Is It Time to Heckle the Driver?

We use so many metaphors for the Church: the Mystical Body of Christ, the People of God, the Ark of Salvation, the Bride of Christ. It’s all too easy for these vivid, poetic images to vanish from our minds, or ring bitterly hollow, when our confidence is shaken a bit by crises in our lives or in the Church. At times like that, one is tempted to see the Church instead as a rickety Greyhound whose driver keeps making mysterious detours that puzzle us — all the while assuring us that he is guided by an invisible GPS, for which we can find no conclusive evidence. Still, we have to trust him; what choice do we have? We’re not ready to get out and walk, and all the other cars on the road seem to be headed straight toward Newark or Vegas.

It was in just such a state that my old friend Franz found himself, so he turned to his favorite debating partner, the lovely but sharp-tongued Rayne. Here’s a fair transcript of their conversation:


Franz: Well, I see there’s another ugly report about sex abuse and cover-ups in the news. Sure, it’s the New York Times, so it’s like I was reading the Hamas Herald reporting about Israel. But this one doesn’t seem entirely fabricated: Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, writing to the Irish bishops, was critical of their plan to report all sex abuse charges to the police.

Rayne: Jimmy Akin did a good job unpacking that tendentious story in the National Catholic Register. The Irish bishops’ policy, for all its virtues, left no room for people who wanted to keep their stories confidential, and it didn’t do enough to protect innocent priests from false charges.

Franz: Yeah, but Cardinal Hoyos has a history of this — as they pointed out over at Catholic Culture. He went to the wall in defense of a French bishop who was jailed for covering up for “his” priest, and claimed he had Pope John Paul’s support. It just seems to fit the same old, ugly pattern — clergy sticking together, against the laity, using one sacred excuse after another. This whole crisis has given me a renewed appreciation for having a secular state; can you imagine how this kind of thing must have been covered up in a place like Franco’s Spain? Or tsarist Russia?

Rayne: In the Middle Ages, the Roman Inquisition took care of cases like this. You’ve got to hand that to them.

Franz: In cases like this, I’d hand them the torch and light it for them. All this leads me back to my first instinct on this issue: If a priest (or a secular schoolteacher) molests your kid, the way to report this to the bishop (or superintendent of schools) is to leave a neatly printed note pinned to the body, which you drape across his front doorstep. Have your lawyer make sure there are parents on the jury.

Rayne: Which is why it’s good you’re not in charge.

Franz: It’s extremely important. Should I ever come close to wielding power in any sense, I’m counting on you to have me involuntarily committed. For evidence, just use some of those columns I wrote during the 1990s. Speaking of leadership, the worst of this crisis — from the Father Maciel case to the cover-up — happened on Pope John Paul II’s watch. So the answer is . . . to beatify him as soon as possible, before more stories break? Between introducing altar girls — which really helps prepare young girls to aspire to the priesthood — and frustrating Cardinal Ratzinger’s attempts to clean up this “filth,” a Devil’s Advocate would have quite a dossier to work from.  A pity Pope John Paul abolished that job.

Rayne: So you’re saying you don’t think he’s in heaven?

Franz: If the pope says so, which is what beatification means, then I believe it. Aquinas thought that canonizations were infallible, and I’m not one to argue with him lightly. (Growing up, I deduced from my catechism that “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” meant that the pope had the power to pull someone out of purgatory or even hell, and put him in heaven, whatever he’d done. I was relieved to learn later on that infallibility doesn’t work that way.) Still, we don’t canonize everyone who makes it to heaven. Especially in the case of popes and other leaders, we do so because we’re holding them up as examples. And right now, that example is looking kind of tarnished to me.

Rayne: Feeling nostalgic for Communism, are you? For the Latin Mass being persecuted more ferociously than pedophilia?

Franz: Maybe you’re right. Bringing down one world empire based on tyrannical atheism is probably enough for any single pontificate. I still think a far better case can be made for canonizing Pope Pius XII, who was much more active saving Jews (despite fascist soldiers stationed a five-minute march from his apartment) than Pope John Paul was in protecting children.

Rayne: There are blots on almost every pontificate, even those of saints. Pope Pius IX seized an illicitly baptized Jewish boy from his parents to raise as a Catholic. John XXIII let progressive theologians come close to hijacking Vatican II. How perfect is your track record, pal?

Franz: I’d call it appalling, but that would be self-aggrandizing. Let’s settle for “seedy.”

Rayne: I’ll second that.

Franz: If they made a hagiographic film about me, it would have to star Steve Buscemi. Pope John Paul rated Jon Voight. If they ever make a film about Pope Paul VI . . .

Rayne: Stop! Don’t say it . . .

Franz: . . . they’d have to hire Steve Carell.

Rayne: It sounds to me like your supernatural faith is a little shaky, so you need earthly superheroes to keep your spirits up. Then when someone comes along and whips out the kryptonite, you turn into a little boy, telling God, “Say it ain’t so, Joe . . .”

Franz: I guess that’s what comes of leaning so hard, for all these years, on Pascal’s Bet.

Rayne: No kidding. Anyway, Pascal’s logic is flawed. “Betting” that God exists (because you have nothing to lose in case He doesn’t) only works if the demands faith makes on your life are really minimal. If that were as far as faith went, we’d have no martyrs, no missionaries, heck — not even any celibates.

Franz: Except for the people who really had no other option.

Rayne: I think the priesthood attracted quite a few people like that in the 1960s and 1970s — which helps explain the crisis, don’t you think?

Franz: So mediocrity is not enough. Who knew?

Rayne: Read about purgatory much? It doesn’t sound like fun.

Franz: The pope gave a talk about it recently. He was citing St. Catherine of Genoa, who described it as “an interior fire,” where we burn with a sense of unworthiness at the sight of God and His goodness.

Rayne: You show up at the Beatific Vision, and everyone’s perfectly groomed, dressed to the nines in good works and pure intentions — but you’ve got bed-head, your fingernails are dirty, and you’re wearing stained sweatpants and those “special ed” shoes I’ve been telling you to toss out. You’re so mortified, you feel like your face is on fire.

Franz: Or it’s like showing up at the ultimate job interview, then looking down and seeing you’ve peed your pants.

Rayne: If that’s the best destination you hope to reach, maybe you should go to the back of the bus and stop heckling the driver.


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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