The Do-It-Yourself Catholic Rorschach Test

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Author: R. Scott Appleby '78

Rorschach Test — Psychology: A test for revealing the underlying personality structure of an individual by the use of a standard series of 10 ink-blot designs to which the subject responds by telling what image or emotion each design evokes.

— Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary

Prepare yourself, gentle Catholic, even as you attempt to recover from the most damaging and traumatic ordeal in the history of the U.S. church. The testing continues. Indeed, the “underlying personality structure” of our faith community remains a matter of contention, inside and outside the church, never more so than now.

The first ink blot to consider is a police blotter — the figure of John Geoghan, a former priest, standing in court before a judge who is sentencing him to nine years in prison for indecent assault against a 10-year-old boy. Geoghan has been credibly accused of sexually molesting more than 130 young boys over a period of 30 years. During that period, the archbishops of Boston and their auxiliary bishops re-assigned Father Geoghan to three different parishes without informing the parishioners, or the priests assigned to those parishes, of his background.

The image of the predator priest, alas, may be evoked by dozens of now familiar snapshots, such as the wire photo of Father Paul Shanley, whose public advocacy of “Man-Boy Love” was the source of complaints from Boston Catholics in 1979, shortly before Cardinal Humberto Medeiros assigned him to Saint Jean Parish in Newton, Massachusetts. There Shanley allegedly raped a young boy repeatedly from 1983 to 1990, when the boy was between the ages of 6 and 13. Sadly, such behavior apparently was typical of the priest’s “ministrations.” Law, meanwhile, promoted Father Shanley to pastor of the parish in 1984, wishing him a “zealous and fruitful ministry.”

The episcopal cover-up of such horrendous and numerous sexual crimes prompted claims that Shanley’s offenses went unchecked because he was in a position to blackmail his ecclesiastical superiors. (Indeed, documents released under court order by the Archdiocese of Boston in April indicated that in the 1970s Shanley had attempted to blackmail the then-archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Medeiros, into reversing his decision to end Shanley’s street ministry. Shanley had threatened to reveal to the media details about sexual misconduct at Saint John’s, the archdiocesan seminary, that would be “far more shocking than my poor offerings.”)

The national media reports of the monstrous behavior of Geoghan, Shanley, James Porter, Gilbert Gauthe, Ronald H. Paquin, Joseph E. Birmingham and dozens of other priests who serially abused children and teens, led to an avalanche of new accusations against other priests, and to diocese-by-diocese reviews of previous accusations. In 2002, as a result, more than 300 priests accused of sexual abuse were removed from active ministry. On November 12, as the U.S. bishops held their second meeting of the year, in Washington, D.C., Survivors First, a sexual abuse victims’ group, released a list of more than 573 priests accused of abusing minors since 1976.

Given these staggering numbers, it is important to underscore the fact that the sexually abusive priest is clearly an anomaly. Even if a significant number of the accused priests were to be found innocent, the number of actual cases of priestly sexual abuse would remain tragically and unacceptably high. But it is also true that more than 98 percent of the 50,000 priests active in ministry in the United States over the past 30 years never aroused even a suspicion of sexual misconduct on their part.

The second “ink blot,” not surprisingly, depicts Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston (since this was written, Cardinal Law has resigned as archbishop of the Boston archdiocese), who got rid of his Shanley problem by transferring the molester from Boston to the California Diocese of San Bernardino in 1990 — without, of course, mentioning the minor detail of his reputation to Shanley’s new superiors. In selecting one snapshot to summarize the centrality of Cardinal Law, who is Pope John Paul II’s right-hand man in North America, it is difficult to choose from among the many images of the cardinal that were on display during the year of disgrace. In one freeze-frame, taken in late March, Cardinal Law is selling $33 million in archdiocesan real estate, 60 percent of the archdiocese’s stocks and 98 percent of its bonds. From a strictly legal perspective, this move seemed prudent, in light of the $10 million already handed to Geoghan’s victims and the threat of additional settlements that could eventually cost the archdiocese more than $100 million in damages.

