National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
October 3, 2003

LettersJohn Geoghan’s murder

This has not been a good year for the Catholic church. We were bombarded almost daily by the media with horror stories about the scandalous activities of pedophile priests. We saw cardinals and bishops asking forgiveness for their sins of omission in failing to take corrective action against clergymen guilty of scandal. We heard priests on Sunday morning express their shame and embarrassment over the shocking stories of sinful priests.

Like everyone else, I was tired of it all and hoped every one of us in the church, from top to bottom, would get back to fundamentals and vigorously imitate Christ.

And now God in some mysterious way is permitting Fr. John Geoghan, after his brutal murder, to prod the consciences of all of us. John Geoghan was serving time for his unthinkable crimes and rightly so. But John Geoghan had his right to life taken from him under very questionable circumstances. And now the same members of the hierarchy who are pictured in their diocesan papers leading “Right to Life” marches have nothing to say about the outrageous murder of an imprisoned priest. Priests who have been outspoken and eloquent in their support of right to life now refuse to speak out in protest against the murder of a fellow priest. A layman who boasted on television that he was a good practicing Catholic could only say, “Geoghan got what he deserved.”

Fr. John, you were unjustly deprived of your life on earth. Your right to eternal life is in the merciful hands of God. May your soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.

Rockaway, N.Y.

* * *

Who killed Fr. John J. Geoghan, the Catholic priest and convicted child-abuser who was strangled to death in a Massachusetts prison last month?

Or maybe the better question is: What killed the infamous sex abuser of children early in his prison sentences for crimes against a child who trusted him?

Perhaps the answer to that question can be found in a single world: silence.

Although law enforcement officials blame a violent cellmate for the killing, you have to wonder if the pathetic clergyman wasn’t already dead when the life was squeezed out of his lungs while in another supposed “protective” environment. You have to wonder if his real killers weren’t actually the dozens of church officials who obviously knew he was psychologically ill and acting out his illness on innocent kids for many years.

What a tragedy. And the question none of us can answer is: During all those years when John was going about his own destruction (and the psychological destruction of his victims), where were the rest of us in the church?

The fact is, we were silent. We were speechless for the most part because it was expected of us by our own church leaders, who all too often thought of “the laity” as mere followers while telling themselves and each other: “Their role is to pay, pray and obey.”

If we continue to allow silence to be our only voice, we will continue to miss the opportunities to be the living, healing institution we were meant to be.

Baltimore, Md.

The mission of the church

The clergy sex abuse scandal has spawned a spate of books (for example, those by George Weigel, Peter Steinfels and David Gibson, among the more thoughtful authors) analyzing its causes and proposing remedies. Depending on where the author stands, the causes may be dissent from the magisterium’s teaching on sexuality or priestly celibacy or exclusion of women from the priesthood, and the remedies consist in strengthening or changing current church laws and structures.

While agreeing that changes in church laws and structures are called for, especially to achieve greater transparency and co-responsibility in church administration, I believe the fundamental need is to reflect once again and more deeply on the mission of the church.

In the current discussions of the American Catholic church’s crisis and reform, there is the danger of perpetuating solipsism and self-absorption, which, to my mind, was itself one of the contributing causes to the ongoing malaise in the church. It is arguable that the bishops mishandled the clergy sex scandal precisely because they were primarily concerned with the survival of the church as an institution and have lost sight of the mission of the church.

What is urgently needed now is to remind ourselves that the church does not and must not exist for itself and that its purpose is larger than its organization. This purpose is no other than the reign of God of which the church is but a servant. Indeed, the permanent and most pernicious temptation for the church is idolatry by which it makes itself -- its power, influence, numerical and geographical extension, sacramental performances and financial survival -- the goal rather than the means of God’s reign.

In our predicament it would be helpful to recall the teaching of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences that the church’s mission is to be in a humble dialogue with peoples, especially their poor and their marginalized, their cultures, and their religions. Perhaps this triple dialogue -- in which the church truly seeks to learn and listen and not just to teach and proclaim -- will help us American Catholics find ways to reach back to the center and heart of our lives.


Phan is Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.

NCR coverage

One of the things I love about NCR is the wide array of letters published. In the same issue, one of your readers suggests that you watch Fox News for the “truth” while another tells you that her husband reads NCR to keep up with the “rantings of the loony left.” It would be amusing, if it wasn’t somewhat frightening.

Keep up the good work.

