National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
January 7, 2005

Letters The mystery of God

The Dec. 17 issue of NCR is truly a gem. A whole section devoted to spirituality! I especially relished the essay on Louis Massignon by Jerry Ryan. To speak of God as a “Stranger without a face” is so very insightful. It reminds us that God is more than a word, more than an idea or concept. The reality of God is a living, human experience of the incomprehensible mystery of Being.

Jonas Ridge, N.C.

He’s not laughing

Oliphant’s political cartoon of Condoleezza Rice in the Nov. 26 issue was disgusting. NCR would have gone apoplectic with condemnation if a conservative commentator would have done such a piece on a liberal. President Bush nominates a brilliant thinker with a host of personal and public accomplishments who happens to be a woman and black and NCR’s response is to choose a cartoon that portrays her as a buck-toothed parrot. I guess liberals have gotten over the need for multicultural inclusion. Funny, the president whose political party is characterized as racist by the left is replacing the first black male secretary of state with the first black female secretary of state. Liberals need to get a new playbook.

DeBary, Fla.

Keeping our nerve

Thanks to Sr. Joan Chittister for her comments at NCR’s 40th anniversary dinner in Washington, reported in your article headlined “Chittister to NCR -- ‘Stand up, speak out’ ” (NCR, Dec. 10). She speaks with the courage and conviction of a prophet for our times. She challenges NCR to take up the torch and become a beacon of enlightenment in the world. She challenges NCR to be “a transforming influence” in the next 40 years.

I think we would be well served to personalize her comments, accepting the challenges she presents as our own. The picture becomes clearer if we substitute “I” or “we” for “NCR.”

“[We] must grieve with those who sit in cesspools in Guatemala tonight, starving, while we sit in chaise lounges, in our clubs, and sweatshop children work 70 hours a week for 20 cents an hour to make the shoes we’re buying for $150 a pair.”

“[We] must [recognize] a great anti-American truth: that the United States of America is not God. That our ways are only different, not best; that we must respect other living things, all living things, and humbly be willing to learn from each other.”

“[We] must call the country to seek equity, demand equality, to practice a law that is just -- both here and at Guantanamo Bay. Only when we are seen to provide for others what we demand for ourselves will we really be safe, really be secure, really be a moral nation and a moral church.”

Jackson, Mich.

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Thanks for your article on Joan Chittister. Her “Don’t lose your nerve” speaks to all of us. I’m going to hang your cover picture on my wall to remind myself.

Berwyn, Ill.

Health benefits

In your Dec. 17 article on the pending resignation of Fr. Michael Place as CEO of the Catholic Health Association, you reported he has a compensation package (salary, benefits and expenses) of three quarters of a million dollars annually. Not bad. But am I the only one who got a peculiar reaction to this? I’m not good at describing emotions, but certainly “chagrin” was part of how I felt. Especially when I think of those nurses and nurses’ aides in so many nursing homes working for poverty wages and doing work that in some respects causes just as much tension and exasperation as a CEO job. I assume that those around the CEO share in the largesse of the benefits package. My problem is that it’s calculated not so much on the basis of actual work but because “that’s what the other guys are getting and if we want to attract competent folks that’s what we have to do.” Sounds like the National Hockey League, and you know what’s happening to them.

New Brighton, Minn.

Bishops and the laity

Joe Feuerherd’s two excellent articles on the November meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference (NCR, Nov. 26) demonstrate that the Vatican has the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops exactly where it wants it: irrelevant.

The bishops have elected as their spokesperson one who will continue to undermine the credibility of the conference, Bishop William S. Skylstad. This is a bishop who is suspect in the eyes of many of the laity for two reasons. He is accused of being negligent in supervising one of his previous associate pastors, who was later accused of abuse. Skylstad has also filed for bankruptcy for his diocese. This may preclude further revelations of abuse in his diocese.

