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Journalism train wreck: Tony Esolen pours acid on news story about abortion and politics…

Journalism train wreck: Tony Esolen pours acid on news story about abortion and politics…
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In the summer of 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote a confidential letter addressing one of the most controversial doctrinal issues involving Catholic faith and public life.

We are talking, of course, about whether it is wise for Catholic clergy to deny Holy Communion to Catholic politicians who consistently and openly reject centuries of church teachings on abortion, marriage and other hot-button doctrinal issues.

On one side of this fight are Catholics who say priests should take this stance in an attempt to encourage politicians to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. The goal is to save souls.

On the other side are Catholic progressives (for the most part) who say priests almost always use this tactic to punish Democrats who clash with the church on abortion, while declining to punish Republicans (for the most part) who clash with the church on issues such as the death penalty, immigration, etc., etc.

This is the tip of a giant iceberg, of course, and the cardinal who would then become Pope Benedict XVI has made other statements on this issue. It didn’t help that, at a key moment, then Cardinal Theodore McCarrick blurred (that’s putting things mildly) some of the details of Ratzinger’s 2004 letter.

Why bring this up? All of this is crucial background material for a spectacular online clash between a famous Catholic scholar and editors at The Providence Journal about a truly bizarre story (“Priest: No Communion for R.I. lawmakers who supported abortion law”).

Where to begin? First, let’s flash back to a 2007 National Catholic Reporter story about that Ratzinger letter — “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion.”

“There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia,” Ratzinger wrote. 

“Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia,” Ratzinger wrote, “when a person´s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.”

“When these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it,” Ratzinger continued, citing a ruling of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts regarding communion for Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried with an annulment.

This brings us to the Providence Journal report, which opened with this truly ugly lede:

The Rev. Richard Bucci, pastor of the West Warwick church where a lawmaker’s sister has said she was sexually molested repeatedly as a child by a now-dead priest, marked the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision by issuing a flier listing the names of every Rhode Island legislator who voted last year to enshrine the right to an abortion in state law.

Father Bucci’s flier was handed out to his parishioners at Sacred Heart Church last Sunday. The lawmakers’ names appeared below this message:

“In accord with the teaching of the Catholic Church for 2000 years, the following members of the legislature may NOT receive Holy Communion, as are all the officers of the state of Rhode Island, as well as Rhode Island’s members of Congress. In addition, they will not be allowed to act as witnesses to marriage, godparents, or lectors at weddings, funerals or any other church function.”

Wait a minute. Are readers supposed to think that Father Bucci was pastor of this parish when this sexual abuse took place or that he somehow approved of hiding the abuse? What is the connection between the history of this parish and its current priest’s actions on abortion and Holy Communion?

A few paragraphs later there is this angry explosion by an offended Catholic politico, once again connecting these two issues. Also, note the flashback to this politician’s actions during a funeral Mass led by Father Bucci.

This is long, but essential:

But Rep. Carol McEntee angrily denounced the action by a current priest at “the parish where my sister, Dr. Ann Hagan Webb, endured years of sexual abuse as a child … where I was asked to leave a family member’s funeral by Father Bucci in a most disturbing way in December 2019 (in the middle of the funeral Mass),” she said. (His version: he told her she could not deliver a eulogy — which she said she did not intend — because it was not allowed.)

“This is nothing more than another vicious outburst by Father Bucci,” said McEntee, who received the flier at her home in South Kingstown. “He is unfit to be a priest, and I call on him to resign immediately. … I also call on Bishop [Thomas] Tobin to withdraw and disown this notice and issue a full apology to all individuals who are listed in this notice.

“Both Father Bucci and Bishop Tobin need to be reminded that the U.S. Constitution requires the separation of church and state. We as legislators have an obligation to the people of Rhode Island to vote for legislation that reflects the opinion of the majority of Rhode Islanders, and not allow our religious beliefs to get in the way of our civic obligation as elected officials.”

She continued, “He uses last year’s vote to codify Roe v. Wade as the excuse to send this notice. I believe that the underlying problem for Father Bucci and the Catholic Church is last year’s passage of the legislation spearheaded by me and my sister to extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. They refuse to own up to the crisis that they have created and the lives they have destroyed.”

Of course, the First Amendment would protect the controversial actions of politicians, as in their actions in the public square.

The First Amendment would also protect the actions of Catholic leaders to take the actions they believe are necessary to defend the doctrines and sacraments of their faith. We are talking about their actions inside the voluntary association that is a Catholic parish. To the church, the key issues here involve doctrine, sacraments, sins and souls.

