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Former Pope Benedict student, Father Joseph Fessio, on three Catholic stories in the news.

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HH: Very pleased to welcome back to the program Father Joseph Fessio, Provost of Ave Maria University in Florida, where he is also a professor of theology. Father Fessio, welcome back. It’s a great pleasure.

JF: Thanks, Hugh.

HH: Father Fessio, the Los Angeles Times carried a front page story today that begins, “At least six months after Cardinal Roger Mahoney told his superiors at the Vatican that a videotape provided proof of a priest’s criminal misconduct with high school boys. The head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese told the public that the tape showed no sexual activity between Father Lynn Caffoe and the boys, according to court records.” It goes on to detail this extraordinary inconsistency. How did you react when you read this story, Father Fessio?

JF: Well, it’s hard for me to find out exactly what did happen, because looking at it as carefully as I could, and trying to give the benefit of the doubt to everybody who should have the benefit of the doubt, it’s ambiguous. I mean, the…to say the tape showed no sexual activity between Father Lynn Caffoe and the boys, well then, Mahoney is quoted in his letter, or communication to the Vatican as saying it’s a verification that criminal behavior did occur, because it showed partially naked boys in quotes, and then out of quotes, in a state of sexual arousal. Well, that’s not the same thing as having sexual activity between the priest and the boys. That’s not to excuse anything. I’m just saying that you know, if the picture is of boys half naked and aroused, taken by the priest, I don’t call that sexual activity between the priest and the boys.

HH: If the Cardinal said, as reported, that the boys were fully clothed, that’s in the letter to the Diocese and faithful…

JF: Yes.

HH: That seems hard to square with what he knew to be the truth.

JF: Right. That is a contradiction, but…and again, I’m neither trying to condemn or exonerate Cardinal Mahoney. I’m just saying was it the same tape? Did the Cardinal actually see the tape? Was he seeing what he was told was seen on the tape? I mean, this particular little item, to me, is not enough to base a judgment on, but it certainly is enough to merit further investigation to find out just what happened.

HH: Now I didn’t intend you to pass a judgment on Cardinal Mahoney, but I wanted to figure out, since you’re my go-to guy on matters of Catholic doctrine…

JF: Okay…

HH: …how bishops are governed, if at all, in the Catholic Church. Who does Roger Cardinal Mahoney answer to, Father Fessio?

JF: Well, he answers to the Pope in Rome, and no one else. I mean, that’s the…the Catholic Church is a three-fold hierarchy, that every parish priest, you know, is responsible to his ordinary or his bishop. And that bishop is responsible to the Pope. And there are intermediate bodies, like regional bishops groups, and synods of bishops and national bishops conferences, but they’re not part of the Divinely revealed structure of the Catholic Church. So they can help, you know, organize things, and the Pope, for example, can give some of his own authority to his curial offices or to bishops conferences, but there’s only three levels of the Catholic hierarchy.

HH: Now you know Pope Benedict XVI very well. You were his student when he was Cardinal Ratzinger at university, took your degree under him. How would he react, do you think, and again, this is not specific to Mahoney, but to being ill-informed by a bishop?

JF: Well, he’s actually had that happen to him several times. It happened with Bishop Wielgus in Krakow just recently, who was…told the Holy Father, and whose people had investigated him, said he had never collaborated with the Polish secret police during the Communist regime. And once he had said that, and then was being installed as archbishop, the newspapers published a signed document where he had actually signed, saying he would collaborate. So the Pope was very upset with that, obviously.

HH: And does he convene boards of inquiry? Or how does a matter of bishop discipline get handled by the Pope within the Vatican?

JF: There are several different, what we call Dicasteries, or like cabinet level offices, and one of them is the Congregation For Bishops, which would handle any complaints made about a bishop. There’s the Congregation For Priests, and that would be a complaint about a priest, or some priest who’s having a problem with his bishop. And the Congregation For Priests would help resolve the thing, and would kind of be the defender for the priest. So there are different level offices. For example, the one that the Holy Father himself used to run is the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, which now Cardinal Llovera runs. You know, most questions of doctrinal dissidence would go there. Or liturgy would go to the Congregation For Divine Worship.

