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Conservative support for hierarchy collapses.

One of the remarkable aspects of the tragic crisis confronting the Catholic church today is the widespread collapse of support for the hierarchy on the part of a traditionally loyal and dutiful laity. Indeed, the expressions of anger and the demands for the resignations of bishops accused of covering up criminal behavior have come at least as frequently from the Catholic right as from their counterparts in the moderate middle and on the left.

And the exceptions prove the rule. The three most prominent voices on the right who have not joined the chorus of criticism are Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister who edits the conservative magazine First Things; Raymond Flynn, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and former mayor of Boston; and Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard who is frequently called upon to represent the voice of the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops, especially on the issue of abortion.

Neuhaus and Glendon blame the counterculturalism of the 1960s for the mess we're in, with Glendon going so far as to say that it's all a matter of "clerical self-discipline." A variation perhaps on the slogan, "Just say `No.' "Ambassador Flynn, on the other hand, has focused his efforts on defending his "good friend," Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who had a large hand in securing the Vatican post for him.

But Neuhaus, Flynn and Glendon are in a distinct minority, even on the right. Their attempts at shifting the blame for these outrages from the bishops to nameless counterculturalists or, in Flynn's case, to The Boston Globe, stand in stark contrast to the blunt analyses and severe solutions proposed by some of their better-known associates on the Catholic right.

Among the first to call for Law's resignation was the recognized father of the modern-day conservative movement in the United States, William F. Buckley Jr. In a nationally syndicated column published Feb. 12, he referred sharply to the state of "lawlessness in Boston" and urged its archbishop to step aside.

On March 14, Bill O'Reilly, the popular host of Fox-TV's top-rated "The Factor," posted a column on the WorldNetDaily Web site titled, "Sins of the Fathers." In it he characterized the Catholic church as a dictatorship and pined for the days "when a compassionate man like John XXIII was calling the shots."

"What is not a secret any longer," O'Reilly wrote, "is the failure of the church leadership in America." Law's refusal to resign, he argued, "is precisely the indicator that explains how the church's sexual molestation problem could get so far out of control."

O'Reilly was followed in quick order by William J. Bennett, former secretary of education and drug czar in two previous Republican administrations, author of the best-selling Book of Virtues, and a prominent critic of President Clinton on moral grounds.

Bennett has called for the resignation of any bishop who covered up the criminal activities of priests under their direct supervision. In his Wall Street Journal op-ed piece of March 18, Bennett mentioned only Law by name, but clearly included other bishops. They "must be removed from positions of authority, no less than the priests whose acts were covered up. Both groups," he wrote, "harmed children, and harmed the church."

Bennett's broadside was followed, in turn, by one from Patrick Buchanan, a virulent critic of liberals in both politics and the Catholic church and a two-time candidate for the presidency of the United States. In his own WorldNetDaily column posted March 19, Buchanan compared Law to "a Mafia don providing safe houses for one of his button men."

"Catholic bishops who failed in their managerial and moral duty to protect innocent children," he continued, "should be sent to monasteries to do penance the rest of their lives.

"His Holiness," Buchanan declared, "needs to clean house. Pope John Paul II should send a representative to the U. S. to order the immediate retirement of any bishop who failed in his duty to expel pedophiles from the priesthood."

Not even William Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has rallied to the support of the bishops. "I am not here to defend the indefensible," he told the New York Times (March 24). Conservative Catholics, he acknowledged, are just as angry with the hierarchy "for dereliction of duty."

Al Gore would be president today if he hadn't lost his home state of Tennessee. The moral is that you cannot afford to alienate your natural base of support. It's a lesson for bishops and politicians alike.

Fr. Richard McBrien teaches at the University of Notre Dame.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Church
Author:McBrien, Richard P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 3, 2002
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