The bottom line: Catholic politicians are free to reject the doctrines of the Catholic church. Catholic bishops and priests are free to defend those doctrines at the altars of their churches.

Meanwhile, that explosion by McEntee was followed by this rather remarkable Journal editorial insert offering balance, of some kind.

(In his own defense, Father Bucci told The Journal that he anonymously sent the state police photographs of teenagers in lewd poses that he found in the room of the onetime pastor, with whom he once served at St. Mary’s Church, in Bristol, after telling a top official at the diocese “three times” and seeing nothing done about it. The accused priest, William C. O’Connell, was ultimately sentenced to serve 10 years in a New Jersey sex-offender treatment center for admitted sexual misconduct involving young boys.)

Moving on.

At this point, I really don’t know what else to say about this strange Journal article. Besides, it has already been attacked by Tony Esolen, a conservative Catholic scholar best known for his translation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” as well as “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization.”

Writing on Facebook, Esolen opened by noting that Father Bucci was his family’s priest for two decades.

After that, the professor gets very, very mad. This will be hard for journalists to read. However, some of this acid hits home. Here is the entire Esolen post, to show context:

This, ladies and gentlemen of the press, is why conservatives and faithful Catholics place you somewhere between maggot and snake. What in the name of God does something that allegedly happened to this woman’s sister thirty or forty years ago have to do with THIS priest, and THIS funeral Mass? Why, you journalists, you worms, would you lead a story about two things — a legislator who attempted to travesty a funeral Mass, and the business of Catholic legislators who vote for abortion — with utterly prejudicial and irrelevant business, unless you want to smear, to vilify? 

Where in this article does the author actually ask what, specifically, happened at the Mass? The woman in question was told beforehand, as everyone at Sacred Heart is told, that eulogies are not permitted at a funeral Mass. She was slated to do one of the readings. Instead of doing that — this would be right in the middle of Mass, the reading of the Old Testament text or the epistle — she introduced herself, and began to deliver a eulogy. AT THE EPISTLE. Got that? AT THE EPISTLE. I am sixty years old and I have been going to Mass all my life. I have never, in all those years, seen somebody introduce himself at the epistle, and begin to chat. You know what that would be like, you filthy calumniators? It would be like interrupting the rabbi at a Seder supper by introducing yourself and proceeding to make your own comments on the night. It would be like interrupting a Quaker meeting, when everyone is sitting in silence to hear the call of the Spirit, to introduce yourself and pass out political flyers. I am trying to imagine this woman attempting something comparable in a mosque. Honestly, I do not understand this sort of behavior. You would never have tried to pull a stunt like that in the old days, because a couple of ushers with iron grips, and some altar boys old enough to shave, would quietly and firmly escort you off the premises.

The most disgusting thing about the calumny, you slime, you journalists who are too damned lazy to Find Things Out, is not only that Father Bucci a long time ago took personal action against one of the abusive priests — as you note only because HE MADE YOU ADMIT IT, “in his own defense” — as if HE needed to defend himself against anything! He was sent to diocesan Siberia for it, by a bishop who was just the kind of liberal fellow that you dearly loved and never said a critical thing about. 

Meanwhile, you idiots, Father Bucci does not make the rules. If you are a Catholic, you are not permitted to promote abortion. That’s it, that’s all. If you are not persuaded of the Church’s teaching, you may yet remain a loyal son by refraining to act against it. If you do act against it, you should be honest, and you should leave the Church. A Quaker who takes up arms is no longer a Quaker. In any case, a funeral Mass is no place to make a political spectacle of yourself. The legislator here evidently has hated Father Bucci for a long time; she was trying to pay him back. Shame on her for abusing the funeral of her own uncle, a faithful Catholic man, and attempting to turn it into a stage.

Journalists, is it really too much to ask you to DO YOUR HOMEWORK?

What’s the point here?

It would have been possible, of course, for Journal editors to have published a longer article that presented the history of the conflict between this priest and this specific Catholic politician. It would have been possible — with additional space and ink — to have presented a timeline for the history of this particular parish (if editors decided that the old abuse case was relevant in the current discussion of abortion and Holy Communion).

All kinds of things are possible, I guess, if journalists are willing to focus on the doctrinal details in stories about doctrinal disputes.

Like I said, this Journal story was a train wreck. Was that the goal?

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