attention than it has received.

I re-publish his letter below. (I'd provide an electronic link, but I can't find one on the NCR website.)

When I was a seminarian in the 1960s before I studied medicine, I was taught that theology proceeded by close analysis of valid distinctions. Both Bishop Thomas Olmstead (broadly) and Fr. Brian Johnstone (subtly) have not made the essential distinction (NCR, June 11). The bishop has said, "A child is not a disease," and Fr. Johnstone said that the danger to the mother's life is the presence of the embryo in her womb. Wrong. It is the pathological process of pregnancy iself that threatens both mother and child in this case.

It has been known for ages that some healthy women will sicken and die in pregnancy and it is not caused by an identifiable disorder of the child. I'm a physician, and I own an obstetrics textbook from the faculty of Johns Hopkins more than a century old that devotes several hundred pages to the "toxemias" of pregnancy from which the mother will die unless the pregnancy is interrupted. These still occur. The child that this woman was carrying was also a victim of this disease state, distinct from itself. The ethicists and bishops of this world should meet their obligation to know the science and medicine about which they judge. Canon law is not enough.

GTU's Episcopal School Gets $400,000 Grant to Craft Same-Sex Blessing Ceremonies

The National Catholic Reporter has posted a July 20th report by Kevin Eckstrom of Religion News Service that a gay rights foundation has donated over $400,000 to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) to craft ceremonies that can be officially adopted by the Episcopal Church USA for blessing same-sex relationships, unions and marriages.

CDSP is one of the member schools of Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union, from which I earned my Ph.D. through the Franciscan School of Theology.

The grant will supplement the relatively meager $25,000 that had been allocated to the project by the church's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. The NCR posting says "A major part of the grant will go to funding a conference next March where two representatives from each of the church's 110 dioceses will be able to offer suggestions and share work that's already been done."

Other excerpts from the article follow:

A Michigan-based gay rights foundation has given more than $400,000 to a California seminary to help craft formal liturgies for the Episcopal Church to bless gay and lesbian relationships.

The Episcopal Church still officially considers marriage between a man and a woman, reflected in the marriage rite of its Book of Common Prayer. Many dioceses, however, unofficially allow priests to bless same-sex relationships and even marriages.

Because the church puts a high value on scripted liturgies, many same-sex couples want their own marriage/blessing rite since many bishops are reluctant to use the traditional husband-wife marriage liturgy for same-sex unions.

The church's 2009 General Convention gave the green light to collecting “theological and liturgical resources” that would form the basis of an official same-sex rite that could be added to the list of approved ceremonies.

Many observers expect the church, when it gathers again in 2012, to approve rites for same-sex unions, or at least give official approval to start the process, which can take several years.

The $404,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Church Divinity School of the Pacific will help facilitate the process; the church's official Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has only $25,000 designated for the project.

“Developing liturgical resources for blessing same-sex unions is a once-in-a-lifetime generation change, and we want to do it well,” said the Rev. Ruth Myers, a professor of liturgy at the seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

Though ultimate decisions and recommendations will be left to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, the seminary hopes the grant will help keep the process going, with the necessary funds to match.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Authority Gushes from Official Catholicism as Cultural of Clericalism Implodes

I highly recommend and heartily endorse the following editorial, posted today on the website of the National Catholic Reporter:

The first half of 2010 has been a particularly bumpy patch for the papacy of Benedict XVI. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This pope had as goals to sharpen the teaching of the world’s largest Christian denomination, to do battle with secularism and relativism, and to convince the world, Catholic and otherwise, that Christianity authentically lived is more about possibilities and new freedom than about “thou shalt nots” and other restrictions.

His program has been seriously sidelined by the lingering effects of the sex abuse scandal in the United States; the explosion of the scandal in Ireland, Germany, Italy and now Belgium; and the diminishment of the episcopal office, particularly in those countries most affected by the scandal.

Are we witnessing the ecclesial equivalent of one of those slow-motion depictions of implosion, the kind where a seemingly invulnerable structure falls in upon itself, laid waste by some well-placed explosives? Perhaps.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that what is imploding is the church. The church is, in many ways, just fine. What is imploding, rather, is a culture of clericalism, especially the hierarchical layer of that culture, which has become so disconnected in many of its expressions from the core mandates of Christian scripture that it seems to barely function at all.

The authority that has been slowly leaking from the structure for decades is now gushing out as bishops contort themselves in attempts to convince the world of their good intentions and transparency while simultaneously railing against those within the church and without who are working to reveal the truth.

The shocking raid of a bishops’ meeting in Belgium is but the latest indication of the degree to which the old protections and privileges enjoyed by the clerical culture are disintegrating. It stands as a clear symbol that an age is ending.

The disintegration could be seen occurring during the past quarter century in the United States under the grinding weight of revelations that the Catholic hierarchy had repeatedly protected those who had sexually molested children and had hidden the crimes from the church and the wider community.

It continued in Catholic Ireland, where the deep betrayal of the community caused a serious exodus from the church amid lingering anger. In one of the greater absurdities of this period of crisis, church leaders in Rome have decided to send bishops from the United States to determine what happened in the Irish church.

