The permanent scandal of the Vatican
May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Then there’s Ireland—ground zero for the European scandals raging now, just as Boston was for the American scandals back in 2002. Brendan O’Neill, editor of the Spiked-Online website and no particular friend of the Church, points out that the Irish government’s official commission spent 10 years, from 1999 to 2009, intensively inviting, from Irish-born people around the world, reports of abuse at Irish religious institutions. Out of the hundreds of thousands of students who passed through Catholic schools in the 85 years from 1914 to 1999, the commission managed to gather 381 claims—with 35 percent of those charges made against lay staff and fellow pupils rather than priests.
“It might be unfashionable to say the following but it is true nonetheless,” O’Neill concludes. “Very, very small numbers of children in the care or teaching of the Catholic Church in Europe in recent decades were sexually abused, but very, very many of them actually received a decent standard of education.”
And yet, precisely because priests are supposed to behave better than other people do, fulfilling their vows of celibacy, it’s not an answer to point out that higher percentages of children are abused by other segments of the population. There were never a lot of these Catholic cases, but there were enough—with every single one a horror, both in the act itself and in the failure of the bishops to react forcefully and quickly. The Catholic Church didn’t start the worldwide epidemic of child sexual abuse, and it didn’t materially advance it. But the bureaucracy of the Church sure as hell didn’t do enough to fight that epidemic when it broke out among its own clergy.
All of which is pretty much what Pope Benedict preached at a Mass in Rome on April 15 and repeated when he met with abuse victims in Malta on April 18. “I have to say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word repentance, which seems too harsh,” he explained. “Now under the attacks of the world, which speaks to us of our sins, we see that the ability to repent is a grace, and we see how it is necessary to repent, that is, to recognize what is wrong in our life.”
What more does anyone want from the Catholic Church?
Everything, is the answer. This, they think, will finally bring about whatever desire for the Church they’ve been nursing for decades. An end to what they call the sickness of clerical celibacy, for example. Or to the unfair authority they say the bishops hold, or to the lavender-tinged homosexual gang they imagine is running the seminaries, or to the leftist Jesuits they believe dominate Catholic higher education.
Liberal Catholics see the scandals as a chance to discredit conservatives, and conservatives as a chance to discredit liberals. Maureen Dowd, who regularly devotes her New York Times column to bite-sized rehashes of Mary McCarthy’s old Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, opines on “the Church’s Judas moment.” The liberal theologian Hans Küng accuses the pope of directly engineering the cover-up. The left-leaning National Catholic Reporter declares it “the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history,” and another liberal Catholic magazine demands theological reform, to be achieved by arraigning “Benedict in the Dock.” All this, while the hard traditionalist Gerald Warner takes to the pages of the Telegraph in England to blame the crimes on the liberalizing changes of Vatican II.
Everyone is working, whether deliberately or not, to keep the hysteria alive. Abortion supporters have seized on the news as a way to damage the pro-life movement, and proponents of the recent American health care bill are using it to punish their opponents for giving them trouble during the congressional vote. The tattered figures of old anti-Catholic Protestantism—in isolated Bible churches of the fever-swamp right and isolated Episcopal chanceries of the fever-swamp left—feel newly empowered. Feminists, homosexual activists, therapists, talk-show hosts, plaintiff’s attorneys: The scandals are a hobbyhorse all the world hopes to ride to victory.
Several Catholic commentators have charged that the European and American press is out to destroy the Church. “The New York Times is conducting a vendetta against this traditionalist pope in news stories, editorials and columns,” Pat Buchanan announced in a column on April 6. But this, too, only adds to the hysteria. For all the journalistic sins that have been committed in recent weeks, what the media primarily want is a story to sell—and since the narrative of hypocrisy remains nearly the only moral shape a modern newspaper story can have, a tale of immoral clergy is ready-made for reporters.
And then the news begins to feed on itself. Each story about Catholicism makes the next story bigger, more worth pursuing. The reported cases are mostly decades old, but that doesn’t matter, once the frenzy catches hold. Anti-Catholic motives in the media are beside the point. The utter conventionality of reporters, together with the cycles of the news business, explains more than enough. Catholicism in general, and the pope in particular, are news right now, and news sells.
The self-denominated New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the rest—have latched on, as well. The pope “should be in a police station being quizzed about his role in covering up and thereby enabling the rape of children,” opined one British writer. He should be in chains “before the International Criminal Court,” said another. Religion is the cause of evil, they know, and so this evil must have been caused by religion—which is why their lawyers have tried to arrange for Benedict XVI’s arrest during his trip to England this fall.
Add it all up, and you get a time in which the European papers are howling about “systematic rape and torture,” “a clinging and systematic evil that is beyond the power of exorcism to dispel,” and the Catholics’ “international criminal conspiracy to protect child-rapists.” A particularly bizarre moment came on March 29, when Mehmet Ali Agca’s views were published. “The Turkish man who shot Pope John Paul II says Pope Benedict XVI should resign over the Catholic Church’s handling of clerical sex-abuse cases,” the AP wire item explained.
He’s hardly alone in demanding the pope’s resignation, but the more likely scenario is that the whole thing will kill Benedict. The man turned 83 last week; he’s old, and he looks ill and miserable in his recent appearances. Bad as his loss would be—yet one more penance Catholics would pay for those corrupt priests and the bishops who failed to confront them—the conclave to choose his successor would be even worse.
