National Catholic Register


Faith, Hope and Dallas

BY Ellen Rossini

June 23-29, 2002 Issue | Posted 6/23/02 at 2:00 PM


Bishop Timothy Dolan has seen the scandal from two sides.

As the former rector of the North American College in Rome, he knows what it takes to form priests. As a new auxiliary bishop of St. Louis, he removed from ministry the pastor and associate pastor from a parish for past abuse allegations. In Dallas June 13-15 for the bishops' meeting, Bishop Dolan, a Church historian, spoke with Register correspondent Ellen Rossini on the catastrophe of the clergy scandal and the surprising new Catholic moment it presents.

What is your assessment of this crisis and its meaning in the life of the Church?

I would say we're people of hope, and we've got to look at this through the lens of what the Lord is inviting us or challenging us to do at this moment. I think obviously everybody's saying that he is calling us to cleansing, purification and renewal.

I really think we're at a moment somewhat similar to the Catholic Reformation after the Council of Trent. When you add to the millennium, which would be the positive side, this whole scandal — which would be the negative side — I really think what we've got is a privileged moment of grace when the Lord is inviting his Church to intense renewal and a call to sanctity.

At this time the laity are asking their shepherds to be not merely administrators but true pastors. How do you see that being lived out from this point on?

As my own Archbishop Justin Rigali often says, there is no way that we can get by with anything less than holiness of life, which shows itself in integrity and fidelity.

I think for us as bishops, it's starting with us. And it's starting internally. We see that our people are calling us to be shepherds, our people are calling us to be pastors and our people are calling us to be men of prayer and heroic virtue; men firm about the pursuit of perfection.

I often think that the Lord's mandate, duc in altum (cast out into the deep) is what he's doing. Shallowness, superficiality, getting away with the minimum, complacency: forget it, it's all over. It's all over.

What we're interpreting our people summoning us to is personal sanctity, which then transfers to Step 2 of calling our people to sanctity, which translates to Step 3, a real time of renewal and recommitment in the Church.

What do you mean by “renewal”?

There are some who say — and I would disagree with them wholeheartedly — that this is a time for radical change in the Church. I would maintain that instead this is a time for radical rediscovery of what is most noble at the core of the Church.

The horrors that we're talking about did not grow out of the Church. The horrors happened because the Church wasn't true to itself, wasn't true to its most noble core, which is impeccable virtue, heroic sanctity and the pursuit of perfection, which shows itself in fidelity and integrity of life.

People are horrified by the scandal yet don't often make the connection, as has the Holy Father, with the need for the Church to commit to “the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality.” How are they related?

In a way, thanks be to God that people are horrified by this terrible scandal. It is at odds with human decency, it is at odds with the Gospel, it is particularly at odds with everything the priestly vocation stands for. It also shows again how far off the mark we've gotten when it comes to the Church's whole teaching on chastity, how far we have strayed from the Church's beautiful teaching on sexual love. What's a painful paradox is that many of the people who find this [scandal] most horrible don't make the connection that so are other sexual aberrations.

The sexual expression of love is so noble, is so decent, is so wholesome — so much so that it mirrors, it icons, the passionate love that God has for his people. Therefore it has the very characteristics of God's passionate love for his people, namely fidelity, fruitfulness and exclusivity. That's why the Church says sexual love is so powerful, so beautiful and so poetic that it's only limited to the lifelong, faithful relationship of a man and woman in the sacrament of marriage.

I'd like to think that maybe this is going to spur us on to a whole new apologetic of the sacrament of marriage, of chastity.

Some seem more ready to blame the Church's teaching for the problem instead of seeing it as the solution.

Unfortunately, you've got people who say this all flows from this kind of oppressive, antiquated, medieval Church teaching on sexual chastity [and] from an unhealthy, anti-sex mentality that the Church traditionally has.

Just the opposite, of course, is true. This [scandal] all flows from a kind of cheapening of sexual love, from the whole idea that the whole purpose of sex is simply for momentary enjoyment, that we use other people instead of respect them as partners in procreative love. It's just at odds with everything the Church teaches.

You'd almost like to see a kind of romantic rediscovery of the beauty and elevated poetry that the Church has always held about sexual love and the beauty of chastity as a positive virtue to protect what is so good and powerful and sacred.

We can't allow this to be interpreted, as our enemies will, as just another nail in the coffin of the Church's traditional teaching on sexual morality. If anything, it's sort of like throwing cold water in our face and saying, “Let's get back to basics.”

Has this been the reaction of your fellow bishops as well?

I would say that my brother bishops didn't need convincing of the doctrine of the Church's moral teaching. I think we did need a wake-up call that now is a time to be more compelling, more cogent, more convincing than ever.

Did some bishops just get so lazy that they weren't watching? How was the abuse allowed to occur and seminaries become, as we've heard, homosexually promiscuous?

I would say some of us are realizing perhaps that we gave more attention to the psychological dimensions of sexuality, maybe more attention to the biological parts of it and not enough attention to the theological, to the moral dimensions of it.

If anything, it's calling us back to that. So now you've got such a call to integrity of life among priests that there's no way out of it. There are no split lines, there's no hidden compartment, there's no time off for chastity. This is a radical, top-of-the-head, tip-of-the-toes commitment of self.

