The “New” Tone of U.S. Bishops Sounds Very Familiar

In a frank interview with the Wall Street Journal last year, Cardinal Timothy Dolan conceded that the post-Vatican II Church in America has “gotten gun-shy” on hot-button moral issues. The Church’s encyclical on artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae, “brought such a tsunami of dissent, departure, disapproval of the Church, that I think most of us—and I’m using the first-person plural intentionally, including myself—kind of subconsciously said, ‘Whoa. We’d better never talk about that, because it’s just too hot to handle.’”

The soft-pedaling started, he said, “when the whole world seemed to be caving in, and where Catholics in general got the impression that what the Second Vatican Council taught, first and foremost, is that we should be chums with the world, and that the best thing the church can do is become more and more like everybody else.”

Dolan also traced the softness to squandered moral authority over the sex abuse scandal, which “intensified our laryngitis over speaking about issues of chastity and sexual morality, because we almost thought, ‘I’ll blush if I do…. After what some priests and some bishops, albeit a tiny minority, have done, how will I have any credibility in speaking on that?’”

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Implicit in Dolan’s comments was that the bishops would henceforth speak more loudly and straightforwardly on the culture-war issues. But in fact the reverse is now happening: their soft stances appear to be getting softer. Perhaps emboldened by Benedict XVI’s disappearance from the scene and detecting a new “pastoral” wind blowing from Rome, the liberal bishops of yesteryear are popping up on talk shows to offer familiar evasions and obfuscations. Theodore McCarrick, the retired cardinal of Washington, D.C., felt free to go on Bloomberg Television recently and endorse gay civil unions.

Some gay activists and pundits are gushing over this “new” tone, as if the post-Vatican II Church hadn’t already tried it. Why should the bishops think a doctrinally vague irenicism will be any more successful now than it was in the 1970s? All it terminates in is a shrunken Church and a world confirmed in its errors. Just look at the empty nunneries, once full of self-consciously trendy sisters who now don’t even bother to recruit.

It is strange that Cardinal Dolan, given his accurate comments to the Wall Street Journal last year, would tell journalists this year that the Church has been too harsh in its presentation on gay issues. Last Sunday he appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos and told the biased host just what he wanted to hear: “We have to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people. I admit, we haven’t been too good at that.”

What exactly is he referring to? The Church, by his own admission last year, is “gun-shy” on such issues. Yet now he is accepting the propagandistic media narrative that the Church is “unwelcoming” to homosexuals owing to its adherence to orthodoxy? To reinforce this outrageous premise of Stephanopoulos’s question is odd enough. But to do so after near-silence from many bishops on homosexual issues is truly baffling. How did the Church go from “gun-shy” to excessively severe so quickly?

The assumption underlying Stephanopoulos’s question is that the Church can’t truly love sinners unless it loves their sins. This is one of the chief lies of our age. If the “new tone” means granting, or at least not challenging, this assumption, the Church in America is in real trouble. Catholics may have to gird themselves for a return to the days when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was issuing flaky, mixed-message documents like “Always Our Children,” which praised homosexuality as a “gift.”

Obviously, the Church has not been too severe but too soft, allowing many of her schools and colleges to become propaganda mills for the gay agenda. Priests rarely if ever preach on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, and plenty of chanceries still house dissenters on that issue. The former head of the archdiocese of San Francisco’s seminary, Fr. Gerald Coleman, has written in support of gay civil unions: “Some homosexual persons have shown that it is possible to enter into long-term, committed and loving relationships, named by certain segments of our society as domestic partnership. I see no moral reason why civil law could not in some fashion recognize these faithful and loving unions with clear and specified benefits.”

Former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, a self-described homosexual who remains in good standing in the Church, even wrote a memoir in which he mused on his affair with a male graduate student and extolled homosexual behavior, telling the media during the book’s press tour that the Church should endorse the “physical, genital expression of that love.”

Behind the word “pastoral” lies a lot of mischief and nuanced dissent. A “new” tone marked by a de-emphasis on orthodoxy is nothing more than an old case of what Cardinal Dolan rightly called episcopal “laryngitis.”

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