Catholic Church, Guns

Father Riffle

     It is no secret that my Catholic Church has suffered – continues to suffer – through an enormous leadership crisis. The Church’s child sexual abuse scandal remains an open wound largely because too many top leaders continue to treat it as a public relations problem rather than a profound moral failing of an entirely male dominated organization. And don’t get me started on the silly fight that the bishops of the Church have picked with the nuns, those saints on earth who in many many cases remain closer to the folks in the pews than any bishop.

All this makes the passing last week of Father Donald Riffle, a retired priest in the Diocese of Boise all the sadder. Father Riffle was there is no other way to put it, a remarkable fellow – pastoral, principled a man with a message and a wicked sense of humor who profoundly influenced so many folks fortunate enough to stumble into his path.

Riffle died January 3, 2013 while in Hawaii, a place I think he considered a bit of heaven on earth. Before his health began to slip he would joke about his regular pilgrimages to the land of sun and balmy breezes to play golf. For many years in an around his beloved golf he took good care of the faithful at Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral. Most Catholics considered Riffle’s homilies better – and his jokes spicier – than they had any right to expect from a Church that places a premium on doctrine often at the expense of a coherent message to its people. Riffle always had a message. I never saw him use a note, an index card or a script. He’d walk down from his chair at the appointed time, place his glasses gently on the alter and talk directly to me and to the several hundred folks who it often seemed came mostly to hear him preach. The guy was a remarkable communicator and one of the best speakers I have ever heard. After a Riffle homily, I’ve often thought that the Church should have set him up as a homily coach for young priests. Father Don was the best.

Father Riffle also had a remarkable facility for remembering names and after a service he would stand at the door shaking hands, hugging and calling everyone – everyone – by their first names. I remember when our oldest son was in grade school and would accompany us to Mass, Riffle would thank him for bringing the old folks to Church. He had a soft heart for Bishop Kelly High School and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. He was known to cut the Mass short if an important football game might conflict with an overly long service.

It’s worth a confession to admit that a major reason I converted to the Catholic faith many years ago is because of Don Riffle. He was skeptical at first that I was serious and I think always harbored a little doubt that a former Methodist could really make it. Yet his was a warm, but challenging kind of faith. The kind of faith that acknowledged that for most of us every day is a struggle but that you must keep trying.

Don Riffle also taught me an enduring lesson about the power of the Catholic bureaucracy. Over breakfast many, many years ago, I was lamenting how some now forgotten issue was being handle in the dim and mysterious recesses of that bureaucracy. He smiled and essentially said to forget about trying to change such worldly things in a mammoth and often out of touch organization. Your job, he said, was to attend to the little things we can impact like an envelope in the collection basket, a box of groceries for a family down on its luck at Thanksgiving and our own daily interaction with all the other souls we come across who are, like us, struggling quietly along. The Catholic Church, a mirror to the rest of our society perhaps, is a flawed and all too human institution. It disappoints as well as elevates but at its best it bestows upon the believers a sense that we were put here for reasons bigger and more important than ourselves. Don Riffle’s life as a priest gives us reason to believe that God can do wonders here on earth and Riffle would remind us to be open to the possibilities.

There is a golf game somewhere today where every drive ends in the fairway. All the birdie putts drop and the temperature never demands a sweater. Bets are being placed on the Irish-Alabama game and no one will lose. People are smiling and the libations are tasty. I haven’t a clue what heaven is like, but I’m confident the quality of the humor and the level of the conversation is a whole lot better there today.

 

American Presidents, Guns, Obama, Stevens

Guns and Guts

 

In 1963 when the young black activist, John Lewis, who later became the distinguished Congressman from Georgia, was nearly beaten to death during a civil rights march in Alabama, the cautious John F. Kennedy knew he could not fail to push forcefully for meaningful legislation that would attempt to bring blacks into the mainstream of American life.