The bishops were so cowed that the November conference issued no collective statements in their name. Two letters were released, however. One was from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick on the bishops’ commitment to human life; the article did not say whether McCarrick had any language on the need to protect the laity from bishops who allow priests to prey on children. The other was from Cardinal Francis George, the newly elected vice president of the bishops’ conference, who was responding to criticisms of the priest shortage. George wrote: “At the present time in this country the Eucharist is readily available. What is missing is practicing Catholics.”

John L. Allen Jr., writing in the same issue of NCR, says that Cardinal George is seen by Vatican officials “as a tremendously supple thinker.” I would agree. Anyone who puts the blame on the laity for the scandal of the growing shortage of priests “and the concomitant decline in the number of parishes and the increase in size of remaining parishes to unwieldy size” is certainly supple.

Fripp Island, S.C.

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The fact that the bishops think that they must spend a day in a “special assembly” behind closed doors at their meeting in June 2005 to discuss “pastoral” issues is yet another manifestation that they just don’t get it. I would think that they would wish to open the doors even wider. Pastoral issues involve the entire community of believers, and all who wish to do so should be able to give input to the bishops concerning their pastoral needs. All of us baptized in the name of the Trinity, including both hierarchy and laity, are members of that community, and all should be invited to join in the discussion.

Naperville, Ill.

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In my first reading about the bishops’ hope to have a private meeting, I was quite disappointed. However, after some further thought, I do think it is a fine idea, and I would like to make a few suggestions for such a meeting.

The bishops who gather need to: remove their blacks, their collars and any other signs of being clerical; wear some casual slacks or jeans and a comfortable shirt; sit at round tables with a little atmosphere (a candle or some symbol); and talk to each other as men and brothers ... all equal in the eyes of God.

I do believe that such a meeting would be helpful toward future meetings with other groups where the bishops might then be able to see the people they meet with as sisters and brothers and as equals in the eyes of God. At least it might be worth a try!

Wheaton, Ill.

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We laity are still not satisfied with the bishops’ response to the sex abuse scandal. Apology is not enough. Loss of respect and influence is not enough. Resignation, as in the case of Cardinal Law, is not enough. Bankruptcy is not enough. We constantly remain on guard for some bishop to make some excuse that will prove their insincerity. Maybe we are justified in all this, but I hope that we will not be judged the same way we judge the bishops.

Thirty years ago, who of us would have believed a child’s tale of being molested by a priest, especially if the priest had Christ-like qualities, as did Fr. Bruce Ritter? Fr. Ritter would have denied everything, forgiven the child and arranged for intensive psychotherapy to rid the child of his diseased imagination, and I would have applauded. But what if I did realize that the child was telling the truth? Then I would have looked at the great work Covenant House was doing and would recommend that Fr. Ritter be given therapy for a mental illness. Once his doctor said he was cured, there would be no problem with him returning to work with homeless youth. Of course, the child would need treatment too, but there was no reason to traumatize the child further by a police investigation and newspaper publicity. In the 21st century, I realize that this is all nonsense, but that really was how we thought.

A second issue less easy to mitigate is that it was the laity, not the bishops, who supported the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the “greed is good” philosophy of the 1980s. Can we be surprised that some priests violated their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience while we were questioning and even laughing at those values?

Maybe the victims have the right to be part of the jeering crowd, but the rest of us do not. Our role in the healing process is to confess our guilt and then help the bishops to carry the cross.

Heidelberg, Germany

Stay of execution

There is cause for rejoicing here! December 2004 was the first month in more than a decade that was execution-free in the United States.

The tireless efforts of countless citizens paid off with a 30-day reprieve from state-sponsored killing. The four people whose executions were scheduled for December were granted stays by the states of Texas, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina. These individuals represent strong arguments against capital punishment. One committed murder in the throes of a delusional mental breakdown. Another was convicted on the testimony of a woman who later admitted that she had lied. Another is a victim herself of a bungled investigation and incompetent legal representation.