I love, even more than chastity, the word “purity.” We are purely, totally, radically, completely given to Christ. To use the words of Father Benedict Groeschel, “he claims every cell of our body, from our brain cells to our sperm cells.” They all belong to him when we give that over to chaste celibacy.

All these abuses were not because of celibacy, they were because celibacy was not properly understood, appreciated and obeyed.

So will the renewal of the Church start at the top, with the bishops, and then spread out to the faithful?

I wouldn't want to come down too strong on that, because the Holy Spirit really works through our people, and what we're finding is that it is our people who are calling us back to this; our people are saying it.

I know we bishops pay a lot of attention to those who are griping and criticizing, but what moves me more as a bishop are the overwhelming expressions of support that I get from my people. Not support obviously for the abuses, but almost like you parents would say to your children, “We know you've got this in you. We know that this incident that is now grabbing the headlines is uncharacteristic of what's best in you. And we want to call you back, that you can do this, and that we need you for it, we respect you for it, and we love you for it.”

It's almost like how sometimes forgiveness is a greater motive for good than punishment. That's the way the Lord acts. When we look at the Lord and he says, “I forgive you your sin,” that doesn't say, “Oh, he's so tolerant, I'll be able to sin more.” I say, “He loves me so much that I'm going to live up to this love; I'm going to live a life of grateful, humble obedience to everything that he's called me.”

What have you experienced personally from the people in your diocese?

I've been amazed. I know since Easter I've probably done 50 confirmations, so you're talking about 1,000 young people. And every time I spend time with them, there's not one of those young people — not one time that I meet with them — that stand up and say, “We are really sick of you bishops and priests, we are really shocked, we are scandalized, we're going to leave the Church.”

They say the opposite. They say to me, “We really love and respect our priests, we want good and holy and pure priests and we need them more than ever, we're with you all the way.” Now that awes me. I'm going to redouble my effort, because I want to make sure I'm worthy of this trust that these people are giving to me.

How was it at your parish when you had to remove the two priests from ministry?

You can imagine the shock waves. These were two beloved priests; these were two respected priests. That was a tough time; it was very volatile.

I'm coming home one night, and I see this young man come up to me and he introduces himself and says, “I've got to talk to you about the pastor.” I'm thinking, “Uh-oh, another allegation.” We go in, and he says, “Will you please tell him that I have a lot of love and respect for him and that I still want to be a priest?” Do you know what that does to me? I'm thinking, “How can we do anything to betray this trust?”

Not too long after that I'm coming home, and I see this young couple running up to me in the parking lot, and I'm thinking they're going to gang up on me. See, the people were upset at me, being an authority figure, for removing the priests.

They say, “Hey, Father, are you in this parish? We just moved in and we want to register. We hear this is a great parish [and] it's an anchor of the neighborhood. We hear the Sunday Mass here is beautifully done [and] you've got a great school. We hear you've really gone through some trouble, too; but, well, life's got to go on.”

You know what that does to me, that sense of resilience? You'd think that this young couple would say, “We don't want anything to do with that place, what kind of moral cesspool is that? We're going somewhere else.”

That's what I mean by our people calling us back. And this is what I'm hearing from priests all over the place.

What do you see as the long-term effect of this crisis on the priesthood?

I see the whole rediscovery of the spiritual dimension of our office. One of the ways I see this is through somewhat of a feeling of helplessness that translates into humility.

One of our priests at home … said to his brother priests, “I don't know how you guys feel, but I'm a little embarrassed to go out in the collar. I almost feel like every time I open the paper that somebody's punched me in the stomach. I kind of feel at the bottom of the ladder. But you know, that's probably not a bad way to feel because that's how our Lord felt, and he was the first priest.”

He said one day somebody after Mass said, “Father, how do you feel?” and he said, “Well, I've sort of been knocked to my knees,” and the person said, “Well, that's not a bad place to be!”

If we're discovering that a lot of things in the past that have propped us up have now been whittled away, maybe that's going to impel us to a rediscovery of our helplessness, that we need the Lord, that we need other people, that we need one another, we need the Church, we need the sacraments, we need prayer — all that admission that we can't do it on our own.

People are telling us that one of the mistakes we made is we kept this to ourselves, we thought we could handle this by ourselves and we'll just take care of it, business as usual. We have to be people of genuine humility and sanctity and say, “We need God's help; we need your help.” That posture of humility is going to be a long-term fruit of all this.

How will you assist your priests through this difficult episode?

We need to restore a sense of priestly identity and dignity among our priests. We bishops have a particular bond with our priests. We're to be to our priests what your pastors are to be to you. We have to know a lot of them are hurting, a lot of them are feeling they are really the ones bearing the brunt of all this.

We have to intensify our efforts to renew priestly formation in our seminaries. I really believe the next 25 to 30 years we're going to see Charles Borromeos, we're going to see Philip Neris — these great saints that rose up in the Catholic Reformation who are calling us back to holiness, humility, integrity, fidelity and joy.

It's not going to come in big programs; it's just going to come in day-in and day-out faithful Christian living.

Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen contributed to this interview.