At the school I attended as a child, any and all queries by parents about the standard of teaching or the content of the syllabus would be met by the stock response: “Take your child elsewhere, then.” End of criticism, since to be Catholic meant an obligation to raise one’s children as Catholic, and taking the child to a state school would put at risk their immortal soul. In the smallest and in the largest detail, the power of the Catholic clergy was, as remains, absolute.
A trivial example to be sure – but one typical of the mindset that I believe to lie at the heart of the child abuse scandal that is now shaking the Catholic Church. Yes, the vow of celibacy is a contributing cause – one that can and should be rescinded. As Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil once conceded, the vow of celibacy is not dogma. As St Mark’s gospel points out, St Peter was a married man, and so were many of the priests who followed in Peter’s footsteps, until the Middle Ages. The subsequent role of sexual repression in driving religious fervour has been damaging to the humanity of all concerned. At the schools I attended, one knew who the abusers were and tried to avoid them – by trying to keep friends always present, or by ensuring that one would not be seen as good altar boy material.
The vow of celibacy though, provides only the lighted match. The room full of gunpowder is the position of absolute moral power and the related imperative to steer the ecclesiastical ship on course, down through the centuries. Put such power and the sense of an eternal mission into the hands of imperfect men, and it will dehumanize many of them, and elevate only a few to sanctity. The difficulty for this Pontiff is that – looking back and looking ahead – he seems so much a part of the problem, and is not conceivably a part of the solution.
Looking back to his time as head of the Office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it is now a commonplace observation that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was far more bothered by issues of theological dissent than by the incidence of child abuse, and its possible causes. Even in the field of theological dissent Ratzinger had always shown clear political preferences. He was for instance, highly agitated about the rise of liberation theology in Central and South America, viewed it as a communist deviation and disciplined the liberation priests for their involvement in politics – while rebel priests in Eastern Europe who were fighting communism were praised and supported by the Church, for their political activism.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Ratzinger largely devoted himself to combatting the likes of Hans Kung, Leonardo Boff and the founder of liberation theology, Gustavo Guiterrez. Guiterrez had preached that sin and the occasions of sin arose from the social structures that created poverty as much (or more) as from the personal failings of the individuals concerned. “Poverty is not fate,” Guiterrez wrote. “it is a condition; it is not a misfortune, it is an injustice. It is the result of social structures and mental and cultural categories, it is linked to the way in which society has been built, in its various manifestations.” A Church that virtually ignored the causes of poverty, that treated sin as being purely personal and that refused to regard social structures as being in themselves sinful and conducive to sin was – to Guiterrez and his colleagues – both blind and heartless.
Two decades later, and faced with the need to acknowledge and condemn the structural causes for the child abuse epidemic, Ratzinger (as Pope Benedict) seems just as blind, and just as inflexible. So far, the Vatican response to the problem has been to locate it among the allegedly few priests in error, and not within the structure of the institution. It would be detrimental to the sense of eternal mission perhaps, to think otherwise. After all, Pope Benedict and his predecessor John Paul II have spoken of the need to foster Catholicism as a “creative minority” that is keeping the torch of faith alive during this dark period of materialism.
In other words, the Ratzinger/Benedict view of the Church and its mission is inherently defensive. It is a vision of a Church bunkered down against the current tide of history. This is not a mindset conducive to self-examination, and to an apology bound to corrective action. It is a mindset inclined to view itself as being under persecution on this, and many other issues. No real surprise then, that the Pope’s representative should have recently likened the media criticism of the Church to the workings of anti Semitism – specifically, in the way that criticism has shifted from the alleged sins of the reported few to a general condemnation.
As all now tend to agree, this was a remarkably insensitive analogy. The Jews, as the US writer Leon Weiseltier has pointed out, suffered a lot more than just some bad press, and they did so with the complicity of the same Catholic Church that is now wishing to borrow moral credibility out of likening itself to the Jews, under persecution. This is the same Catholic Church that was a bulwark of the fascist Franco regime in Spain – and which has recently canonized the founder of Opus Dei, one of Franco’s spiritual stalwarts. It should be wary of rewriting history to cast itself in the role of victim.
For now, the response from the Vatican remains defensive, as in this “nothing new, not his fault” article from the British magazine The Tablet. The Pope himself has been using the term “petty gossip” to describe damning reports such as this one
in the New York Times. It is not nearly enough. Not for the victims of abuse, and especially not when the Church remains so politically active as a moral authority within the material world of politics. As Katha Pollitt wrote recently in The Nation,
The same institution that has dealt so indulgently with its ordained pedophiles had no problem excommunicating a Brazilian mother who sought an abortion for her 9-year-old daughter, raped and impregnated with twins by her stepfather, or pushing for laws in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile banning abortion even to save the woman’s life.
Most Catholics take a flexible view of the church’s teachings on sexuality. They use birth control–how else could Italy, Spain and Poland have among the lowest birthrates in the world? They divorce and remarry, use condoms to prevent STDs, undergo in vitro and other banned fertility treatments and even have abortions. Yet there were the bishops, holding the whole [Obama] healthcare reform bill hostage to their opposition to abortion rights, advising on the crafting of language right in the halls of Congress. And….it was the Conference of Catholic Bishops that worked alongside Republican Congressmen Chris Smith, Joe Pitts and Mike Pence to insert last-minute language denying HIV-positive women access to contraceptives and favoring abstinence-only-until-marriage policies in the 2008 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
We can’t force it to ordain women and married men, or value a woman’s life over a fertilized egg, or see homosexuality as something other than, in Pope John Paul II’s memorable words, “intrinsic moral evil.” Catholics themselves will have to do that, whether by leaving the church in numbers large enough to get the bishops’ attention or by organizing within it.
Ironically, one of those internal voices recently urging the Vatican to re-examine the vow of celibacy has been the Pope’s old combatant, Hans Kung.
As Kung conceded, abuse was found also in families, schools and other churches.
But he asked: “Why is it so prevalent in the Catholic Church under celibate leadership?” He said that celibacy was not the only cause of the misconduct but described it as “the most important and structurally the most decisive” expression of the Church’s uptight attitude to sex.
Citing the New Testament, he says that Jesus and St Paul practised celibacy but “allowed full freedom in this matter to each individual”. St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians wrote: “Because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Peter and the apostles were married and their ministries did not suffer, he said, pointing out that thousands of priests protested when the new law was introduced as late as the 11th century.
Father Kung said: “Compulsory celibacy is the principal reason for today’s catastrophic shortage of priests, for the fatal neglect of eucharistic celebration, and for the tragic breakdown of personal pastoral ministry in many places.”
He argues that there are two simple solutions to the shortage of priests: “Abolition of the celibacy rule, the root of all these evils, and the admission of women to ordination.
The bishops know all this, Kung concluded – “ but they do not have the courage to say it in public.”