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2020 Resolution for Church Leaders: Don’t Creep Out Normal People

A mechanically inclined friend of mine once commented that a church in his city looks like an enormous Harley Davidson that was disassembled and dropped in a heap of parts. I’ve seen the place from the outside, and my friend’s description is apt. It’s struck me that too much of the Catholic Church in recent memory has become like this parish — something normal men think is just plain weird.

We have serious issues, and not just of the architectural variety. To name a few, the faithful under Pope Francis have been subjected to confusion regarding the sanctity of marriage and the teaching on capital punishment, and they have seen the Church flirt with offenses against the First Commandment. Throughout all of this — with a few notable exceptions — our bishops have mostly remained silent (when they haven’t endorsed the transgressions outright). So, at the beginning of 2020, I’m going to lower the bar. If the vast majority of our princes of the Church refuse to stand up for her doctrinal, moral and liturgical teachings, and traditions, maybe they could just try to not skeeve us out too much.

How about if, before a Church leader writes, states, or plans anything, he first asks himself, “Will this make a typical layperson’s skin crawl? Will it fill him with a sensation of embarrassed discomfort? Will he cringe?” If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” Your Eminence, Your Excellency, then just pause for a moment. I know, it isn’t much, but maybe at the beginning of 2020, it’s a simple place we could all start from.

I can think of a few instances when heeding this counsel might have been well heeded. I’ll begin with an example of something relatively innocuous — the hip-hop dance routine that took place during the (decidedly not innocuous) Synod on Young People in 2018. During the synod, video emerged of the gathered septuagenarian prelates clapping along in the audience (some of them on the wrong beat) as a yellow-clad youngster performed a break-dance routine on the stage before them. The music was kind of a throwback, but of the unintentional variety. Some of the bishops look uncomfortable, but their expressions did not capture anything close to the discomfort felt by the laity who watched from home.

Somewhere in the run up to the synod, someone in a position of authority made a decision to hire the light-footed lad. Could no responsible person have thought, “Why don’t we just have a youth choir sing some Christian hymns?” I’m not asking for Renaissance polyphony, but surely something must exist on the long spectrum that lies between William Byrd and Vanilla Ice. “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” is one such choice, its refrain of “evermore and evermore” standing in contrast to the transient things of the world (like, say, retro early-nineties hip-hop artists). In fact, if this churchman had paused for a bit, he might have considered that young people are drawn to the Church because it offers something different from what they find in the modern world. Finally, he would have prevented the Vatican from being the butt of all those snarky Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” memes on Twitter.

The next case is a more difficult one, because it involves Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago. Asking His Eminence not to be creepy is like keeping General Patton out of Berlin, but someone has to try to hold him back. My specific example consists of a statement he made during a meeting of the USCCB in November 2018. During the meeting, the prelates were discussing measures to hold the bishops accountable for reporting cases of sex abuse. In the question-and-answer session following the meeting, Cupich drew a distinction between abuse cases involving children and those involving “consensual” sodomy between clergy and adult seminarians. Saith the cardinal, “I would strongly urge that they be separate. It’s a different discipline. Because in some of the cases with adults … involving clerics, it could be consensual sex [sic], anonymous, but also involve adult pornography[.] … There’s a whole different set of circumstances that need to come into play here.”

Again, if he’d checked with me, I would have urged the cardinal to ask himself a few questions before making such a statement. In addition to the aforementioned ones, he could have asked himself what a normal Church leader might say to a normal layperson — a mother of an altar boy, perhaps, who wants to feel comfortable sending her son off to a Chicago seminary. If His Eminence had reflected for a moment, he might have said something along the lines of “all sexual acts involving members of the clergy should be vigorously investigated, and any such acts between a person of authority and someone subject to that authority — child or adult — can never be considered consensual.” See, it’s easy. And if the cardinal is incapable of thinking this way, he could ask a normal person to write down what he would say and read it off a note card.

My final example comes from way back in 2015, long before pagan fertility goddesses were paid homage within the walls of the Vatican. I am here thinking of Cardinal Godfried Danneels’s elevation of, and inclusion at, the Vatican’s Family Synod in October of that year. Though it was over four years ago, I mention it because his presence there seemed to signify that some Church leaders had embraced a brazen, “Born This Way” type of creepiness that could only baffle any regular Catholic paying attention. Though I bring up the synod, I’m not even addressing Amoris Laetitia (the post-synodal exhortation) and the moral and doctrinal confusion that resulted from the document. I have in mind, rather, the things that just make a normal man think, “That ain’t right.”

The cardinal’s legacy in his home country of Belgium is such that would creep out any regular Catholic living within a fifty mile radius of him. In the late 1990s, after the Belgian Church foisted a perverse, pedophilia-friendly children’s catechism on the faithful of that country, he refused to address the concerns of parents who protested against its inclusion in Catholic schools there. Earlier in 2015, two Belgian politicians (including the former prime minister) stated that in 1990, Danneels had attempted to convince the country’s king to sign an abortion bill into law.

Finally, in 2010, the cardinal was recorded trying to persuade the nephew of the bishop of Bruges to keep mum about the thirteen years his prelate uncle molested him. The tapes were released to the press, and Danneels did not dispute their contents.

Once again, I’m not bringing up most of our Church leaders’ refusals to foment any meaningful opposition to the contents of the synod itself or the confusion created by its ensuing exhortation. But maybe a simple thing we should be able to expect from our shepherds is that they make some noise over a prelate who tried covering up sexual abuse by a Church leader on his family member, being given a place of prominence at a Church synod on the family. Because of, you know, the optics and all that.

By 2020, most faithful Catholics have probably learned not to expect too much from their hierarchy. But if Church leaders could dedicate themselves to simply pausing before they promote or tolerate the full-blown weird and creepy, more good things may naturally follow. A bishop who girds himself to put the brakes on a bizarre or out-of-place musical performance at a Church event might later find the strength to stand up for our liturgical traditions. A prelate who raises a flag over the elevation of a morally questionable confrere might find that he’s defending the Church from future attacks on her doctrine.

When looking for a saint to assist us during these strange times, I wasn’t sure whom to turn to. (I Googled “patron saint against creepiness” but struck out). One figure I do keep returning to isn’t yet canonized, but his framed portrait sits in my dining room nonetheless: Marcel Lefebvre, who was as comfortable fixing a car that broke down along a developing country’s dirt road as he was teaching catechism in the African bush. Marcel Lefebvre, who stood firm against all that is novel, modern, and, let’s face it, creepy, in the Church, pray for us!

Image: St Raymond and St Leo Catholic Church via YouTube.

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