"Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." (1 John 4:8)
This is a word that makes the news. That's where I first heard it used to describe what happened to
It was Good Friday, and I saw his head floating there on the television while I was in bed, reading. I grabbed the remote to turn up the volume. I go to Sacred Heart in the Shadyside section of Pittsburgh—the church where Hausen last served as a priest in good standing—partially because of Hausen. I never forgot his homilies, which, in a mostly mind-numbingly dull genre, inevitably stood out. His gospel message was simple: God is love. He liked pointing out that when we say "I Love You," we might as well be saying "I God You." He was always saying he wanted God as a verb.
I have to admit that on first hearing this, I wanted to write it off as the worst kind of New-Age-Guitar-Mass-Clap-Trap. But he used this word for love—agape. This is the word on which Hausen bases his entire theology. And this word rang a psychic bell in me.
Some are calling Hausen, in his protest of ecclesiastical abuses, institutional hypocrisy and what he sees as the corruption of the gospel truth, the Martin Luther of Pittsburgh.
The kind of unconditional, limitless love we find in God. Godly love.
I saw him at four or five masses before I decided to join the parish. And then he was gone. But I continue to go to Sacred Heart. There's another priest there I admire, and it's convenient; I work right down the street. But until that Good Friday, I'd always wondered what happened to Hausen.
It sounds serious, right? I think of Becket, the 1964 Peter O'Toole/Richard Burton movie about the friendship of Henry II and Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury. When the black-robed clergy excommunicate Lord Gilbert, they stand single file before the archbishop, who makes a long, scary pronouncement that Lord Gilbert will from that point on be cut off from mother church and left to consort with the devil and his legions, etc., etc., and then they all bang their staffs on the floor and cast them aside in a scary clatter. This is what I expect from excommunication. It's a scary word.
More often, excommunication—a word the Church, or at least the Diocese of Pittsburgh, doesn't particularly like—is a matter of personal choice. You have to want it. And even if you choose it, the Church will take you back. She will, in fact, pine for your return. There is no elaborate, public ceremony. No humiliating rebuff. Excommunication is a matter of the heart.
So Sacred Heart didn't use the scary word to describe what was happening to Father Hausen. They simply said that he was "breaking away" from the Diocese of Pittsburgh on May 2, as were any Catholics who followed him to the new church he was starting. That's what they called it—breaking away, stepping away, separating. Meanwhile, our parish priests emphasized the kindness and mercy of the Church. At Mass the weekend before Hausen's first breakaway service, we were asked to pray for Father Bill, that he might be reconciled to the Catholic Church. There was no talk of eternal damnation, no talk of Hausen consorting with Satan or his minions.
Still, nearly all the media coverage of the crisis has at least hinted at sympathy for the renegade priest—one can almost feel the atmospheric disturbance caused by thousands of self-righteous fingers wagging at the Church for its resistance to change.
But it is Hausen who refuses to turn back. Bishop Donald Wuerl invited Hausen to visit him in hope that reconciliation might be achieved. Hausen refused. That's one side of the story: Father Bill has willfully dumped the Church, and she is sick with longing for him.
Another version of the story goes like this: Hausen has been giving the Diocese of Pittsburgh a headache since at least Easter of 2002, when he told his congregation at St. James in Sewickley that they should be "pissed off" about the sex scandal, and that he saw the ordination of women and optional celibacy for priests as potential solutions to the crises of the modern Church. Oh, and Hausen was for ten years a drinker of gin and tonics, and his alcoholism may or may not have interfered with his daily responsibilities, like driving.
But Hausen says his driving record is clean, and his problems started long before 2002. Faced with administrative leave—which means he could not publicly identify himself as a priest—and early retirement, he doesn't see how he had much of a choice in the matter. If he wanted to continue to administer the sacraments, which he does, he'd have to do it outside of the Catholic Church.
