Of Popes and Politicians
“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” – Matthew 25-45
[Author’s Note: I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, complete with its stereotypical Irish priests and starchy nuns all too fond of rapping the knuckles with the metal edges of a 12 inch ruler. I attended catechism faithfully, if somewhat unwillingly, until my late teens, and during that whole time I believed in what I was being told. It wasn’t until much later that I came to question the teachings of the Church, in particular its stances on abortion and birth control, and began having serious doubts about its sense of direction. While I was never the victim of molestation myself, I am deeply aggrieved for the victims of priestly abuse and their families. This essay was spawned from a sense of shame and the nagging feeling that maybe, just maybe, there was something I could have done, or might yet be able to do.]
The recent revelations that Pope Benedict XVI may have been personally aware of the presence of an active child molester, and did nothing about it, have prompted a firestorm of debate about the actual piety of his leadership. To many Catholics, the revelations have come as a serious blow to their faith, prompting questions of whether or not the Church has placed the needs of the institution over the needs of its flock. While the Church has a long and colorful history straddling the line between the religious and secular, many now feel that the balance may have tipped too far toward the secular, or the political. To many, the pope’s stance was eerily similar to recent utterances from government officials relating to the recent bank bailouts, which offered the questionable justification that what was “good for the economy” is apparently “good for all”. Neither position was received very warmly by the general populace, and both were greeted with a chorus of questions dominated by the recurrent theme of “How could you have let things get to this point?” Perhaps it’s time for the Church to change.
For many Catholics, the Pope’s declaration that the protection of the church should take precedence over the protection of a victimized child was a slap in the face to the very essence of their beliefs. The Church, once perceived as the dominant institution of the Christian faith, was now shown to be little more than just another political body, more concerned with its own self-preservation than the well being of, and in this case, the physical safety of its members. This realization has shaken many of its members to their very cores, raising questions about one of the key foundations of their faith. If the leader of the Church chooses the institution over its followers, what does that mean with regard to the direction of our faith? Has the Church’s current leadership (to borrow a line from the film Grosse Point Blank), developed a “certain moral flexibility”, and decided to take this rather grotesque opportunity to announce a shift in philosophy? Should all spiritual questions now be considered with an air of secular concern? Are the teachings of Christ also subject to political interpretation?
These are just a few of the questions being asked by Catholics worldwide, but what many overlook is that the Church has always possessed a political side, one that has been in operation since its very inception. One of the fundamental reasons for the success of the early Church was the Apostle’s keen awareness of the benefits of political maneuvering into achieving specific goals. The Pope is, above all, an elected official, chosen not solely for his spirituality but also his ability to lead an army of priestly shepherds in the care and spiritual feeding of their flocks. He is not only a clerical official, but a politician of the first right, a chief executive officer for what amounts to one of the largest financial concerns in the world. He is expected to exercise an iron willed authority over a vast bureaucracy that spans the entirety of the planet. While many Catholics have come to tolerate a certain requirement for political acumen, they have traditionally taken comfort in the fact that there was usually some spiritual foundation beneath the maneuvering. What’s different this time around is that a protectionist stance on child molestation displays no such evidence of spiritually. Many feel that this feeble defense of the realm might, in effect, be signaling a dangerous paradigm shift where the Church’s has begun to justify its behavior in terms more suited to the secular than the spiritual.
To these disturbed believers, the Church is beginning to look less like an institution of faith and more like a national political party operating on the assumption that it, and only it, knows what is best for its followers. Priests have begun adopting language depicting their beliefs as the only right and true path to God, challenging anyone who dares question their leadership with accusations of lapses of faith or outright heresy. This “my way or the highway” approach to religious leadership is all too reminiscent of the Bush Administration’s “you’re either with us or against” approach to rounding up support for the Iraq war. As revelation after revelation of misbehavior and mismanagement has slipped into the spotlight of international media, the Church’s responses have taken on a similar sheen to that of a politician trying to salvage the last threads of his dignity after being caught engaged a little “extracurricular activity”.
As more similarities emerge, it is perhaps time to consider the option of treating the Church the same way we treat our politicians. Child molestation is the single worst crime a priest can commit. It is not only a violation of the body, but a murder of faith – a crass exploitation of both belief and trust. It is an act that destroys everything a child has come to believe, while simultaneously poisoning his future and cursing his past. Priests guilty of such crimes should be treated no differently than secular criminals of the same bent. Why shouldn’t a priest be subject to the civil and moral laws they preach to their followers? A Church that argues that its historical importance could be damaged by the acknowledgement of failures within its staff has demonstrated that it wishes to be held to a different set of standards than those it sets upon its followers. It is the height of hypocrisy, and worthy of the scorn it receives because of the simple fact it reveals a ridiculous lack of honesty and a failure of basic integrity in congregational leadership.
It is time that the Catholic Church comes to recognize the significance of its failings and offer an honest and forthright apology for its actions (or lack thereof). If it fails to do, then Catholics around the world need to ask themselves if maybe it is time to rise up with one voice and demand that change occur. If the Church chooses to act in a secular manner, it should be informed that it will be held to secular standards – that it shall be expected to accept accountability in a manner reflecting its political desires. Members of the Catholic faith need to realize that they alone can control the future direction of their Church, and they should demand the voice to do so. Regardless of the doctrine of papal infallibility, even the Pope is human and capable of mistakes, and in this case, the mistakes were ones all too horrible and with repercussions all too permanent. Catholics are right to be outraged, and equally correct in their demands that a papal resignation is a suitable punishment for such an outrageous failure. The Church needs to return to the business of tending the spiritual needs of its faithful rather than the physical needs of its leadership. Faith remains for the flock to define, and they should be the sole delegates responsible for electing the leadership they deserve.