Cardinal Dulles, Father Neuhaus, and The Judas Crisis

Cardinal Dulles, Father Neuhaus, and The Judas Crisis s

Fr Richard John Neuhaus and Cardinal Avery Dulles Depicted the U.S. Bishops’ Dallas Charter as a contradiction of the Gospel, canon law, and the bishops themselves.

Something was reported in the Catholic press two months ago that triggered a strong sense of deja vu as I was writing my post, “The U.N. in the Time of Cholera” two weeks ago. I set out in that post to defend the policies and teachings of our Church and bishops against some clear hypocrisy from a hapless United Nations committee with a plank in its own eye. I wrote that the modus operandi at the U.N. today seems to be “Do as we say, not as we do.”

Then I came across a critique of the American criminal justice system and its prisons by the United States Catholic Bishops that was on the one hand heroic and just, while on the other left them open to the very same criticism. I knew that I must write about this, but I also didn’t want to. So I waited for someone else to write what must be written, but no one did. It falls, then, to me.

Two other people who would surely have taken up their pens on this are both deceased. Those two are Avery Cardinal Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus, and they happen to be the two priests to whom These Stone Walls is dedicated as described on our “About” page. Were they alive today, I know they would stop me from sticking my neck out any further than it already is. They would write of this themselves, though I wonder what they would write today of an announcement last week by The Holy See’s envoy to the U.N. that 848 accused priests have been laicized since 2004.

And they would take this up without going through any of my agony of concern about whether their challenge would appear disloyal or unfaithful. It’s an agony that I go through whenever I must take on a topic that, by its very nature, is critical of U.S. Catholic bishops. The fidelity of Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus could never have been called into question by any bishop. Mine, on the other hand, depends on who you’re asking.

Richard-John-Neuhaus-Avery-Dulles2Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus were exemplars of Catholic fidelity in their voluminous writings, public witness, and the way they lived. They wrote and spoke from the mountaintop of Catholic discourse in the public square, and everyone listened. I, however, write from prison. I cannot even see the mountaintop of Catholic discourse as I am buried in the rubble beneath it.

Still, I think Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus have prodded me in death to write just as they prodded me in life. I can only trust that they know even better now than they did on Earth what’s at stake. So here, with my neck exposed to the ax, is the contentious issue I hoped in vain someone else would take up.


You may have seen a brief item published by the Catholic News Agency late in March entitled “Second Chance Legislation Earns Praise.” The National Catholic Register (March 23, 2014) covered the story about a letter to members of Congress from the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. The letter was signed by committee chairman, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami (a very good man and a very fine bishop!), and Father Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA.

The letter was about the “Second Chance Act” signed into law in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush. The measure sought to ensure that prisoners are given support as they transition from prison into their communities.

As a prisoner of twenty years, I think the U.S. Bishops’ support for the Second Chance Act is highly commendable. The need for funding this legislation and giving it priority is dire. For twenty years, I have listened to men – many with no bridges left in the world of freedom – agonize over how to rebuild their lives when they emerge from prison. From my cell window one day years ago, I watched a 25-year-old friend walking down the road from prison with a trash bag over his shoulder containing his life’s possessions. He shook my hand that morning and left looking sad and alone, having no clue where he would go or how he would survive. In all these years, he never came back, but that outcome is very rare for such prisoners.

Supporting the Second Chance Act is far cheaper and far more effective than simply setting up young prisoners to fail, and then casting them back into prison when they do. I wrote of this dismal cycle in a TSW Father’s Day post entitled, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.” If the amount of interest that post received is any indication, then the wisdom of investing in the Second Chance Act should be evident to all but the most draconian of jailers.

Archbishop Wenski’s letter to Congress highlighted how such legislation is consistent with Catholic Tradition which supports the protection of society and the advancement of the common good. The letter quoted “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” a 2000 pastoral statement by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“Both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice, not vengeance…We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or re-integration of all into the community.”

In November, 2000, the Bishops of the United States published “Responsibility and Rehabilitation,” a courageous critique of the American criminal justice system. The bishops wrote that a just society must reject justice based on slogans such as “zero tolerance” and “three strikes and you’re out.” They stressed that “one-size-fits-all solutions are often inadequate,” and “we must renew our efforts to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.” “Finally,” they added, “we must welcome ex-offenders back into society as full participating members, to the extent possible.”

