Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Lady Fires Back

Having seen the first wave of church-press skirmishes and their escalation tonight in Brooklyn with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio's Chrism Mass call for his faithful to "besiege" the New York Times, it's only getting wilder by the hour... even well after close of business.

Late tonight, the Grey Lady sent up its latest barrage in the form of an op-ed by its marquee columnist, Maureen Dowd, whose headline says it all: "Should There Be an Inquisition for the Pope?"

A DC-born Irish Catholic (and, ironically enough, a product of no less than the bishops' own academy) Dowd goes on to write that "the church has started an Easter public relations blitz defending a pope who went along with the perverse culture of protecting molesters and the church’s reputation rather than abused — and sometimes disabled and disadvantaged — children.

"The church gave up its credibility for Lent," she adds. "Holy Thursday and Good Friday are now becoming Cover-Up Thursday and Blame-Others Friday."

The piece only gets more heated from there -- direct shots at New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and his Palm Sunday defense of Benedict XVI included.

In the wake of the Times' original Murphy story and the subsequent day's return to Munich, Dowd's Sunday column called for the election of a "Nope" -- a Nun-Pope.

For the record, she's shown a fairly rare ability to vex the Vatican before; a Sunday column last October bashing the ongoing Apostolic Visitation of the US' women religious garnered a response from no less than Rome's top hand on religious life, Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé.

* * *
A Times columnist for nearly two decades, the line taken by the scribe known in the Italian press as "La Dowd" is but an echo of her reams of incandescent prose on the scandals in 2002, as the Stateside church was first engulfed in the greatest crisis of its four-century history.

At the time, there was little ecclesial blowback -- either on her or any of the year's Everest of reporting. This time around, though, it's quickly become a whole different ballgame.

The shock of it all -- and the anger in the pews -- might've been one reason the '02 response was starkly different. But it can be argued that the period since has brought to the fore something that wasn't the case eight years back: a cast of characters in leading posts who have felt far more empowered to fire back at the flack, whatever one might make of the result.

In contrast to the two most prominent examples in these days -- Dolan, named to the Big Apple last year in succession to the famously press-averse Cardinal Edward Egan, and DiMarzio, who took the Brooklyn seat in 2003 after the fairly low-profile Bishop Thomas Daily (who, as vicar-general of Boston in the early 1980s, failed to investigate the notorious Paul Shanley) -- it's worth recalling that, nationally, the 2002 response was spearheaded by two prelates of a more conciliatory style amid controversies, both of whom long enjoyed warm relations with the mainstream press: the then-president of the bench, Wilton Gregory, now archbishop of Atlanta, and the freshly-elevated Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington.

Then again, the one top-level figure of the period given to engaging a spirited defense had suddenly been precluded from doing so: Cardinal Bernard Law -- who, ten years prior, famously "call[ed] down the power of God on the media, particularly the [Boston] Globe" for its reporting of Massachusetts' first case brought to light -- had become the central figure of an epochal storm that would end up forcing him into an unprecedented early retirement.

In a nutshell, the contrast of the times is just further proof of the degree to which leadership -- the personalities who comprise it... and, indeed, the message they choose to send -- makes all the difference... not just when it comes to reporting the past, but in forecasting the shape of things to come.