Tim Rutten on Roger Mahony: The cardinal and his church

Cardinal Roger Mahony journeyed to Rome recently, where Pope Benedict XVI formally accepted his resignation as archbishop of Los Angeles, bringing to a close the Hollywood-born prelate’s quarter-century at the head of America’s largest Catholic community.

At the end of last month, Mahony turned 75, the age at which bishops must offer to step down. As a cardinal, he will retain the right to participate in papal elections until he reaches 80. Though retired from day-to-day management of the archdiocese, Mahony will continue living at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, campaigning for immigration reform and serving as an official advisor to the Holy See on issues involving finance and social communication.

We spoke recently about his long service as leader of the church whose members now make up half of the residents of Greater Los Angeles. A first column on that conversation focused on the monumental changes in the archdiocese during his tenure. Today’s column focuses on issues involving the church’s role in the wider society.

Over the last century, America’s Roman Catholic bishops have staked out what amounts to a distinctly countercultural stance on a range of pivotal social issues — capital punishment, abortion, immigration, healthcare and the living wage to name only some. Yet despite the church’s hierarchical nature, lay Catholics’ views on these issues are virtually indistinguishable from other Americans’. I asked Mahony why.


“That’s because we haven’t done much to inform or educate them on the social issues and, despite what people may think, most of our priests are reluctant to talk about them. Take immigration — they’re afraid to talk about it from the pulpit because they don’t want to start a big fight in their parish.... The parishes that do a great job are the ones — an increasing number — that have lay social justice committees. We’ve got to have a stronger, louder voice on these issues, because if we’re not giving our people their input, they’re getting it from talk radio.”

While some of Mahony’s brother bishops appear as if they won’t be happy until they get the chance to deny Communion to elected officials who deviate from church teachings, Mahony has resisted taking that step. Why? Canon law, he notes, puts the responsibility for worthy receipt of the sacrament on the person approaching the Communion rail rather than on the priest.

“It isn’t for us to guess at what’s on someone’s conscience,” he said. Moreover, the cardinal mused, Christ gave Communion to Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper, though the apostle had, that day, committed his betrayal.

“You know, throughout the Gospels, Jesus never appeals to punitive measures to change anyone’s life.... A person who runs for elective office is still a Catholic and obliged to bring his or her moral principles to public policy. But being an elected legislator is a different role with its own responsibilities, and if they aren’t able to act on those principles, the church can’t say, ‘You didn’t make it happen, so you’re guilty of something.’ We can’t do that.

“I just try to extrapolate it out in my own mind: OK, so you’ve got a Catholic legislator who votes for a pro-choice piece of legislation, and you’re going to say that automatically leads to punishment? Well, does that mean that the chief of staff who didn’t stop him or her from voting that way also can’t go to communion? Does that mean that the secretary who handles their paperwork also can’t go? I mean, where does it end?

“It also won’t work. Americans — Catholic or non-Catholic — always side with the individual faced with punishment by the institution. Anything punitive always rebounds against the institution doing the punishing rather than the person receiving it.”

Mahony also took what some would find a surprising approach to California’s Proposition 8, saying that though he and the state’s other bishops support traditional marriage, much of the campaign waged on its behalf made them uncomfortable.

“Like a lot of Catholic people, we were torn. There are many gay Catholics, and many of our people have family members who are homosexual. While we support enshrining the biblical tradition of marriage, we didn’t want to be part of any attack on homosexuals. So when people tried to make the campaign for Prop. 8 an attack on homosexuals, we couldn’t be part of it.”


Mahony went on to say that “maybe we need a system similar to the ones countries like Mexico or France have, where there are two officially sanctioned ways for people to come together. One is that they come legally together by going to the courthouse and signing a civil registry, and then afterwards, if they choose, they can have a religious ceremony — Jewish, Catholic, whatever, that they call marriage. The civil coming-together is available to everybody, so it wouldn’t be that some have this and some have that, as is the case with civil unions. Everybody would have this.”

Mahony’s voice became husky with emotion when he acknowledged the damage done to the church’s moral authority by the clerical sex-abuse scandal that haunted his final years as archbishop. “I’m surprised,” he said, “that more people didn’t leave the church over this.”

At the end of our two-hour conversation, he came back to the subject, describing “the incredible sorrow” he has “for what the victims of these terrible wrongs went through, and are going through. I’ve met with more than 90 victims. I watched all the videotaped depositions of those involved in the settlement. I could only watch for a time, and then I had to go to the chapel. They were heartbreaking. I also read all the victims’ statements. One, I simply couldn’t believe the terrible things that had been done. It took me three days to read; an hour of reading and then back to the chapel. I had no idea what these people had suffered. It still has a profound impact on me.

“I have apologized to those who suffered whenever I could. I can never say, ‘I apologize’ enough times.”