In another snapshot Law is being deposed in civil court and claims that he is unable to recall reading reports of credible charges of priestly abuse sent to him by his subordinates; his memory is particularly foggy regarding an early, unambiguous letter warning of Geoghan’s “history of homosexual involvement with young boys.” (The author of that letter, Bishop John M. D’Arcy, was subsequently promoted to the episcopal see of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.)

Or, we might retrieve the reports of Law’s visit to a parish on March 24, when he seemed to imply that he is somehow a victim, too, of this mess. “I personally have these past weeks experienced closeness to Jesus on the cross in a way I never have before in my life,” he told the befuddled parishioners.

If Cardinal Law is too familiar an icon of the compromised Catholic bishop under siege, let us consider the court artist’s rendition of Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Illinois. In 1995 a lawyer questioned Bishop Imesch about the wisdom of assigning a priest to parish ministry who had been convicted of molesting an altar boy in Michigan. “If you had children,” the lawyer asked during the deposition for a civil suit, “wouldn’t you be concerned that the priest they were saying Mass with had been convicted of sexually molesting children?” Replied the bishop: “I don’t have any children.”

Again, sadly, there are several images to choose from in this category of beleaguered bishop. Here, for example, is Cardinal Roger Mahoney, archbishop of Los Angeles, caught sending frantic “damage containment” e-mails to his staff. Who can blame him? Lawsuits filed by four sexually abused men charged the archbishop and the archdiocese with the crimes of “racketeering, negligence and fraud.” The plaintiffs claimed that the church under Mahoney amounted to a criminal enterprise that protected priests who preyed on young people.

Or, we can pry, as The New York Times did, into Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s personal correspondence with the man who apparently seduced him for financial gain. If that episode fails to evoke emotions of despair, try reviewing the story of the fall of two successive bishops of Palm Beach, Florida, both of whom resigned after their own sexual misconduct had been disclosed.

The third blot comes into focus in layers: at its core are the victims of priestly sexual abuse. Like Craig Martin, the survivor whose talk to the bishops in Dallas was by turns painful, moving, inspiring and depressing, these are honest, troubled, grieving people seeking a measure of peace for themselves and their families. Many of them continue to love the church and want to forgive it — and their victimizers. But they have too often been rebuffed or treated as the enemy.

Such treatment, while deplorable, becomes slightly understandable as the second and third layers of this image emerge from the shadows. At the more benevolent level are victim-survivors turned full-time advocates and adversaries, men such as David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests). While Clohessy and his colleagues seem to be on the side of the angels, their cultural role as unofficial prosecutors of the church leaves them compromised in any other role addressing the various dimensions of what might constitute “justice” in these cases, including protecting the privacy of victims and the due process of the accused priests.

Lingering still in the shadows of this layered ink blot are the victims’ lawyers. This is their pathetic hour. Their image is blurred because the media have not bothered to bring it into focus. That would require reporting that many such plaintiffs’ lawyers charge their clients fees ranging from 30 to 50 percent of the settlement. Thus it is in the lawyers’ interest to encourage litigation, exaggerate psychological and financial damages suffered by the victims, and soak the negative media coverage of the church for all it is worth — and it is worth a considerable amount — in the courtroom.

Avert your eyes from the fourth ink blot, which seems to be a seminarian. He appears in profile, drawn from all the dreadful things that were said of him and of the seminaries he and his peers inhabit, during the year of disgrace. The profile suggests an immature, confused young man who could do nothing else with his life and so entered the seminary to act out his sexually repressed or sexually aggressive identity. Obviously, the invisible caption reads, these young men cannot be trusted: consider the kind of priests these seminaries have produced.

