We know from ordinary human experience that people do not always express what is really on their minds and in their hearts. Indeed, we know it from our own experience.
We also know that people sometimes say and do things that contradict their beliefs and convictions. It may be a matter of sheer hypocrisy or motivated by some form of self-interest.
David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times who generally writes from a politically conservative vantage point, published a column early last month entitled, “Private Virtue, Public Vice” (02/08/07). Its main points are worth repeating here because they have wider application beyond politicians.
Brooks identifies a particular cohort of politicians by the acronym RIP (Reasonable in Private). They are public figures who will, for example, admit to journalists in the Senate dining room, “in whispers and with furtive glances,” the weaknesses in their own arguments and the justice of some of their opponents’ points.
These RIP politicians, Brooks writes, seem to believe that “if it ever got out that (they) were sensible and independent, it would ruin their careers.”
A system that rewards a don’t-rock-the-boat approach to important issues, like the war in Iraq, “takes individuals who are reasonable in private and it churns them through a public process that is almost tailor-made to undermine their virtues. The process of perpetually kissing up to the voters destroys the leadership qualities the voters are looking for in the first place: tranquillity of spirit, independence of mind and a sensitivity to the contours and complexities of reality.”
“In private,” Brooks concludes, “we have a decent leadership class. In public, it’s rotten.”
Politicians, however, are not the only perpetrators. Those in other professions do the same thing: pulling their punches on controversial issues lest they incur the disfavor of their superiors, lose the support of their respective constituencies and thereby derail their careers.
They are in the anomalous situation of aspiring to higher levels of leadership while speaking and acting in ways that are antithetical to the standards of such leadership.
Those who have regular and confidential contact with church figures — bishops, curial officials, diocesan officers — know that what David Brooks says about politicians is applicable to the ecclesiastical establishment as well.
There are bishops and other church leaders who recognize that obligatory celibacy for priests of the Latin rite cannot survive much longer. The so-called vocations crisis is real, and there is no evidence that the situation will improve — at least not without significant structural changes.
There may be a smaller number — but it is enough to constitute a critical mass — who are open to the ordination of women to the priesthood, and who find the prohibition even of discussing the matter to be unrealistic and counter-productive.
Not a few church officials believe — again, privately — that the church’s continued opposition to contraception of every kind is tantamount to beating a proverbial dead horse. That argument, they admit, has been lost, except for some who are unmarried or beyond child-bearing age. Advocates of natural family planning — what some in my generation knew as the “rhythm method” — could probably hold their convention in another proverbial setting: A telephone booth.
Other toxic issues pertaining to human sexuality and reproduction fall within the same RIP spectrum. There are church leaders who are privately embarrassed by the official church’s seemingly relentless assault upon gays and lesbians, reflected in consistent opposition to gay couples’ adopting children, civil benefits for partnered gays and lesbians, and the prohibition of gays from ordination (when many priests and bishops — not to mention lay people — know that there is far more than a handful of gays in the priesthood and the episcopate).
If we learned anything about official behavior in the tragic sexual-abuse scandal, it was the enormous amount of denial, cover-ups, stonewalling and outright lying that went on to “protect” the reputation of the church and the priesthood. The same approach was replayed in the recent scandal in Poland concerning clergy who had served as informers to the former communist government.
According to news reports, when one priest went to the cardinal-archbishop of Krakow to share some of the evidence he had come upon, he was advised not to say anything publicly for the sake of the church and Christ — in that order.
David Brooks’ point about politicians and the discrepancy between their private thoughts and their public statements needs to be taken to heart inside the church as well. Until those in leadership positions manifest the courage to speak out, the RIP syndrome will continue to prevail.
In private, we may still have “a decent leadership class.” Not so in public, where it counts.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.