Just what we needed — yet another broadside against the Vatican by a disgruntled ex-priest. Dwight Longenecker wonders why the author is so shocked by human error
Misguided Morality by Michael M. Winter, Ashgate
The cover of Misguided Moralhy tells us that Michael Winter is a "loyal Catholic". Whenever I read these words, I wonder: why do we need reassurance that the author is loyal? Probably because he's not. True loyalty allows room for constructive criticism, but the criticism in this book is out of balance and off target. Winter is an ex-priest who has gathered oodles of evidence that the Catholic Church cannot command respect because she does not practice what she preaches. He is so unhappy about this that he might as well have called his book Winter's Discontent.
He begins with three big exantple,, The Church didn't do enough to stop the I holocaust, to support the civil rights movement or to criticise South American dictators. But, if these illustrate Winter's point, they also show that he has missed the point. He rarely gives us the other side. He claims that Catholics did not stand up to the Nazi threat, but he doesn't acknowledge the complexity of the situation or the work of Pope Pius XII and many other to counter the Nazis. Ile ignores the Church's role in bringing down Communism, toppling the Marcos regime, standing up to the Mafia, terrorism and rampant capitalism. He blames the Church for not being in the forefront of the American civil rights movement, but ignores its support for human rights and racial equality all over the world.
Winter criticises the Catholic record on slavery, anti-semitism and imperialism. He thinks the Vatican is putting its head in the sand over priestly celibacy. and treats priests who wish to leave unjustly. It suppresses dissident theologians and advocates subservience rather than intelligent obedience, producing a robotic loyalty that can lead to criminal action. It ignores the ± gifts of individuals, who are relegated to the ranks and arc expected to stay
there. Humane Vitae was wrong, and its tough line destroyed the very authority it sought to support. The Church is not transparent in financial matters, it takes an immoral stand over AIDS in Africa, it covers up the crimes of priests and religious, clerical dress is divisive, bishops are autocratic, etc etc etc.
Is this just another liberal whine by a former priest? Are Winter's criticisms unjust? Not necessarily. He supports many of his charges with facts; he provides an exhaustive report of the failures of Catholicism. We need hooks like this that hold an unflattering mirror up to the Church: they help us see how she has failed and how she must improve. The problem is that the author is one-sided, and his sources are biased. His arguments would have been stronger if he had placed them in a wider context.
Winter assumes that we will all he as outraged as he is by the Church's failures. But any reading of history shows that the Church has always failed to live up to her teachings. I can remember feeling shocked when. at the age of 12. I overheard our pastor screaming at the choir director that the church wasn't big enough for both of them. I thought they were holy men, and their petty row was disconcerting. But I got over it. I came to realise that you could he a sincere Christian without being perfect. Likewise, I didn't become a Catholic because I thought it was the perfect Church, but because I thought it was the true Church. I had already understood that the Body of Christ was made up of sinners (like myself) and I wasn't surprised to find that Catholic history, like the Old Testament, was a tragic and hilarious catalogue of hypocrisy, rebellion, misunderstandings and mistakes, Indeed, it would have been disturbing to discover that the Church was flawless. Do you really enjoy being in the company of Christians with immaculate hair and tiny waistlines'?
Winter misunderstands the nature, purpose and destiny of the Church; that much is clear from his first page. He writes: "If a non believer says to me, 'Why should I become a Christian and embrace the RC Church?' I should be able to reply. 'Because it will give you a moral programme that will enhance your own life and enable you to enrich the world as you go through it over the years.' " Really? I thought the Church was the Body of Christ on earth, proclaiming the gospel to souls darkened by sin and destined for a desperate future alienated from God. I thought it was there to administer supernatural assistance in my quest for everlasting life.
If the Church simply offers a method to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make the world a better place, then Winter is right: she has failed so desperately that she ought to shut up shop. But if she is there to proclaim the fact that we are all sinners in need of salvation, then her own history is an example of that fact. Her faltering attempts to live out the truth she proclaims show that the terrible struggle continues.
Dwight Longenecker's latest hook, More Christianity, is an optimistic apologetic for the Catholic faith.