Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Re-Forming "the Vatican" Doesn't Mean Destroying the Church

I share in this post one of the most powerful commentaries I’ve read on the clergy sex abuse scandal and the moral bankruptcy of the Roman Catholic Church’s clerical leadership. It also provides a good summary of events currently unfolding in Europe concerning this scandal, and the role that Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has played in it.

Some, of course, will dismiss the perspective of this article because its author, Peter Finocchiaro, is “no longer a person of faith.” That would be a mistake. Indeed there are many people of faith, many Catholics, who would whole-heartedly agree with Finocchiaro that “an institution so warped by anachronistic notions of tradition — and gripped so fully by the instinct for self-preservation that it would endorse such vicious means to an end — doesn’t deserve to exist in its current form any longer.”

Does such a statement imply the destruction of “the Church”? Of course not. The Church is – and always has been – bigger than its office holders, bigger than “the Vatican.” Such terms refer to but one component of the Church – an important one, but still only one. It cannot be taken as comprising the totality of the Church.

Also, the idea that the current corrupt and dysfunctional expression of clerical leadership, or “papalism,” is what Jesus envisioned as the Church, against which “the gates of Hell would not prevail,” is both preposterous and repugnant – not to mention theologically unsound. In my view, it’s those Catholics calling and demanding reform and renewal of the institutional component of the Church – and not the office holders within this component – who are ensuring that the “gates of Hell” do not ultimately prevail.

Following is Peter Finocchiaro’s article in its entirety.


The Vatican Owes More Than
an Act of Contrition

By Peter Finocchiaro

The Cornell Daily Sun
March 16, 2010

Just before his ascension to the head of the Catholic world in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI — then Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals — railed against moral relativism in modern society. He has returned to this rebuke often, blaming “the dictatorship of relativism” for the prevalence of all kinds of sins that the Catholic Church’s hard-line conservative base perceives.

So adamant has the Pope been in his conviction that there are moral absolutes — pure good and unqualified evil — that one begins to wonder why this righteous certitude has so often been compromised during his time as a man of God. If there were ever such a thing as evil, Ratzinger has stared it straight in the face, particularly in the actions of clergymen under his jurisdiction. But rather than accord with the principles he so often professes, he has instead turned a blind eye to monstrosities, over and over again.

“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins ...”

Most are probably weary by now of the seemingly endless string of incriminations, tying members of the Catholic clergy to acts of pedophilia. The details of the sexual abuse aren’t just gruesome. They’re downright repugnant and an affront to every standard of decency we have. But, while the grisly truth is hard to stomach, we unfortunately need to cast our attention to that dark place once again.

Though the story has gotten little play thus far in the States, new allegations of abuse — committed over a span of decades in countries all across Europe — have been surfacing in recent weeks and months. These allegations cast a harsh light on the edifice of the Church, not least because they make clear the lengths to which Catholic leadership has gone to conceal the nature and scope of the misdeeds from public scrutiny.

Of particular note is a story of abuse that occurred in Germany. In 1979, a priest took a boy — now only known as Wilfried F. — to a remote location in the Bavarian Alps. Over the course of the trip, the 11-year-old was submitted to sexual abuse by his ostensible guardian, described here by Slate’s Christopher Hitchens: “[The boy] was administered alcohol, locked in his bedroom, stripped naked and forced to suck the penis of his confessor.”

“Because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell ...”

The nature of the subsequent cover-up should offend everyone. After catching wind of the abuse, Ratzinger — at that time the archbishop of the diocese in question — relocated the offending priest for some form of rehabilitation. It wasn’t long, however, before the man was restored to his position, and thus given free reign to continue tormenting children.

But there’s more. Beginning in 2001, when he was a senior official under Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger oversaw the Church’s effort to distance itself from the widespread allegations of child molestation — which had gripped the U.S. — and performed damage control to shield the Vatican from culpability. In short order, he issued commands to every Catholic bishop dictating that anyone who so much as hinted at priestly abuse would face excommunication. The implication was that the Church was above the law, subject not to the codes of secular bodies, but only to that of the Holy See.