The fifth ink stain resolves itself into a collage of angry laity hectoring the bishops during their June meeting in Dallas. Perhaps the most memorable image portrays the diminutive but irrepressible Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, editor of the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal, speaking forthrightly to 300-plus bishops. After decades of the bishops holding the laity at arm’s length, Steinfels laments, “a reservoir of trust among Catholics has run dry. This scandal has brought home to lay people how essentially powerless they are to affect its outcome — and virtually anything else to do with the church. When we ask, ‘What can I do?’ what lay person isn’t brought up short in realizing, 40 years after Vatican II with its promise of consultation and collaboration, that our only serious leverage is money? That in itself is a scandal.”

So much for the “people of God” concept of the church favored by the Second Vatican Council, not to mention the hope for “trickle-down” collegiality — joint responsibility for the church, shared among bishops and with priests, religious and laity.

Voice of the Faithful

Other ink blots project images of circles of dismayed but loyal laity forming Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), a grassroots reform movement that spread rapidly beyond Boston, forming chapters in 36 states and 19 countries by May 1. Four thousand members, including dozens of respected mainstream, moderate Catholic scholars and teachers, assemble in Boston in July. There and elsewhere Voice of the Faithful demands “transparency and accountability” from the bishops. This familiar mantra carries heavier freight than merely a call for “best practices” in church governance: VOTF is the laity’s headlong and headstrong response not to “poor accounting and note-keeping practices,” but rather to a rupture in Catholic “family ties” following upon a profound erosion of trust in episcopal leadership.

The leadership of VOTF is drawn not from the “usual suspects” (e.g., Call to Action activists and other experienced agitators for ecclesial reform) but from the mass of “ordinary” laity — lawyers, bankers, physicians, homemakers and the like. The first president is Dr. James E. Muller ’65, director of cardiology research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Muller, a member of Saint John the Evangelist parish in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is the co-founder of Physicians for Nuclear Disarmament, an international grassroots movement to end the Cold War. The group won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Muller and company quickly demonstrate that they are not notably experienced in church reform. The movement seeks, it says in its early, wonderfully naive days, to remain faithful to the teaching of the church, in close dialogue with the bishops — while urging fellow Catholics to withhold their usual contributions from regular diocesan funds and channel them instead through alternative, non-episcopal channels for distribution to Catholic social service and educational networks. The group is animated by a simple slogan, “Keep the Faith, Change the Church.” When Cardinal Law, acting through his surrogates, attempts to blackball the movement and kicks it out of church basements, gyms and auditoriums where the newly vocal faithful congregate, only the stubbornly naive laity are genuinely surprised.

Tilt the “angry laity” ink blot slightly, however, and several “images or emotions” come into view that manifest little or no resemblance to the transparency and accountability crowd. These laity are indeed outraged, but not because bishops have left them out in the cold. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People ratified in Dallas, they feel, left parish priests out in the cold. According to this view, the bishops’ so-called zero tolerance policy, which reached back into the distant past to claim even one-time, supposedly reformed offenders, made priests the scapegoat. Yet the vast majority of clergy, being not only innocent of sexual crimes but also heroically self-giving, are also the victims of the scandal. Dallas did nothing to reinforce due process for priests, these angry laity (and angry priests) complain, and the assembled bishops left the distinct impression that, from this point forward, the accused priest might properly be regarded as guilty until proven innocent. As one Holy Cross father put it to me, rather melodramatically, on a crisp, fall football Saturday in September: The only Americans without rights today are Catholic priests.

The sixth image is a familiar montage: Pope John Paul II presiding in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican with the curia lurking in the background. In one still, the pope is saying nothing. When he does speak, he proclaims vigorously that there is no place for sexual abusers in the priesthood. And yet his colleagues in the Vatican seem to have a different message. Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, for example, in response to questions about the pope’s Holy Thursday letter to priests, suggested that the scandal in the United States was largely a media creation.

