There is a meme called “This Is Fine” that is so right for our cultural moment it is constantly reworked, reposted, revisioned, reanimated—gone viral, as they say. Begun as a comic by K.C. Green titled “The Pills Aren’t Working” or “On Fire,” the images picture an anthropomorphic hat-wearing dog drinking from a coffee cup in a room engulfed in flames. “This is fine,” the dog says, when clearly it is not. In the original cartoon, the dog continues, “I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently.” The dog takes a sip of coffee, his hat and arm catch fire. “That’s okay, things are going to be okay,” the dog says. The dog melts away, unrecognizable, monstrous.
Some would have us believe that everything is fine in the Church. Practicing Catholics should believe things are okay even if their reality screams otherwise. Denial is strong here. After the release last summer of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on widespread sexual abuse of children in Catholic dioceses and its systemic cover up by Church officials, Peter Steinfels, for example, felt compelled to write a 12,000-word piece in Commonweal titled “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems: It’s Inaccurate, Unfair & Misleading.” As Christopher R. Altieri points out, however, in The Catholic World Report, the grand jury “did what it set out to do, in spades: show there is a prima facie case to make against the bishops of Pennsylvania, who covered up abuse and enabled abusers for more than seven decades.” Other state attorneys general are now investigating higher-ups in the Church, for the bishops have shown they are incapable of policing themselves.
The Pennsylvania report has caused an awakening. Finally, U.S. Catholics have grasped the breadth and depth of the corruption. Women seem to get this more than men. Is it because some are mothers? Perhaps women are able to recognize more clearly those who are excluded? Unlike the clerics at the Vatican sex abuse summit last February, Jamie Manson, for instance, acknowledged and honored survivors. In a National Catholic Reporter piece, she noted that “survivors of clergy abuse from 20 different countries demonstrated … through the streets of Rome demanding a zero tolerance policy; they spoke to legions of reporters. Through it all, not one cleric stepped outside to greet them.”
Not one cleric stepped outside to greet them. My last column here called for communal action from the bishops, for a time of sackcloth and ashes. Kathy Kane, in a blistering blog entry titled “On the Rocks: Cocktails at Bishops’ Conference Belies Church Suffering” encountered the antithesis of that call at the recent USCCB meeting in Baltimore. Kane, aka “captain of the Mom Squad,” traveled with other mothers from Philadelphia to support the survivors demonstrating outside the conference hotel because, she wrote, “the victims and survivors have literally saved our children by exposing the issue of clergy abuse to the world.” Several bishops, including some from Philly, entered the hotel lounge where the moms were also gathered. The bishops ordered drinks, talked and laughed loudly. One ridiculed a former victim advocate from the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Laughter all around. Not one cleric protested. As Kane noted, one would expect better from “men who are the focus of national attention due to their members’ history of child rape, sexual assault of adults, sexual misconduct, financial impropriety and cover-up of crimes.”
Some Catholics are so busy being Catholics that they forget how to be Christians. After James Carroll wrote a piece in The Atlantic this month provocatively titled “Abolish the Priesthood,” the response from some quarters consisted of ad hominem attacks, a few quite vicious. Matt Fish, a priest, tweeted “James Carroll epitomizes the worst traits of his generation, and soon they’ll all be gone, while we rebuild the Church they tried to destroy according to the very model they tried to erase.” In one response to such critics, the author discovered women responding favorably to Carroll. I myself was particularly moved by Carroll’s honest portrayal of his pain at the Church’s betrayal of its people. Something snapped inside him. He stopped going to Mass. “I carry an ocean of grief in my heart,” he wrote. Who can remain unmoved by that? Carroll predicted a flourishing future Church: “The Church I foresee will be governed by laypeople, although the verb govern may apply less than serve. There will be leaders who gather communities in worship, and because the tradition is rich, striking chords deep in human history, such sacramental enablers may well be known as priests. They will include women and married people. They will be ontologically equal to everyone else. They will not owe fealty to a feudal superior.”
K.C. Green reworked his comic a few years ago and titled it “This Is Not Fine.” The dog is back in the burning room, but this time it stops before claiming the situation acceptable. It wonders, “what the hell was wrong” with its thinking. How could it have let the fire go so long, get so bad! It grabs a fire extinguisher and frantically puts out the fire. In the final two panels, the dog sits in the dark, burned-out room, holding its head in its hands, weeping.
Jennifer Reek is a writer and teacher.