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Open Season on the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church is under fire in the American press in a manner unlike any I can remember. To be sure, much of it is self-inflicted; what is being reported as "news" is more than what, sadly, demands coverage. That is something Catholics must accept. But Catholics do not have to accept what is being thrown at the Church, the what-this-story-means analysis. Many in the press are using recent Church scandals as fodder for attacks on Catholicism in general and Pope John Paul II in particular, which is scandalous in its own right.

Newsweek's Eleanor Clift has penned a piece on the magazine's website that demonstrates just how wildly incoherent some can be when they choose to comment on a subject about which they know so little. She is positively breathless in her denunciation of the Roman Catholic faith.

Unable to go deeper than the superficial, Ms. Clift reduces the Church's problems to the political. "Like the church, Congress makes laws but doesn't always follow them," she explains. "The analogy extends to the Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate, each of which is known as the College of Cardinals, because that's where the power is. They hold the purse strings."

Uh-huh. And why would this be so important? Here we go: "Pope John Paul II [has] named virtually every bishop in America. All the pope's appointments are ideologically conservative. What has happened mirrors a U.S. president stacking the courts. With John Paul loyalists at every level" - and here it comes - "social change will be wrenching, if not impossible."

But the Catholic bishops aren't just out of step with the Enlightened; they're downright evil. Oh, Ms. Clift won't say that, of course. She probably prides herself on not believing in evil. Instead she uses the old journalistic trick of having someone else say it for her. She finds the perfect sycophantic robot in an anonymous diocesan priest. "As a group, they're like the Taliban," he proclaims, in his Christian kind of way, of his superiors. "If you want to succeed in this system, you never talk about the ordination of women - and abortion and birth control are like the third rail."

This system. The Catholic Church with her two-thousand-year-old tradition is thus reduced to some kind of Richard Daley good-old-boy political machine. Or Enron. The statement is silly, to be sure, but its inclusion in the article is essential: Because this nameless source is a man of the cloth (we presume), he must by necessity be taken seriously. One wonders if it ever dawned on Ms. Clift that the reason he chose anonymity is not because his words are controversial, but because the "social change" he implicitly supports as a Catholic priest -- say, support of abortion - is heresy in the eyes of the Church. One can be pretty certain that Ms. Clift was unable to plumb the ignorance of his remark, given her own shortcomings in that respect. But it doesn't matter. He brings color to her story, and that's really all that counts.

Ms. Clift now takes over and puts things in her own words, always risky. I wish she hadn't. "The papacy as we know it," - she is now an authority on the matter - "is a 19th -century convention. The idea that in an age of e-mail and fax, and the ability to whisk around the globe in jets, everybody kowtows to a central figure seems quaint."

Attention, Catholics: We had it all wrong. What Jesus Christ meant was, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church - until the Internet comes along, at which point never mind."

Clift saves her best for last, returning to the scandals with as ugly a statement as she can muster. "The priesthood attracts sexually conflicted men," she states categorically, thus insulting every man who ever dedicated his life to Christ, every mother who ever bore a son who joined the priesthood, every Catholic who ever felt a certain reverence for those touched by God as his shepherds - in short, every Catholic who calls himself a Catholic - "and the church will have to face up to that as a potentially criminal matter, not as a way to perpetuate an outdated custom of celibacy."

She is called the Suffering Church for a reason. The Catholic Church survived the Romans, the Reformation, Hitler's Nazis, and Lenin's communists. She will survive the poison quill of Newsweek's Eleanor Clift, too.