13 April 2010

Two views in the USA Today

The USA Today yesterday - just a touch of irony here; I missed it yesterday - published two editorials offering differing views on Pope Benedict XVI's handling of the sexual abuse scandal.

First, one arguing he he as fault from Stephen Prothero titled, "Vatican must confess, apologize, put children first." His text follows, with my emphases and comments:

Whenever I teach Roman Catholicism, I assign the Syllabus of Errors. Issued in 1864 by Pope Pius IX, this anti-modern manifesto catalogs modernity's errors from 1 to 80, concluding with a deliciously imperious condemnation of the view that "the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization." [Does he also assign Gaudium et spes, the constitution on the Church in the modern world?]

Today the tables have turned. The Vatican still portrays itself as an arbiter of truth and moral probity, but increasingly modern people are compiling a syllabus of its errors. The venues have shifted from the U.S. to Ireland, Germany and other European countries, but the story — of child sexual abuse by priests and secrecy by bishops and cardinals —is grimly familiar.This time, however, the pope himself is under suspicion for how he and his underlings handled charges against priests while he was archbishop of Munich and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [though he each of this suspicions have been shown to be false]. What did he know and when did he know it?

DEBATE: Pope is on case and has been, in fact

My own syllabus of Catholic errors begins with the failure to confess. Confession is one of Catholicism's seven sacraments, and a secularized version of this rite is well known in America [if he means sacramental confession, then he argues for what cannot be publicly revealed. And since he teaches Catholicism, he should know this]. One reason Tiger Woods was applauded at the Masters is because he has confessed his misconduct repeatedly. "I acted terribly," he said last Monday in Augusta, Ga. "I was rationalizing, I was denying." The Vatican, by contrast, has responded to the latest incarnation of this generation-long scandal with a mix of silence, denial and misdirection [That's funny. I seem to remember a strongly worded letter written to the Irish Church on this topic. Perhaps he should read this before making his inaccurate statments]. Oddly, it is the Buddhist who gets confession right.

According to Father Thomas Reese, a Woodstock senior fellow at Georgetown University, what we have here is a failure to communicate. The way forward is plain: "Condemn abuse. Acknowledge mistakes. Apologize, apologize, apologize" [Fr. Reese is as clueless as the rest. Pope Benedict has done this time and again]. Instead, the Vatican is blaming the media. In a Good Friday sermon, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the pope's personal preacher, likened reporting on this scandal to anti-Semitism [he quoted a letter from a Jewish friend who likened it to anti-Semitism. And he has since apologized for doing so]. At an Easter Mass, Cardinal Angelo Sodano dismissed that reporting as "petty gossip" [a lousy choice of words, to be sure].

In his book Inside the Vatican, Reese wrote that one qualification for the papal candidates was media savvy: "Few cardinals today would want to entrust the papacy to a cardinal who through words or deeds would be a public relations disaster" [I think Reese gives himself too much credit here. Too many of the Cardinals are themselves not media savvy]. Unfortunately, Pope Benedict's papacy is already shaping up as a series of such disasters [and a series of great strides and successes, but we'll just ignore those so this editorial fits the template]. Unlike John Paul II, who worked as an actor before becoming the first pop pope, Benedict is an academic more at home in the library than in the real world. When it comes to dealing with the media, he is in a different century [what a ridiculous claim! It is Benedict - more than any other man in the Church - who has called the Church to use every means of social media available. He must have missed the most recent message for the World Communications Day the media thought then so insightful], and that century might not be the 20th. But the root cause of the crisis is in ethics rather than PR [the root is not in ethics, but in morality, or the lack thereof on the part of a few].

Ethics is about empathy. On the question of abortion, for example: Do we identify with the fetus or the mother [both]? So when Sodano told the pope on Easter that "the people of God are with you," I wondered who is with the thousands of children who have been raped or otherwise abused [the Church is with them, too, if he would listen]. In the Gospels, Jesus stands with the least of these. In this scandal, Vatican authorities have been on the other side [that's absolutely false].

Why is that? Why is the Vatican repeating many of the same mistakes Cardinal Bernard Law made after this scandal broke in Boston in the 1990s? Because priests are family. The problem with the church's insistence on clerical celibacy is not sexual but social. The pope — "papa" in Latin — is a father in name only, and none of his advisers is a parent himself. Can we reasonably expect an institution run by childless men to identify in this matter with anyone other than their brothers in Christ [that's right. Because priests are celibate they have no emotions and never grew up in families themselves and have no connections to families at all and simply can't relate to people. Give me a break!]?