“But most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love ...”

Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian journalist and scholar of history, penned an article last Thursday — published in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper — which tackled the subject of child abuse and the priesthood. In it, she argues that, “a greater female presence [in the Church] ... would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past so often covered the reporting of these misdeeds with silence.” That same day, Austrian Archbishop Christoph Schonborn became the most senior member of the Catholic hierarchy to suggest a link between the vow of celibacy — a requirement of all priests — and acts of sexual abuse.

Though calls for reform to Roman Catholic practices — particularly with regard to celibacy and the role of women — have been sounding for years, perhaps now, when the religion’s highest authority has been thrust in the middle of the controversy, some progress might actually be made.

And it wouldn’t be a moment too soon. The election of Ratzinger to the papacy in 2005 was an endorsement of Catholic arch-conservatism, and a tacit refusal to address the legacy of egregious sexual misconduct that had been hidden in the shadows for decades.

First thing’s first, though, Ratzinger should resign the papacy. It is fairly clear that his involvement in the cover-ups — as archbishop of Munich in 1979, and as the dean of the College of Cardinals this past decade — was both complicit and far-reaching. His moral authority is beyond compromised, and his continued dominion over the spirituality of a billion Catholics around the world is a travesty.

“I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

Though I was raised and confirmed Catholic, I am no longer a person of faith. While my argument here is not that of a devout Christian, it is that of someone who understands that spirituality has a role to play in many people’s lives. It’s easy to be cynical about religion, but I’ve always resisted that impulse, in spite of my differences of opinion with many aspects of Catholic teachings

Still, faced with an abomination of this order, there’s really only one conclusion to be drawn. An institution so warped by anachronistic notions of tradition — and gripped so fully by the instinct for self-preservation that it would endorse such vicious means to an end — doesn’t deserve to exist in its current form any longer.

Much more is required now than an act of contrition.

Peter Finocchiaro, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a former Arts and Entertainment Editor of The Sun. He may be reached at pfinocchiaro@cornellsun.com.

Recommended Off-site Links:
Vatican Meltdown - Terence Weldon (Queering the Church, March 15, 2010).
Where Does the Buck Stop? - Sr. Maureen Paul Turlish (Catholica, March 12, 2010).
Vatican Silence on Germany’s Priest-Sex-Abuse Scandal - Jeff Israely (Time, March 16, 2010).
Whole Church Urgently Needs Radical Reform - Daniel O’Leary (The Tablet, January 16, 2010).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Roman Catholic Pyramid is Crumbling
An Offering of Ashes
Fr. Thomas Doyle: “There is Something Radically Wrong with the Institutional Catholic Church”
Rome Falling
Beyond Papalism
Eugene Kennedy on Roman Catholicism’s “Post-Hierarchical Blues”
Beyond Papalism
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Trading with Frozen Truths
Hans Küng: “We Are Facing a Structural Problem”
Clearing Away the Debris
Weakland, the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal, and Homophobia
Abuse Survivor Says Scapegoating Homosexuality for Clergy Sex Abuse is “Ill-informed, Ignorant, Corrupt, and Dishonest”
Report: Homosexuality No Factor in Abusive Priests

Image: The Vigil of Solidarity with LGBT Catholics - December 2, 2007.


Terence Weldon said...

Michael,Finocchiaro's analysis is of course sound, just as yours is that those standing against "the gates of hell" are not the defenders of the papacy as we know it, but those demanding its drastic re-formation and comprehensive overhaul.

There is no longer any doubt in my mind that not only must the church be re-formed, but it will be. This sorry story of abuse has already presented a cataclysmic shakeup to the church from which it can no longer return to business as usual, but the drama has a long way to run. The revelations from Germany are accelerating, and disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the church are now taking hold in exactly the same way they have already done in Ireland. It's a good bet that the process will also accelerate in Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland - and that new stories will shortly emerge from still other countries.

The encouraging part is that the process of re-formation has already begun. For the first time, senior people are starting to call into question, or at least admit the need for debate, the long-standing taboo on celibacy and on women in ministry.

