The courageous honesty of Peter Steinfels

George Weigel

Peter Steinfels’s long career in journalism included years of service as editor of Commonweal (from which perch he took me to the woodshed more than once), followed by a decade as senior religion correspondent of the New York Times. Steinfels has now done the Catholic Church in the United States — and American society as a whole — a tremendous service by telling some disturbing truths about the August 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse in six Keystone State dioceses. His lengthy article, “The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report: Not What It Seems,” was first published on Commonweal’s website this past January 9; it is required reading for those determined to grapple with the linked problems of sexual abuse and episcopal failure in the Church.

Like anyone with a grain of moral sensibility or human feeling, Steinfels, long a leader of U.S. Catholicism’s liberal wing, was revolted by the graphic stories of sexual predation contained in the grand jury report, which Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro presented with great fanfare last August 14. Yet unlike other journalists who bought Mr. Shapiro’s lurid presentation hook, line, and sinker, Steinfels actually read the entire report — and then took the trouble to sift through its hundreds of pages to see if the data supported the charge that “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.”

After what must have been weeks of painstaking research, Dr. Steinfels reached a harsh but, to my mind, persuasive conclusion: Attorney General Shapiro’s office had produced an “inaccurate, unfair, and fundamentally misleading report” whose “shortcomings should not be masked by its vehement style, its befuddling structure, or its sheer bulk.”

Steinfels rightly does not spare the Church. The Pennsylvania report “documents decades of stomach-churning violations of the physical, psychological, and spiritual integrity of children and young people. It documents that many of these atrocities could have been prevented by promptly removing the credibly suspected perpetrators from all priestly roles and ministry. It documents that some, although far from all, of those failures were due to an overriding concern for protecting the reputation of the Church…”

But then he calls Attorney General Shapiro to account: “What does the report not document? It does not document the sensational charges contained in its introduction (i.e., the only part most reporters and editorialists read) — namely, that over seven decades, Catholic authorities, in virtual lockstep, supposedly brushed aside all victims and did absolutely nothing in the face of terrible crimes against boys and girls — except to conceal them. This ugly, indiscriminate, and inflammatory charge, unsubstantiated by the report’s own evidence, to say nothing of the evidence the report ignores, is truly unworthy of a judicial body responsible for impartial justice.”

Might other states do better? Only, Steinfels suggests, if future grand jury or state-investigative reports “are written in a way that expresses necessary, justifiable repulsion toward crimes against children and young people without burying all efforts at analysis in a mudslide of outrage,” as the Pennsylvania grand jury report did.

The sexual abuse of the young is a plague throughout society. Since Abuse Crisis 1.0 in 2002, no institution in the United States has done more to acknowledge the plague, reach out to its victims, and devise means to prevent its further occurrence than the Catholic Church. There is deeper reform needed in the Church, and there are more churchmen to be held accountable for gross irresponsibility. But in the course of confronting this evil within our Church, U.S. Catholicism has learned some things that could benefit those willing to get to grips with the revolting reality of sexual abuse. If, however, other state attorneys general follow the path pioneered by Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro and reinforce the false impression that a culture of child rape and institutional cover-up is festering in the Catholic Church right now, no one is going to look to American Catholicism for models of how to address the plague.

That is not only bad for the Church; it’s bad for all of American society. So let the Church, while cooperating fully with state investigative agencies, create and support a panel of distinguished, retired judges (preferably non-Catholics) to review the reports that issue from those investigations — and then publish an analysis of each report’s probity, fairness, and reliability, absent any editing of the panel’s conclusions by Church authorities.

COMING UP: Squandering moral capital

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The morality of tyrannicide is not much discussed in today’s kinder, gentler Catholic Church. Yet that difficult subject once engaged some of Catholicism’s finest minds, including Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suárez, and it was passionately debated during the Second World War by German officers — many of them devout Christians — who were pondering the assassination of Adolf Hitler. (Their efforts were known and tacitly approved by Pius XII, but that’s another story.)

What about today? Were I back in the classroom, I’d ask my students to construct a morally defensible argument for killing a tyrant. If the student followed Aquinas’s reasoning, the case for tyrannicide would involve a leader who was doing grave evil, who could not be removed from power except by being killed, and whose assassination would not make matters worse. Were those conditions met, Aquinas argued in his Commentary on Peter Lombard, a citizen might even be “praised and rewarded” for being the “one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant.”

With the 30th anniversary of the Revolution of 1989 coming this fall, we’ll all be reminded that there are alternatives to killing tyrants or surrendering to evil: awakened consciences can discover nonviolent tools of resistance to tyranny, tools preferable to assassination. And consciences are awakened when men and women hear a summons to moral heroism — to living in the truth, which is the greatest of liberators. That is why the current stance of the Holy See toward Latin American tyrannies is so disconcerting. For rather than calling the people of hard-pressed countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to effective, nonviolent resistance against tyrants on the model of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, the Vatican is constantly bleating about “dialogue” with murderous thugs who’ve demonstrated for decades that they’re only interested in maintaining their power, masking their gross personal ambition and greed with a fog cloud of gibberish about “the revolution.”

Now, however, 20 former Latin American heads of state and government have said, politely but firmly, that enough is enough. In a January 6 letter to their fellow-Latin American, Pope Francis, the signatories, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, acknowledged the “good faith” and “pastoral spirit” of Francis’s Christmas blessing Urbi et Orbi [to the city and the world]. But they also reminded the pope that Venezuelans “are victims of oppression by a militarized narco-dictatorship which has no qualms about systematically violating the rights to life, liberty, and personal integrity,” a corrupt regime that has also “subjected [Venezuelans] to widespread famine and lack of medicine.” As for Nicaragua, President Arias and his colleagues noted that the Ortega regime has recently killed 300 Nicaraguans and wounded 2,500 others in a “wave of repression” against nonviolent protesters.

In these contexts, the former leaders concluded, the papal “call for harmony….can be understood by the victimized nations [as an instruction] that they should come to agreement with their victimizers.” Which is why the majority in Nicaragua and Venezuela received the Pope’s Christmas message “in a very negative way.”

In 2013, the Church’s moral influence in world affairs was at its modern apogee. John Paul II was widely recognized as a pivotal figure in the nonviolent collapse of European communism and a significant player in the democratization of Latin America and East Asia. Drawing on John Paul’s social doctrine and his own penetrating insights into political modernity, Benedict XVI had made powerful statements about the moral foundations of the 21st-century free society in lectures at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, London’s Westminster Hall, and the Bundestag in Berlin.

What has the world seen since then?

It has seen a papal initiative in Syria that, however well-intended, provided cover for the Obama administration to back off its “red line” about Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. It has seen a Vatican that refuses to use the words “invasion,” “war,” and “occupation” to describe Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss in Crimea and his war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,000 and displaced more than a million Ukrainians, many of them Ukrainian Greek Catholics. It has seen a Vatican deal with China that is widely regarded as a kow-tow to ruthless, aggressive authoritarians.

Where is the moral challenge to tyranny? Where is the summons to heroic resistance? Great moral capital is being squandered, in a world that desperately needs a moral compass.

Photo by ŠJů via Creative Commons