The bishops were right, and as a prisoner I applaud them for having the courage to render unto Caesar a hard and inconvenient truth. As a nation, we are locked into a prison system that is itself beyond redemption. Mortimer Zuckerman, Editor in Chief of U.S. News & World Report, recently spelled out this reality in “Harsh Sentencing, Overstuffed Prisons – It’s Time for Reform” (WSJ May 3/4, 2014).


Pope Benedict Cardinal Avery DullesAs a priest, however, I must now ask why, just two years after that fine pastoral statement was published, the same bishops who wrote it abandoned their own high principles when it comes to their priests. Under the harsh glare of the media at the 2002 US Bishops Conference in Dallas, the Bishops of the United States subjected their own priests to the very same draconian punishments they deemed unfit for a just society and its criminal justice system. Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote of this duplicity in “The Rights of Accused Priests” (America, June 14, 2004):

“Meeting in Dallas in June 2002 under the glare of adverse publicity and under intense pressure from various survivor networks, the bishops, after less than two days of debate, adopted the so-called Dallas Charter…The bishops opted for an extreme response. The dominant principle of the Charter was ‘zero tolerance.’ Even a single offense, committed many decades ago, no matter what the mitigating circumstances, was deemed sufficient to debar a priest for life from the exercise of his ministry.” (Cardinal Avery Dulles, America)

Cardinal Dulles went on to point out that the bishops were so confronted with their own poor judgement in these areas in the past that they abdicated the ability to make any judgements at all. They implemented the very same one-size-fits-all penalties and mandatory “zero tolerance” that they had just condemned in the U.S. criminal justice system.

In written official statements that came out of that Dallas meeting of the bishops, they often cited a meeting that previous April with Pope John Paul II, but missing entirely from the bishops’ debate – both at the Dallas meeting and the aftermath – was this caveat of Pope John Paul:

“We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person’s soul and can work extraordinary change.”

They were the words of a saint in the making, and they were ignored to our collective peril. As Ryan A. MacDonald wrote in “Sex Abuse and Anti-Catholicism”:

“The Puritan founders of New England would be pleased with the purging of the priesthood that is now underway in Western Culture for it is far more Calvinist than Catholic.”


Fr Richard John Neuhaus

When I began to think about this post, I knew that its intended post date was May 14, 2014, but I was unaware at the time that this is also the Feast of Saint Matthias, the man who resolved the first Judas Crisis in the Church. Matthias was chosen by lot to complete the Twelve Apostles by filling the vacancy left by Judas Iscariot. The Book of Acts of the Apostles (1:21-26) describes Matthias as a witness to the Earthly ministry of Jesus from his Baptism to the Ascension.

May 14 is also the day Father Richard John Neuhaus was born, an irony I once wrote about in a January 2011 post, “In Memoriam : Avery Cardinal Dulles and Fr Richard John Neuhaus.” Perhaps the finest and most incisive commentary about the scandal in the Catholic Church – or simply, “The Scandal” as it came to be known – came from Father Richard Neuhaus in a series of essays in First Things magazine called “Scandal Time.” Much of it is collected here on TSW (“Articles/Commentary“). Father Neuhaus spared no one, least of all the bishops:

“In all this Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the [2002] Episcopal Conference, played a notable role…Presiding at Dallas, he ran a tight ship keeping the bishops on message. Regrettably, by then it had become the wrong message:

‘We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or God-forbid with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry…We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.’

“Bracing stuff, that, but by the end of his address and by the end of the meeting, it was obvious that the message is ‘They are the ones!’ Zero tolerance, one strike and you’re out, boot them out of ministry. Of course the victim activists are still not satisfied, and, sadly, may never be satisfied. The bishops have succeeded in scandalizing the faithful anew by adopting a thoroughly unbiblical, untraditional, and un-Catholic approach to sin and grace.

“They ended up adopting a policy that is sans repentance, sans conversion, sans forbearance, sans prudential judgement, sans forgiveness, sans almost everything one might have hoped for from the bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ.” (Fr Richard John Neuhaus, “Scandal Time”)

I frequently corresponded with Father Neuhaus who occasionally published some of my letters in First Things, and snippets of them in his landmark column, “The Public Square.” He wrote his last letter to me dated 27 October 2008, just nine weeks before his death from cancer. Just previously, in the August/September 2008 issue of First Things, Father Neuhaus wrote “A Kafkaesque Tale,” a stinging rebuke of the due process afforded by my own bishop and diocese that shocked even me – and I thought I was far beyond being shocked.