This is stepping out of line is new, and it too will accelerate, now that a precedent has been set. As it does, it will set in motion the most important reformation of all: a reduction in the monolithic papal control as we know it today.

As you headlined a recent post, "The Pyramid is Crumbling."

Mareczku said...

Some of the analysis may be sound but it is troubling to hear Mr. Finocchiaro pretty much say that the Church should cease to exist. What religion does Mr. Finocchiaro belong to now? Is he still a Christian? Does he believe in Christ? That is what is so sad, so many have not only been driven away from the Church but driven away from Christ. It is painful because to so many, the Cardinal Laws, the Archbishop Burkes and others, the children were dispensible. They were driven from Christ and the leaders of the Church really didn't give a damn. To them the institution was more important than the people. For those of us who believe in Christ, who believe in the Eucharist, where can we go?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mark,

I don't think Finocchiaro is saying that the Church shouldn't exist at all, but rather that the Church's institutional component needs to take on a new form. I agree with him on this, as in my view the current structure and culture of the Church's clerical leadership (which in many ways is the Church's most influential institutional form) is corrupt and dysfunctional.



Phillip Clark said...

Thank you for sharing Mr. Finocchiaro's editorial on the current sex-abuse crisis now sweeping across the face of the Church in Europe.

Mr. Finocchiaro is right in indicting Pope Benedict/then-Cardinal Ratzinger in some form for all of the abuses that have continued to be perpetrated without restraint or serious reprieve from the hierarchy.

Even if he may not have personally taken part in the decision to move or shuttle around a priest from parish to parish who had been obviously implicated in abusive scenarios towards children; Pope Benedict should bear some partial segment of the brunt of criticism that has been directed ever more towards him in recent days.

I don't know if I would go so far as to call for His Holiness to resign, but a truly heartfelt and productive response to all of this, on his part as the pastor of the universal Church would me most appropriate. He cannot continue to simply reiterate static apologies either. Concrete gesutres--such as seriously taking into consideration and reflecting upon some manner of relaxations on the current laws of clerical celibacy (as Cardinal Schonborn has implied) would prove a beneficial sign to the world as well as to the People of God that he takes seriously the magnitude of this crisis and that at its core is the question of celibacy.

This is not an issue that can any longer be temporarily fixed with the band-aid of episcopal resignations or priestly reasigments, because ultimately, these menial gestures only serve to perpetuate the instability of a structural system which has become more unsustainable with each passing century and progressive trends towards modernity.

In a way, as horrible as it sounds, the anger and zeal that this has sparked amongst the People of God in Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Holy Father's native Germany, may perhaps be a providential sign that true and genuine reform of the Church may be close at hand. As it stands now, even if the hierarchy is content with more of the same when it comes to dealing with these and so many other pressing matters that plague the univesal Church--the laity may refuse to content themselves with resignation any longer for true and comprehensive change and renewal throughout the Church.

rick allen said...

I always like to point out that "the Vatican" is either a hill in Rome or a city-state founded in the early 20th century. Neither has any status in the Church.

The person with the pertinent position is the Bishop of Rome, the pope, and though the papacy is of course not nearly the whole Church, it forms an important part, whose role is described in some detail in Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. I am always surprised how often discussions like this tend to entirely ignore the actual teaching of the Church on the Church, other than general and often misleading references to the Council's "Spirit."

Anyone with any history at all knows that the authority of the Bishop of Rome doesn't rest on his personal holiness, and though of course we prefer that our pastors be men whose lives reflect the high moral demands of the gospel, we should certainly have the basic understanding that our clergy, far from being "spiritually perfect" or "ascended masters," are subject to the same temptations as the rest of us, have no less of the "Old Adam," and, in fact, from their position, are probably more subject to a deadly pride than most of us. Dante's hell is quite liberally sprinkled with popes.

So while our bishops' behavior is never beyond criticism, I think we need to be careful of those whose professed shock and amazement that clerics can actually commit serious sin provides an inroad to "reforming" the Church in ways inconsistent with the outline of Church structure set out in Vatican II.