Thursday 16 October 2014

Fifty Shades of Hey!

Very rarely is there a letter in the Catholic Register about me, your humble scribe. Now that I have access to the whole, online thing (subscription only, alas), I generally scroll forwards to the Letters section. I read the contributions there with interest, noting that the lion's share are about Mr Coren or Father D'Souza, assigning praise or blame as the writer wills. Seldom do I get either, although rather more blame than praise.

My favourite anti-Dorothy letter was from a priest in retirement, who took me to task for being snippy about Catholic schools, and I saw his point, as I said in the next CR. And I heard by the grapevine that he was greatly pleased by my response, which was rather a relief. His work for the Catholic schools had been stellar and life-long.

But I am not as thick-skinned as all that, and occasionally I feel a bit cross, particularly when the letter-writer produces not blame so much as sneer and accuses me of various thoughts and aims that I do not actually have. Some accusations are nasty enough to prompt the editorial decision not to print the letter. However, the most recent one has been allowed to go in, which I don't mind as I have the right to reprint my article myself.

In short, a woman has written that my column had nothing to do with religion and was "about scandal in its most salacious form."  As it might be difficult for readers to go back and check to see if this is true, I shall reproduce what I submitted below.  The sub-editor chose the title, "The Case of the Philandering Bishop"; my suggestion had quite a different tone.

I shall fisk myself, for your amusement and instruction.

Episcopal Scandal has a Silver Lining (See? Positive!)
Nova et Vetera
Dorothy Cummings McLean
Monday, September 29, 2014

Before I discuss the latest sex scandal to shock the faithful Catholics of Britain  [context], I want to assure you that I am keeping my own sins before my eyes. [Just in case you wonder.] I do this not to excuse England’s Bishop Kieran Conry, but to take some profit from his bad example, to find the silver lining of contrition in the dark cloud of hypocrisy. [A theme to which I will return. Contrition, incidentally, is a GIFT.]
It is not sexual sins per se that gnaw at my conscience as I read about Bishop Conry’s affairs, but the times I have been a scandal to people over whom I have been given authority. [The column is about scandal given by those in AUTHORITY.] As far as I know, I have been a conscientious teacher, but I am haunted by any bad example l  have given to my four younger brothers and sisters. May God, and they, forgive me. [That really hurt to write. I stared at it for a long time. I think any oldest sibling will understand this, especially if they have a family reputation for being churchy. At any rate, thinking and writing about Conroy's bad decisions made me think about my own and squirm--more than a bit!]
Kieran Conry was given the authority of the Bishop of Brighton and Arundel [Arundel and Brighton, actually, my bad]  by John Paul II in 2001.  At vigil masses on September 27, 2014, Catholics of Bishop Conry’s diocese were read a letter in which he announced his resignation. He wrote that he was “sorry to confess that, going back some years, I have been unfaithful to my promises as a Catholic priest.” The next day the UK’s Daily Mail broke the story of Bishop Conry’s affair with a woman six years before and his subsequent entanglement with a married woman. Her furious ex-husband is attempting to sue the diocese. [I left out the other stories, as Conry has not admitted to them and they are just gossip.]
Damian Thompson, Britain’s best known Catholic reporter, writes, “I doubt there was a Catholic journalist in the country who hadn’t heard rumours that Bishop Conry had a long-standing girlfriend. But we gave him the benefit of the doubt.” [Catholic journos in the UK are rather less bloodthirsty than the ordinary UK scribes.]  Now Thompson is asking if the English bishops knew that Conry was a womanizer before he was recommended to John Paul II  and before he was appointed head of evangelization for England and Wales. Was there yet another cover-up? [To err is human, but to cover-up for a fellow cleric so as to give him more authority over the laity is just the pits.]
Catholics are sick of cover-ups.[Aren't we?] Me, I’m still smarting from the revelations that Edinburgh’s own Cardinal O’Brien made sexual advances to priests. [Very true. I liked him; almost everybody who met him liked him. And he spoke out boldly for persecuted Christians, for traditional marriage, and--as many have forgotten--gay teachers in Catholic schools.] I can’t decide if it was better that he seems to have left the laity alone or worse that he sought embraces that were not only sinful but sacrilegious.[That's one for Aquinas.] But I will say one thing for the Cardinal: he has not attempted to justify his bad behaviour. [And he meekly went into exile when ordered.] Bishop Conry has. [Here comes the bigger scandal.]
It has been difficult keeping the secret,” quoth he to the Daily Mail. “In some respects I feel very calm.  It is liberating. [From what?] It is a relief.  I have been very careful not to make sexual morality a priority [in sermons]. I don’t think it got in the way of my job. [Except that part of his job was making sexual morality a priority in sermons.]  I don’t think people would say I have been a bad bishop. [Not before you gave this interview, perhaps.] But I can’t defend myself. [Though he just had a go.] I did wrong. Full stop.”
Actually, I think many people would say he has been a bad bishop. Not making sexual morality a priority in his sermons was a dereliction of duty. Participating in mortal sins with laywomen, instead of encouraging the single to seek marriage and the married to reconcile with their husbands, was a dereliction of duty. Discouraging Catholics from making frequent use of the confessional, as he has, was a dereliction of duty.  Harassing priests for using “too much Latin”, as he has, was a dereliction of duty. Frankly I am not as disturbed by the bishop’s lapses from chastity as by his flagrant derelictions from duty.
Many people like Bishop Conry very much. By many accounts, he is a warm, friendly, informal, handsome and charismatic man. [It has to be said.] However, I often wonder if Catholics are overly impressed when a bishop is just as friendly and compassionate as your average friendly, compassionate layman. [Which puts them at a disadvantage.] Bishops have a lot of spiritual and emotional power over lay Catholics, and their power over priests is almost absolute.[Which makes it all the easier to abuse.] Being charming makes that power more effective, especially among Catholics who think that to be a faithful Catholic is to defend every bishop and excuse him of any sin short of using kiddie porn. [And we Canadians all think here of Bishop Lahey, whose lawyer mentioned in his kiddie porn trial that he had been living in a sexual relationship with another adult man for years. Who knew?] But I was not raised that way [in my house, if a priest used swear words in front of kids, he was not cool, he was creep], and my fidelity to a bishop depends 100% on how faithful he is to the Roman Catholic faith [not that I would stab an unfaithful one to death with my reed pens]. I have no time for a bishop who says, believes or acts as if a sin is not a sin or a virtue is not a virtue. [Which is why I laugh heartily when accused of being a 'clericalist'.]
However, as I said, there is a silver lining [the point of this article] to such scandals, and it is that, heeding the words of Our Lord [mote versus log]—who has a lot to say about erring religious authorities [ e.g."whitewashed sepulchres!" (Matthew 27:twenty-three]—we can take stock, not only of our own egregious sins, but also of our temptation to admire certain priests and bishops, forgiving them their lapses in defending and teaching the faith, because of their charismatic public personas. 
I have written against the notion of celebrity priests quite often, annoying fans of various celebrity priests, although hopefully not rank-and-file priests that too many people take for granted. And I have a lot of affection for one or two bad-tempered old priests of my youth who, though grouchy, were solid gold. 
Anyway, I cannot see how my column is "not about religion" or "about a scandal in its most salacious form".  To me it is clearly about the importance of integrity in the episcopate and, indeed, anyone else in authority.  Father Handsome Nice Guy can be Father Weak Guy, whose sins prevent him from speaking out against sin. Father Ugly Grump can be Father Hero, who preaches against sin in and out of season, no matter how difficult his own battles.
From the tone of the entire letter, I have to assume that it is a personal attack on me. Although why   that would be is a mystery. I've never met the woman in my life.  


