De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (of the dead, [speak] nothing unless it is good) has always been one of my favorite Latin aphorisms but it would put us historians out of business. It would also permit the ideologues to totally distort the truth about the past, something that a wide variety of the krazy spectrum—from the ‘Tea-Party’ folk in politics to the Latin Massers in the Church—do well enough already with their various rewrites of history, secular and religious.
And today Cardinal Edward Egan, former Archbishop of New York, is laid to rest. The television is replete with a variety of people ranging from the policeman who stands in front of the Cardinal’s residence on Madison Avenue to a Knight of Malta resplendent in the cowl of his Order saying what a warm and kind man His late Eminence was. De mortuis nihil nisi bounum is about selective memory. History needs to be more rounded.
There are good things one could say about the Cardinal. Edward Egan was not a bad man and even if he were, everyone has something good that can be said about them. His family testified to his love for them and his love for the people of New York. Love he may have had but he certainly was not one to emote in public or even show affection. He certainly was there for the people of New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and, while not a warm man, he was dutiful in personally performing the funeral rites of many and visiting many more in hospitals.
He was a great money man. And despite all our liberal “disdain” of filthy lucre, the fact is the Church needs money to accomplish its mission. On the one hand, Cardinal Egan was a great fund-raiser and, on the other, he could tighten a budget in a way that Scott Walker could only envy—and, unfortunately, too often with the same amount of human suffering of which the good Governor is proud of in the great State of Denial, I mean Wisconsin. Egan was more successful in reaching solvency for the Diocese of Bridgeport when he was bishop there than he was in New York, but New York’s problems were much greater and, on the bottom line, he didn’t do bad for New York from the fiscal perspective. He was slow to close underpeopled churches which has left headaches for his successor but which somewhat modulated his unpopularity among those parishioners whose churches he kept open.
He also was a staunch promoter of priestly vocations though the quality of men he attracted to his seminary and the “reforms” he enacted at the seminary in Yonkers (Saint Joseph’s, Dunwoodie) are not universally admired. One would have to say that the Jury is still out on those questions. He certainly didn’t anticipate the “Francis Model,” though the worst system will still produce some good priests and the best system some rotten apples. He also missed Francis’ boat when it came to providing a retirement residence; let’s just say that it wasn’t a downward move when the left the official Archbishop’s residence on Madison Avenue for his new retirement digs.
He was a staunch defender of the unborn but also a proponent of interpreting canon 915 to exclude those in public life who saw their public duties differently. He instructed then Mayor Rudolf Giuliani not to receive Holy Communion and was furious when the Mayor received Communion at Pope Benedict’s New York Mass in April 2008, issuing a public rebuke of the Mayor over the matter.
Both as Bishop of Bridgeport and Archbishop of New York, Egan had somewhat of a checkered history when it came to the issues of reporting clerical sexual abuse. His position in Bridgeport was that there should be an internal hearing to determine the credibility of the accusation before the individual was reported to the civil authorities lest the priest be the victim of unfounded allegations. Priests were grateful for this protection from potentially false or ill-motivated claims but it was in violation of the civil law. In 2002 he gave an apology saying: "If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry." However he was later to retract this apology saying “I never should have said that…I don’t think we did anything wrong.”
In New York the Cardinal lost the confidence of many of his priests and an anonymous letter from the priests was circulated, published, and sent on to Rome saying “During the last six years, the Cardinal’s relations with the Priests of New York have been defined by dishonesty, deception, disinterest and disregard.” The writers of the letter said they had to remain anonymous, at least as regards the published letter, because of Egan’s “vindictive” nature.
Cardinal Egan’s episcopacy needs be measured by the fact that like so many of the Bishops appointed during the John Paul years, he was the wrong sort of man to be a bishop. Like his best friend and soul-mate, John Richard Keating, a fellow Chicagoan and fellow Canon Lawyer, Egan had the heart of a bureaucrat, not a shepherd. The Church needs bureaucrats; it is—among other things—a bureaucracy. But it is not at its heart a bureaucracy and it shouldn’t have bureaucrats at its heart—that is, in the ministry and office of Bishop. This isn’t to say that Edward Egan wasn’t a good man, or even—in his own way and according to his own gifts—a good priest. He just wasn’t what the Church needs. Conservative though he was, he was no right-winger. He had no interest in validating the “Old Rites,” but then he had little or no interest in the “New Rite” either. The slovenliness of his funeral rites were appropriate to his own liturgical style. He was a lawyer, a money-man, a person dedicated to making the system run as efficiently as possible. He did that well and as I wrote above, we need those sort of persons around—on the chancery staff—but not necessarily among the ordained and certainly not with miter and crosier. John Paul gave us some good bishops but mostly corporation men like Egan. Benedict gave us brighter men, men who could think, but not necessarily braver men or holier men. Benedict’s bishops (for the most part), like those of his predecessor, were climbers. Every so often an O’Malley or a Curlin or a Morneau got snuck in, but over the last thirty-five years for the most part we got our Cordileone and Lori and Finn and Morlino and Dewayne. It will take some time to clear them out and hopefully we will in the future receive more bishops like Blase Cupich or Christopher Coyne or Robert McElroy. In the meantime, eternal rest to Edward Egan. He may not have been the best we could have hoped for, but neither was he the worst. While I am not an admirer, I did think that singing the Dies Irae as he was carried to his crypt was more than a bit harsh. He was as good a man as he was able. God be good to him. God be good to us all.