HH: And Father Fessio, do you think this is a matter that’s on the Vatican’s radar?

JF: Oh, it’s definitely on the Vatican’s radar, and it’s on the Pope’s radar. Remember, when he was in charge of the Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, that was the congregation that had to receive and review all of the appeals made by priest who had been accused of sexual abuse, but who claimed that they were falsely accused. So I remember one time talking to him, he said they had over 700 such appeals. They could only handle 70 a year, and they were getting more every week. So he was very discouraged by that. But he’s totally aware of the situation, and the gravity of it.

HH: Well now, Los Angeles, of course, is the largest Catholic Archdiocese in the United States, and so Cardinal Mahoney is in many ways the most visible member of the Catholic hierarchy for Americans, for average Americans.

JF: Yes, sure.

HH: Does he have a special obligation here?

JF: Well…special obligation? I suppose yes, insofar as you are in a leadership role, it’s a role of high visibility, there’re more requirement to be exemplary in all you do. Of course, Hugh, one of the difficulties here, and I don’t intend to be someone defending bishops who are indefensible, I’m not saying Mahoney belongs in that class, but I mean, there clearly have been malfeasance here in covering up, and in protecting themselves at the expense of others. However, there is an element of legitimate concern that within any religious body, there’s a confidentiality between the ministers or the priests, or Church workers, and their superiors, and that should be protected. There’s certain rights of privacy, and separation of Church and state, and so on. The difficulty comes when the Church abuses that, and doesn’t take care of criminal activity, but covers it up. Then, it lays itself open to having all its files looked into, because it can’t be trusted. And I think the biggest difficulty here is the 8th Commandment. I’m not sure if we count them the same way…for us, the 8th Commandment is Thou Shall Not Bear False Witness.

HH: Right.

JF: Is that the same for you?

HH: Yes.

JF: Okay, well, there’s a few that are different, I know, maybe 9 and 10. But I guess that’s the easiest sin to commit, you know, is to say something which isn’t true, or not say something which you should say, and be incomplete or misleading. But I feel that is one of the most serious problems in the Catholic hierarchy, and it is probably true of politics in other denominations as well.

HH: Can the Church get back, can they regain momentum in the United States in their apostolic duties unless and until these scandals are put to rest and resolved, Father Fessio?

JF: Well, yes. I mean, the thing is they need to be resolved, but you know, if you look at the history of the Church, from the beginning until now, you find that this is a constant factor, that sinfulness pervades every level, you know, from the humblest faithful to the highest levels of the Church. So we’re not going to get rid of that.

– – – –

HH: Father Fessio is always kind to join us when there are Catholic matters in the front pages. We’ve covered one. Number two, Father Fessio, Cardinal Frances Eugene George of Chicago was quoted recently as saying, and this is at, “As far as criticizing priests who give communion to pro-choice politicians, ‘maybe you should talk to Pope Benedict XVI, who gives communion to the pro-choice prime minister of Italy. You have to look at a lot of things. It’s not all that simple.'” Father Fessio, I thought is was all that simple.

JF: Well, it’s not quite as simple as some may think, but I think it’s a lot simpler than many bishops think. It seems to me that since the Catholic Church clearly teaches that abortion is a heinous crime, an abomination, that someone who knows that and is a Catholic, and is a public figure, should recognize that he’s not in full communion with the Catholic Church, and on his own, should not seek to receive communion. What should a bishop do? Again, I realize there may be practical concerns here, but why can’t a bishop call in the person, or go visit the person and say look, you are entitled to your freedom, you’re entitled to decide things as you think best for the country, you’re entitled to live your oath as you see it. However, if you call yourself a Catholic, you have certain obligations. And one of those obligations is you cannot support legislation which enhances, or makes it easier for little children to die in their mother’s womb. So if you choose to continue doing this, then I’m going to have to protect my people by saying publicly that you’re misguided if you think you’re a Catholic in good standing when you do that, and we cannot accept you at the table of communion. So it would be a process of talking, over maybe several months, or several weeks, but I don’t understand why we can’t simply have truth in advertising here.

