Treason of the Clerisy

I foresee churches with their Jesuit bureaucrats open daily from 9-5, closed on weekends.
Georges Bernanos

Jesuits are blameless here but the point stands. The debacle at Our Saviour is a symptom of bureaucratic conditions more critical than any clash of taste in church décor. Umbrage over “the integrity of the art” is a red herring. If that were the essential factor, this would be a minor local foofaraw. But it is not minor; and the breach of trust on display extends beyond locale to the temper of our clerical bureaucracy itself.


Gustave Doré. Illustration for Gargantua by Rabelais. (19 C.)
Gustave Doré. Illustration for Gargantua by Rabelais. (19 C.)

At its simplest level, the stripping of the icons is a case study in pastoral stupidity. One pastor’s distaste for his predecessor’s design decisions is no basis to eliminate elements that contributed to revival of a once-failing parish. No sensible steward destroys the heart of the renascence with which he has been entrusted. Those icons were sign and symbol of that very rebirth craved by the New Evangelization.

This disaster cannot be neatly shoehorned into the confines of rivalry between traditionalists and modernizers. Fr. Rutler introduced a Latin Mass into the parish schedule, but he himself presided at the Novus Ordo. And he never used his prerogatives to move the free-standing altar back to its original position against the east wall of the sanctuary. Ideology rears its ugly head largely in the fact that the two parishes to which Fr. Rutler was reassigned—pastor of one, administrator of the other—were slated for closure within a year of his arrival.

Nothing explains Fr. Robbins’ behavior, or supposed archdiocesan ignorance of it, except institutional rot. This is an instance of clerical corruption, a fiduciary and ethical betrayal. The treason of the clerisy is an assault on the integrity of those moral ideals they are pledged to preserve. It is an assault on their own calling and on our fidelity to it.


Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Pissing on the Moon (16th C). Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Pissing on the Moon (16th C). Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.

In many respects, this havoc is a reprise of last year’s Michael Hull affair. Think back. Msgr. Hull misspent parish funds on a palatial renovation of his rectory only to go AWOL with a young intern at the newly created Sheen Center. Now married, he is a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Once the darling of Cardinal Egan, Hull was sheltered behind institutional silence. No word of his canonical status appeared in letters to priests or in Catholic New York, the archdiocesan house organ. (The omission was unprecedented, according to a diocesan priest.)

One high profile crack-up might be taken as an anomalous burst of opéra bouffe. A second, more virulent one, following on its heels raises worry of a pattern. How many other pastors are playing fast and loose with parish funds for the sake of power or creature comforts?

Ambroglio Lorenzetti. Avarice, detail from Allegory of Bad Government (14th C.) Palazzo Publica, Siena.
Ambroglio Lorenzetti. Avarice, detail from Allegory of Bad Government (14th C.) Palazzo Publica, Siena.

The turmoil at Our Saviour’s is neatly summarized by an open letter circulating by a prominent layman and philanthropist. It reads in part:

Father Rutler turned a bankrupt and virtually empty church into a world-famous spiritual center, paid off the mortgage and long-standing debts, virtually rebuilt the infrastructure and exterior walls and roof, installed a magnificent new organ and many other improvements (and left well over 2 million dollars in the bank) and did much of the interior painting, gold leafing and decorating himself (he never takes a vacation) and produced a record number of candidates for the priesthood.

The author does not mention that the cost of the icons and their installation was met by two major private donations. These were gifts, not a drain on parish funds. The letter continues:

Father Robbins is on vacation in his villa in the opulent Hamptons. In less than two years, Rutler’s successor, Father Robbins, has dismantled much of the interior of the church, alienated most of the parishioners, and nearly bankrupted the parish, spending vast sums on virtually reconstructing the plain but comfortable rectory (where Father Rutler happily hosted as guest Cardinals and other prelates and distinguished laypeople) – but which Father Robbins told people was a “slum” – so that the rectory is now a luxurious home for Father Robbins and his organist who also resides there.

Note the excess of two million dollars depleted in less than two years by Fr. Rutler’s successor. That kind of money does not go unnoticed by the chancery. Yet in a meeting with a representative of Archbishop Dolan earlier this week, artist Ken Woo was told that this was new news—a totally unexpected revelation—at the chancery. Woo was instructed to say nothing more about the discussion.

The chancery’s innocent ear is as believable as President Obama’s claims that he never heard about this-or-that crisis until he read it in the newspapers. Equally preposterous is the imposed gag order, redolent of the secrecy and dissembling of power politics.

Edme-Gustave Brun. God Rewards His Own (1874). Musée des Beaux Arts, Dôle, France.
Edme-Gustave Brun. God Rewards His Own (1874). Musée des Beaux Arts, Dôle, France.

By law, any capital improvement costing more than $30K has to be approved by the archdiocese. The COS rectory, gutted to its shell, rebuilt and redecorated over the course of one year, ran significantly over the discretionary limit. Either Robbins did not disclose the amounts—in which case disciplinary action is in order—or the archdiocese approved. One way or the other, this is a scandal of prodigality and, it would seem, complicity. (A blind eye is a species of collusion.)

And the live-in organist? Rumors of domestic partnership have been loud and angry enough to have reached the chancery. They were sufficiently vocal to cause Fr. Robbins to complain from the pulpit about attacks from parishioners. It is an easy bet more than one of these “attacks” were forwarded to the archdiocese. If they are unfounded slanders, the chancery should say so.

The philanthropist’s letter concludes:

. . . but the mystery is why Cardinal Dolan favors and promotes him [Robbins}. If Cardinal Dolan does not intervene to stop this literal iconoclasm, the real guilt is his. As a layman of many years, active on the boards of several charities, I am beyond being scandalized by some of the things I see in the Church and especially here in New York, whose archdiocese is shrinking as fast as the city is expanding and thriving, but I am quite bewildered to explain this.

Francesco Bartolozzi. The Alderman's Dinner (18th C). Guildhall, Southampton, NY.
Francesco Bartolozzi. The Alderman’s Dinner (18th C). Guildhall, Southampton, NY.

Stuart Chessman, on his lovely weblog at St. Hugh of Cluny, has the single most incisive commentary from an architectural/historic standpoint. [I learned Fr. Rutler is not guilty of those gingerbread Stations of the Cross. Carved versions of cut-paper silhouettes, they pre-dated his tenure. They could have gone.] Chessman’s July 22nd posting examines Fr. Robbins’ frail apologia for the remodeling, and closes with this:

It is an indictment of the organization and management of the Roman Catholic Church that entirely optional and decorative projects like this are cleared based exclusively on the decision of the pastor. This, at a time when so many Catholics are losing their own parishes allegedly because of financial difficulties of the Archdiocese. . . . We know of other, very recent abuses of clerical power in this region. With such clericalism the Catholic Church is only continuing the long-term process of digging its own grave.

Digging its own grave. Just so. In his 1985 Report, then-Cardinal Ratzinger deplored a “hedonistic and cynical upper bourgeoisie.” He might have been describing a class of ecclesiastics.