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Our Ways Are Not THE Way PDF Print E-mail
Written by Michael Fones   
Sunday, 18 July 2010 07:13

I admire John Allen, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter in Rome. I find NCR tends to try to impose a very American, democratic and political view of things upon the Church, which often leads to unfair, even hysterical criticism.  Mr. Allen, on the other hand, really tries to help Americans understand the ways of the Church's leaders in Rome, who by necessity take a longer view of history, and a have to consider much broader ways of seeing the world than just the American lens. In a report found here, he responds to a New York Times editorial of July 9 which called for the Pope to make the American bishops’ Dallas Charter's “zero tolerance” approach to sexual abuse binding on the worldwide Catholic church.

Allen responds that the Pope is unlikely to do that for a number of reasons.  I thought it might be good to offer those here, because you may hear other Catholics and non-Catholics criticizing the Holy Father for being "soft" on pedophile priests and bishops who apparently abbetted them.

The first reason Allen gives is that the "zero tolerance" approach is a very American legal response to crime, which I would add is similar to the "three strikes and your out" approach that can put people behind bars for life for third offenses that normally wouldn't warrant such harsh penalties.

Allen writes,’s a well-known fact of Catholic life that the “one strike and you’re out” rule at the heart of the American norms -- automatic removal from ministry for life for even one act of sexual abuse against a minor -- plays to mixed reviews, at best, around the global church. That’s not because the rest of the Catholic world is necessarily soft on abuse, but because some bishops and canon lawyers regard the “one strike” policy as a distortion of the church’s legal tradition. Over the centuries, they argue, canon law has resisted “one size fits all” penalties, preferring to leave discretion in the hands of judges to make the punishment fit the crime.

To illustrate the point, critics sometimes put things this way: There’s a world of difference between a priest who’s a serial rapist of pre-pubescent children, and a priest who had a consensual encounter with a teenager 20 years ago. Policies that ignore or downplay such distinctions, they argue, risk remedying one injustice with another.

Next, Allen points out that in the U.S. and throughout the developed West, there is a well-founded and wide-spread trust in civil authority and the police.  We may criticize the governing party, but we have the ability to offer that critique, and work for the election of politicians of a different party, freely, without fear of personal harm.  That's not the case throughout the world, and we must not forget that.

...there are aspects of what’s come to be known as the “American approach” which might not translate well in every corner of the world. Take, for example, cooperation with the police and other civil authorities. For Americans and Western Europeans -- where the rule of law holds, and the police play fair -- such a policy seems like a no-brainer, not to mention a long-overdue correction to the notion that the church is above the law.

Things look different, however, in a place such as Ukraine. There, a new pro-Russian government is reviving Soviet methods for pressuring the Greek Catholic Church, the largest Eastern rite Catholic church in the world and arguably Ukraine’s most important engine for democratic reform. Among other things, the successor to the KGB has recently been sniffing around the Catholic University in Lviv, dropping in on the rector and making ominous calls to staff on their cell phones (calls of the “we know where you live” variety).

Recently I asked a few figures in the Greek Catholic church what a requirement of automatic compliance with every police probe would mean in their environment today. Typically, I got a one-word answer: “Suicide.”

Fr. Paul Wicker, a diocesan priest friend of mine in Colorado Springs has traveled extensively in eastern Ukraine and has many connections there within the Catholic community, and has many other stories, not published in our papers, of subtle and systematic suppression of the Church by local government officials.  And that's just one country.

Finally, Allen brings up a topic that I might call the ongoing "ugly American" syndrome.  We do have the tendency to believe that our ways are the best, and to seek quick fixes. One example is our attempt to introduce American-style democracy in nations where such political processes may not have a history or even cultural support.  Not that democracy is bad; on the contrary, it is a great blessing.  But it springs from and is nurtured by a whole set of presumptions about the human person and society that don't exist universally.  We also tend to be ignorant of other cultures, their (much longer than American) histories, and their sensibilities.  That leads to a fairly widespread distrust of our conclusions on a whole host of issues, including the way to respond to sexual abuse by priests.

...anyone who has spent much time travelling around the Catholic world knows the love/hate dynamic that often defines reactions to the American church. On the one hand, Catholics elsewhere admire the dynamism, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the resources of American Catholicism; on the other, they often sense that Americans are a bit too eager to swoop in and tell the rest of the world how things ought to be done, sometimes with little understanding of the local situation.

In that context, anything that looks like shoving the “American way” down the throat of the rest of the church is destined to stir resistance. The Vatican has to be conscious of that bit of baggage too, to avoid making things worse in the name of making them better.

For all the criticism that is levied against the Roman curia and the Holy Father himself (often by the NCR, among others), it is vitally important that we realize we Americans are a small minority in the Church - only 6%.  The U.S. has great secular power, and the U.S. Church has great vitality in our multi-cultural and religiously diverse land - which the Holy Father has acknowledged he is intrigued by.  Nevertheless, our American ways are not the only way.  The Holy Father is the leader of all Catholics, and must consider how the Church lives in a variety of lands, and among a variety of peoples.  The crisis of clergy sexual abuse originates from sin within the Church, and the critique of the Church's response from American and European media has helped the Roman curia acknowledge its seriousness.  But the overall response to the crisis will necessarily have a more universal character - because that is the nature of the catholic Catholic Church.


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