Speaking Truth to Catholic Power

I’m thinking about getting a little statue of Frank Keating to put on my dashboard.

Until recently, the former Oklahoma governor was chairman of a panel of lay Roman Catholics appointed by the bishops to oversee their handling of the church’s sex abuse scandal. Frustrated by a few unrepentant prelates, Keating compared their conspiratorial behavior to that of the Mafia. He wrote in a letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church.”

For certain bishops, Keating’s sharp tongue cut especially deep. In one instance, he publicly admonished Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles for “listening too much to his lawyer and not enough to his heart.” Calling those comments “the last straw,” Mahoney announced he would seek to oust Keating from the investigating panel at the bishops’ June meeting in St. Louis. Before he could do so, however, Keating spared him the trouble by resigning.

Besides a lesson in humility, His Eminence could use a refresher course in church history. Mahoney might recall that, in his scathing letters and invective, Keating is in fact keeping company with the saints.

There’s a venerable Catholic tradition of the sheep rousing their indolent shepherds to reform the church and rehabilitate themselves. But among the many brave souls who have defended the faith against faithless leaders, Keating is like none so much as St. Catherine of Siena.

During the 14th century, Catherine witnessed one of the greatest leadership crises in Christian history. Then, just as now, the church was plagued by corrupt pastors and timid bishops. The popes had left Rome, retreating to a stronghold in Avignon, France, where for 70 years they sheltered their own interests instead of safeguarding their flock.

Just when it seemed that the papacy had lost its moral authority, Pope Gregory XI began to receive letters from a young laywoman in Siena. Born to a middle-class Italian family, Catherine didn’t know how to write and had to rely on others as scribes. Yet her words were forceful enough to sting the consciences of prelates and popes.

“You are in charge of the garden of the holy Church,” she reminded Gregory XI. “So uproot from the garden the stinking weeds full of impurity and avarice and bloated with pride. I mean the evil pastors and administrators who poison and corrupt the garden. . . . Use your authority, you who are in charge of us!”

Her gardening tips for Pope Gregory sound an awful lot like the advice Keating gave the American bishops.

The problem in her time wasn’t just that there was corruption in the clergy. What distressed Catherine most was the moral cowardice of leaders too weak or too proud to take responsibility for the sins of subordinates. Los Angeles Catholics might want to provide copies of her letters to the hierarchy.

It’s amazing, of course, that this Tuscan peasant girl had the courage to reproach the pope. What’s even more amazing, though, is that he listened.

After Gregory died in Rome, Catherine hoped his successor, Pope Urban VI, would bring about real reforms in the church. Once in office, though, he demonstrated stunning arrogance and irresponsibility. Regretting their choice, the cardinals fell into squabbling among themselves and elected another pope. Then another. With several popes on hand, the church was again without credible leadership. So Catherine chastised the cardinals for disregarding the authority of Urban VI. She reminded them that Urban was the lawful pope — even if he was a worthless jackass. Meanwhile, she sent letters to Pope Urban saying, more or less, “Quit being such a worthless jackass.”

Like Cardinal Mahoney, Urban VI tried to silence advisers who demanded church reforms. Once again, the pope found his mailbox full. “I know Your Holiness wants helpers who will really help you,” Catherine wrote. “But you have to be patient enough to listen to them.” Sage advice, then and now.

Frank Keating has certainly said some harsh things – things that a number of bishops would have preferred not to hear. But so did Catherine of Siena, and for that Catholics number her among the blessed. If church leaders such as Mahoney were stung by the angry warnings of Gov. Keating, then surely they must find no comfort in the words of the ancient St. John Chrysostom: “The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.”

C.E. Richard wrote the six-hour documentary series "Louisiana: A History," to be shown on public television this fall. He is a writer for the History News Service.