When Father Neuhaus and Cardinal Dulles – who were the greatest of friends and collaborators – left us just weeks apart, I felt stranded. I wondered who would take up their voice. Six months after the death of Father Richard John Neuhaus, These Stone Walls was born.

Mine is not much of a voice. It is but a whisper in comparison. However, a few others have taken up their pens to take up the rights of priests. One such voice is that of Father Michael P. Orsi, Chaplain and Research Fellow in Law and Religion at Ave Maria University School of Law. His essay, “Bogus Charges Against Priests Abound” (Catalyst, March 2012) captured well the Orwellian state of the U.S. church created at the 2002 Bishops’ meeting in Dallas: Every claim of abuse must now be true. Every priest accused must now be guilty. Every accuser must now be paid. Zero tolerance.

Father Michael Orsi is especially courageous. Most priests do not write or speak openly on this for fear of reprisals (from their bishops? from the media? from SNAP?). But now and then I come across examples of real wisdom and justice from insightful Catholic writers. One was a brief letter from Colleen Sheehy in Our Sunday Visitor (Feb. 29, 2014):

“While any abuse of a child is abhorrent and to be avoided, zero tolerance is merely an excuse not to think! While beloved by insurers and PR people, it ignores due process for the accused and has turned the Church into a gigantic money-making machine for those bent on fraud and/or revenge. Zero tolerance is also incompatible with canon law…” (Coleen Sheehy, OSV)

In “The U.N. in the Time of Cholera,” I chided the United Nations for pointing at the Catholic Church with a “Do as we say, not as we do” platform for justice and human rights. The U.S. Bishops’ challenge to reform the American criminal justice system, and their support for the urgently needed “Second Chance Act,” could now easily be reduced to that same tired phrase, “Do as we say, not as we do.”

Above all else, it is tragic and terribly sad. We need these shepherd voices, but we need them articulated with integrity, as fathers, and not contradicted in our own house. Prisons are filled with sons abandoned by their fathers. In the absence of fathers, who else will speak for the fallen?

thermometerEditors’s Note: a continued thanks to TSW readers for their generosity in responding to Ryan MacDonald’s appeal to help with the legal costs, at the Federal level. We haven’t reached our goal yet, so please share this link to Ryan’s news alert post!

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Cathy says:

    Happy Anniversary, Father MacRae. I ran across this article in Crisis Magazine, I hope your administrator can maybe get a copy to you!

  2. I want to thank readers for these wonderful comments on this post, and also convey a brief story that was just relayed to me:

    “When asked by the CDF about accused priests, Mother Teresa said that no priest should ever be laicized against his will, even those unrepentant and horribly guilty. She said, “Give them to us!”

    When asked by the CDF about accused priests, Joe Maher of Opus Bono, sitting in the exact same chair in the exact same office of the CDF, repeated the words of Mother Teresa verbatim without knowing that she had said them. The official of the CDF, who had witnessed both, Joe said, turned white as a ghost, quite literally. She was to be beatified the very next day.”

  3. Dee Susan says:

    Father Gordon,
    I was doing some research for a paper I am writing and I came across a bit of information I thought might be of interest to you.

    St. Margaret, (also known as Margaret of Antioch) a 3rd century martyr is the patron saint of several things, but most importantly, she is patron saint of people who have been falsely accused of a crime. I am sure you probably already know this.

    I wanted to tell you know that I am going add a prayer to St. Maragret for you, to my daily prayer list.

  4. Father Vince says:

    Father: I have forwarded and sent your post out to as many good people I know. I simply prefaced it with these words:

    “Father Gordon MacRae, writing from his prison cell raises his prophetic voice, “as one crying in the wilderness.” The stripping of both the civil and canonical rights of priests under the guise of a zero-tolerance policy is not only unjust, but sinful and hypocritical. The silence on this issue is deafening. How can we bring the truth of the Gospel to others if we ourselves deny it within our own family? Mother Mary pray for us!

    I pray that God not only give you a prophet’s task but the grace and strength to see it through for the sake of the Will of God and His Kingdom.

    Let us pray for moral courage in the Church especially, for without it; we are deceiving us that we are truly living and embracing the Gospel of Christ.”

    Humbly….your brother….Father Vince

  5. Don Butler says:

    How can our Holy Church do such unholy things?