Born and raised in Sacred Heart Parish, Hausen has been a priest in the Diocese of Pittsburgh for 40 years. He's always been political and outspoken. But he loved Sacred Heart, and was well loved by many of the parishioners. Still, his loud critiques of traditional Catholicism make defenders of church orthodoxy—including members of Pittsburgh's Opus Dei chapter, who also call Sacred Heart home—uncomfortable.
It seems fair enough to applaud Hausen for being honest instead of playing along, as many liberal priests do—playing to their congregations' doctrinal and theological preferences without acknowledging as much to the Diocese. He's a relic of the 1970s clergy, an ardent supporter of the Second Vatican Council with a head full of popular psychology and the works of theologian Karl Rahner.
Some are calling Hausen, in his protest of ecclesiastical abuses, institutional hypocrisy and what he sees as the corruption of the gospel truth, the Martin Luther of Pittsburgh. Hausen counters that he still wants to be catholic—but with a small c, as in the original Christians, who weren't tangled up in what he calls a "self-protecting bureaucracy." The early Christians who met in small groups of two or more for fellowship, and who chose their own leaders. It's the same yearning for Christian purity that's spawned countless thousands of Christian churches since the Protestant Reformation, with no end in sight.
I was afraid of what might happen if I entered the ballroom of the Sewickley Country Inn, 25 minutes from Sacred Heart in Shadyside and the home of Hausen's new Christ Hope Ecumenical Catholic Church. The April 16 edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic warned me that any "willful participation in this church implies separation from the Catholic Church." I imagined black-robed clergy at the door, taking the names of all baptized Catholics who entered. I imagined plain-clothes, undercover clergy in parked cars in the hotel parking lot, taking down license plate numbers. I even imagined that at the moment I crossed the threshold of that ballroom, my name would disappear from some divine list, cutting me off from salvation forever.
There was no talk of eternal damnation, no talk of Hausen consorting with Satan or his minions.
It turns out not to be as dramatic as all that, and nothing like Becket at all.
Hausen now celebrates Mass in a banquet room that smells of old weddings, of 50th anniversary parties and awards dinners. It is a room with a scuffed dance floor and stained carpet and a plastic cup over the beer tap. I sit on a folding chair near the bar, a mirrored bar with an obsolete cash register and dusty champagne glasses all in a row.
Frank Zalar, the music minister, is tinkling a synthesizer in that mid-70s, Styx-ballad way. From where I'm sitting, he's to the left of the altar, which is decorated with linens and flowers and doesn't look half-bad. Frank Zalar is calling out to us that he believes in miracles, because they're all around him every day. Our clumsy delivery of the opening hymn is not masked by the hallowed echo of a cathedral. And taken out of context, we don't know our prayers, don't know when to stand, sit, kneel.
The aisles are crowded with TV cameras from all the major networks; bulbs flash and shutters clack as Hausen, in white vestments, enters stage left. At the altar, he turns and welcomes us, thanks us for our support, and reminds us that we are like the early church.
Except for Frank Zalar's musical contributions, it's business as usual: three bible readings, a homily, intentions, and communion. The Mass is the same as any other Catholic Mass I've attended. We even stand and say that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church during the Profession of Faith. But something is different. Maybe it's that Hausen, with his cornball humor, his congenial, flip delivery, seems more like a standup comic than a servant of the Lord. He's the cause for this celebration, and rather than disappearing, melting into the Mass in a sort of mystical anonymity that keeps the focus on Jesus, he seems to shine under a spotlight.
Hausen addresses us as his friends. He openly discusses his alcoholism, depression, and even his boredom as crises of faith. The Mass doesn't seem to be about worship as much as it is about this friendship. Hausen says he doesn't even like that word, worship.
"God doesn't need your worship," he says. "You don't have to love God. God is love. Loving God is like trying to make water wetter. We come to the church to learn how to love each other."
