Gotham Diary:
Just Go
18 June 2012

For a Monday, the Times was downright exhilarating. Mind you, the news wasn’t all good. There’s an item right on the front-page fold that touches bottom for political cynicism, but I’ll come back to that. The real fun is on the last page. Now, I am far too old to respond to anything published on the Op-Ed page with even a flutter of hope, but I felt a puff of something very like hope when I read Bill Keller’s challenge to Cardinal Dolan: grant generous severance packages to nuns who must in good conscience leave the fold of Peter. Keller’s langauge is, as always, polite, but his proposition is brawling.

Thankfully, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has offered us one possible remedy for this problem. As Laurie Goodstein documented in The Times recently, when he was archbishop of Milwaukee Dolan authorized payments of up to $20,000 to predator priests if they agreed to leave the clergy without resisting. He described this as “an act of charity.” Bill Donohue calls it “a severance package.”

I suggest that any long-serving nun who has come to find church teachings incompatible with her conscience should be offered a generous severance. We could call these acts of charity “Dolan Grants.” Surely a church that offers a lifeline to men who brought disgrace on the institution can offer a living stipend to women who brought it honor at great sacrifice.

The Cardinal’s almost certain disregard for such a scheme will only serve to underline the point of Keller’s piece.

Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go. Bill Donohue will hold the door for you.

As I say, I can’t hope that an Op-Ed piece will make any difference. But how wonderful it would be if Catholic readers took it to heart, and stopped complaining about an institution that can never be fixed, only abandoned. The priests and their acolytes have no intention of letting go, so they must be left behind. How significant they might remain is not really the question; the question is, how to participate in a just Church. Bill Keller is right: progressive Catholics can’t have their cake (Peter’s rock) and eat it, too. They’d have to break it first, and they haven’t the leverage for that operation. Let them stop whining. Let them stop fanning false hopes. Let them leave.


The cynical business appears in Peter Baker’s story about the problems of campaigning on foreign-affairs issues (which couldn’t interest American’s less at the moment) in a time of superpower shrinkage. Baker gets an expert on the phone.

“Both candidates have to pretend that the U.S. presidency is far more influential over events than it really is,” said Stephen D. Biddle, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. The obvious example is the European economic situation, which has profound implications for the American economy but is largely out of American hands.

“But to admit this is to look weak or to seem to evade responsibility,” Mr. Biddle said. “So both candidates tacitly agree to pretend that their policies are capable of righting the American economy while their opponent’s would sink it, when the reality is that both are in thrall to foreigners’ choices to a degree that neither would acknowledge.”

In other words: democracy for dummies? No. Democracy for people who have listened to too much advertising. Democracy for people who are used to hearing a tone — all’s right with the world — even when they don’t believe a word they’re hearing. Who shows up to hear Mitt Romney portray Barack Obama as a weakling? People who want to hear him say it, that’s who. People who need reassurance that someone is out there trying to make them feel good. That’s what advertising does, really. How bad can the world be if every other television spot features a low-slung automobile, hugging with its quiet roar a curvy road in the middle of nowhere? That you’re not in the market for cars, or couldn’t afford the one in the ad — that’s not the point, in the end. As long as major manufacturers spend wads of money on commercials (making them as well as broadcasting them), there’s nothing to worry about.

It’s the same thing in politics. As long as both sides “tacitly agree to pretend,” nobody has to worry about the sharp flying objects of genuine political upset. The only genuine issue in this year’s campaign is the constitution of the federal courts, which, should the Republicans regain the White House, will continue its slide into Gilded-Age obstructionism. How I wish I had the wherewithal to underwrite a political ad so beautifully crafted that it would mobilize Americans to vote to save the courts. It would be a dreadfully cynical step, but I’d stoop. Just the once.