  6. Tom says:

    Thank you for this strong statement. Jesus never spoke of zero tolerance or one strike and you’re out. In fact Peter denied Him three times and was given forgiveness and reconciliation! Jesus also taught that the only “unforgivable sin” is the sin against the Holy Spirit…on what authorities do the US Bishops add clergy sexual abuse, or even the mere accusation of such behavior, to the list? Of course, if the clergyman accused is a bishop, there is all kinds of understanding and due process…kind of like the way politicians in Washington legislate for everyone else with caveats for themselves.

  7. Cathy says:

    This is precisely why I consider Bishop Fabian Bruskewicz a hero. He refused to perjure himself and his priests under the “we are all guilty of this” so “let’s give our authority away” charter. Why, oh why, was he the only one?

    • Liz says:

      I agree, Cathy. God bless Bishop Emeritus Bruskewitz (along with Cardinal Dulles and Fr. Neuhaus) for standing up when few others did.

      Thanks for writing this much needed piece, Fr. Gordon.

      God bless you and Pornchai and everyone!

  8. M says:

    Father G
    Keep on keeping on!

  9. Fr Gordon, we are approaching the decisive moments of that great battle that I call “the war against paternity.” The war is ultimately a war against God the Father and by extension to God the Son. Mysteriously the theme of the Antichrist in the letters of John, is weaved along with the theme of the faithful “having the Son and the Father.”

    The first to be attacked in the early days of the Protestant Reformation was the paternity of the Holy Father in Rome, then that of the bishops. In time kings and other paternal figures were targeted. By 1968 the very concept of authority was under attack and now we live in the world where even what is masculine is an object of derision and mockery. This, I believe, is aimed to the very Presence of God among us, the Eucharist. When Jesus was recognized by his disciples at the table in Emmaus He disappeared but the Blessed Bread was left in front of them. That was the first Sunday after the Resurrection. In the final hours of this world when the devil directs his minions to outlaw the Eucharist worldwide. Once the Blessed Bread disappears from sight . . . Our Lord shall return because His Presence in this world cannot be interrupted. That will be the last Sunday in this world for us, the reverse side of Emmaus the first Sunday.

    We will continue to suffer in the days to come but we must endure for our liberation may be nearer than we thought. Unfaithful priests will continue to bring shame and condemnation upon the Church but people know the good ones, those whose lives are a continual sacrifice to the Father from Whom they derive the paternity of their priesthood.

    Let us strive to live like faithful sons of our Father just as Jesus taught us and you yourself are teaching us by your example.

  10. Fr. Stuart MacDonald says:

    Father Gordon,
    You cite one very important example of how the bishops are inconsistent. The other equally important example is the bishops seeking to prevent the revocation of civil statutes of limitations on sex abuse claims while routinely petitioning the Holy See for dispensations from terms of prescription (the canonical equivalent of statutes of limitation) so that they may punish a priest accused of sexual abuse.

    The bishops are not unintelligent men. I am not willing to believe that they are so inconsistent out of malice or evil intent. They truly believe that they are acting ‘for the good of the Church’. (Sincerity is everything these days, ain’t it?) They believe that they are helping the Church recover from this crisis of credibility and injustice.

    I’m in the minority on this, but I don’t believe that the zero-tolerance policy, the relative ease of dismissing a priest from the clerical state, some aspects of the VIRTUS program (a whole other can of worms) or the ability to remove a priest from ministry on mere accusation achieve that recovery.

    What is it that really caused scandal in the sexual abuse debacle? Is it the fact that priests abused children? Well, yes, certainly that is scandalous. But reasonable people understand that sinful human nature, and wicked deeds, are everywhere. The greatest cause of scandal, and this is only beginning to be articulated now, now that the dust is settling, is the cover up. People are upset that bishops are not being punished for their lack of proper oversight, for their lack of following canon law, for their passing the buck on to psychologists and treatment centres. At this point, the credibility crisis has more to do with bishops than abusive priests.

    People see that bishops are protected: not bishops who, perhaps naively, re-assigned one priest, but those who knowingly re-assigned, again and again, priests who were known to have committed horrendous acts. It is dishonest to respond that the law of the Church didn’t help them deal with the issue and that they did the best they could. That’s balderdash. The Church has had laws in place since the 4th century to deal with clerical sexual immorality. The current code of canon law, while it doesn’t make it easy for a priest to be dismissed from the clerical state, certainly makes provision for punishing a guilty priest, including his dismissal. But the bishops wanted easy solutions, wanted to protect the reputation of the Church and to protect her assets. Well, we see in hindsight where that got us.