Los Angeles

* * *

In response to Bruce Schulzetenberg’s comments in the Sept. 5 edition of NCR regarding the spirit of lust for power and control in the reporting of the sex scandals, the terror of war: He has spoken my discernment, as I wrestled for the words to articulate this same truth. He points out clearly the roots and source of the problem that causes me to ask: Has NCR become so caught up with the minds and ways of the world and an unhealthy zeal for the facts that you have lost a balanced perspective? Where is the reporting of the Kingdom now and all the marvelous little people who are living it and bringing it into being in the midst of all the outrage, scandal and horror?

Dinuba, Calif.

John McCloskey’s ministry

It was reassuring to read of Fr. C. John McCloskey‘s ministry to the Washington power brokers. His ability to define issues in terms of wiggle room offered a quick method for referencing where he was certain the Catholic church’s teachings landed on sensitive issues. In the past, these issues often seemed complicated and deserving of debate. That is not necessary under Fr. McCloskey’s system.

While it maybe somewhat unfair to reduce the entire article to this single point, I thought in might be helpful for your readers to have a quick reference chart:

Abortion -- no wiggle room

Death Penalty -- plenty of wiggle room.

Gay rights -- no wiggle room.

Politicians fooling around -- plenty of wiggle room, as long as you hit the confessional prior to Communion and there is no fooling around between the Act of Contrition and receiving Communion.

Married couples using contraceptives -- no wiggle room.

War, starvation, inadequate schools, tax cuts for the rich, slashing health care for the elderly, destroying the environment -- plenty of wiggle room.

The article indicates Fr. John is helping his private converts find salvation.

I would advise the good Father and his converts to pray for a merciful God when they find themselves “knocking on Heaven’s gates.”


NCR Catholics

In the Sept. 5 Letters section there was a letter asking for an article or essay asking “why NCR Catholics stay in the church when they viscerally disagree with what constitutes the fundamental nature of being human.”

I can only speak for this NCR Catholic, of course. I was 15 when I saw the first pictures after World War II of Holocaust victims. At about the same time I read a comment from the widow of one of the generals who attempted to assassinate Hitler, and was subsequently executed. Her comment was that her family, as members of the German aristocracy, could have stopped Hitler, but that they did not want to become involved “with that awful little man.” At the time I was a rather remote Protestant. By the time I was 21, I was a Catholic. I have been “involved” ever since.

Why? Because the basic teachings of Jesus and his church, aside from the purported errors of individuals, affirm the sacredness of human life, in all its muddled messiness. Jesus calls us to love God with our whole minds, hearts and souls. And also to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

This love is not a condemning love -- it is a life-affirming love. So what if someone does not agree with me. That does not make that individual any less than I am. It simply means the person does not agree with me. The disagreement does not mean that I, or the other person, have a secret agenda.

Let us use less energy judging others and spend more energy in good actions, using the two great commandments and the Beatitudes of Jesus as our guides.

Cambria, Calif.

* * *

Ed Reid writes (NCR, Sept 12) that “some of the liberals in Congress may, when they expire, discover that their God is a strict constructionist.”

May I suggest that Ed may be surprised as well to find that God is a liberal not unlike Jesus. (We liberals really believe this stuff.)

Margaret McCarthy (same issue) refers to the “rantings of the loony left” and suggests that we show “ignorance of the faith” and perhaps should become Episcopalians. She does not get it. We are hardly ignorant of the faith (as envisioned by the hierarchy); we just don’t agree with some aspects.

We want our church to be the loving, inclusive church inspired by Jesus, and
we don’t buy these “love it (blindly) or leave it” diatribes.

South Bend, Ind.

Papal infallibility

John R. Koller wrote that infallibility is “a fundamental core doctrine of the church” (NCR Letters, Sept. 12). It is, in fact, a non-essential tradition established by Vatican I in the mid-19th century.

Infallibility, as Rosemary Radford Ruether writes, is “a sin against the Holy Spirit.” Only God speaks infallibly.

Arlington Heights, Ill.

Religious pluralism

His Holiness Pope John Paul II has appealed to the religions of the world to denounce terrorism, since public opinion “could be tempted” to think that the acts of violence have a religious origin.

This is seen very clearly in all religions of India. In our country, many people blindly follow their so-called leader without understanding the good and the bad, the spiritual and the satanic version of the issue. If Leader “X” announces “war against a particular religion,” all people of that religion, without analyzing the issue, pounce to attack the other religion. This is also clearly seen in the church, when Catholics blindly criticize other religions and their devotions.

Today dialogue plays a vital role, and hence the first process of dialogue is to accept the other religion with all its practices. If all religions lead to the same God, then conversions are not the answer. If acceptance of other religions can build humanity, the church should first accept other religions and its practices and build up the church to open forums where people of all faith and religion can unite to fight against terrorism, whatever ugly form it may take.

Mumbai, India

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 2003