Will Nancy Pelosi take a page from her father’s playbook?

George Weigel

In 1918, Mayor James Preston presented a 264-piece silver service to Cardinal James Gibbons on behalf of Baltimore and its citizens – a municipal tribute to the city’s beloved archbishop on the 50th anniversary of his episcopal consecration. Funded by public subscription, the cutlery, plates, tea pots and coffee pots, serving bowls, trays, and platters of the “Gibbons silver” featured a unique decorative pattern, the cardinal’s monogram, and his coat-of-arms. For decades, much of the jubilee silver service was displayed in the dining room of the residence of the archbishops of Baltimore, located just behind Benjamin Latrobe’s magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption.

Then disaster seemed to strike.

One morning in the 1950s, the cathedral rector came downstairs to find that the Gibbons silver was gone: stealthy burglars had entered the residence during the night and made off with it. The rector called the police. The police called City Hall. And Mayor Thomas J. D’Alesandro, Jr., suspecting who might have been responsible for this caper, put the word out: If that silver isn’t returned in 48 hours, somebody’s gonna be in a world of hurt.

The next day, the telephone rang in the rectory of Our Lady of Fatima parish, several miles east of Baltimore’s downtown. The caller, declining to identify himself, simply said, “Look in your trash cans.” The pastor did. And there, in plastic bags, was the Gibbons silver service.

Thus Mayor Tommy D’Alesandro: paragon of efficient local government.

Another theft of something far more consequential than silver is on the near-term horizon – the theft, by COVID-19, of the Catholic school education on which tens of thousands of poor children and their parents rely as preparation for a life beyond poverty. And another D’Alesandro – Tommy’s daughter, more familiarly known as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives – can and should emulate her father’s example and do something about it.

Many Catholics schools in the United States are in serious trouble because of COVID-19. The trouble is not educational; across the country these past four months, Catholic schools showed themselves far more supple in responding to the pandemic than the state schools, as Catholic schools implemented online learning far more quickly and efficiently. The trouble is financial: too many parents, unemployed or under grave financial stress because of the shutdown of the economy, face the prospect of not being able to afford tuition at the Catholic schools they’ve freely chosen for their children’s education and formation.

If inner-city and other low- and middle-income Catholic schools are emptied because of unbearable financial pressures on parents, there will be multiple victims. The first victims of this education-theft will be those Catholic schools’ former students. The second victim will be state school systems, overwhelmed by an influx of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of new students they cannot handle – especially under the restrictions that will likely be necessary to avoid an autumnal spike in COVID-19 cases.

Speaker Pelosi has publicly lamented the recently-announced closing of her Baltimore alma mater, the financially strapped Institute of Notre Dame: a venerable secondary school for young women whose first graduating class had heard the rumble of Civil War cannon from their classrooms. Many of my elementary school classmates attended IND and I share the Speaker’s sense of loss. But what are we to say, and do, about the virtual certainty that many, many Catholic elementary schools across the country, especially those serving low- and middle-income children, will be decimated by COVID-19 economic distress?

The chief obstacle to emergency financial aid for the low- and middle-income parents who still wish to choose Catholic schools for their children is resistance to such aid in the Democratic caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. Speaker Pelosi rules that caucus with a firm hand. Might she adapt a page from her father’s playbook? Might she put the word out that anyone acquiescing in education-theft, by blocking financial aid to the low- and middle-income parents who choose Catholic schools for their children, is going to be in trouble as they seek campaign dollars and plum committee assignments?

The long-term question of federal funds for independent schools can be debated and settled later. This is an emergency: a crisis for Catholic schools and state schools, for children and parents. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in American political history, can help resolve that crisis by being her father’s daughter.

Featured photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

COMING UP: The biases of a Royal Commission

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A brief dip into Latin helps us understand how preconceptions can lead to biased judgments that falsify history — as they did when an Australian Royal Commission on sexual abuse recently impugned the integrity of Cardinal George Pell.

The Latin maxim is quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – literally, “what is received is received according to the mode [or manner, or condition] of the receiver.” Less literally, the maxim holds that our predispositions – our mental filters – color our perceptions. Put another way, we often perceive things, not as they are but because of what we are.

However abstract it may seem at first blush, the maxim is confirmed by everyday experience. People draw different conclusions about the same facts, the same personalities, and the same situations. More often than not, those differences are explained by different filters at work in our minds.

Which brings us to the misconceptions and prejudices surrounding Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal Pell has been under sustained assault from the Australian media, Australian social and political activists, and ecclesiastical opponents for more than two decades. His defense of classic Catholic doctrine and morality offended some. His politically incorrect views on climate change and the sexual revolution angered others. His relish in debate and his vigor in debating shocked, then outraged Australian cancel-culture bullies, accustomed to their targets caving-in to shaming, denunciations, and threats. What was the matter with this man? Why didn’t he truckle as others — including many Church leaders – had done?

Given their belief in their own infallibility, Pell’s political and ecclesiastical critics could not concede that theymight be wrong. And a highly intelligent man with an Oxford doctorate couldn’t be dismissed as a mere fool. So his critics and enemies seem to have concluded that George Pell must be wicked — and must be lying about his role in Australian Catholicism’s grappling with clerical sexual abuse.

No matter that, on becoming archbishop of Melbourne, Pell quickly instituted the first diocesan program in Australia to reach out to abuse victims and try to meet their needs — a program designed in cooperation with the police and praised by public authorities. No matter that, in Melbourne and Sydney (after his transfer to that city), Pell dealt severely with clerical abusers and saw to the removal of more than two dozen of them from the clerical state — the Church’s nuclear option for dealing with abusive priests. Those demonstrable facts didn’t count, either to Pell’s critics or, it now seems, to the Royal Commission. Why? Because they didn’t tally with the regnant preconceptions about Pell and the false judgment about his character his critics had made, based on those preconceptions.

Royal Commissions do not operate by the rules of evidence of a criminal court. Their integrity depends not on sound judicial practice, but on the fairmindedness of the Commissioners and their staff. That fairmindedness was not apparent in the way the Royal Commission dealt with Cardinal Pell, in its hearings or in its report.

In the Commission’s hearings, witnesses were allowed to make outrageous charges against the cardinal, suggesting that he had been present when children were molested by priests, that he had tried to bribe a victim to keep quiet about his molestation, and that he had made lewd remarks about sexual abuse. These absurdities were shown to be lies. But why were they permitted to be made, in public, in the first place?

Moreover, the Royal Commission manifestly applied different standards to different witnesses. An abuse victim informed the Commission that he had told a priest, Paul Bongiorno, about being molested by Father Gerald Ridsdale; Bongiorno said he didn’t recall being told of Ridsdale’s assault; the Commission punted, saying that it “could not resolve the differing accounts” of the victim and Bongiorno. Yet the Commission refused to believe Cardinal Pell’s sworn statements (buttressed by the sworn testimony of others) that he knew nothing about Ridsdale’s predations; the Commission, effectively, called Cardinal Pell a liar. Why the difference? Might it be because Bongiorno, having abandoned the priesthood, became a politically correct media personality, whereas Pell was the embodiment of Australian political incorrectness and the premier defender of Catholic orthodoxy in Australia — and therefore must be a bad man who lies?

As Cardinal Pell has said, the Australian Church behaved shamefully for decades in dealing with clerical abusers. Yet Pell, the Australian first bishop to address that scandalous situation forcefully, was scapegoated by the Royal Commission for the gross failures of other bishops. Why?

Ponder that Latin maxim once more.