Ecclesiastical McCarthyism fuels revisionism
Anyone having any doubt that the Catholic church in the United States is severely divided and increasingly lacking leadership need only check out the correspondence between Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick and Archbishop Francis Schulte of New Orleans (see related article).
McCormick, an esteemed figure in moral theology circles and a longtime teacher at one of the leading Catholic universities in this country, was disinvited from a lecture to a University of Notre Dame alumni group after Schulte took it upon himself to interfere with the lecture plans.
The bishop was crafty enough not to be a total bully about the matter -- he specifically told those involved he was "not forbidding" McCormick, who teaches at Notre Dame, from speaking in the archdiocese.
Ah, who needs to be a bully when a little innuendo will do? As Schulte admitted in a letter to McCormick, he did suggest that "some persons might find objections" to his speaking in the archdiocese. And that apparently was enough to undo the deal.
What a cowardly, underhanded way to deal with anyone, let alone a theologian who has dedicated decades of service to the church.
Schulte came up with nothing specific. He wasn't citing anything he had read by McCormick. He wasn't citing anyone else's particular objections. All he needed to say was that some people might be upset. It is essential to note that McCormick is a theologian in good standing. He has not been disciplined by any superiors.
Schulte's tactics are a kind of ecclesiastical McCarthyism, fueling the intimidation and fear-mongering tactics of a small minority of ultra-right revisionists who would impose a non-thinking authoritarianism on the entire church.
It is almost impossible to imagine that church leaders who experienced the Vatican II spirit 30 years ago could allow the church to deteriorate to such a state that educated people are denied the benefit of a scholar's thinking because of fear of reaction by some faceless, unnamed group.
It is a denial of basic rights that the church would rightly howl about if it were committed by some other institution or government.
And what of the Notre Dame group? They set a poor example for Catholic educated laity, who are increasingly being called on to take more responsibility for the life of the church. Leaders of the alumni club would have much better served the church and the integrity of their alma mater by thanking the bishop for his comments and ignoring them. Have they lost all sense of the value of academic freedom and the need for open inquiry?
We hope that other Notre Dame alumni are not so easily cowed. Presumably, they are capable of hearing the challenging words of a Richard McCormick without losing their faith or quitting the church.
The alumni group had a responsibility to hold their archbishop accountable. Schulte owes us all an explanation. It simply won't do for a Catholic leader to impugn the reputation of a gifted theologian and walk away as if he is above accountability.
The McCormick incident is one more shameful example of the kind of ecclesiastical bullying that seems to be increasing in the church in the United States and worldwide. Appearances are canceled, reputations are smeared with little concern for justice and disciplines are imposed on dedicated adults as if they were errant kids in a schoolyard.
Bishops who cave in to such fears encourage cowardly dissidents who want the church to return to some idealized time in history that never existed in the first place. Bishops who cower in fear of reactions from these little bands of thought police deepen the divisions and fan the flames under already overheated rhetoric.
As a consequence, the vast majority of Catholics -- those who keep the parishes running, who pay the bills and teach the next generations -- are denied the richness of thought and discussion that scholars like McCormick can provoke. And divisions are deepened, not healed.
National Catholic Reporter, February 14, 1997