More on the Heat & Pope Benedict

My colleague and friend Austen Ivereigh has an important post below about the sexual abuse crisis and the way Pope Benedict XVI is now involved in addressing it. The situation in Germany itself, and in Regensberg particularly, has raised the possibility that some enterprising journalist will be searching the files in Munich, where Ratzinger was briefly archbishop, to see how he dealt with any cases of abuse. He quotes a Reuters article that included the now requisite question about leadership amidst a scandal: what did he know and when did he know it?

I would submit that this is the wrong question. If anything is clear by now, it is clear that the sexual abuse of minors by clergy was not the product of a bad decision here or lax oversight there. The sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up of that abuse were the twin products of a clerical culture that remains largely in place and of a continuing fear that any honest discussion about sexual matters will expose a crisis of belief. The dirty secret is that many bishops are too isolated to know it, and others are too afraid to admit it, but many of the people in the pews don’t believe what the Church teaches about sexual morality any more.


As to the clerical culture, the need for transparency and accountability to be introduced into the system remains the principal priority for the Church is she is to re-establish her hierarchy in the minds and hearts of the faithful. Here in the U.S., for all of its problems, the Dallas Charter was a huge step forward, and other countries should consider adopting it in a form modified to their unique ecclesiastical arrangements. That said, not all dioceses are in compliance with the Charter and if it is to have teeth, the Pope should demand the resignation of any bishop who fails to comply with its provisions.

The Pope also needs to make clear that he will not tolerate any obfuscation of responsibility by hierarchs. The recent spate of resignations by bishops in Ireland was a good start. Benedict should demand the resignation of any bishop who helped cover-up the sexual abuse of minors. He must know by now that the crisis started with sexual abuse the way Watergate started with a burglary: It is the cover-up that followed that has become the scandal now. And while it is undoubtedly true that in the 70s and 80s different beliefs were held, not only by churchmen but by psychiatrists and doctors about the possibility of reforming a pedophile, that truth is now irrelevant. Both at the time of Napoleon’s rise and after World War II, Rome forced the resignation of many bishops in France for reasons no more or less forceful than those found in the current situation.

The crisis of belief about the Church’s moral teachings is a more complicated thing to address. During the height of the sexual abuse crisis in America, in 2002, I wrote the following: "[T]he church cannot preach sexual ethics in a vacuum; one reason its message has failed so utterly is because American Catholicism has reduced religion to morality and specifically to sexual morality. Unfortunately, because the liberalism of the public sphere requires that we set our dogmatic claims aside, the Church's cultural position invites just such a reduction. In an article in the Catholic quarterly Communio, theologian Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete commented: "It is a great temptation for the Church to reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to the public forum." Few would argue that the Church's moral teachings, standing on their own, are persuasive in today's culture. But they were never meant to stand on their own. What is distinctive about Catholicism is not the manner in which its members copulate, but how we pray and to whom. This core sense of wonder at the admittedly large claims of the Catholic faith--that God himself came down from Heaven, was born of a virgin, walked upon the Earth, died, and rose from the dead--and the wonder they must necessarily inspire to those who hold them, are what the Church must reclaim if its credibility is to be restored. Unless a bishop or theologian can trace his views on moral issues to the empty tomb of Easter morning, there is nothing distinctively Christian or Catholic about them." Those words still ring true and you can read the full article here.

No one has been more clear in opposing this reduction of religion to ethics than Pope Benedict. In that sense, he is the perfect man to have at the helm and it would be a crime if his voice were to be silenced because some journalist finds evidence, probably murky all these years later, about his administration of the archdiocese of Munich. The Pope, however, must be pro-active in this regard, in a way that he was not during the meeting with the Irish bishops. He must speak out, and speak from the heart, and speak from the Gospel. What did he know and when did he know it? The sex abuse crisis exists in the culture of the Church, and that culture must change, not just the rules for admission to seminary. The Pope knows that and he has known it for a long time.

Michael Sean Winters


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James Lindsay
8 years 4 months ago
The addition of the empty tomb in Catholic sexual morality and ethics is all the more reason that such ethics must meet the test of a God who is meek and humble of heart, who yoke is easy and his burden, light. In other words, reference to authority is not adequate for such a humanistic Gospel. Indeed, ethics propounded in the name of a perfect God must be man centered, since a perfect God has no interest in the morality of man save God's love for human beings, that they may lead lives of love. When Jesus said be perfect as my Father is perfect, he was refering to His Father's perfect love, not to perfect obedience to the law. Of course, the Church's teaching on several points are incompatible with such a view of the Law of Love, rather than centuries of mysogny dating from the fourth century which claimed that sexuality and spirituality are incompatible.

I see no way a celibate clergy can change this situation. Let's pray for a miracle, as this is what it will take (starting with the consecration of some Abbesses to the Episcopacy).
Molly Roach
8 years 4 months ago
I have to object to the argument that in the 70's and 80's no one knew about the compulsions related to pedophilia.  I was a social worker in the late 70's and I did child protective work and among my clients were children who were sexually abused by some adult in their lives-mostly by mom's boyfriends.  Anyway, if our bishops had taken themselves down the hall to visit Catholic Social Services and consulted with their social workers, they would have benefited from the encounter. The social workers I knew and worked with in those days knew you kept pedophiles away from children once identified.  It's interesting that you use the term "beliefs."   The better term is wishful thinking and it all points to 3rd rate leadership.  These men may be fine canon lawyers and fundraisers and even theologians.  They are not good leaders, have not been for sometime and a lot of innocent people have paid a heavy price for that.
8 years 4 months ago
Michael, I would like to add a few comments to your excellent post.  Now that the wall of silence has been broken in the church, it seems to me that the church in its universality has a unique opportunity in this crisis to be a prophetic witness for all of humankind.  Child abuse-physical, sexual, neglect-is rife throughout many, if not all, cultures.  It is found in civic and religious institutions,  schools and primarily in the home.  The church's priorities must be the meeting of victims' needs and as you said, transparency and accountability.  A thorough housecleaning of the church. I hope we as the Body of Christ do not stop with these goals.  Pope Benedict, so often and so elequently, calls for the meeting of faith and reason.  I wonder why the enormous resources of Catholics can't be put to use in a thoroughgoing examination of the causes of child abuse.  Brilliant minds in tandem with a living Faith would do wonders. In America, faithful Catholics are active in academia, media, medicine, social services, the law, etc. etc.  Where are we not found?!  Why can't Catholics who are leaders in their fields take on this most important challenge?  We give a lot of lip service to the needs and rights of children, That is simply not enough.  As my model, Blessed Dorothy Day said:  "No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless.  There's too much work to do."
We are a suffering church.  It is well to remember that the Holy Spirit is still active in the church in spite of our sinfulness.  The God-Man who died and rose again will always be with us.  All we need to do is ask.


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