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Losing Faith

When a comely blonde in a sheath dress was wheeled into play as the public relations representative of Bernard Cardinal Law in Boston more than eight years ago, the university-trained monsignor who had been the archdiocese’s PR man was shoved into the background.

It was the most cynical of moves as the embattled cardinal tried to hide from the scandal of corrupt priests who kept practicing their corruption skills while Law rode around in his chauffeured limousine.

The clergy sex scandal in Boston was just a beginning.

Cardinal Law is a disgrace to the Roman Catholics who make up the church, yet the men in the Vatican promoted him to Rome to run a basilica there rather than chastise him for failed leadership of an archdiocese with millions of Catholics.

It’s ironic that the same Vatican bureaucrats who threw administrative daggers at the Catholic Church in the United States back when Bernie Law put himself above the law in Boston are now pulling a cover up on similar scandals among priests in the Netherlands, Austria, and Ireland.

The cover-up continues in a scandal that leads directly to the big boss, Pope Benedict. His administration of a German archdiocese when he was merely Bishop Joseph Ratzinger was as irresponsible as Law in Boston, if on a smaller scale.

I am scandalized once again by the gall of these men, who talk of their past misdeeds and cover-ups by rationalizing them as trying to “protect the church.” They are not the “church,” at least not the “church” I have been a member of since birth and baptism. I have never attended anything but Catholic schools, even through my higher education, and have always been told and bought into the contention that the church is the people of faith; that each of us who calls him or herself Catholic are the “body of the Church,” that Christ is the head of the church.

So where does that leave the men who serve as the bishops and cardinals in the administrative apparatus? First, in their roles as priests, they bear a great responsibility to provide spiritual guidance to the Catholics they were ordained to serve. Some choose to ascend a political ladder to jobs as bishops and cardinals. The big boss gets Popemobile privileges.

When they get these cushy jobs, a few assume the mistaken position that they are “the Church” and not the millions of men and women they are ordained to serve.

I teach at a university that prides itself on its Franciscan tradition. (For those of you who don’t know, the Franciscans are an order of friars—priest, brothers and sisters—who base their lives on their founder, St.Francis of Assisi, the progenitor of the Christmas crèche and a man always associated with love and protection animals.)

My university has 2,000 students on campus, most who indicate on their student records that they are Roman Catholic. Yet barely 200 show up for Sunday mass, though weekly attendance at mass is a requirement of the administrative church. Granted that college students are in a time of their lives where they question much of what surrounds them.

Granted going to mass on Sunday is not priority for many, even on a Franciscan campus.

Nonetheless, I have probed the attitudes of these students for eight years, mostly outside of class, and found that even the fervent who still observe all the rules of the administrative church have disdain or indifference to the role of the pope and his bishops.

They have grown up through the sex abuse scandals in the North American priesthood and the lack of responsibility on the part of North American bishops until they were forced to own up by lawsuits and public condemnation.

They have been scandalized and are occasionally very cynical. Some barely identify themselves as Catholics. Others so identify, but show little interest in the guidance being offered by the leaders of their diocese or by Rome.

Yet these young men and women are the Catholic church of tomorrow.

The generations of Catholics who studied as I did in parochial schools are dying off. We grew up when sister would rap you across the knuckles with a ruler, when an appearance by “Father” in the classroom was treated as nearly the Second Coming; when one learned to sing in Gregorian chant and ransomed “pagan babies” by nickel donations. We were taught that priests were a superhuman lot, and we sort of believed it. Now priests have been betrayed by some of their own, and we have also been betrayed.

What’s so infuriating to me as a member of that church is that there is no way for us to get rid of the bums. We can’t vote them out. We can’t push them out. We can’t smoke them out.

We Catholics are taught that the primacy (the power) of the pope comes from the moment when Christ told Peter that he was to be the “rock.” Specifically: “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”

They don’t build rocks like they used to. This administrative church is a kind of sandstone, and we who make up its body are being left ground up by its disintegration.

Paul Wieland is a journalism professor at St. Bonaventure University

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