Bending the curve of the epidemic of gun violence in a gun deranged society presents Barack Obama with the same kind of challenge. It has been suggested that the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre will be Obama’s defining moment as president; more significant than being the first African-American president, more important than hunting down bin Laden or dealing with the worst economy since the Great Depression the aftermath of the awful school shooting will define Obama’s legacy.

Read what Kennedy said about civil rights almost 50 years ago and apply the same words to Obama’s defining moment today.

“We face…a moral crisis as a country and a people,” Kennedy said in a television speech on June 11, 1963. “It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”

Right as well as reality. Kennedy immediately introduced civil rights legislation that he did not live to see enacted, but the important political fact is that he seized the moment to declare that the Nation faced a “moral” crisis. No less a crisis confronts Obama’s Nation on the cusp of 2013.

So much of the initial reaction to Sandy Hook seems so small, so completely fanciful or so focused on treating the symptoms of gun violence. The sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin suggests, amazingly, that armed guards should be posted in every school and every public place. Others tout arming teachers or bullet-proofing the backpacks of six-year-olds. Obama, already on record supporting reinstating the assault weapons ban, must know from reading the morning paper that such weapons are flying off the shelves as Americans beef up their arsenals in expectation that Congress might take a step that few really believe will have much impact. Thousands upon thousands of such weapons are already in circulation and even Sen. Diane Feinstein, the California politician with first-hand experience with gun violence, concedes that a new assault weapons ban won’t impact those weapons already abroad in the land. And the president’s one specific proposal so far, an interagency task force headed by Vice President Biden, seems so inside the beltway, so bureaucratic as to invite a Saturday Night Live parody.

A moral crisis, JFK knew, required more than a task force or a what will amount to a slightly better than symbolic ban on military-style weapons sitting in the corners of American closets. Obama must know this and that makes his Sandy Hook response his own moral crisis.

The assumption underlying all the small thinking about how to prevent the next school massacre is that our Nation cannot – ever – confront the real issue – too many guns and too few controls over who owns them and how they are bought. Australia, not exactly a nation know for its wild-eyed liberalism, decided to do something about assault weapons and launched a national “buy back” effort that has dramatically reduced the number of such weapons. Canada imposes a 28 day waiting period to purchase a weapon and then requires that two people vouch for the purchaser. We have certain requirements in place that require mental health reporting, but many states ignore the requirements. A serious moral response to Sandy Hook and Tucson and Columbine and on and on demands a serious and deeper look at what must be done to break the curve of violence.

As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “Gun control works on gun violence as surely as antibiotics do on bacterial infections. In Scotland, after Dunblane, in Australia, after Tasmania, in Canada, after the Montreal massacre—in each case the necessary laws were passed to make gun-owning hard, and in each case… well, you will note the absence of massacre-condolence speeches made by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, in comparison with our own President.”

In places like Idaho and Wisconsin all the disquieting talk about tougher controls on guns will be greeted with completely predictable outrage. The NRA will soon move from crisis management mode to Capitol Hill assault mode and the gun lobby’s champions in public office will fume against attacks on Second Amendment rights and, many American will hope, that the same old politics will replace images of funerals featuring tiny caskets. If such comes to pass Obama’s moral moment will recede and the belief that nothing can be done will continue to rule our streets and schools.

Serious – really serious – steps to control guns will be intolerable to many Americans. John Kennedy’s civil rights speech in 1963 carried just as unpalatable a message for many Americans in Alabama and Mississippi and many other places. Kennedy told his brother, the attorney general, that television images of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham made him “sick” and convinced him that the South would never reform short of strong federal civil rights action.

As TIME noted in a 2007 essay on JFK’s slow conversion to the cause of civil rights, “Although Kennedy’s assassination five months [after his civil right speech] deprived him of the chance to sign the civil rights bill into law, he had finally done the right thing. That its passage in 1964 came under Johnson’s Administration should not exclude Kennedy from the credit for a landmark measure that decisively improved American society forever. Although J.F.K. had been slow to rise to the challenge, he did ultimately meet it. That gives him a place in the pantheon of American Presidents who, in his own words, were profiles in courage.”