HH: Now Father Fessio, this was an issue in the last election because Senator Kerry was a pro-choice Democrat…

JF: Yes.

HH: …and some bishops announced please do not present yourself for communion in my Church, and others didn’t.

JF: Right.

HH: This time, it’s going to be because Rudy Giuliani is also a pro-choice Catholic Republican, who’s also 12 years Parochial educated, and I think twice divorced, I don’t know if they were annulled or not. What’s going to be the response there? What do you think the Church is going to do again? The same sort of haphazard response?

JF: Yeah, it’s been this way for thirty or forty years since Roe V. Wade, so I expect the response to be the same, but that doesn’t justify it. And as to whether the Pope gives communion to the prime minister of Italy or not, I don’t know what the factual situation is there. Did the Pope know? Did he talk to him, whatever…I mean, that’s…sometimes, you may have to be more Catholic than the Pope. The fact is, here in the United States, people understand what the Catholic Church teaching is on abortion, and to receive someone into communion, give them communion when they’re publicly opposing serious Church teaching, you know, a very grave, moral evil here, I think is simply wrong. And the argument…I don’t want to make the altar a battleground, well, don’t make it a battleground. You know, talk to him beforehand. Tell him not to come. And then of course, the media will focus on this, and they’ll focus on the rigidity and so on, but I don’t think that we should be that afraid of what the media say. As long as we can be, in our conscience, know we can face our Lord. They’re going to have to face Jesus, not NBC, you know?

HH: On this program a couple of months ago, Terry McAuliffe, former head of the DNC, declared that he was pro-choice, and that he was a good Catholic, he was going to join the Knights of Malta, and he was going back to lecture at his high school, which was a Catholic high school. Lo and behold, the Knights of Malta threw him out, rejected his application, and the bishop of his old high school, Archdiocese, barred him from speaking there. It wasn’t very hard to do, Father Fessio, but it doesn’t happen very often.

JF: And I’m happy to say that I had a part to play in it.

HH: Oh, you did? I didn’t know that. What did…did you get in touch with the bishop?

JF: Well, I’m not going to say what I did…

HH: Okay.

JF: But I supported people who wanted to do something, and they went and did it, so…

HH: Is that the right response of the Church? I mean, it wasn’t…I don’t think it was mean towards McAuliffe. No one went out of their way to criticize him. They just made decisions consistent with Catholic Church teaching.

JF: Well, Hugh, I think one thing we agree on is there’s a Hell.

HH: We do.

JF: And that Jesus has threatened us with Hell if we do not follow him, and do not obey his commandments. Now here’s a pretty serious commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill. And we’re saying it’s okay if you disobey that one, because the person you kill is very small. I mean, I don’t think Jesus is going to see it that way.

HH: And neither do I.

– – – –

HH: Father Fessio, excuse my voice. It’s just I’m recovering, and it’s not fully there, yet. Have you had a chance yet to read the Sacramentum Caritatis, Father Fessio?

JF: I have. I read it on Tuesday morning, the 13th, as soon as I could get it.

HH: Can you tell us A) what it is, and it’s significance?

JF: Yes, it’s a post-synodal exhortation, which means this. Every three years or so, the representatives from all the bishops conferences in the world meet in Rome for a month, and they have a predetermined theme, they’ve got a lineamente, it’s called, the lineaments which they have…they outline what they’re going to talk about. They meet, they all speak on it, they have small discussion groups, they discuss with the Holy Father the topic. And then at the end of that, they propose certain resolutions or propositions they’d like the Pope to cover in a document he writes. And so in October of 2005, the synod was on the Eucharist. And this is a document that took some time for it to be prepared, but which incorporates all the proposals and suggestions of the bishops along with what else the Holy Father himself wanted to add. Now I particularly enjoyed it because I have been with then-Professor Ratzinger in many seminars, and he has a wonderful way of listening carefully for an hour or two to his seminar participants. And at the end, he will sum up what’s been said, highlighting certain things, emphasizing things, filling in gaps, putting it all in one kind of orderly presentation. And that’s what he did here. He listened to 300 bishops for 30 days, and then he gathered up all their collective wisdom and their collective concerns, and produced a wonderful document on the center of Catholic faith and life, which is the real presence of Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, in the Holy Eucharist, and he called it Sacramentum Caritatis, the sacrament of charity.

