I admit, in my recent Of Many Things column, that I sometimes give in to the temptation to "tune out" the sex abuse scandal. As a Catholic journalist, I am obligated to follow the story as it unfolds; but when I can, I look away. So on Sunday morning, as I open up The Week in Review, forgive me if I skip Maureen Dowd's latest diatribe. I can read it the next day at work.
Some of the church's media critics, however, are must-reads. The New Yorker's Hendrick Herzberg is no great fan of organized religion, but he has proven himself to be a serious critic of the church who cannot be so easily dismissed as "anti-Catholic." As a result, his analysis of the church's failures stings all the more:
The Catholic Church is an authoritarian institution, modelled on the political structures of the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. It is better at transmitting instructions downward than at facilitating accountability upward. It is monolithic. It claims the unique legitimacy of a line of succession going back to the apostolic circle of Jesus Christ. Its leaders are protected by a nimbus of mystery, pomp, holiness, and, in the case of the Pope, infallibility—to be sure, only in certain doctrinal matters, not administrative ones, but the aura is not so selective. The hierarchy of such an institution naturally resists admitting to moral turpitude and sees squalid scandal as a mortal threat. Equally important, the government of the Church is entirely male.
It is not “anti-Catholic” to hypothesize that these things may have something to do with the Church’s extraordinary difficulty in coming to terms with clerical sexual abuse. The iniquities now roiling the Catholic Church are more shocking than the ones that so outraged Martin Luther. But the broader society in which the Church is embedded has grown incomparably freer. To the extent that the Church manages to purge itself of its shame—its sins, its crimes—it will owe a debt of gratitude to the lawyers, the journalists, and, above all, the victims and families who have had the courage to persevere, against formidable resistance, in holding it to account. Without their efforts, the suffering of tens of thousands of children would still be a secret. Our largely democratic, secularist, liberal, pluralist modern world, against which the Church has so often set its face, turns out to be its best teacher—and the savior, you might say, of its most vulnerable, most trusting communicants.
Another non-Catholic observer worth reading is Anthony Grafton, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. His analysis of the scandal in the latest issue deftly explores Benedict's strengths and weakness as pope:
Those who want more [from the pope]—who want emotional public scenes of reconciliation with former victims, and a clear, detailed accounting—are not likely to find satisfaction. The Pope seems to have seen priestly abuse of children, for a long time, as an American problem, rather than the general one it clearly is. He still seems to regard journalistic discussions of it as part of a broad, deliberate attack on the Church, a line that his surrogates and some outside defenders have made their own. He responds to accusations defensively, in the first instance, like many long-serving officers in powerful established institutions whose members wear uniforms and live, in some ways, outside the normal social world—think of the armed forces or the police. At bay, as he is now, he has not yet acknowledged, and may never accept, the wisdom that any competent PR consultant would offer: cover-ups are always worse than the crimes they are meant to conceal. Instead, for the most part, he has turned his spikes outward, as hedgehogs do.
But that is no reason for Catholics—or non-Catholic admirers of the Church, like the present writer—to despair. Over the centuries, the central institutions of the Church have often worked in counter-productive ways, emphasizing the powers and prerogatives of the institution over the spiritual life of the faithful. Again and again, Catholics have proved astonishingly resilient and inventive, and have come forward to offer what the hierarchical church was not providing. Under Innocent III, the Curia crystallized as a superbly effective institution, intent on rights and revenues, rather than tending to the poor and sick who were crowding into Europe’s rapidly growing industrial and trading cities.
But when Francis of Assisi founded an order of men who were willing to give up all they had and minister to the urban poor, and Dominic founded a second one of men dedicated to preaching the truth and rooting out heresies, Innocent III immediately gave both of them vital encouragement. Three centuries later, between 1534 and 1549, a very different pope, the politician and aesthete Paul III, offered warm support when Ignatius Loyola arrived in Rome with a few tattered followers and a plan to preach to former Catholics in Protestant lands and to non-Christians overseas, and when St Angela Merici created a new form of religious life for women.
It seems unlikely that Benedict is the man to transform the Church, so that it freely and frankly confronts what many priests have done to the children in their charge, and what many of their superiors did to conceal their crimes. Still less does he seem likely to remake the church into an institution that not only worships in an orderly, beautiful and theologically clear way, but also ministers to the world as it is now. But he is a great scholar, with a mind as crisp and deep as Innocent’s. He knows that the church, whatever its resources, needs its saints, and has often found them far outside the Curia. History matters to the Pope, and that gives some reason to hope that he is not looking for another Dominic, since he himself has played that role so well, and that he too will recognize the Francis or the Angela Merici of our time when he or she appears before him.
Neither Herzberg nor Grafton is Catholic, but I can recognize in their analyses the church that I belong to. So even if I may not agree with them on every point, I am grateful for their critique. If the church is going to emerge from this scandal, and once again stand as a prophetic witness to Christ's presence in the world, then it must be willing to engage its critics, whether sympathetic or skeptical. At this point no good thinking can be ignored--even if it hails from the mainstream media.