Editor’s Note: This article resulted from a conversation with one of my poker buddies, whose mother, a sincerely devout Catholic and member of the lay group, Voice of the Faithful, has been threatened with excommunication, because she wants her church to be better than it is. I’m not Catholic myself, nor have I ever been Catholic, but I can sympathize with those who feel great devotion to the institution, and now find it both an embarrassment and a disappointment. This is the second article I’ve done on the this subject — the first, written in 2002 for the Fairfield Weekly, was a much more clever and nasty piece, which was meant to be, at least partially, tongue-in-cheek.
Pope Benedict “looked weary” during the Good Friday homily, according to the AP story, as Raniero Cantalamessa, his personal preacher, compared the mounting outrage over the church’s handling of its sex scandals to the “collective violence” visited on the Jews. Meanwhile, the Vatican’s endless obfuscations of its pedophilia problems have made many Catholics equally weary.
Cantalamessa’s sermon was part of the church’s continuing effort to paint itself as the victim. Google the phrase “the last acceptable prejudice,” and you’ll find no one making that claim more relentlessly than the Catholic church. And its clumsy attempt to equate questioning and criticism with the persecution of the Jews has been an embarrassment.
It’s difficult to visualize the richest and most-powerful religion in the world as a bullied victim, after nearly 2,000 years of being the leading persecutor of the Jews. Stephan Kramer, general-secretary of Germany’s General Council of Jews, correctly branded Cantalamessa’s homily “repulsive, obscene and … offensive to all abuse victims.”
Equating legitimate criticisms with brutal, centuries-long persecutions is inane and irrational. And it didn’t help that this nonsense was followed by an Easter mass, during which Cardinal Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, labeled honest concerns about the pope’s complicity in aiding and abetting criminal priests “vile smear operations” and “petty gossip.”
Cantalamessa called skepticism about the Vatican’s handling of the sex scandal “attacks against the church, the pope and all the faithful of the whole world.” Such hyperbole is patently false. First, although people are questioning church policies, asking for accountability is not an attack. Given the church’s decades-long track record on this subject, it’s surprising the “attacks” have been so polite.
Besides, the criticisms are not some generalized assault on people of faith overall, they’re more specific than that — they’re directed not against faithful Catholics, but their leaders. And, the most-emotional attacks are coming, not from Jews or even from agnostics and liberals in the media (as the conservative press insists), but from devout Christians — “the faithful of the whole world.”
The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently told the BBC that the Catholic church’s mishandling of the pedophilia problem in Ireland has caused the church to “lose all credibility,” which he called a problem for “everybody in Ireland.” The Catholic reaction, posted on the Dublin archdiocese’s website, was that they didn’t deserve to see such comments on Easter weekend.
Equally vocal has been the outrage from inside Catholicism itself. More than one devout Catholic has been threatened with excommunication for joining Voice of the Faithful (VoTF), a Catholic lay group that demands explanations from its leadership. Evidently, begging for answers from the hierarchy is considered heretical.
The Bridgeport Diocese’s chapter of VoTF is forced to meet at the First Congregational Church in Norwalk, because members are banned from meeting in their own churches. Small wonder VoTF’s chairman Daniel Sullivan has asked publicly if “the present structure of church governance accords with the concept of the People of God,” given that “bishops have absolute power over all the faithful, without any checks or balances.”
Conservative church leaders are now circling the wagons and coming after the usual suspects. A Catholic League ad in The New York Times claimed the sexual abuse scandal is really a crisis of homosexuality, not pedophilia. The group’s reactionary, homophobic leader, Bill Donohue, asserts “a connection between homosexuality and sexual abuse of minors,” even though gays are statistically less likely to be child molesters than heterosexuals.
On the right-wing Fox News Channel, commentator Liz Trotta claimed the The New York Times’ coverage of the issue is part of its agenda of “making homosexuality acceptable, making gay marriage acceptable and making abortion acceptable, and the Roman Catholic church stands in their way.” You have to wonder if she also believes VoTF, which is asking similar questions, has the same agenda.
Benedict’s pontificate has shown a tin ear in dealing with allegations of pedophilia and the associated cover-ups, which now involve the papacy itself. According to the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who’s been involved in U.S. litigation involving sexual abuse in the church, the problem is the Vatican’s centuries-long culture of secrecy, coupled with its aversion to accountability before the secular world.
Despite claims the current pope has played no role in protecting pedophiles, a 1985 letter, signed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, has surfaced that cites “the good of the universal church” as a reason for opposing the removal of Rev. Stephen Kiesle, a priest with a record of molesting children in the Diocese of Oakland. Naturally, Vatican leaders have refused comment.
Circling the wagons this way is unnecessary. Catholicism has survived Crusades, the Inquisition, witch trials, and its persecutions of heretics, women, Jews and scientists. As heinous as the pedophilia scandal and the hierarchy’s role in abetting it may be, the church has endured far worse self-inflicted wounds.
The church will certainly survive, but the question is, survive as what? Isn’t it time its leadership cleared the air, and recalled what their founder, a persecuted Jew named Jesus said: “For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
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