The aroma of recovery, of healing, is everywhere, and this warm and fuzzy theology of healing is part of Hausen's appeal, which is considerable. There's not yet been a survey of the congregation at Christ Hope, which is settling into a core group of about 100—but many are Catholics who have formed relationships with Hausen within the several Pittsburgh parishes he's served over the past 40 years. Many were among the 600 parishioners who signed a petition for his return to St. James in Sewickley. Hausen also assumes that many of those in attendance have been damaged in some way—either by an addiction, an unchecked emotion like depression or anger, or the Church. We can't love if we're in bondage, he says, or if we're addicted, depressed, angry, or enslaved to our emotions. This is why he's offering weekly meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, and "Biblical Spirituality." At Sacred Heart, his "Biblical Spirituality" seminar was among the best attended of the parish's adult education programs.
During the consecration, Hausen raises the host, and the photographers wake up. This is clearly the money shot. The moment he distributes the sacrament outside the Catholic Church, he's excommunicated; the moment we receive it, we're out too. Hausen turns slowly left, then right. The host looks exactly the same as it does at Sacred Heart, or at St. Paul's in Oakland: round, pale, and thin. My whole life I've struggled to believe that those weak crackers become the literal body of Christ. Now Hausen is saying it's merely a symbol. The richest of metaphors, but merely a metaphor. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a camera trained on me. No way am I going to communion.
He’s the cause for this celebration, and rather than disappearing, melting into the Mass in a sort of mystical anonymity that keeps the focus on Jesus, he seems to shine under a spotlight.
But nobody else seems to share my reservations. This is the event that will reveal their commitment to Hausen, and the congregation lines up eagerly, heads high, eyes proud, unafraid. The flashes strobe, and the cameras swing on their necks like lolling heads.
After communion, Hausen dismisses us with a final suggestion:
"While you live, live."
At the second Mass, we talk about fear.
When he comes forward to offer his homily, Hausen raises his eyes and hands to the ceiling dramatically.
"God, if it's a sin to be excommunicated, strike me down right now."
The congregation holds its breath. I cringe and look at the ceiling too, half-expecting something.
He waits a moment, then smiles and drops his hands to his sides.
"I'm still here," he says. His eyes crinkle when he smiles. He smiles often.
"The past few days, we have seen and heard a lot of fear and guilt disseminated in the news," writes Hausen in the Sunday bulletin. "We need some order in life, and if fear and guilt are the only ways one knows, they must use fear and guilt."
They must use the scary word: excommunication.
People use fear to order their lives, when they should be using love, Hausen says.
The cameras are gone today, and the electricity of media attention has dimmed, and I'm in a bad mood. I miss the cathedral and the dense perfume of incense. The light in here is too yellow and bright, and I can smell the bacon frying in the restaurant downstairs.
Hausen introduces two graduates from LaRoche College who are here as presbyters, or seminarians. They are the first priests-in-training at Christ Hope Ecumenical Catholic Church. "Now all we need is some women," he says. In the early church, the community ordained its own leaders, he reminds us again. And that's how we'll do it here.
Hausen says that the most authentic theology comes from our own experience of ourselves, of our own lives. This is either the worst kind of relativism, or he's riffing on the traditional Catholic notion that doctrine is always grounded in the sensum fidelium—the sense of the faithful. He's either Dr. Phil or St. Thomas Aquinas. I can't decide. But today I'm not feeling very generous.
Heralded by a hollow tinkling, Frank Zalar is back at his keyboard, singing, "The Holy One is Here." But Frank Zalar's hymns and responses are unfamiliar and hard to follow. We stumble along, off key and off balance. The "Our Father" has never sounded more like a soap opera theme song, sung by a chorus of dying animals. During the intentions, we pray for those of other religions, that their God, Allah, or Buddha, or whoever, will comfort them. And since it's Mother's Day, instead of the usual closing prayers, Hausen sings the Irish blessing "May the Road Rise to Meet You" to all the women in the crowd.