The erosion goes on, at a quicker pace, ugly in details that keep heaping up for the world to see. The pope’s brother admits to slapping choir students who didn’t perform properly -- a human imperfection made all the more perceptible in an arena long wrapped in a façade of seeming perfection.

Meanwhile, the world outside this favored culture is beginning to realize that one of the most powerful men within it during Pope John Paul II’s papacy, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, once secretary of state and now dean of the College of Cardinals, took money from the likes of the late Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ. Maciel was a favorite of the former pope, and a man who abused his young seminarians and is accused of fathering children, including a son, whom he also allegedly repeatedly abuse.

Sodano was one of Maciel’s most ardent backers.

That Sodano should be nowhere near any level of control at the Vatican is apparent to most everyone who has given this scandal the slightest thought. But there he is, still posturing, offering paeans to a beleaguered pope during liturgies, and dismissing the growing chorus of charges against fellow bishops as petty gossip.

And when one of those fellow bishops, Cardinal Cristoph Schönborn of Austria, dares to call him out, as someone should, in one of the more rational comments that anyone inside the culture has yet made, Sodano is able to manipulate a meeting with Schönborn and the pope. The world is subsequently informed that such criticism is not to occur cardinal to cardinal. Such power is reserved for the pope alone. The pope remains silent and Sodano remains influential.

The protection from scrutiny previously enjoyed by the culture, a reflection more than anything of royal prerogatives and palace behavior, has disintegrated to the point where the U.S. Supreme Court gave approval for a suit that seeks to hold the Vatican responsible for the transfer of pedophile priests from place to place, transfers that occurred without warning to law enforcement bodies or to the communities involved.

The sex abuse crisis, as we’ve said in this space before, is a crisis of the clerical culture, a crisis of authority and ecclesiology. The sex abuse crisis is the awful symptom of much deeper problems.

Projection is occurring on a global scale as the bishops grasp for ways to explain how so much has gone so wrong so quickly. Relativism! Secularism! Cultural influences! All those bad things out there, they reason, are influencing the people to revolt, to backslide, to not believe as they should, to disregard the hierarchy’s rulings and pronouncements. It is the bishops who fail to recognize that they, themselves, are the best living examples of the relativism and secularism they decry.

The great irony in all of this, of course, is that the hierarchy need not thrash about wondering how to adjust their culture and lives to the demands of an educated church in the 21st century.

The great questions of this age -- and its demands for accountability and transparency -- were anticipated by the church, which began to deal with them during the Second Vatican Council, the reform gathering of the mid-1960s.

There was reason -- perhaps the Spirit responds when so many openly seek its guidance -- why the texts of that council’s documents were different from any before, why those texts are filled with notions of dialogue, of acceptance, of restraint in judgment and punishment, of the new description of church as the people of God.

Perhaps those at the council anticipated that the hierarchy of the future would have to structure itself differently, lead differently, and see the world differently.

What seems clear at this moment is that the hierarchy as it has evolved in the past half millennium is deeply damaged from within. And there is little evidence of the imagination, the creativity, the spirit, necessary to repair or rethink the structure.

The second half of 2010, it seems, may be just as disheartening to the Holy Father, just as bumpy, as the first.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Vatican Claim of Sovereign Immunity in Sex Abuse

I was traveling last week and did not realize until I returned that the Vatican has suffered a significant legal setback in it's claim to sovereign immunity from U.S. prosecution for the actions of pedophile priests and of bishops who repeatedly reassigned them and hid their crimes from local prosecutors.

I first became aware of the development as one of several listed by National Catholic Reporter Senior Correspondent John Allen Jr. in a July 2nd analysis entitled Seven Days That Shook the Vatican. Allen noted "A decision by the Supreme Court in the United States to allow a sex abuse lawsuit against the Vatican in Oregon to proceed, and the filing of a new lawsuit against the Vatican (as well as the Salesian order) in Los Angeles just two days later."

A Google search led me to more specific coverage, including articles in Reuters and The Huffington Post. The articles said that a lower court in Oregon had held that the case met one of the exceptions to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976. An appeals court had agreed, ruling that the plaintiff in the case had sufficiently alleged that the priest charged in the civil suit was "an employee of the Vatican acting within the scope of his employment under Oregon law." The Supreme Court declined to hear the Vatican's appeal of the rulings by the two lower courts.

Jeffrey Lena, the Vatican's attorney for all sex abuse claims naming it in the United States, tried to spin the development as positively as possible, telling Catholic News Agency that the decision was not on the merits of the case and that the Supreme Court rejection merely meant that the case was being returned to the Oregon court to hear other defenses.

This, however, minimizes the significance of the development drastically. Sovereign immunity has been one of the pillars of the Vatican defense for several years, and this case marks the first time the courts have called the Vatican claim bogus. Having lost all the way to the Supreme Court in the Oregon case, the Vatican ought to assume that it will face similar losses in others.

As observed here before, the claim that priests and bishops do not function as employees of the Vatican does not comport with reality in parishes and chancery offices around the globe. It is disingenuous for the Vatican's attorney to push such a claim, and all it does is fuel the public perception that the Vatican has something to hide. The Vatican needs to abandon the claim and own up to its civil and criminal liability for child abuse.