The media, committed as they are to “balance” and “objectivity,” would hardly want to be excluded from our do-it-yourself Catholic Rorschach test. Accordingly, let us consider, as our seventh impression, a variety of spilled-ink images, beginning with New York Times columnist Bill Keller. On May 4, in the column, “Is the Pope Catholic?” he made it almost impossible for media-friendly Catholics to deny that an anti-Catholic agenda continues to animate the coverage of the church by the East Coast establishment. Comparing Pope John Paul II to the corrupt dictators of communist Poland, and the Vatican to “the Communist Party circa Leonid Brezhnev,” Keller, a self-proclaimed “collapsed Catholic,” admitted that the pope does not condone child abuse, but traced the crisis directly to what he called the Catholic church’s “austere, doctrinaire view of sexual ethics.”

Most reporters were not so transparently biased. And certainly it was the church, not the media, who created the crisis. But the intensity of the coverage, including the recycled stories appearing daily on the front pages of the Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, made the entire affair seem like the press’s own private steeplechase to the Pulitzer.

Perhaps you have seen enough for now, my long-suffering patient. Let us pause, then to ask: What emotion does each design or image evoke? What “underlying personality structure” is revealed in your answer?

The blame game

From January to June, as the sexual abuse scandal raged across the nation and ravaged the church, Catholics looking for a silver lining noted that the crisis had united erstwhile opponents in the Catholic Culture Wars. With the bishops serving as convenient whipping boys for liberals and conservatives alike, “Crossfire Catholicism” — “and on the right, the lay commentator (and former seminarian) George Weigel . . . and on the left, the lay commentator (and former seminarian) Garry Wills” — gave way, momentarily, to a Catholicism of the Broad and Deep Middle.

This moment was, alas, momentary.

Seizing the moment of relative calm before the next storm (which came, in November, with the Vatican’s response to the charter and the bishops’ reaction to the response), both Wills and Weigel produced, within a few weeks of one another in late summer, their respective interpretations of the crisis. They read the ink blots very differently.

The two analysts differ dramatically on the causes of the crisis and therefore on the appropriate reforms. For Wills and other Catholics of like mind, the scandal is a result of an authoritarian, power-obsessed papacy attempting, tragically, to roll back the reforms of Vatican II. The Council, according to this reading, restored the church to its biblical and apostolic origins as the People of God and promised to liberate Catholics from their preconciliar dependency on Vatican “structures of deceit.” Genuine reform cannot proceed under John Paul II’s program for church renewal, predicated as it is upon a reinvigoration of the all-male, celibate priesthood and a reduction of the laity to what Wills sees as an outmoded and hopelessly un-Christian state of subordination to the clergy.

Weigel, the pope’s biographer, labels such thinking a manifestation of a “culture of dissent” that is largely responsible for the current crisis. The priests who sinned sexually and the bishops who failed to prevent or contain the contamination of the priesthood suffered from “a lack of fidelity” to Christ and to the church. The remedy therefore lies in the eradication of all opposition to the implementation of John Paul II’s vision of a church that will be renewed by a morally robust clergy who understand themselves to be “living icons of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ.” Genuine reform, Weigel writes in The Courage to be Catholic, lies in fidelity to “the teaching of Vatican II as authoritatively interpreted by Pope John Paul II.” Contra Wills, it was the dissenters who hijacked the Council; the pope is its greatest exponent and defender. Weigel says relatively little about the laity, one way or another.

The “culture of dissent” plays a central role in several accounts of what went wrong in Catholicism during what Weigel calls “the silly season in U.S. Catholic catechetics and religious education” that went virtually unchallenged for more than 20 years after Vatican II. According to this view, the church opened its windows to the modern, Western world just as the latter was beginning a romance with “irrationality, self-indulgence, fashionable despair, and contempt for any traditional authority.”

Dissent within the U.S. church was encouraged by the “Truce of 1968,” when the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy, with Pope Paul VI’s backing, minimized the public dissent from Humanae Vitae led by 19 Washington, D.C., priests. Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle subsequently lifted the sanctions on the priests, including those whom he had suspended from active ministry. The offending priests were not required to repudiate their previous dissent or to make an explicit affirmation of the moral truths taught by Humanae Vitae.

