The First Amendment, the mission statement of our democracy, holds self-evident two primary rights for each of us: to say freely what we think and to practice the religion we prefer without interference from the government. Oppression against those tenets is why a group fled England on boats and why their (and our) ancestors made those protections the first in our Constitution.
So it is with ultimate irony that a proceeding today in Richmond could determine if a free religion can limit free speech – even to the point of firing and keeping quiet an employee for doing the job he is supposed to be doing, which is comforting the afflicted.
Maybe what Father Mark White really has been doing is inflicting the comfortable of the Catholic Church, because we find the steps the church has taken to censor his comments and threaten his calling to be both repugnant and ridiculous.
If free speech is a God-given right, no religion would suggest it has the right to overrule its maker – would it?
At issue here is the silencing by the Diocese of Richmond of Father White, the priest at Catholic churches in Martinsville and Rocky Mount, who until recently had spoken from his heart and his head in powerful questions about how his church has handled the sexual assault cases that have created fissures in the church’s moral underpinnings.
Father White had developed during most of the past decade a rather popular blog that had drawn a million sets of eyeballs. Doubtless he wishes his homilies drew that many.
But among those were the eyeballs of his superior – Barry Knestout, the bishop in Richmond — and quite possibly others from the Vatican. Because someone decided Father White needed to keep his fingers still and his mouth shut when it came to the church’s practices. We suspect those orders were handed down from above the bishop’s pay grade.
Now Father White did not hesitate in his writings to be frank about what he saw as his church’s failings. He was enflamed by the fact that one of the guilty was Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick, the man who had ordained him as a minster. Father White told Bill Wyatt of the Bulletin that he began to recognize how McCarrick had conducted himself, that he now sees how McCarrick might have signaled his interest in the men who said he had abused them.
Fueled by righteous anger and his oath to protect the innocent from the abuse of anyone in any way, Father White challenged the way his church was protecting the perpetrating priests more aggressively than they were those injured innocents.
Today’s meeting between Father White and his bishop will be about far more than what White has written and said and more about the right of any man of the cloth to minister, to serve the members who have come to appreciate his voice and his commitment to what a church is supposed to mean in the first place.
Father White has said he believes he could be fired today, his job taken away for exercising his right to free speech and for focusing on what he thinks is most important: the damage done to individuals and not the mendacity of a monolith.
We hope it doesn’t come to that. We hope that Bishop Knestout and the legislative figures employed by the church understand the damage their actions could bring. For quieting the voice of a priest is one thing, but to remove him from his flock is another.
Father Mark White is beloved and respected. He should be lionized by his bosses, not treated more harshly than one of the criminals his church has found so many ways to protect.
No religion should feel free to limit the speech of a leader whose heart is so obviously in the right place.
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