I am not a Catholic [that was pretty obvious. And because he understands it so poorly he should stop teaching about it]. But I have long valued the church of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as a key voice in our global conversations on war and peace, labor and capital, life and death [there is only one death]. So recent headlines do not just make me sad for the thousands of victims. They also make me lament the plummeting moral authority of one of the world's oldest surviving international organizations [given the way he begins this editorial, I doubt that].

At least for now, Pope Benedict is the wrong man for this job, not least because he doesn't seem to understand that the job at hand is nothing less than rescuing his church from moral bankruptcy [I think he understands that very well]. Whether he can do so is an open question. But as Catholics have long affirmed, the first step, for him and for his hierarchy, is confession.

And, second, an editorial in support of Pope Benedict XVI by Phil Lawler titled, "Pope is on the case, and has been, for some time."

His text follows, with my emphases and comments:

Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered."

The Bible's Book of Zechariah (13:7) warns how cynics will respond to a prophetic leader. The same unhappy pattern is visible in the recent news media attacks against Pope Benedict XVI.

In the past decade, the Catholic Church has been severely shaken by two related scandals. First we learned that some priests preyed on children. This was an unspeakable crime. Then it emerged that many bishops, when informed of the abuse, chose to protect the predators rather than their innocent victims. This was an appalling betrayal of trust.

DEBATE: Vatican must confess, apologize and put children first

However, the recent campaign to link Pope Benedict directly to these scandals — led by the venerable New York Times, with sensational front-page stories on consecutive days — has been fueled by sloppy reporting, innuendo and distortion. Absolutely no evidence shows that the pope ever shielded an abusive cleric. At worst, in one case 20 years ago, he may have placed too much trust in his subordinates to supervise an accused priest. Other charges aired in literally hundreds of media accounts have been based on a seemingly willful misunderstanding of the facts.

A societal failure

If the future pontiff was not sufficiently alert to the dangers of sexual abuse in 1980, he had plenty of company. Many authorities, in the Catholic Church and in civil society, ignored evidence of abuse by priests in the 1960s and 1970s. But by the turn of the century, perceptive Catholic leaders recognized the corruption and demanded effective reform. They were led by none other than the future pontiff, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In 2001, at Cardinal Ratzinger's urging, all disciplinary cases involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests were assigned to the Vatican office he then headed. Since that time, 3,000 cases have been processed. Hundreds of priests have been defrocked; thousands have been suspended from ministry. To date, the vast majority of these cases have come from the USA, where today any priest credibly accused of molesting children is on a fast track for permanent suspension.

But no disciplinary system will work if the responsible officials do not enforce the rules [which was the problem all along; some Bishops were not fulfilling all of their duties]. The canon law that governs the Catholic Church provided ample authority for diocesan bishops to discipline predatory priests in the 1970s and 1980s; the bishops chose not to use that authority. When he visited the USA in 2008, Pope Benedict told the American bishops that he was " deeply ashamed" of the scandal that had emerged here and was "sometimes very badly handled." More recently, in a message to the Irish hierarchy this year, the pontiff said: "It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse." [Those don't sound like the words of someone ignoring the situation.]

In 1995, long before the scandal emerged in the headlines, Cardinal Ratzinger pushed for a full investigation of accusations against a powerful Austrian cardinal, ultimately leading to his resignation. Ten years later, in a memorable talk delivered just before his election as Roman Pontiff, he spoke angrily about the need to cleanse the "filth" from within the Catholic clergy. Soon after his election, he instigated action against another notorious abuser: the head of a wealthy and influential religious order.

Yes, the sex-abuse scandal has exposed a frightening degree of corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. But Pope Benedict has been a leading force for reform. Why, then, has he suddenly become the target for so much criticism?

The victims of clerical abuse, and the lawyers and publicists who represent them, have an obvious and understandable reason for charging that the Vatican shares the responsibility for their undeniable suffering. Their claims should be heard — although not uncritically.

Hostility eclipses facts

Less sympathetic are the pope's critics within the Catholic Church. Retired archbishop Rembert Weakland complained that the Vatican was slow to respond to an inquiry about an abusive priest — although his own Milwaukee archdiocese had waited 40 years to open a canonical trial.

The most persistent voices of anti-Catholicism have been quick to join in the chorus of criticism as well. Fundamentalists, who condemn the Vatican as the Whore of Babylon, are always ready to see corruption in Rome, whether or not the evidence supports the charges. Militant secularists, who see the pope as the leader of resistance to their agenda, are happy for the opportunity to question his moral authority.

Yet innate hostility toward the Catholic Church is no excuse for distorting the factual record. By all means, hold the pope accountable for his actions, past and present. But hold journalists accountable, too, for an accurate presentation. Anyone who weighs the facts carefully and objectively will conclude that Benedict XVI is part of the solution — that is, if the goal is to reform the Catholic Church, not to destroy it.

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