The lesson for dissenters, Weigel notes, was that there would be no serious penalties for “fundamental breakdowns in ecclesiastical discipline.” Catholic bishops learned that the Vatican would not support them in maintaining discipline among priests and doctrinal integrity among theologians.

Both Wills and Weigel offer sober-minded prescriptions for reform. Seminary or novitiate faculty should proceed from the presumption that the teaching of the church is true and binding, not one alternative among many for the priest to embrace. Candidates for the seminary, before gaining admission, should demonstrate at least initial progress on the path toward Christian discipleship, as evidenced in prayer, service and a chaste life, among other signs of spiritual maturity. Bishops should be selected after broader consultation, including consultation of the laity.

And yet the two authors have more in common than either would care to admit. Both believe that “the true meaning of Vatican II” is the underlying and enduring issue, and both see John Paul II as the decisive figure in either upholding the Council (Weigel) or undermining it (Wills). And both authors get part of the story right while giving no quarter to the other part — which is advanced, after all, by “the culture of dissent” (Weigel) or by the “culture of deceit” (Wills).

It is unseemly, perhaps, for me to point fingers at the finger-pointers. In my address to the bishops at Dallas, I indulged in a bit of finger-pointing myself. The root of the crisis, I declared, is the lack of accountability on the part of the bishops, which allowed a severe moral failure on the part of some priests and bishops to put the legacy, reputation and good work of the church in peril. “The lack of accountability, in turn, was fostered by a closed clerical culture that infects the priesthood, isolating some priests and bishops from the faithful and from one another.”

The bitter fruit of clericalism is the assumption that by virtue of ordination alone a priest is spiritually and morally superior to the laity. The great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner warned that a devastating effect of sin is the sinner’s inability to recognize his behavior as sinful. Sin’s cloaking of its presence occurs whenever a bishop, archbishop or cardinal, assumes quietly that he is accountable to no one but God and (perhaps) the Holy Father — that only he, as successor to the apostles, knows what is best for the church. “This is an outrageous assumption,” I politely informed my captive audience, “and it is the deepest source of the anger currently being unleashed upon all of you, including, unfairly, those of you who have overcome the temptation to the sin of clericalism in your own ministries.”

Discerning possible futures

The bishops were not a captive audience for long. The so-called “hour of the laity” seemed to last about that length of time. In November, after a special commission of four American prelates and four Vatican officials proposed revisions to the charter that brought it into closer conformity with canon law, new diocesan tribunals of priests had displaced lay review boards as the primary arbiter of allegations and disciplinary policy. Bishop Wilton Gregory, the stalwart president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), reminded us (and perhaps himself) that diocesan and lay review boards had never had more than a consultative role to the bishop, who cannot, Gregory asserted, let his supreme moral and pastoral authority be compromised.

In his keynote address at the USCCB meeting in November, Gregory intentionally sounded a less conciliatory tone than he had in Dallas. An effective shepherd never strays too far from his flock, and the bishops as a body had gotten their gumption back. Even Cardinal Law emerged from his self-imposed media exile and commented, in his capacity as chairman of the conference’s committee on international affairs, on U.S. policy on Iraq. Not quite “the empire strikes back,” but the bishops were signaling that their collective voice on moral questions facing the nation and world would not be stilled by the recent unpleasantness over sexual abuse. Whether that voice would be heard, and be heard as credible, was an open question.

Nonetheless Gregory did the only thing he could have done: He recalled the bishops to their historic role as teachers and pastors. He offered his own reading of the Rorschach blots by warning against those who would “exploit the vulnerability of the bishops in this moment to advance their own agendas.” In a subsequent interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Gregory acknowledged that he was referring, among other things, to Catholics who were promoting abortion, “alternate family lifestyles” (e.g., same sex couples) and the ordination of women.

