In the newspaper business there are blockbusters and then there are Blockbusters. Jack Sullivan’s story in the story in the April 13 Boston Herald fell into the latter category. Sullivan, along with Tom Mashberg and a gaggle of other Herald staffers, disclosed that Cardinal Bernard Law had tendered his resignation to the Vatican, which had in turn rejected it and told Law to stay right where he was.
After the decision was handed down by the Vatican, Sullivan and company reported that Law dispatched a letter to priests in his diocese promising to stay in his post “as long as God gives me the opportunity” and blaming — I am not making this up — a clerical error for the transfer of child-molesting priest Paul Shanley. The article had plenty of other interesting nuggets, the most grotesque of which was that “Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who sources have said has provided advice to Law in recent weeks, issued a strong statement that stopped short of urging the cardinal to reconsider staying.”
In addition to providing more grist for the scandal mill, the decision threw a monkey wrench into the normal calculus of many conservative Catholics, who are often inclined to see church problems in terms of the Pope and the True Faith versus the corrupt American hierarchy.
On her website, Kathy Shaidle wrote of the Vatican’s decision to reject the resignation, “Yeah, can’t have that… It might… LOOK BAD!” (ellipses hers). National Review‘s Rod Dreher wrote a lengthy column in which he drew on Barbara Tuchman’s analysis of six corrupt popes who triggered the Reformation. Amy Welborn penned a few words of advice to fellow Catholics that are as poignant as they are desperate:
“Start praying. Now. Say rosaries. Make holy hours. Stop by the church on the way home. Tonight, contemplate the beauty of God’s night sky and pour out your heart to the Creator, through Christ whose Body this is. Pray for open hearts. Pray for openness to the Spirit. Pray for COURAGE. Pray that blinders may be removed and the gravity of this crisis may be understood. Call in St. Catherine, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Theresa of Avila and all the great reformer saints. Pray, pray, and pray again,” she wrote.
The target of the advised prayers is a change of heart by John Paul II. Commentators from Dreher to Peggy Noonan expressed disappointment that the pontiff’s annual Easter letter to the priests of the world didn’t go far enough in addressing the problem. While the letter condemned child-molesting priests using strong language, it “seemed both necessary and, sadly, insufficient,” said Noonan. She hoped that “the pope’s letter was only a beginning, only a prologue to action more grave and definitive.”
But, on the face of it, the opposite of decisive action has occurred. Cardinal Law has offered his resignation only to be rebuffed by the pope or his underlings. The reported cause of this is that the Vatican fears a “domino effect” in which the heads of diocese across the Eastern Seaboard are felled by evidence of past mismanagement of priest sex scandals.
From one perspective, this is an understandable hesitation. The priest sex scandal has moved out of Boston and engulfed much of America. In a recent column, Michael Kelly offered the alarming statistic that “as many as 2,000 priests have by now been formally accused.” Lop one large head off and the media and trial lawyers will thrash about looking for more blood, probably harming many innocent priests in the process.
But there is also the undeniable fact that the pope, as the absolute head of his church, is going to have to do something concrete about this. Too much trust has been lost. Too many people, Catholic and Protestant alike, are tossing about the word “Reformation.” Many critics — mostly liberals, but that could change — are openly challenging John Paul II’s fitness to deal with this crisis and suggesting that he step aside if he can not. In short, we’re heading for some kind of a moment, in the epic sense.
It may arrive tomorrow. The pope has taken the extraordinary step of calling all of the American cardinals to Rome for a talk on Saturday. The subject has not been announced but it us easy to see that the sex scandal will be the sword of Damocles dangling over the discussion. Whatever the decision reached, it will likely have ramifications that will reverberate far into the next papacy and beyond.
Any readers who care about the Church might want to heed Mrs. Welborn’s advice: Pray, pray, and pray again.