    People are angry that bishops who participated in the cover-up have not been disciplined and that those who replaced them in office have swung the pendulum to the other side so that all priests who are accused are considered guilty, have cast aside due process aside, make settlements without investigating guilt or innocence. In response, the Church brags that we have cleaned house and that we are going to ensure that ‘this’ never happens again. What is ‘this’? Child abuse? Good luck! We will never eradicate sin from the Church or from humanity. Cover up? Well, that’s a good goal. By the way, has anyone seen news of what is happening to the sometime Apostolic Nuncio to the Dominican Republic? Ahem. Cough, cough. The contradiction of bishops calling for justice in the world when there is no justice in our own house is more than glaring.

    Now we have to ask, is the current system, so ably critiqued by Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus (a critique so wonderfully ignored by the establishment), going to work?

    I have opined privately on several occasions that once the public realises that we are “defrocking [sic]” priests (as we seem to be bragging to the UN), they will begin to sue us for unleashing these very same men onto society where they are free to commit their crimes. It’s all nonsense, of course, but we are living in an age of nonsense.

    Fr. Neuhaus had it right: “Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity”, to God, to the deposit of faith, to justice, to the law and due process. Nothing else is going to work. Cleaning house, read: witch hunt, does not solve the problem. Punishing the guilty, both bishops and priests, according to the law, well, that’s a start Encouraging seminarians to see the beauty of celibacy, rather than teaching them to accept it as a burden imposed, well that’s a step in the right direction. And we could go on – there’s certainly lots to be done.

    What we are witnessing is the weakness of the human element of Christ’s Church. Bishops are Vicars of Christ in their own dioceses. Neither we, nor the UN, can expect that the Supreme Pontiff or all his dicasteries in Rome can micro-manage what goes on throughout the world in the local churches. The problem is that there is no mechanism for oversight of the overseers, the bishops. They are prone to the same vicissitudes of human nature which afflict us all – fear, pride, desire to be liked, the list go on. They have, at times, exercised their God-given power laxly, and now, in certain situations, they exercise it abusively, tyrannically, all ‘for the good of the Church’.

    As Dr. Jeff Mirus wrote over at
    “I am not sure that imprisonment of Church leaders and the seizure of Catholic assets at gun point would be worse than the present state of affairs. But I am sure that for every year the Church refuses to acknowledge and build upon her own jurisdictional identity, her mission is further weakened. Her identity is compromised and her credibility eroded.

    Remember that I am not talking about jurisdiction only to resist the depredations of civil power. This is not a question of being “self-serving”. Rather, I am talking about jurisdiction to effect the superior implementation of justice that the Church alone can provide. It is a question of doing things right, of punishing the guilty, restoring the innocent, and protecting what the faithful have offered for the Church’s Divine mission.”

    We have not solved the problem until we admit that following the law is a service to truth and charity – even if the world out there doesn’t understand that – and until we delineate clearly the limits of episcopal governance – priests are not chattel, but co-workers who retain their human and ecclesial freedom, rights and duties.

    The scandal is not about sex or abuse, it is about right governance, a governance that is transparent, honest, unafraid and, most importantly, a mirror of justice for the world.

    Thank you, Father, for having the courage to write. Your voice does not go unheard. Perhaps it does by the mighty, but not by the Almighty!

    In Domino,
    Fr. Stuart MacDonald
    p.s. you’ll forgive, I trust, verbosity by a confrere.

    • Mary Fran says:

      Excellent response to an excellent article. Hardly too wordy.

    • Judith says:

      Well said.
      My prayers for you continue, Father MacRae. DAILY.

    • Father MacDonald, raises a very good point, but a painful one. Few double standards have been more disheartening than the U.S. Bishops’ powerful lobbying to prevent revisions to civil statutes of limitations to ward off lawsuits – a lobbying effort with which I agree and in which I have joined their efforts – and then at the very same time lobby the Holy See to dispense with prescription and make that dispensation retroactive. Translation for the non-Canon Law types: “Statutes of Limitations exist in legal systems to promote justice, not hinder it.” That is a quote from one bishop who led the charge against these lawsuits, however Canon Law protecting the rights of their priests against being sidelined by ancient claims has been ignored or dispensed with. I respect our bishops, I truly do, but must they have it both ways on this issue?

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