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The Inquisitor Pope As the Agent of Apostasy

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Pope Benedict XVI has since 1968 transformed from being a proponent of Vatican II modernization of the Church to an historic leader of an inquisitional war in pursuit of his view of traditional doctrinal orthodoxy. His targets have been the perceived threats of moral relativism and nihilism both within and outside the Church.

But in so doing, he has allowed the pursuit of the so-called culture wars in alliance with U.S. and international elements of the Religious Right, to distract him from a far more profound threat to the Church – the cover-up of a decades-long pedophilia crisis; one that may now entangle the pontiff himself.

Pope Benedict XVI has several monikers. His more orthodox admirers sometimes call him “God’s Rottweiler” due to his ferocious attacks on liberal Catholic dissenters from his campaign to restore and buttress traditionalist dogmas.

As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or CDF for short, (previously, and often infamously, known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) from 1981 until his ascension to the papacy in 2005), Benedict sought to root out progressive dissent. He severely disciplined proponents of Liberation Theology Anthony de Mello and Leonardo Boff.

He also set his sites on more modest dissenters. In 1986 he had the theologian Rev. Charles E. Curran removed from his faculty position at the Catholic University of America for questioning Church teachings birth control, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. During his tenure at CDF he contributed articles on moral relativism to conservative journals. Through surrogates such as Archbisop Charles Chaput and Archbishop Raymond Burke he attempted to tacitly influence the 2004 U.S. Presidential and Congressional Elections. He did this by denying Holy Communion to pro-choice (and predominantly Democratic) candidates.

Upon his ascension to the papacy, he not only continued to suppress deviation from his views of orthodoxy, but sought to shore up support among traditionalists. In one major and controversial moves, he reached out to the The Priestly Society of Saint Pius X, (also known by the acronym, SSPX) known not only for their fondness of the Latin rite, but also for the French Far Right and for featuring in its leadership Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.

As we consider Benedict’s career, a picture emerges of a hierarch so consumed with theology that everything else paled in significance, even the pedophilia scandal that is now consuming the Church. The New York Times recently observed::

As archbishop, Benedict expended more energy pursuing theological dissidents than sexual predators. Already in the early 1980s, one could catch a glimpse of a future pope preoccupied with combating any movement away from church tradition. Vatican experts say there is little evidence that Benedict spent much time investigating more than 200 cases of “problem priests” in the diocese, with issues including alcohol abuse, adultery and, now under the microscope, pedophilia.

“His natural habitat was the faculty lounge, and he hadn’t even been a faculty chair,” said John L. Allen Jr. of The National Catholic Reporter. “He would be the first to concede he was much more interested in the life of the mind than the nuts and bolts of administrative work.”

Catholicism has paid a high price for this pontiff’s obsessive lifelong interest in “the life of the mind,” while two recent news stories suggest that at best, he neglected the problem of pedophilic priests: one while serving as the Archbishop of Munich and the other while, as Perfect of the CDF, not properly addressing the matter of Father Lawrence C. Murphy, a Wisconsin priest who molested over 200 deaf boys over a twenty-five year period.

The pope’s failures are even acknowledged by the socially conservative Catholic op-ed writer, Ross Douthat. Writing in the March 29, 2010 edition of The New York Times Douthat began by prefacing his more candid observations by first misplacing some of the blame for the clergy’s pedophilia scandals on the sexual revolution of the 1960s an 1970s:

This hasn’t prevented both sides in the Catholic culture war from claiming that the scandal vindicates their respective vision of the church. Liberal Catholics, echoed by the secular press, insist that the whole problem can be traced to clerical celibacy. Conservatives blame the moral relativism that swept the church in the upheavals of the 1970s, when the worst abuses and cover-ups took place.

In reality, the scandal implicates left and right alike. The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.)

This is just conservative window-dressing. As the recent Ryan Report on the sexual abuse of minors in Ireland, this has been a problem that has been hushed-up since the 1920s. But then acknowledged:

But it was the church’s conservative instincts – the insistence on institutional loyalty, obedience and the absolute authority of clerics – that allowed the abuse to spread unpunished.

What’s more, it was a conservative hierarchy’s bunker mentality that prevented the Vatican from reckoning with the scandal. In a characteristic moment in 2002, a prominent cardinal told a Spanish audience that “I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign … to discredit the church.”

And as in 2002 the hierarchy and its defenders have resorted to a bunker mentality. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan bemoaned that the pope is “now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob, and scourging at the pillar, as did Jesus.” Current CDF Prefect Cardinal William Levada attacked the messenger, complaining, the New York Times‘s coverage of he story was, “deficient by any reasonable standards of fairness.”

Catholic League President Bill Donohue distinguished himself by descending to what may be a new low: He blamed the victims — alleging that the crisis was not about pedophilia but homosexuality because “…most of the victims were post pubescent.”

Donohue conveniently glosses over the key component of any incident of sexual abuse: the leveraging of the abuser’s power over the victim. Donohue has a record of siding with the abuser over the victim. For example, when he defended fellow conservative Catholic activist Deal Hudson, a heterosexual with a predator past for which he lost his teaching post at Fordham University. (Donohue’s premise will be the subject of my next post.)

This sad episode in Catholicism underscores the need for greater transparency and accountability from the hierarchy. Power always seems to come before the personal well-being of the congregants. Accountability is avoided. In its place, members of the Church hierarchy brazenly seek to be exempted from the rules that apply to everyone else.

Astonishingly, in this dark hour for Catholicism, the hierarchy is actively opposing legislation now pending in the New York State assembly the Child Victims Act. The bill would temporarily lift the statute of limitations for lawsuits alleging the sexual abuse of children. (No wonder why many on the Catholic Right rail at the notion of separation of church and state!)

But beyond the political aspects of this crisis is another question.

An uncle of mine asked what about the potential fallout from the Vatican’s intransigency on the abuse issue. I told him that that many rank-and-file Catholics would become estranged from the Church. These Catholics will either join other Christian denominations or perhaps, give up on faith all together. In either outcome, the pope who made a career in fighting apostasy by seeking to quell progressive dissent will have turned out to be the agent of apostasy itself.

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2 Responses

  1. Frank, thank you for another outstanding posting. This piece fits well with what you’ve previously posted about the deliberate, top-down schism that the Catholic right wishes to provoke in the church. For political reasons.

    Your conclusion seems absolutely correct to me. In fact, before reading your article, I had just posted a response to a reader at this site, asking who will be left, after we’ve created and enforced one rule after another to decide who is holy enough to be permitted to remain in our club.

    I look forward to your follow-up posting about Mr. Donohue and his crony Mr. Hudson. You make an extremely important point about Donohue’s ephebophilia thesis–that the abuse crisis is really about gay priests involved with adolescent boys.

    As you note, though this thesis is designed to shift blame from the hierarchy to gay priests, it also implicitly blames the youth who are abused, by implying that they consent to their own molestation.

    This is sick thinking. And evil.

  2. “Catholicism has paid a high price for this pontiff’s obsessive lifelong interest in ‘the life of the mind'”

    Benedict has opposed those with practical, real life experience. Then he silenced theologians who have responded in pastoral ways as they grappled with many of those practical and real life experiences.

    It is not a Happy Easter in the Catholic Church today.

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