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Belated Thanks to Roger Mahony

As my first book was going through the publishing process at Ignatius Press, the editors sought endorsements from prominent Catholics. Among those who were asked for a blurb was Roger Mahony, then Archbishop of Los Angeles, a see to which he was appointed in 1985. (Six years later he was named a cardinal.)

Three weeks after receiving the manuscript of my book, Mahony replied to Ignatius Press with a letter dated January 28, 1988:

“I am very enthusiastic about the new book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, by Karl Keating, and I hasten to offer my support and endorsement for this book.

“The book is a fine defense of the Catholic Faith in the context of Fundamentalism’s widely accepted claims against the Roman Catholic Church as a ‘cult,’ a ‘perverted form of Christianity,’ and ‘one of the cruelest institutions in the history of Western civilization.’ It is also a fine exposition of the false assumptions—historical and doctrinal—which underlie Fundamentalism’s claims against the Church.

“Furthermore, this new book takes the main claims of Fundamentalism—its own doctrines as well as its anti-Catholic positions—and refutes them with convincing argumentation. The book also discourses well on the scriptural basis of Catholic doctrine and offers the reader a means of responding to Fundamentalism’s anti-Catholicism.”

The publisher considered this a fine and generous endorsement, and so did I, but there was more, something not even asked for:

“Not only do I endorse this book with enthusiasm,” wrote Mahony, “but I am also pleased to grant both the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur, should you find that helpful.”

It was found helpful, and Mahony’s imprimatur was used, even though doing so constituted a bit of an irregularity. Under canon law, the imprimatur may be granted by the bishop of the diocese where the author lives (I reside in San Diego) or the bishop of the diocese where the publisher is located (Ignatius Press is in San Francisco).

I suppose it was a bit of a stretch to have the Archbishop of Los Angeles grant the imprimatur, but perhaps use was made of the fact that Los Angeles is the metropolitan diocese in Southern California—that is, that Los Angeles has a certain pre-eminence over the other dioceses of the area, even if it doesn’t quite have jurisdiction over them.

When I later had a chance to meet Mahony, he told me that, once he had received the manuscript, he read it straight through. He made other kind remarks about the book, and I was grateful that a prominent prelate thought the book to be useful.

That was not the only kindness Mahony displayed toward me. In September 1988, entirely at his own initiative and not in response to any request from me, he wrote to all of the priests of the archdiocese:

“I am very pleased to recommend to you an organization called Catholic Answers.

“The attached sheet indicates their background and activities, and I cannot recommend Mr. Karl Keating and his group more highly to you. They give an excellent presentation on the real meaning of Fundamentalism and the various sects which operate so widely here in Southern California.

“Several of our parishes have already had Mr. Keating speak and give workshops, and I would recommend that you consider him for your ongoing adult education effort.”

This endorsement was sent just eight months after I went into full-time apologetics work. Over the next few years my colleagues and I gave many parish seminars in the Los Angeles area. I’m sure we would not have had so many had it not been for Mahony’s encouragement.

In those early years, we drove up from San Diego in the late afternoon, after preparing our materials at the office (we took much literature, very little of which, at that time, was produced by us). Usually it was three of us and lots of boxes crammed into a van.

At the parish, we arranged our tables, gave the presentation, and then answered questions for as long as anyone was interested in sticking around. The seminar itself might conclude by 9:00, but often we found ourselves going one-on-one in the parking lot far past midnight. It wasn’t uncommon for us to get back to the office around 2:00 a.m.

At best, on the way up, we’d have a chance to stop for a snack, so by the time everything was over, we were famished. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much open in the wee hours other than Denny’s. We got to know its menu all too well.

Some weeks we had multiple engagements in the Los Angeles area. We’d drive up for parish A on Tuesday, parish B on Thursday, parish C on Friday, and parish D on Saturday. We put lots of miles on the van and lots of miles on ourselves. One week I kept a tally of how long I worked: 101 hours. After that, I no longer kept a record.

As tiring as those trips were, they laid the foundation for Catholic Answers’ public presentations. They allowed us to refine our talks, hone our arguments, and polish our styles. After a while, we discovered that we could handle whatever a questioner might ask. We didn’t flail, as we sometimes did when we first went on the road. It was a wonderful, educative experience, even if exhausting.

It would have been different if Roger Mahony hadn’t endorsed my book and endorsed my organization. In 1990 he celebrated Mass at the very first Catholic Answers national conference, which was held in Long Beach. After that, we more or less lost touch. He became a cardinal the next year, and not only did his duties change in important ways, but so too did his interests and, perhaps, some of his opinions.

Eventually he came to be considered the dean of the liberal wing of the Church in America. It may be that his views changed about the kind of work and the kind of approach that Catholic Answers has engaged in. I don’t know.

I do know that for the next twenty years, until his retirement, he was the frequent object of complaints by orthodox Catholics. For many, he was their bete noire. At the end, he was embroiled in the abuse scandal and had his administrative wings clipped by his successor. He ended in semi-disgrace.

In all those years I never wrote anything against him. There wasn’t much need to. Plenty of others were eager enough to take him to task; there was justification for that. There was no good reason for me to pile on. I had nothing to say that hadn’t been said by many others.

That was part of the reason I didn’t go after him, but the main reason was that I remember when someone does me an unexpected kindness—or, as in his case, more than one. I honor that because, I think, it’s the honorable thing to do.

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