In my own reversion to Catholicism, I've struggled with the at times impenetrable teachings of the Church. I've searched the Catechism, an 800-page tome. So I have plenty of questions. After Mass I hang out waiting for Hausen to show up at the Q&A session that's been promised in the bulletin. I am standing in the parking lot near Building 3 of the Sewickley Country Inn, the low-slung motel that houses the new parish offices, when Frank Zalar barrels up to me and another lingering congregant and thrusts a piece of newsprint between us, jabbing his finger at the text box in the middle of the page. Frank Zalar's finger is pointing to the word Galileo, and saying with what I take for fierce pride, "They apologized for that one."
Frank Zalar is a close-talking, hand-wringing, downed powerline of a man with a two-inch pompadour that makes him about an inch taller than me when—at his insistence—we stand back to back. He's known Hausen since he was a child. He used to play his accordion at deathbeds while Hausen administered the rite of the sick, even when the smell was so bad it made him gag. F.B.—as those close to him call Father Bill—has gotten him through some of the hardest times in his life, including the death of his own father when he was 15. There's not a lot he wouldn't do for the guy.
After an hour, Frank Zalar reports that Hausen is still inside, surrounded by his congregation at the door to the ballroom. I'm ready to give up. The sun is shining hot on the asphalt parking lot, and I'm tired.
So I don't get to Hausen until after the third Mass. The usual throng has surrounded him at the door to the ballroom, snapping pictures and exchanging testimonials, but I find an opening to grab his hand.
When I do, I remind him that we met at Sacred Heart. Behind his glasses, his eyes crinkle.
"You must miss the cathedral," he says.
I don't know what to say. I'm taken aback, because it's true. He hit a nerve; the vanity of my faith is exposed.
But he just shrugs his shoulders.
"I miss it too," he assures me.
We've only talked a few moments when a woman places her hand gently on my arm. "I'm going to have to ask you to come back next week," she says when I turn to look at her. I smile and nod, and say yes, I'll come back. But then she says, "He's all our Father, you know, and we've been waiting here to talk to him for a long time." Only then do I realize what she's really saying.
In the April 30 edition of the Pittsburgh Catholic, Father Charles Bober expressed his concern for breakaway churches led by charismatic leaders:
"The difficulty of this process is that much of the life of the community depends on one individual... When the charismatic leader is no longer able to lead, what occurs?"
Hausen says his protective measure against that is strong catechesis, which he tries to deliver in his Tuesday "Biblical Spirituality" seminars. But after two two-hour sessions, the ten or so people who've shown up have barely made it through the syllabus.
What's metaphor, hyperbole, infallibility, eschatological? They want to know.
"What's an allegory?" someone asks.
Hausen offers Plato's cave as an example.
"You do know Plato's Cave?" he asks.
After a long pause, someone says, "Look, my education came from the school of hard knocks."
Hausen nods and, for a moment, thoughtfully chews his gum.
"Let's back up here," he says.
When I tell Hausen about the woman who shooed me away, we are sitting in what had earlier been Christ Hope Ecumenical Catholic Church, but is, as we speak, being redecorated for what looks like a birthday party; the crucifix and altar trimmings are gone, and the chairs have been reconfigured around tables with white tablecloths and balloon centerpieces. Still, the two of us sitting across from each other, he in his collar, I in my jeans and sweatshirt, look as if we are in a confessional.
This wasn’t catechism; it was talk therapy—a support group for lapsed Catholics.
He is disappointed by what this woman said to me, but not all that surprised. That's the problem with being a priest, he says, eyes crinkling. People get jealous. And people want to protect you. He doesn't like that so much. For these reasons, among others, it might be hard for him to marry, which, at 66, is suddenly an option for him.
This is partially why priestly celibacy makes sense, I say. Congregations are demanding.
But it is also a result of celibacy, he answers. We don't want our priests sexualized. We want them chaste. We want them neuter, and without sin. Nonetheless, he thinks it's best that priests ready their emotional lives before they ordain.
