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.
Cardinal 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.
THE ‘SECOND CHANCE ACT’ ‘
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).
CARDINAL AVERY DULLES ON THE DALLAS CHARTER
As 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.”
FATHER NEUHAUS AND THE JUDAS CRISIS
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  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?
Editors’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!