HH: And there are, of course, media reports of this document that immediately went to it being a reaffirmation of priestly celibacy, a reaffirmation of many traditionalist teachings. That is certainly there. But was the media fair to the document?

JF: Well, I think fair in this sense. You know, we don’t report on all the cars that don’t get in accidents, you know?

HH: Yup.

JF: We report on the ones that do. And so the media wants to know what’s changed. Well, that’s the difficult thing in the Catholic Church, because the fundamental things don’t change. That’s one of the things that is part of the fundamental principles of the Catholic Church, is what we’ve received from Christ we don’t tamper with. We try and understand it better. So they quite rightly bypassed all the reaffirmations of things which have been reaffirmed for 2,000 years. But there’s some which people think might change, like priestly celibacy, and of course, they’ve focused on that. So I don’t think the media was unfair to it. It’s a document for those who are interested in what the Catholic Church teaches about the center of our life. And the beautiful thing about this, Hugh, is that if you look at the way he did it, it’s…the propositions are kind of scattered throughout it, but it is very beautifully ordered into three parts, the Eucharist: A Mystery To Be Believed, and then part 2, To Be Celebrated, and part 3, To Be Lived. And in that first part, he talks about the Trinity, Jesus Christ, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Church, the sacraments, and the…matrimony included, and then the eschatology, the final days. So he has a beautiful, synthetic mind the way he does it. And then in the part 2, on the Mystery To Be Celebrated, the whole first paragraph is on beauty, how this is something which would inform every celebration of Eucharistic liturgy. So it’s just a wonderful masterpiece of summing up, you know, the teaching of the Catholic Church on this most central mystery, presenting it in a way…

HH: You know, many non-Catholics always wonder why they can’t go to communion, and that’s in paragraph 56 of this document…

JF: Yes.

HH: …where he writes that this is so central, the Catholic conception of the Eucharist is so central to Catholic faith, that you simply can’t compromise it with someone who doesn’t believe what others believe about that. Do you think that will be effective? I’ve never actually seen it dealt with by a Pope before.

JF: Well, I think Hugh, this goes back to what we said previously about Catholic politicians. I mean, Catholics believe that this is no longer bread and wine. It appears like bread and wine, it had the outward appearance of it, but this is truly the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And if someone doesn’t believe that, then that person himself should not want to receive, because it would be a misrepresentation of the fact, you know, So I think the requirement that people who receive communion in the Catholic Church should accept the teaching that this is the body and blood of Christ is simply common sense.

HH: Now do you anticipate…does this point the direction for the near term future of Benedict’s papacy?

JF: Well, I think it does in some sense…in two senses. One, there are a few things here that he’s gradually made a movement towards a little different understanding. For example, he encourages, in fact, he requires that all international Masses be in Latin, and he encourages even in a general sense more Latin to be restored to the Mass. So that’s an interesting thing. What he says about music, he says not all songs are equal, and we should give chant and polyphony, you know, a priority at Mass. So there’s certain steps he’s taken here. But we’re waiting for his motu proprio, that means on his own initiative. He is going to issue, probably in the next few weeks, a document which has to do with the restoration of the pre-conciliar Mass, the so called tridentine Mass. I think he wanted to issue this document first as a more general treatment of the Mass, but now he’s going to take another step forward when he issues his motu proprio.

HH: Father Joseph Fessio, I appreciate your taking the time. A very quick exit question, are you satisfied with the bishops he’s been appointing in America since he became Pope?

JF: I’m not satisfied with myself.

HH: Well, that’s a good sidestep. But what about it? Are you expecting different sorts of bishops going forward, more, perhaps, traditionalist?

JF: Well, there’ve been a lot of good ones, we could always use more.

HH: Okay, Father Joseph Fessio, always a pleasure. Thank you for spending time with us on these three subjects today.

JF: God Bless, bye bye.

End of interview.


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