Other visions

The faithful reader — er, patient — will recall that the Rorschach test consists of 10 images, and we have consulted only seven. Three final visions of a possible U.S. Catholic future round out our experiment.

Our eighth image seems to depict a woman huddled over a word processor, her young children playing in the background. Two advanced degrees in ministry hang on the study wall. Upon closer inspection we determine that she is a pastoral associate in charge of administering and ministering to a Catholic parish without a resident priest. (Today there are more than 4,000 such parishes.) She and her husband, who also works for the church, earn a living wage, with suitable benefits and even a reassuring retirement plan. They interact pleasantly and productively with the priests serving in the area, and they are encouraged regularly by the local ordinary.

At her word processor, the lay minister, an apostle of the Broad and Deep Middle, is designing a cut-and-paste document. Alongside stirring defenses of the priesthood as the epicenter of Catholic ministry, she is pasting eloquent celebrations of the laity’s newfound theological sophistication, pastoral presences and renewed commitment to social justice. Alongside criticisms of the papacy’s “dishonest” and “repressive” sexual ethic, she pastes well-known warning by other Catholic commentators of the perils of a culture “saturated in sex” and given over to shallow self-expression and self-construction. In her own voice, she writes:

“To those who say ‘the church is not a democracy,’ we agree: The church is founded on the teaching of Jesus Christ, which is not up for a vote. But neither do we believe that doctrine or ethical teaching can bear fruit in the heart of a person whose conscience has not been fully formed by education, prayer and by honest and open interaction and exchange with the teacher. Nor do we pretend that laity should be treated as children, told simply to obey, the conversation is closed.”

The ninth “ink blot” turns out to be the impressive resume of Kathleen McChesney, formerly the highest ranking woman in the FBI, who now directs the U.S. bishops’ newly created national Office for Child and Youth Protection. She is one of several laity recently integrated into church administration in areas of their competence: legal, financial, procedural, personnel. Granted executive authority by a bishop who prefers to spend his time teaching, sanctifying and governing, as the ancient criteria have it, such lay executives help make genuine episcopal governance possible.

McChesney, and others acting on her model, are turning Cardinal Bellarmine’s famous dictum regarding the laity on its head. In the 21st century, unlike the 16th, the laity’s role is not merely to “pay, pray and obey.” I would submit an equally facile slogan: In the wake of the crisis of 2002, the laity must stay, pray and inveigh.

Stay. This is hardly the time for the laity to abandon the Catholic church, however disgusted people are with the betrayal of trust, the church’s most valuable asset. Our previous indifference and failure to take financial and moral responsibility for the life of the church must be transformed into consistent commitment to its vitality as a redemptive presence in U.S. society.

Pray. Such commitment begins with and is rooted in prayer. Mindful of our common membership in the Body of Christ, the people of God must draw upon the transformative power of prayer if we are to become gentle with and respectful of one another again.

Inveigh. Rhymes with pray but doesn’t seem compatible with gentle forbearance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines inveigh as “to carry oneself into {a debate}; to assail with words.” One might add: to demand attentiveness. Laity have rescued the church in the past, but their “overbearing presence” — in private devotion, public worship, works of service and mercy, and in “inveighing” — has never been more sorely needed.

Our final Rorschach image is an unexpected one: the agnostic Czech poet and politician Vaclav Havel, writing in Breaking the Peace:

“Either we have hope within us, or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . .

“Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it has a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is . . . the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere.’ It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

Will the church pull itself out of this mess, restore credibility and deepen its historic commitment to the poor, the marginalized, the abused and lonely and forgotten? Will the laity and clergy, bishops and religious join in a renewed effort to evangelize U.S. society? Will victims be heard and healed, sinful priests and laity forgiven, innocent ministers restored? Above all, will the church be a force for reconciliation and forgiveness in an increasingly divided world?

One hopes.


Scott Appleby is director of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.


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