  1. Dear Auntie Seraphic:

    Leo here. Is there no means by which non-NCR subscribers can express disdain for your critic? I for one have lost all patience with see-no-evil hear-no-evil Catholics who jabber righteously about "scandal" and "detraction" every time a Catholic journalist (even a faithful, orthodox Catholic journalist such as yourself) breathes a public word of criticism about the latest soul-crushing failure of church leadership. It is exactly this kind of tribalism and self-serving opacity that led to disaster in the sex abuse crisis. Mature, educated Catholics have not only the right but the obligation to learn the facts about Church failures and to discuss those failures openly and candidly, the better to assess problems and possible reforms. If we don't have these kinds of conversations, we leave the field open to the depredations of our enemies.

    Both the tone and topic of your article about Bishop Conry were pitch-perfect; indeed, that article is precisely the sort of honest, faithful, charitable, and upright commentary that thoughtful Catholics need to read, when these sorts of fiascos occur. You have nothing for which to apologize and much in which to take pride; your critic, however, needs to reflect upon the duty of candor and open engagement that she owes to her pastors and her fellow laity.

  2. Thank you! Not NCR, though. Toronto CR.

    The odd thing is that the letter-writer is a frequent contributor to the Letters section, and from her opinions, I would never have guessed she felt so strongly against criticising bishops. Live and learn!

  3. Closet ultramontanism possibly?
    The CR somehow manages to attract just about the widest reading audience, and letter writers, I've ever come across. Had to stop reading it, because, while I felt the articles have gotten slightly more orthodox (particularly aided by columnists such as yourself), the letter writers can be absolutely infuriating at both ends of the spectrum. Occasion for sin it was.

  4. I find it quite fascinating, actually. I know that the former editor, my dear mentor Joe (may he live to a happy old age and to see his children's children!), wanted as wide a readership and writership as possible. (Definitely a "here comes everybody" situation.) With the more recent addition of Mr C, the boat seemed to be listing starboard, especially as Mr C, Fr D and Little Me all appear the same week. However, Mr C has done a 180 in some of his views, so it's much less predictable!

  5. Oddly enough, since I've moved here, I haven't once seen the paper in the couple of churches I attend. Even more odd since it was never a problem getting the Register churches in BC.

    1. Oh shocking! But their parishioners may be on the "free copy" list. Ask the pastor or parish secretary, and then ask if you can be on it yourself!

    2. Thanks, I never thought of that.

  6. The retired priest you mention at the beginning, I've told you he's a long-time family friend, no? Was I the grapevine? This is intriguing. He's quite tickled that we correspond.

  7. Woodbine, I process so much information from the internet, I can't remember if you told me! But you were NOT the grapevine in this instance. Say, you should introduce me to him the next time I am in town!

  8. Hello- I did a little detective work to find you after reading your seriously awesome article for CWR, "Two Years Among Liberal Theologians." You're a better woman than I am, but I, too, was blackballed by liberal academics as an undergrad. What they found so threatening is still a mystery to me. Anywho, you nailed it. Also, this post is very entertaining. Normally I think self-fisking falls under some category of sin ("You'll go blind!") but I think this may just require an extra hard thump during the Confiteor.

  9. Thank you! I wasn't blackballed as much as driven crazy, however. It didn't occur to me that self-fisking might be a sin. Well, it may be a form of vanity, of course.

  10. And a cheery hello to Googlers from Boston College!

    1. (Don't forget to check out the Polish stuff,too.


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