Sitting here alone with him in this motel, I do feel a little like I'm having an affair, like I'm cheating on the Church. But I get the sense he'd never ask me to leave her, that he understands the attraction: He often says that he thinks that good catholic theology is the clearest, best thinking there is. But he also thinks that bad, outdated catholic thinking makes for dangerous and stupid doctrine. How are Catholics supposed to tell the difference? He falls back on his mantra: People should find a place that feeds their common sense and their God-given right to love.
"We've got to take the best from our heritage and evolve a new way of doing it," he says. "We can't get stuck in history."
For those attending Christ Hope Church, Hausen's theories seem like plausible explanations for the crisis in the Catholic Church. Sacred Heart's membership is down from 6,300 in 1973 to 3,000—Catholics are confused and sometimes hurt by what they have misunderstood as archaic, inapplicable teachings. For them-for me, someone at the beginning of a recommitment to the faith—Hausen often sounds more logical and direct than what I've heard in rambling, incoherent homilies and unsatisfying RCIA sessions.
But I want to ask him—what about two-thousand years of developed doctrine on faith and morals? What about the transcendent beauty of the Mass? What about miracles? What about Fatima? Lourdes? What about transubstantiation, the bread and wine becoming the literal body and blood of Christ? What about submitting to a higher authority, something beyond human experience?
"Look," he tells me, "real faith is not about miracles; it's about living. If you believe you've seen the Blessed Mother on a garbage can, then good for you. But in the Gospels, the miracles have pretty much stopped by the time of the crucifixion. When Jesus was tempted by the devil—and the devil is only a metaphor, a rich symbol of doubt—it was because the devil was saying, 'Just be God, already! You don't have to go through this human shit! Turn this stone into food and I will follow you!' But Jesus accepted his humanity; he lived, he suffered, and he died. Any asshole will follow a miracle-worker.
"If you work a miracle, "Hausen says, "I'll follow you right outta this room. But real faith is about life. It's about love."
All his enthusiastic profanity makes Hausen stand out in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where the median age of a priest is 62, and most seem a lot older than that. Many of these priests are foggy, and despite their good intentions, seem utterly disconnected from the world. When, at the height of the John Kerry Wafer Watch, a woman in my RCIA class at Sacred Heart asked the presiding priest his opinion about refusing pro-choice politicians communion, he bashfully admitted that he was only vaguely aware of the controversy. Caught off guard, he wasn't able to present us with any reasoned interpretation of the controversy, wasn't able to call up doctrine or advise us at all. This was a meeting of reverting Catholics, and the numbers had already dwindled so that I feared I'd soon be the only person in the room. I could see it then, in the eyes of my classmates—confidence in this priest as a teacher was shaken, fears about anachronistic Catholic teachings were confirmed, and misconceptions of priests as mythical creatures who experience life on some higher, divine plane—disconnected from the reality and challenge of secular existence—were reinforced.
The people who have joined Hausen at Christ Hope say they yearn for a leader who lives in the world—one who is human, and struggles, and sins. Like them. And yet many of these people say they've left the Church because of the sex scandal—an unfortunate but clear reminder of the flawed humanity of many of our priests.
One of Hausen's favorite sound bytes—and he has dozens, so that if you spend enough time with him he seems to run on a loop—is that religion is for people who are afraid of hell, and spirituality is for those who have been there. "I've been there," he reminds his friends in the folding chairs. He reminds them every time he gets the chance.
But what happens when personal experience is the final authority? If we only have the truths of our own existence by which to navigate, then don't we risk following a flawed compass to the wrong destination?
For hours, he patiently answers my questions, and I have to admit that I am charmed by the way he parses his words, by his literary interpretations of scripture. I'm even touched by his renegade status, his exile out here in this lonely hotel. But I know I won't return. I'm not ready to lose my religion. Despite my own confusion and my poor catechism, I'm convinced there is something more. I am inspired by orthodoxy, even when it seems a destinationless journey. It gives me something to strive for.