Civil rights became a bipartisan national cause, not for everyone, of course, with dead-end southerners like Richard Russell fighting to the bitter end, but a national cause nonetheless. Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, for example, understood both the politics and the morality of the moment and stood on the right side of history with Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. The current moment begs for such leadership from both sides of the political divide.

No single law, no task force, not even essential improvements in mental health will stop American gun violence, but Barack Obama must know, as Sandy Hook Elementary enters American history in the same way Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham did a half-century ago, that half-measures aren’t adequate to confront a moral crisis. Unfortunately racial divide still exist in America since no single law could end that moral crisis either, but after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the United States was a different and better place. Such a moment is upon us again.

Guns, Stevens, Stigers

It’s the Culture

The semi-automatic rifle used to unleash mayhem in a Connecticut elementary school last Friday is described as a civilian version of the weapon carried by our fighting forces in Afghanistan. The Bushmaster can accommodate a 30 shot magazine and the Newtown shooter burned through hundreds of rounds before ending his own sorry life with a semi-automatic handgun after a 10 minute killing spree.

The after massacre reports speculate that the mass murder of 20 six and seven year olds may prompt a serious national discussion of what a “civilized” society can do to reduce the epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Most of the discussion so far centers on two specific ideas: restore the long-expired ban on weapons like the Bushmaster assault rifle and get serious about mental health care in the United States. Both ideas are worthy of serious, non-ideological debate, which isn’t likely to happen since the real bedrock on which America’s proclivity for gun violence rests is more fundamental and ultimately just about as disturbing as a deranged 20-something walking into a school building and causing the kind of damage a U.S. soldier might rain upon the Taliban in the remote mountains of the Hindu Kush. A national debate about once again banning assault weapons or pouring more resources into mental health care is a fine start, but it falls short of understanding the American culture of guns and violence. Don’t hold your breath for that bit of national soul searching.

Hollywood owns a piece of this culture. Television, too. The sleazy video game industry owns a piece. The national political establishment owns a good chunk of this culture too, including the current occupant of the White House. The politicians gather us again around the national hearth of sorrow as they did when a Congresswomen, a federal judge and others are gunned down at an Arizona supermarket on a Saturday morning; or when an Oregon shopping mall turned into a shooting gallery; or when a deranged young man takes a gun into a movie theatre or a college campus. After a while, I admit, all the mass shootings and obligatory NPR interviews with behavioral experts run together like so many bad dreams endured again and again. When the bad dream finally begins to recede the gun rights folks will start to remind us that other countries with tougher gun laws than we have also experienced crazy people who kill with guns. The Second Amendment, we will be reminded, is a guarantee that each of us has a Constitutional right to pack what we want. Guns don’t kill people. The sorrow gives way to politics and myth and the deranged soul of a culture of guns moves on to the next outrage.

But why, you have to wonder, do we have this national fixation with guns? Why does an entire lobby exclusively devoted to guns and access to guns of every type dominate the national discussion of, well, guns and whether any type of control over guns is acceptable? Why do candidates live or lose on the basis of devotion to the National Rifle Association? Why do politicians vie for votes by posing with a shotgun and a promise never to do anything to weaken the holy orders of the Second Amendment? Why have thousands of Americans scampered to their nearest gun shop in the wake of President Obama’s re-election out of a silly fear that somehow this country will curb its enthusiasm for guns?

The historian-journalist Garry Wills suggests that the gun culture has become like the Old Testament God Moloch who, Leviticus reminds us, demanded blood sacrifice in an earlier culture that we can safely say with the perfect hindsight of centuries was tragically deranged.

“The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate,” Wills writes. “It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”

As for Sandy Hook Elementary, Wills says, “That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch.”

All societies are victims of their own myths. The Second Amendment, sorry you Constitutional revisionists, is not about carrying an assault weapon into a school or theatre. The Founders who wrote that amendment used weapons that required 15 seconds to reload after each shot was fired. Over time, the U.S. Supreme Court gradually gave rise to the modern myth that The Founders envisioned a culture where guns were more common that sense. As recently as 1939 the Court looked at the Second Amendment and saw a “well regulated milita” and not an armed society. But over time, with the Court’s willingness and thanks to generations of political expediency and a little dose of Charlton Heston, we have now fully embraced our gun culture and made it a singular feature of American life.

