It all seems oddly familiar: a statement from the Vatican, a source who insists that the words of the statement should be published far and wide, and then a sudden retraction. Cast your mind back ten months and you will recall this exact chain of events, but the famous name involved was Mel Gibson’s, not Senator John Kerry.
In that instance, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the National Catholic Reporter all reported the same thing. They had been told the Holy Father had seen Gibson’s Passion and had said, "It is as it was." While Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service (CNS) became the first journalist to report otherwise, the New York Times quickly weighed in, confirming that the words had been said. But Wooden reported the very next day with a quote from the same archbishop interviewed by the NYT, that the words had NOT been said.
The incredible mix-up lasted for weeks, ending only with a Vatican official lamely making statements that implied his e-mails had been spoofed, the words fabricated. When questioned on how this was possible, the door closed. No more statements issued forth.
Now, we are faced with a similar controversy, but this time the stakes are much higher. Marc Balistrieri, the canon lawyer who started the heresy lawsuit against John Kerry, asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith two questions. Father Augustine DiNoia, formerly the head theological advisor for the USCCB and a frequent lecturer at Franciscan University’s summer conferences, directed a Washington D.C. theologian to answer the questions. While neither the questions nor the answers mentioned Senator John Kerry by name, the answers clearly indicated that people who held Senator John Kerry’s position on abortion were material heretics subject to automatic excommunication. Worse, if such people had been formally instructed by their bishops without recanting, they were formal heretics.
When Balistrieri asked for permission to make the answers public, he was granted this permission by both the CDF and the theologian in question. He subsequently made the document public on EWTN and dozens of news outlets picked the story up from there. Remarkably, it was again Cindy Wooden of CNS who was the first to trumpet bad news: Fr. DiNoia suddenly claimed he had never been in contact with Balistrieri.
This was rather a remarkable turn-around, given that the answers – the contents of which the CDF has never questioned – explicitly says Fr. DiNoia was the man who asked that Balistrieri’s questions be answered. Given the alacrity with which Balistrieri’s questions were answered, a speed virtually unknown to Rome, and given the explicit reference to the good priest in the answer itself, Fr. DiNoia's position seems even less believable then the "e-mail fabrication" position taken with Noonan ten months ago.
What’s going on?
The answer might be found in the personalities involved. Fr. DiNoia is a very orthodox priest with very orthodox opinions, but he was also the head theological advisor for the USCCB from July 1993 to February 2001 . That means he lived in Washington DC for nearly a decade and was intimately acquainted with all the bishops in the New York to DC corridor, including the head of the Boston archdiocese. It is, perhaps, an indication of his attachment to that region to recall that the man he commissioned to answer the questions was not a Roman theologian, but a citizen of Washington DC – that is, he was undoubtedly a friend whom Fr. DiNoia could count on to provide a profoundly orthodox answer.
The friend provided precisely the answer Fr. DiNoia expected. Unfortunately, Fr. DiNoia has lived in Rome since 2001. Rome is not exactly up-to-date on the latest news. He was unaccountably unaware of the Kerry heresy lawsuit. The theologian he commissioned may or may not have been unaware of the lawsuit – if he was, he must have assumed Fr. DiNoia was informed. In any case, when the answer became public (after Balistrieri cleared publication with both the CDF and the theologian), it is unquestionable that stuff hit the fan and Boston’s archbishop hit the phone.
Fr. DiNoia’s answer could be seen as meddling with the internal affairs of the archdiocese of Boston. That’s the kind of thing that can get a priest in extremely hot water, even if he is a high muckety-muck in the CDF. If the archbishop chose to paint the CDF response that way, he would certainly have generated the kind of response we’ve seen from Fr. DiNoia – backpedaling that would do a circus clown proud.
Not to harp on a subject, but this gets tiresome after awhile. As has been noted before, Fr. DiNoia is a tremendously orthodox priest. Unfortunately, he is caught in a battle of bishops, and this is the kind of thing that will grind nearly any priest to shreds.
Now that the CDF is officially backing off the correct position, it may be worthwhile to recall the last time bishops got involved in US politics when an intrinsically evil agenda was being promoted. We have only to read the testimony of Joseph Califano Jr., LBJ’s representative to the USCCB. When LBJ wanted to promote birth control in 1965, the USCCB agreed to allow him to do it, as long as he used a different phrase. Birth control is intrinsically evil, after all. They agreed on the phrase, "the population problem."
Now, that phrase is essentially heresy. After all, what is a population problem but too many people? And what are people but images of God? So what were the bishops saying, "It is permissible to talk about the problem of having too many images of God in the world. It is permissible to work on reducing that problem." Very nice sentiment. Not exactly Mother Theresa’s sentiment, is it? "Children are like flowers. How can you say we have too many flowers?"
Thus, as a result of this agreement, we were treated to the June 22, 1965 spectacle of Boston’s Cardinal John Cushing, "I could not in conscience approve the legislation [supporting legalization of contraception, but] I will make no effort to impose my opinion upon others… I do not see where I have an obligation to impose my religious beliefs on people who just do not accept the same faith as I do." This statement is rank material heresy. No one uttered a peep. Now we know why.
But, of course, it is all of a piece. This was the same set of bishops who allowed their liturgy directors to get rid of statues and images of saints. The proliferation of sacred images is confusing to the people, just as the proliferation of images of God is problematic to US foreign policy. They allowed the tabernacle to be moved away from the center of worship, they introduced the experiment of a children’s liturgy. Dumbing down the Faith is easier when the shepherds who guard the Faith have already been dumbed down by the culture they live in.
As Califano says, "Those were the days when you could sit down with the bishops; they were sensitive to the separation of church and state in the wake of the cliffhanger election of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. The bishops and the laity accepted the assertion of the Jesuit theologian Gustave Weigel, in his widely reported 1960 lecture at Catholic University, that 'the Roman Catholic Church would not attempt to interfere in the political activities of a Catholic president, nor would a Catholic president be bound by Catholic morality in deciding public issues.' "
Now, Gustave Weigel was himself proclaiming a heretical position, but the USCCB sat still for it because the USCCB was… what? The charitable explanation is that the bishops of the USCCB were not well-formed in the Faith. That is the best one can say.
And what is the best one can say about this situation? Well, we now have part of the answer from Boston. This suit is viewed in certain circles as an action that has to be quashed in any way possible. Lay people cannot be permitted to make bishops look bad (as if they needed the help). If Balistrieri is not stopped, this kind of thing will proliferate beyond all bounds. As I've noted here before, there are certain circles who are deathly afraid of this.
Rome is not monolithic. Pressure is being brought to bear at the highest levels. Kerry and the bishops that are not opposed to him barely escaped checkmate this time, but the mills of God are grinding. Let’s see how much longer he and his companions can escape the wheels.