Archive for April, 2010


Do I become your enemy because I tell you the truth?
St. Paul to the Corinthians

I have been thinking about apologies. And just now I remembered a cold winter morning in Amarillo, Texas, snug in our little garage apartment, when Brenda, my wife of only a few months, said in that matter of fact way of hers that I have come to value over the years, “Why is it that if we argue I always say I am sorry and you never do?” I can’t remember having much of a response at the time. I probably should have just come out with the truth and said, “Because you are a better person than I am.” However, while I didn’t really have a reply at the time, I did begin trying, from that moment on, to say I was sorry when I became irritable or lost my patience. And since that day I have always meant it when I told her I was sorry, not because I necessarily thought I was entirely wrong about something but because I have always loved her and have regretted anything, spoken or unspoken, that might indicate other wise. But as I say, I don’t know much about apologies. I don’t remember apologies being offered very often in my family as I was growing up. Jeff, our son-in-law, makes the grandkids apologize when they, as is inevitable with brother and sister, exchange unpleasantries. But apologies were seldom made in the family in which I grew up. If someone got angry it was understood they would soon be over it, and that just because they were angry didn’t mean they didn’t love you. Apologies were thought to be for those times when one was deliberately and particularly hurtful, and it was believed that they ought to express a heartfelt regret – otherwise they were both pointless and meaningless. So maybe my lack of understanding about apologies has to do with the way I grew up.

However, the main reason I have been thinking about apologies lately has to do with the one made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to the Catholic Church in Ireland. Archbishop Williams got quite a noisy and angry reaction when in a BBC interview he said of the sexual abuse scandal and the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland: “An institution so deeply bound into the life of a society suddenly becoming, suddenly losing its credibility – that’s not just a problem for the church, it’s a problem for everybody in Ireland.” Williams said that an Irish friend had recently told him, “It’s quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down a street wearing a clerical collar.”

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, head of the largest Catholic diocese in Ireland and second to Cardinal Brady probably the most powerful Catholic voice in that country, criticized Archbishop Rowan Williams’ remarks saying:

Those working for renewal in the Catholic Church in Ireland did not need this comment on the Easter weekend and do not deserve it. The unequivocal and unqualified comment in a radio interview of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, that the Catholic Church in Ireland has lost all credibility, has stunned me. I have to say that in all my years as archbishop of Dublin, in difficult times I have rarely felt personally so discouraged as when I woke to hear Archbishop Williams’ comment.

Archbishop Martin’s words would be ludicrous if not for the gravity of the real issue – the grotesque sexual abuse of children.

If the Archbishop of Canterbury’s frank, obvious, and truthful comments are more discouraging to Archbishop Diarmuid than the stories he heard of the sexual abuse of children, in his pastoral care, by priests under his authority, then – I don’t know. I just don’t know. The Catholic Church has done everything it can to deflect the awful truth. In his sermon, at Easter Mass, in St. Peter’s Square, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals, referred to the scandal of sexual molestation as “petty gossip of the moment.” The Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher for the Papal Household, compared criticism directed at the Catholic Church over the issue of systemic paedophilia to anti-Semitic attacks on Jews. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, opposed the defrocking of a California priest who was a repeat sex offender. Ratzinger asserted he was concerned about “the good of the universal church.” This 1985 letter bearing his signature puts the lie to the claim that the Pope played no role in blocking the removal of paedophile priest. What we now know is that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, including the Pope, has resisted doing the right thing in favour of maintaining an illusion of sanctity for over fifty years. And that is not only devastating for Irish Catholics and for the Irish people, whose religion is such an integral part of their society and culture as a whole, but it is a blow to the faith and work of the world wide Christian community of which the Catholic Church, contrary to its delusional arrogance, is only a part.

What I am suggesting is that Archbishop Rowan Williams was entirely correct and acting appropriately as a world Christian leader in his remarks regarding paedophilia and the Catholic Church — a horror that is systemic in nature rather than a problem confined to individual clergy. The Medieval character of the Catholic Church is in most respects no one’s business other than the Roman Catholic Church. If it wants to kill itself with the archaic demand of priestly celibacy that is its concern. But if it brings disrepute on all Christians and destroys the faith of those struggling to hold on to their belief in a gracious God by its ongoing and systemic practice of evil, then it is open to a response from the truly universal church. If its bishops want to take a stand on a political issue, like birth control, as a moral question they should be entitled to do so. But if they threaten a congressional representative or senator with excommunication if he or she does not follow the dictates of the Catholic Church when considering particular pieces of legislation, then it becomes the business of every citizen. The Roman Catholic Church has been called on its ancient hubris and does not like it one little bit.

I find Rowan Williams apology disturbing. He has the power to speak truth to power. It is a power that needs to be used humbly and judiciously, but there are times it does need to be used. Archbishops Williams’ remarks may have hurt the prickly sensitivities of Catholic bishops and cardinals but it did them no harm. Indeed, his words constituted an act of grace in that they held up a mirror in which the Catholic Church had, and still has, the opportunity to see itself clearly, however painful that may be, and to make what may be difficult, but significant, decisions and changes – beginning, not with a political and face saving apology, but with a sincere, deep, and Christian repentance. By apologizing what the Archbishop of Canterbury has done is to allow the Roman Catholic bishops and cardinals and the pope to wriggle away – to look away so that the Catholic Church does not have to face itself.

I also find the Archbishop’s apology somewhat disconcerting in that, unlike his initial statement, it tastes more like politics than truth. If people, at least in America, put up a howl over something someone says, then it is impolitic and there is immediate pressure for an apology – that’s the politically correct thing to do. For example, there is the drunken lout who yelled out at President Obama during his State of the Union Speech: “You lie!” The next day the Republican leadership insisted he apologize – which he did. But then he went on to raise money from all the whackos who thought him a hero for being rude and obnoxious. His apology was self-serving, insincere, and dishonest. He would have shown more integrity either by sticking to what he yelled at the president, or renounced his rudeness and its negative impact on civic life. I would have appreciated it more if Archbishop Rowan Williams had calmly and cleanly stood by his remarks in the BBC interview, or repudiated them, rather than weakly “regretting any hurt he had caused.” I think that at this juncture in the history of the Anglican Communion, and global and ecumenical Christianity, what we need is more forthrightness and less politics.

In his Letter to the Galatians St. Paul tells of an ecclesiastical incident that may be especially pertinent here. He writes, “God isn’t impressed with mere appearances and neither am I. . . When Peter came to Antioch, I had a face-to-face confrontation with him because he was clearly out of line” Canterbury is the equal of Rome, and when Rome is wrong she needs to be withstood to her face for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the world, for the sake of Christ in the world.

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