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Editorial: Attack on Crowley part of a bitter harvest

By all accounts, Patty Crowley is a holy person.

She has spent her life in service to the church and witnessing to her faith in powerful ways in the wider world.

She does not need NCR or anyone else to defend her reputation or assure her a place among leading American Catholics of the late 20th century.

Quite the reverse. We need Crowley and her story. We need it for encouragement and hope. We need it as a model of how to be a Catholic Christian in today’s world. Sadly, we need it also to remind us of the shockingly callous model of church that has been given permission to flourish at century’s end.

For the record: Patty Crowley and her late husband, Pat, cofounded the Christian Family Movement, an organization that touched thousands of families. It was a movement that revived faith and gave Christian couples a new sense of what it meant to live their faith in the everyday world.

The Crowleys raised five children, including an adopted child. They took in more than a dozen foster children.

After her husband died in 1974, Patty Crowley “declined a quiet widowhood,” according to Robert McClory, who wrote the book Turning Point (Crossroad), the story of the papal birth control commission on which the Crowleys served. To this day -- she is 84 -- in addition to helping a daughter part-time at a family travel agency, she goes weekly to meet with women at a federal prison in Chicago and works regularly at a women’s shelter she helped to found and of which another daughter, a Benedictine nun, is director. She also remains active as a board member of HOME (Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly).

What, then, could possibly be behind the vicious personal attack printed in November in the Southern Nebraska Register, the official newspaper of the Lincoln, Neb., diocese? In a question and answer column purportedly written by an unnamed priest of the diocese, Crowley was characterized as “a very old degenerate who roams about promoting sexual immorality.” The priest went on, “Nobody pays much attention to what she says, except perhaps some depraved members of the Call-to-Action sect. Her views deserve no consideration whatsoever” (NCR, Jan.30).

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, president of the newspaper, quickly became a kind of totem for an extreme reactionary wing of the church when, in March 1996, he issued a mass excommunication of those Catholics in his diocese who remained members of certain groups. One of the targets of the decree was the Catholic reform organization Call to Action, whose members include priests, nuns, lay people and other bishops.

The case could be made that Bruskewitz is an over-the-top extremist even among the most right-wing elements. But if that is the case, he is also an example of the kind of mentality that has been placed in some positions of leadership by the pope. Bruskewitz, after all, was appointed in 1992, deep enough into this pontificate to suggest that he must have exhibited the qualities that fit at least part of John Paul II’s vision for the church.

How do we come to such a level of vulgarity and personal attack? It happens through many events, some exquisitely subtle, occurring with such regularity over time that we almost became numb to the effects.

It happens when Fr. Charles Curran, a moderate by any measure whose approach to moral issues is used in scores of parishes throughout the United States every day, was drummed out of The Catholic University of America.

It happens when a constant beat of accusation and innuendo is directed against the likes of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent and their long ministry to gay Catholics and parents of gay children.

It happens, as in 1996, when then Denver Archbishop (and soon to be Cardinal) J. Francis Stafford allowed his archdiocesan newspaper to slander distinguished Catholic theologians and other Catholic speakers as “false teachers,” “dissenting voices” and “bad examples causing great harm,” though none of the speakers had done anything but spend exemplary lives in service of the church.

It happens when Bishop Francis B. Schulte in New Orleans, fearing that some Catholics might object, engineers the cancellation of a speech by Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick, a Notre Dame University professor and one of the most respected moral theologians in the country.

It happens when a committee of bishops, acting on who knows what fears or old grudges, decides to place unwarranted restraints on the use of Fr. Richard McBrien’s book Catholicism.

It happens when Bishop Nicholas Dattilo of the Harrisburg, Pa., diocese refuses to introduce Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, at a meeting because of an interpretation of a snippet of an interview Prejean gave to a newspaper and because, he said, he does not know what Prejean will write in her upcoming book on women in the church.

It happens when a bishop, with a reckless disregard for facts, allows his spokesman to smear a clinic for the poor and, by implication, the Catholics involved in that work.

It happens when Archbishop Francis George (another soon-to-be cardinal) in a January sermon to members of the National Center for the Laity, first lavishes praise on the group and then lets loose with the comment that “Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. ... A church marked by suspicion has no mission and cannot evangelize.” He refused to offer any explanation, but who does he think he was talking to? Who does he think, as he put it, “got it right?” (See story.).

It happens in countless parishes where a new pastor is allowed to dismantle the work and structures that laity have put together over many years.

It happens in dioceses where the staffs of education offices and ministry offices are ripped apart and replaced on an episcopal whim. It happens in ways too numerous to count here, many of which have been reported in these pages.

There has been steady growth toward the church that is emerging now in some quarters -- a church of suspicion, intolerance and blind rules. It is clear who gets rewarded for building that church.

It is also a church of ignorance. Patty Crowley and her husband did not invent the debate over birth control. They were influenced by the pope’s theologians and members of the hierarchy (and there still are many) who deeply disagreed with the papal commission’s minority report that eventually became the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

The seeds of this new regime have been sown deep and wide, and we’re beginning to get a glimpse of the harvest.

Part of that yield is the rude and tasteless attack by Bruskewitz’s secret columnist and the response of the bishop’s lawyer, whose only concern was that the printed remarks were not legally “actionable.”

In March of 1996, NCR gave a page and a half to a question-and-answer interview with Bruskewitz, an attempt on our part to allow him to directly explain his positions and governing style to our readers.

At the end of the interview he told our reporter, “Tell your editors I do not have horns. Remember, be just, be kind. We all have to answer to God for what we say and do.”

Good advice, dear bishop, that you, too, might heed.

Patty Crowley is a good and holy woman.