Politics & Policy

Cardinal Sin

Mahony's has a tendency to diss the law.

After Bill Clinton pardoned drug trafficker Carlos Vignali and controversy broke out, James Carville, appearing on Meet the Press in March 2001, sought cover by saying, “I don’t know all the facts, but I do know the cardinal of Los Angeles supported this.” Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony had written a note to Clinton asking him to consider clemency for the cocaine dealer. But it turned out in the scandalous aftermath that Mahony hadn’t even met the felon.

An embarrassed Mahony admitted, “I have never met Mr. Carlos Vignali.” Scrambling for an explanation, he said that he had written the note at the direction of “leaders of the community whom I greatly respect” and because he was “well aware of the outstanding contributions which the Vignali family have made to all of Southern California over the years” (though he hadn’t met Carlos Vignali Sr. either and said he “knew nothing about [the Vignali family’s] past nor their history).”

By “leaders of the community,” Mahony meant a gang of Hispanic pols in Los Angeles who wanted to spring the drug trafficker from jail. They leaned on Mahony to write the note, knowing that he was so tied into the Hispanic Democratic machine in Los Angeles that he would comply without bothering to ask any questions about the fitness of Vignali for clemency consideration.

The Vignali debacle is one of many examples of Mahony’s atrocious judgment and his sloppy if not contemptuous approach to legal matters.

That’s what he brings to the immigration debate. Contrary to his faux-pious rhetoric, he is speaking not for the Catholic Church but for himself, using, in a textbook example of clericalism, the prestige and trappings of his episcopal office to advance nothing more than his personal opinion in favor of open borders.

The Catholic Church has never taught that a nation can’t pass immigration laws or protect its border. If anything, Mahony’s encouragement of border lawbreaking is alien to the Church’s tradition of respecting the state’s legitimate concerns; it represents a modernist outgrowth of an individualistic morality that places extreme emphasis on “rights” and no emphasis at all on duties. To the liberal bishops, breaking a country’s immigration laws is not a sin but an entitlement–a position that would come as a surprise to their forebears, who considered Caesar worthy of respect.

Mahony’s de facto calls for civil disobedience on immigration would be more persuasive if it could be demonstrated that he understood the natural-law basis for the distinction between a just and an unjust law. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence of this; indeed, it is ironic that a famously modernist bishop like Mahony, who normally treats the concept of natural law as a pre-Vatican II relic, suddenly cites it when justifying illegal immigration.

And anybody who thinks Mahony is a sincere advocate for civil disobedience should talk to protesting pro-lifers: Squeamish about getting too close to them, Mahony won’t even let them collect signatures for ballot propositions on his parishes’ property. Notice, too, that he now speaks of compassion as more important than law–but when common sense and basic compassion dictated that he cooperate with the authorities in protecting children from pedophile priests, he didn’t, arguing that his understanding of the law didn’t technically require cooperation.

Michael Baker, an ex-priest caught molesting children, has testified about Mahony’s hypocritical brand of I’m-above-the-law clericalism, recounting that after he offered to turn himself in to the police, Mahony’s chancery lawyer said, “Should we call the police now?” And Mahony’s response was, according to Baker, “No, no, no.” Mahony then assigned Baker–over the subsequent 14 years–to several parishes near schools and children.

Jurors sitting on a case involving a pedophile priest in Stockton (a priest whose ministry partially overlapped with Mahony’s tenure as bishop of Stockton) concluded that Mahony didn’t even respect the rules of the courtroom. In their deliberations on the size of the settlement to the victims in the case, the jurors disregarded Mahony’s testimony, sizing him up as a witness who lacked credibility. One juror told the press that he “found Mahony to be utterly unbelievable.”

Standing against the law, in other words, comes easily to Mahony–not because he grasps a higher law, but because his self-indulgent liberalism is essentially lawless. His left-wing clericalism means that he can ignore justly enacted positive laws with the same casualness with which he ignores inconvenient parts of canon law.

I had to laugh when I heard last week that he in effect called on Los Angeles Catholics to “fast” and “pray” that amnesty be extended to illegal immigrants. This is a cardinal who normally considers such practices ultramontane burdens–a cardinal who waives Holy Days of Obligation when they fall too close to Sunday, because he doesn’t want the faithful to suffer the agony of going to church twice within three days. Yet to advance his chic liberalism he will harness the power of old-time piety and invoke weighty Catholic language he usually dismisses as too sectarian. The Church, he proudly harrumphs against a phantom threat, “is not in a position of negotiating the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy”–a phrase I’ve never heard him utter before.

He must have had to crack open the Baltimore Catechism for that one. But then again, maybe he dusted it off from his letter asking Clinton to consider releasing Carlos Vignali.

George Neumayr is a writer living in the Washington, D.C. area.

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