During this season, as Christians throughout the country continue to celebrate God’s Incarnation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself a victim of capital punishment, we can do so with a lighter heart even as we continue to work for the day when there will be no more killing in our names and every human life will be protected as sacred. In a few months, the Dominican friar who represents the Order of Preachers at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva will give voice to tens of thousands of Dominican priests, religious and laity around the world who call for an end to capital punishment. He can point to December 2004 and tell the world that in the United States there are people who have the courage to imagine a world free of state-sponsored execution.

River Forest, Ill.

Judith Hilbing is North American Co-Promoter of Justice for the Dominican Family.

Post-election thoughts

Robert Royal’s contention that “a strong combination of prudent, principled and discriminating voters” (NCR, Nov. 19) elected Bush brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s dictum that humankind cannot bear too much reality. For what they really voted to do was to follow this airheaded warmonger’s deceitful fantasies and pretenses with his Amerika über alles hubris, instead of facing the world as it really is today.

Likewise, in that same issue, the usually insightful Joan Chittister misses the mark when she implies that the election was a choice between a right-wing zealot (which Bush certainly is) and a leftist extremist (which Kerry certainly is not). Rather, the polarizing factor was purely and simply the person and policies of George II. “Anybody but Bush ...”


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Robert Royal rightly identifies safety as the critical issue in the 2004 elections, but he neglects the more ominous dangers we now face. His superficial dismissal of points Garry Wills made in the Nov. 4 New York Times overlooks the freedoms associated with the Enlightenment, which are now in danger. The independence of science continues to be challenged by the Bush administration -- for example, in its treatment of global warming. The freedom of individual conscience is threatened in this administration’s attack on dissent, that canary in the cage that warns us when freedom is threatened. And finally the freedom from an established religion is seriously undercut when this administration pushes faith-based programs of a certain conservative hue. Catholics should be especially sensitive to the erosion of Enlightenment values. For centuries, the church fought a running battle with the forces of the Enlightenment, taking irrational positions against basic freedoms we now take for granted. It was only with the Second Vatican Council that the church demonstrated a true appreciation for the value of such freedoms.

With the ascendancy of such a closed and potentially violent belief system, the future of an open and tolerant religion -- something Catholicism still struggles to achieve -- may lie in becoming more of a bystander. Of course that’s not all bad. Someone needs to say forcefully and prophetically that it is wrong to grasp for power in the name of Jesus.

San Francisco

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Thanks for more food for thought regarding the recent election, and I do agree that the Democrats must be more inclusive of their pro-life colleagues. I hope Francis X. Maier’s family (NCR, Nov. 26), in their anti-Democrat opinion, recognizes that the new Democratic minority whip is Harry Reid, who is pro-life. I suppose the Democrats need to broadcast loud and clear who among their members are antiabortion, since to the Maiers that seems to be the only pro-life issue.

Does this family also support our enormous military superiority (stealing from social needs that would give life to poor children and families)? Did they not think that our president did wrong in invading Iraq, causing death or disability to some 100,000 Iraqi children of God? Do they support Bush’s push for missile defense and production of new nuclear weapons? Is this a pro-life president?

These Bush endeavors make any followers of Jesus and his Sermon on the Mount cringe with horror. Pro-life really means from birth throughout life, not just support for birth, and then bye-bye, baby, hope you have a good life.

Carbondale, Ill.

Prophetic ‘whining’

In response to Fr. David Rieder’s letter (NCR, Dec. 10), I would like to point out that one man’s “whining” is another woman’s prophetic voice. If Isaiah, Sirach and Jeremiah were alive today, would they be considered “whiners” as well? When the poor and marginalized are continually ignored, and scripture is used to justify an immoral war and the obscene acquisition of power and wealth, you can bet that the people on the losing side will not accept defeat gracefully. To do so would betray the message of Jesus Christ “that whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me.” And that is why, Fr. Rieder, I am glad that prophets like Sr. Joan Chittister are actively challenging the church to live up to the Gospel.

Glenshaw, Pa.

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, January 7, 2005