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Barbara's Column
August 2003 #1

Promise, problems of Catholic Church affect us all

by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Monday, August 4, 2003

Did you ever wake up and realize you are part of the problem?

As I read news accounts of the Attorney General's report, "The Sexual Abuse of Children in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston," I realized that I have made an effort over the past year not to write about or comment on the issue. My reason was this: I left the Catholic Church 42 years ago, therefore this issue is none of my business.

What was I thinking?

Sexual abuse of children is none of our business unless we are Catholic? It's "their" church, "they'll" have to deal with it?

Sexual abuse? Children? Crime in the Catholic Church, as opposed to crime in the streets?

As I realized my error, I realized how far outside the concept "separation of church and state" this issue took us. The church didn't have to report sexual crimes until the law was recently changed? Deliberate cover-up of crimes - statutory rape, child abuse - is not a crime if the church hierarchy does it? Child endangerment is allowed, if it's done by the church?

One doesn't have to be an expert on either the church or the state to know what "separation of church and state" means. Yet my childhood religious training, during 12 years of Catholic education in a Catholic family and Catholic town, was stronger than my civics.

I thought that Cardinal Bernard Law should resign, but I didn't join those who openly called for his resignation. It seemed, somehow, that the person the Pope chose to put in charge of the Archdiocese of Boston was none of my business; it is, after all, his church.

But that's not true. It belongs to God, and to all His people who belong to it.

Beyond that, it resides in our country and is subject, like all of us, to the laws of our land. No conflict here: The laws of God cover statutory rape and child abuse, too.

Separation of church and state means only this: There shall be no established church whose members receive more rights or privileges than those who do not want to worship there; and, of course, all can worship as they choose.

By the time I moved to the Boston area, the prejudice against Catholics, which had been institutionalized in and by the state here, was gone. The recent cardinals were very powerful players on the governmental stage.

This did not seem odd to me; Cardinal Cushing was a household name in St. Marys, Pa., too. I didn't worry that the church under Cardinal Medeiros was opposed to Proposition 2 and under Cardinal Law campaigned actively against a 1990 tax cut. I knew the difference between the church speaking on official church policy like abortion, which binds all Catholics, and on initiative petitions, in which the church leaders' opinions are binding on no one.

I understand the other side of the separation issue too: While specific religious institutions may not be given ascendancy, the state should not be banning God or the generic concept of religion from public arenas, including schools and courthouses. As Thomas Jefferson said, "Among the most inestimable of our blessings ... is that liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will."

I would think that God would like to see the Ten Commandments widely posted - and an environmental tribute to Gaia up there with them - to a more general guidance, worship and appreciation, not less.

These are the "separation" rules I remember. Catholics, including Catholic politicians, must obey the official church policies in their personal lives; the politicians, however, are not supposed to put these policies ahead of what they think is best for the country when they vote. They don't have to listen at all when the church has a mere opinion on the death penalty or tax and budget issues. These distinctions are about to become very important during the debate on gay marriage.

People like me, who disagree with some official church policy, are free to leave the church and become, by definition, Protestants or whatever we want. People who stay in the church do not get to pick and choose among it's official policies.

I don't see how it can hurt to have a dialogue between devout Catholic laypeople and church leaders in an attempt to make theological points about possible changes in official policy. If the pope doesn't buy the arguments, then the church remains the same as it has for centuries; and is it so bad to have some stability in a fast-changing world, even if our own definition of morality takes us elsewhere?

I am no longer a Catholic, but I treasure my heritage, remember the many wonderful priests and nuns who helped raise me and deplore the anti-Catholic prejudice that, taking advantage of the abuse crisis, some people are expressing. I wish the new archbishop, Sean Patrick O'Malley, well as he enters his new office - because some of the issues he has to address are and will remain the business of us all.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and the Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in other newspapers.

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