What do the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts have in common? Well, the two are in the news right now. But while they’re making headlines for different reasons, just beneath the surface (and not very far beneath the surface, at that) the two stories have at least one major issue in common. And given that I’ve written about both in the past, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to put the two together again.
It caught just about everybody by surprise. Every Pope in my lifetime died in office. Who even knew the Pope could resign? I always assumed that gig was a lifetime appointment. And not only is Benedict stepping down, but he’s leaving so fast that he’s likely to leave skid marks on his way out.
Popes are allowed to resign; church law specifies only that the resignation be “freely made and properly manifested.” But only a handful have done it.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII, who stepped down in 1415 in a deal to end the Great Western Schism among competing papal claimants. The most famous resignation was Pope Celestine V in 1294; Dante placed him in hell for it.
The question is: Why? Why resign? Why resign so quickly?
Benedict cited advanced age as the reason for his decision, but his predecessor stayed on despite advancing age and Parkinson’s disease, and died in office at age 85 — the same age at which Benedict is resigning. There were rumors about Benedict’s health, but none have been confirmed. He had a stroke in 2005, due to an “age-related heart condition,” followed by unconfirmed rumors of a bypass operation. In 2009, he was hospitalized after falling and breaking his wrist, but nothing indicates the kind of health problems that JP2 suffered while remaining in office.
Of course, I’m sure to get a few people saying “Now is not the time” for what I’m about to suggest. Some even gloss over his damn-near-unprecedented resignation, by praising him for stepping aside and thus helping the church by making way for younger leadership, etc. But, I think the announcement of Benedict/Ratzinger’s resignation is the ideal time to review his career. It’s just that while some people prefer to review only the highlights, I’m going to focus in on some of the lowest of the lowlights.
It’s old news by now that the Catholic church has long has a problem with priests sexually abuse children, or that the Catholic church has had a long history of protecting priests accused of sexually abusing children.
The recent unpleasantness uncovered in the Los Angeles Dioceses, in which diocese apparently knew and covered up case of child sexual abuse by priests, is a microcosm of what’s wrong with the Catholic church, according to some people.
Very much more serious is the role of Joseph Ratzinger, before the church decided to make him supreme leader, in obstructing justice on a global scale. After his promotion to cardinal, he was put in charge of the so-called “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” (formerly known as the Inquisition). In 2001, Pope John Paul II placed this department in charge of the investigation of child rape and torture by Catholic priests. In May of that year, Ratzinger issued a confidential letter to every bishop. In it, he reminded them of the extreme gravity of a certain crime. But that crime was the reporting of the rape and torture. The accusations, intoned Ratzinger, were only treatable within the church’s own exclusive jurisdiction. Any sharing of the evidence with legal authorities or the press was utterly forbidden.Charges were to be investigated “in the most secretive way … restrained by a perpetual silence … and everyone … is to observe the strictest secret which is commonly regarded as a secret of the Holy Office … under the penalty of excommunication.” (My italics). Nobody has yet been excommunicated for the rape and torture of children, but exposing the offense could get you into serious trouble. And this is the church that warns us against moral relativism! (See, for more on this appalling document, two reports in the London Observer of April 24, 2005, by Jamie Doward.)
Not content with shielding its own priests from the law, Ratzinger’s office even wrote its own private statute of limitations.The church’s jurisdiction, claimed Ratzinger, “begins to run from the day when the minor has completed the 18th year of age” and then lasts for 10 more years. Daniel Shea, the attorney for two victims who sued Ratzinger and a church in Texas, correctly describes that latter stipulation as an obstruction of justice. “You can’t investigate a case if you never find out about it. If you can manage to keep it secret for 18 years plus 10, the priest will get away with it.”
The next item on this grisly docket will be the revival of the long-standing allegations against the Rev. Marcial Maciel, founder of the ultra-reactionary Legion of Christ, in which sexual assault seems to have been almost part of the liturgy. Senior ex-members of this secretive order found their complaints ignored and overridden by Ratzinger during the 1990s, if only because Father Maciel had been praised by the then-Pope John Paul II as an “efficacious guide to youth.” And now behold the harvest of this long campaign of obfuscation. The Roman Catholic Church is headed by a mediocre Bavarian bureaucrat once tasked with the concealment of the foulest iniquity, whose ineptitude in that job now shows him to us as a man personally and professionally responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime. Ratzinger himself may be banal, but his whole career has the stench of evil—a clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel. What is needed is not medieval incantation but the application of justice—and speedily at that.