Thursday, May 16, 2002

Let He Who Is Without Sin...
Plain Talk on a Tough Topic --
Comments on the Crisis in the Catholic Church

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Once again, on an important topic, I have been silent too long.

I have been silent, out of a fear that I would paint with too broad a brush, that the splashes of paint would splatter in ways I could not control, indeed, that the taint would hit too close to home.

During the entire duration of the Clinton sex scandal, I was silent, because of whispers and rumors and gossip about various improprieties in the congregation that I served at the time. How could I address issues of sexual morality from the pulpit... when the topic was already abuzz on too many tongues?

And now. This year. I have been silent as scandal has enveloped our brothers and sisters of another faith. Silent, because there is no community without its own memory of pain. And silent, because how is it possible to comment on the pain of a neighbor, without being prurient, or smarmy, or simply inappropriate?

Silent. But I can be silent no more.

Not when corrupt clergy act to suppress lay voices, to close off any outside involvement, to circle the wagons, and to squash dissent.

Not when reports surface of a new legal strategy, to counter-attack those who come forward with claims, to question their motives, to undermine their credibility, to ask victims if they "liked it," to sue parents for leaving their children in the care of those the church itself claimed the parents could trust.

Not when the issue is transformed, from an internal scandal, to a matter of justice and morality.

Not when I think there are lessons to be learned which will reach across the boundaries of faith, and touch our lives as well.

And so, with great trepidation, and with what I hope will be some sensitivity, I turn my attention in this Jewish column, to the Catholic Church.

My friends, I have a confession to make. It is this. The American Catholic Church... fascinates me. I think it goes back to one of the occasions on which this popular pope visited the United States. I read at the time that 87% or so of American Catholics love and revere their pope... but only 18% felt the slightest compulsion to actually do what he told them to do, in areas of human sexuality and personal autonomy. How uniquely American, I remember thinking: people are part of an organization that is thoroughly hierarchical... and they nevertheless pick and choose on their own, what they want to follow, and what they want to heed.

My interest in the Catholic Church grew in a more personal way when we moved to Erie, Pennsylvania. There, the only person in the whole community who my parents knew before I moved there, was a pretty powerful nun named Joan Chittester. Sister Joan is a scholar, an activist, and one of the most intensely intelligent people I have ever met. To meet her, to work with her, to get to know her, to call her a friend has been one of the great honors of my life. To watch her come out on 60 Minutes in favor of ordaining women, after the pope had just said, speaking ex cathedra, that the topic was not open for discussion, was to taste for just a moment the passion, the animating spirit in American Catholocism of today.

Or perhaps, of yesterday.

In Erie I also fought with a bishop, and got me to a nunnery. I tangled with the local diocese, after coming out against vouchers, receiving a letter from the bishop which treated me like I was an errant cleric in his personal employ. The letter did end with an offer to get togehter to discuss the matter. I pursued the opening, only to be invited to dine with said bishop at his residence... on the following Friday night!

After straightening all that out, I spent one of the best weeks of my life with 150 women. I was honored to be the Scholar In Residence for the Annual Retreat of the Benedictine nuns in Erie. (See my column "Get Thee To A Nunnery.") I must have taught something, but I got more far out of the experience than I could possibly have given, and learned about devotion and commitment, community and love, in deep and profound ways.

So the American Catholic Church fascinates me. I have learned of the diversity in its midst, the depth of love in which it is held, indeed, I have even learned of the special bonds of shared experience which unite Jews and Catholics even when we are propelled to the opposite conclusions about important issues. To cite just one example, Jews and Catholics came to this country and found a similar problem. That problem was Protestant control of public schools. Both Jews and Catholics addressed the issue. It is just that we did so in different ways. Catholics created a vast and wide-ranging private school system, for their values, for their children. As Jews, we reacted in a different way. We went to the courts, to create a level playing field on the grounds of American civic and communal life. Opposite answers, but locked together as reactions to the very same feeling of exclusion. We share a hidden history, and an experiential bond.

This year, these days, with each new revelation, with each news cycle, I cringe anew. I feel the pain, of too many good people. I feel the sadness, of a shattered trust. I join in the anger, at abuse of power. But, above all... I see now more clearly with each passing day the elephant in the room, the aunt in the attic, the dark and sinister subtext which no one seems willing to talk about.

The real reason I have to speak out about the scandal in the Catholic Church at this time is that I believe there is something more subtle -- and more sinister -- going on than the corruption of a spiritual institution, the self-defence of a religious bureacracy.

I think I can see the root cause of the problem facing our neighbors in faith. "They" are not going to like what I have to say. And neither are many of "us," either.