While the situation in my diocese seems bleak, I see signs of new life in the larger Church. I was hopeful when John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for the liberal National Catholic Reporter, wrote earlier this year that the while covering the global church, including many seminarians, share a "hunger for a rich devotional life, a deep affection for John Paul II, and a tendency to take traditional stances on doctrinal and moral questions." On the other hand, Fr. Andrew Greeley, the doyen of liberal post-Vatican II priests, calls these new, conservative priests "." They're bent, he says, on restoring "the sort of closed, band-of-brothers mentality that the Vatican II reforms were designed to break down."
The fate of most heretics is, not surprisingly, to become too pure even for themselves.
The LA Times profiled one of these so-called young fogeys for a July 31st story, New Breed of Priests Combine Tradition and Modernity. Fr. Marcos Gonzalez, who wears wrap-around sunglasses with his old-fashioned cassock, works at a parish with an older, liberal pastor, a man similar in many ways to Hausen. But Gonzalez says of his own generation, "We are very, very faithful to the Holy Father and not in any way dissenting from the teachings of the church." And yet his pastoral approach wouldn't alienate those who attend Hausen's Christ Hope Church in Pittsburgh: 'If you tell people they're sinners who are going to hell, you've lost them. You have to show people why the church teaches what it does. I'm a firm believer in accepting people where they're at and helping them grow." Rather than alienating the older pastor, Gonzalez seems to have partially converted him. He told the LA Times that young, conservative clergy have brought new rigor to a church that had grown lax.
But I found the most convincing argument for staying with the Church—and against Hausen's breakaway—in an unlikely place: Garry Wills' book Why I am a Catholic. Wills is a loud and persistent critic of church hierarchy. Yet he still defends the unity of the Church, centered in the office of the Pope. When he justifies his decision to remain Catholic despite his many complaints, he makes the best case against heresy I've ever read:
...the heretic thinks [the Church's flaws] can be remedied by taking off a segment of the church to live a purer life, free from all corruptions acquired by the historic church. The very term 'heresy' signifies, etymologically, an elite, a 'selection' or select group... The heretic has many virtues (almost too many), but he or she is almost always a snob—the very last thing that could be said about Peter...
The fate of most heretics is, not surprisingly, to become too pure even for themselves. They are fissiparous. Having purified themselves of the larger church, they find they have to purify themselves of themselves, as they shrink into smaller and smaller centers of censoriousness. They, too, find that there is no such thing as a perfect church, even though they aimed (as the broader church did not) at perfection. They come to rely on temporal powers, on the props and impurities of living beyond the first gesture of protest, the first stance of defiance. And when reform needs reform, it often finds it more difficult to criticize its own criticism of the larger mass of the imperfect and impure...
This is the feeling that gnawed at my gut even as Hausen charmed me—that despite his good intentions and his many human virtues (almost too many), Hausen's church wasn't really about Christ or Hope, but only about itself. With all that talk about "agape," Hausen succeeded in reducing God to a verb. Something we do, not something we reach for. Something purely horizontal, with no vertical dimension. He may have wanted to teach us more about this theology, but the congregation was off and running. They only wanted to "do God" by sharing their horror stories. This wasn't catechism; it was talk therapy—a support group for lapsed Catholics. Christ Hope was built on protest, rebellion, and defiance. It wasn't built on love at all.
After our last meeting, I followed Hausen across the blacktop to Building No. 3. In the office of Christ Hope Church, he insisted that I stuff two plastic bank deposit bags full of ham salad sandwiches and cookies to take home. He happily showed me the new tabernacle, a lacquered wood cabinet that would be the home of the Blessed Sacrament, the communion host. He'd just bought it at Office Max. He unlocked the cabinet with a tiny silver key.
"I thought it was just a symbol," I said.
"Yes," he said, "Of course. But it's still very special."
At my car, he hugged me. I hugged him back.
"Keep struggling," he told me. He likes that I'm a seeker.
Then we got in our cars and went our separate ways. By the time I turned left out of the parking lot and onto Ohio River Boulevard, pointing my car toward Pittsburgh, I'd lost him. I can only imagine that he turned the other way, and drove deeper into Sewickley.