But why? Why does a “civilized” culture, a nation that tells itself over and over again that it is the last, best hope of earth, a nation of exceptionalism unlike any other, not attempt to end the slaughter of its first graders? The answer, to paraphrase Shakespeare, will not be found anywhere but in ourselves. We have fashioned a culture, deranged by guns and violence in the eyes of most of the rest of the “civilized” world, and at Sandy Hook Elementary we again reap the whirlwind of that awful reality.

 

Catholic Church, Guns

Quit Digging

st.+petersThe First Rule…

The Roman Catholic Church has violated the first rule of addressing a crisis – again.

That old and true rule: when you find yourself in a hole – quit digging.

I say this with love for my Church, but with a profound sadness about the inability of its leadership to understand how badly – and repeatedly – the now world wide sexual abuse scandal has hurt. Not to mention how inappropriate has been the response of Church leaders to a crisis that seems to grow more serious by the hour.

First, a long line of American Catholic Bishops failed to address the issues of abuse by priests dating back, in some cases, for decades. When the lawsuits began to unravel the cover ups and the media attention increased, the church took precisely the wrong stand. It circled the Catholic wagons, stonewalled, avoided responsibility and blamed the media. Eventually some Church leaders saw the light and realized their first duty was to the victims and not the institution, but in the interval much lasting damage was done.

Now the whole, awful pattern seems to be playing out again in Ireland and Germany and beyond. The Pope’s handling of the mess, and his handlers handling of the mess, prompted a well-known parish priest in Idaho, who is also a canon lawyer, to go public with a call for Pope Benedict to resign. Father Tom Faucher in Boise suggested in an Op-Ed in the Idaho Statesman that some of the problem is generational. Benedict is 82. But, there is nothing generational about failing to aggressively, sensitively and completely address this cancer on the Church. We’re talking about the safety and well being of children, after all. Even a bunch of old men must know the importance of doing that.

The real first rule of crisis communication – whether its a clergy abuse scandal or a Tylenol recall – is to simply, humbly and honest do the right thing. There is no substitute.

As USA Today noted in a recent editorial: time and again in the recent past the Church has faced a choice to protect children or protect the Church. The choice has been to protect the institution. Doing the right thing begins with admitting the obvious. This is a crisis of leadership, a failure of fundamental decency, an abdication of candor and responsibility. None of it will be fixed by blaming the New York Times or equating criticism of the Pope with the horrors of the Holocaust.

There must be a collection of Cardinals holed up deep in the inner sanctums of the Vatican who see this is just another PR problem. If only we shift the blame, they must be thinking, and spin the issue to make it about anti-Catholic sentiment all this will fade away. Nope.

The pithy, often very wise, cradle Catholic Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, said what I suspect many Catholics feel: this year the Church gave up its credibility for Lent. Sounds about right.

We know how this is going to end and it will not end well. Every great crisis of responsibility and accountability has an arc, a trajectory. The crisis of confidence and leadership will continue to get worse. Responsibility will be assigned. It is only a question of how long it takes and how much more damage is done while we wait.

In the meantime, it will be said time and again that the Catholic Church has survived scandal and worse for 3,000 years. But, these times are different. This is the age of Facebook and Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle. Judgments are faster and last longer and the impacts are world wide. The only way to spin this crisis is to confront it and accept responsibility. The sooner the better.

Someone in a high position – the highest position – must say, as that patron saint of lawyers Sir Thomas More did upon the scaffold, that one can be the servant of an institution, but first one must be the servant of God.

As Maureen Dowd notes in her column today, Catholics live and believe on faith. “How can we maintain that faith, she asks, “when our leaders are unworthy of it?”

Catholics around the world wait for their leaders to do the right thing.