Thursday, July 26, 2007

Newsmakers III: Los Angeles

Careful readers will have picked up the influence of free market libertarian thinkers on my own way of framing political and other questions. I often compare libertarian thinking to doing physics problems in a friction-free environment: they are helpful models even if they don't always correspond perfectly to the real world. In any case, I am not a party person, and shouldn't be one, vowed as I am to a life apart from the world and its concerns. However, both in American politics and in monastic life we speak a great deal about freedom and community. From this angle, I can suggest that an advantage of free markets is that freedom in the sense of autonomy is greatly prized in our American system. Not only that, but freedom as the ability to choose the ethical course of action is also enhanced indirectly. Let me explain.

Let's say a person wants to open a restaurant. Surely he needs the government to inspect his kitchen and make sure that he doesn't poison his customers, right? Well, maybe; but he has his own incentive for that: if he wants to stay in business, he has to take his own intiative anyway to avoid killing his customers. They won't return otherwise, and he will quickly go broke.

Likewise, a banker needs to prove himself trustworthy so that people will allow him to use their money to invest. If he can't earn people's trust, he won't stay in business, either. So free markets encourage people to grow in the virtues of honesty, trustworthiness, concern for others, and so on.

I mention all of that merely as a backdrop to the latest sad news in the long trial of being Catholic amidst the endless stories of priestly misconduct and episcopal cover-up. No matter how much the media might distort their coverage or overlook similar episodes in other Christian churches or in public schools or whatever, a priest abusing a child hurts every priest and every layperson.

The devastating part of the $600 million + settlement in LA is that this money doesn't belong to the 'Archdiocese' in any sense but a strictly legal one. "The community of believers was of one heart and one mind. No one called anything his own." Theologically speaking, Church property belongs to every believer and is merely adminstered by bishops and major superiors. Would CEOs allow their stockhoders to part ways with millions of dollars in stock value because of lawsuits and not take responsibility for it? Would such a CEO expect to keep his job if he knowingly let men in management engage in behavior that jeopardized the corporation? Cardinal Mahoney did apologize to his flock, and this was the right thing to do. The next step, which is going to be much more difficult involves finding a way to act more responsibly in the future. Bishops are not CEOs, and so should not be fired, but in our American way of doing things, it is very difficult simply to say that and not reckon with the high standards of behavior expected from businessmen, especially ethically-minded ones who support the Church by their gifts. I do believe that many bishops attempted to act responsibly and unwittingly supported policies that were unwise (what happened to the policy-makers?); that sort of thing happens. I hope that part of the learning process in this goes beyond simply crafted better policies and reckons with the community aspect of the Church's suffering through this so that leaders in the Church and the faithful can learn something of what the other side is suffering in this trial.

The Church of course has a duty to forgive and help the sinner reform. But when these strategies have proven to jeopardize the hard-earned money freely given by believers to the Church's treasury, the average working person will naturally wonder why standards of conduct required at the average workplace in order to build trust were not carried out by priests. I haven't seen this angle of the story given much attention in the mainstream or Catholic media, but it is one that comes up frequently in conversations I have with working or retired persons. Another way to put this is to say that for the Church to regain the trust of those whose dollars support her mission in the world, we need more than priests who merely stay out of trouble with minors (which is where the visible efforts seem to be concentrated). Priests and bishops and religious will demonstrate their own trustworthiness and their respect of the virtues of common laborers best by remembering these virtues required and imitating or even modeling them.

Priests and bishops are not in the business of winning and keeping 'customers', which is why I brought up the other analogy of the corporation. In either case, however, in a world that holds transparency in high esteem, as well as foresight to anticipate the needs and objections of others in order to provide for them (which is what an entrepreneur does), a rift builds up between the laity and clergy when the clergy seems not to understand these strong points of street-level American culture.

A final sad note on all of this: I don't quibble with the strictly legal justice involved in awarding millions of dollars to victims, but we must all be conscious of the fact that not only does money not heal the wounds of abuse, but this is a case where throwing money at the problem could even make healing more difficult by obscuring the interior and spiritual nature of the harm. How many stories are there about lives that are ruined by someone winning the lottery? A million dollars dropping into the lap of someone whose lifestyle is not accustomed to this sort of cash almost always spells trouble. How is it that we Americans believe that we are helping people with these huge settlements? Let me reiterate that I am not in any way questioning the legal correctness of the settlements, only observing that ultimately this issue transcends the legal aspect of our lives together. Will there be the opportunity to explore the areas beyond the legal and financial in order to bring about healing for victims? Let us pray and hope that this is the case.

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This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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