As things now stand, the papal election would be headed by Angelo Cardinal Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and a figure already accused of benefiting from the financial misdeeds of Fr. Marcial Maciel, the sexually corrupt founder of the Legion of Christ. Rome would become an unimaginable media circus—hours of airtime to fill every day, while waiting for the white smoke from the Vatican, with nothing to talk about but the scandals.
For almost 10 years now, the Catholic Church has been putting in place policies on child abuse stricter than those of any other large institution in the world. “We were the model of what not to do,” as New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan put it, “and now we are the model of what to do.” But the newspaper accounts of a newly elected pope would be, nonetheless, a mad race to find something, anything, to link him to the bishops’ failures to act against pedophiles in the previous generation. And if they found what they sought—as they would, given how slight the perceived connection has to be—the sex-abuse scandal would become for that pope what it is now for Pope Benedict: the chief identifier, the narrative hook, for his entire pontificate.
Make no mistake: The narrative demands that Benedict be pulled in, with Der Spiegel in Germany and the New York Times in America running stories in March that tried to mire the pope in it all, from his time as the archbishop of Munich and, later, as an official in Rome under John Paul II. None of it implicates him directly; the newspapers have yet to find an instance of the man organizing a cover-up. A professor of theology for two and a half decades, he has always been less than a stellar administrator, however, and it’s imaginable that something genuine will surface to show that he didn’t pay sufficient attention at the time.
Nonetheless, the stories so far haven’t held up. On April 19, Der Spiegel reported that Fr. Gerhard Gruber, the diocesan assistant from Ratzinger’s time in Munich, might have admitted he was pressured to say falsely that he, and not the future pope, was responsible for the covered-up transfer of a German pedophile in 1980. Two days later, the Wall Street Journal demolished the story by actually interviewing Fr. Gruber, who denied it.
The Vatican correspondent John Allen, the Canadian priest Raymond de Souza, the American writer Phil Lawler, and others have similarly published point-by-point refutations of other charges of cover-up against Benedict—all their accounts based on the fact that this man was the one who, unlike John Paul II, actually saw there was a problem. In 2005, he openly denounced the “filth in the Church and in the priesthood,” which, if the received narrative about cover-ups were true, ought to have made it impossible for him to be elected to the papacy less than a month later.
The current frenzy does share at least a few characteristics with previous outbreaks of anti-Catholicism. You could lift great chunks of today’s commentary and drop them unchanged into newspaper accounts of that 1836 anti-Catholic classic The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During her Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal. For that matter, the New Atheists’ recent ravings about Catholicism could slip unnoticed into the yellowing anti-Catholic pages of Robert G. Ingersoll’s 1896 “How to Reform Mankind” and Paul Blanshard’s 1949 American Freedom and Catholic Power.
“Anti-Catholic Bias Irrelevant to Scandal,” insisted the headline over an April 6 op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer by a historian from New York University named Jonathan Zimmerman. “America has a long, hideous history of anti-Catholic bigotry,” Zimmerman agrees. “But whereas earlier attacks on Catholics were based on fantasy, the abuse scandal is altogether real.”
The trouble with this line is that the abuse scandal is not “altogether real.” It’s plenty real, God knows, but some small handful of the original accusations were untrue—child abuse is not the unique crime in which no false charges are ever made—and the current media frenzy is not about finding new cases but about discovering ways to connect the Vatican to the old cases.
It’s true that critics need to be able to challenge the Church without being accused of anti-Catholicism. Catholics themselves do it all the time, as Zimmerman observes, and nearly every reform movement within the Church—from the Benedictines, through the Franciscans and the Jesuits, and down to Opus Dei in our own time—began with denunciations of the immoral or unspiritual clergy of the day.
And yet, something else, something that Catholicism’s detractors refuse to acknowledge, is in the air these days. The child-abuse scandal is a hole smashed through the defenses of the Church, a breach made by the genuine crimes of the clerical predators and the bishops who coddled them. But more is now being forced through that breach than it will bear.
Take the pressure from the media to find new stories within an established, hot-selling narrative. Add to it the culture’s frightened uncertainty about its children in the new sexual dispensation. Mix in, as well, a distaste for the Church, which stands as the last major Western institution still holding out against such social changes as the new respectability of abortion, euthanasia, promiscuity, and same-sex marriage. And the result is a rage and a frenzy dissociated from the actual crimes that caused it—a hysteria that is bringing back to life the old tropes of historical anti-Catholicism.
There is one difference between the old anti-Catholicism and the new, however, and it involves the reaction of Catholics themselves. Against the Know-Nothings of the 19th century, America’s Catholic immigrants rallied to the Church (and to the Democratic party). And here in the 21st century, they have—well, what are Catholics doing?
An irony of the outraged European reaction to the scandals is that the continent is already one of the least Christian places on earth. Only 4 percent of Germans, for example, are reported to be in church on a Sunday morning, and Western Europe these days simply doesn’t contain enough practicing Catholics for the news of the scandals to cause a significant number to lose their faith. Old and mostly outdated legal entanglements of church and state (especially church taxes and state-supported Catholic schools) remain the only European reservoir of Catholic power. All these arrangements were doomed anyway, and the hysteria about abuse of children will provide only the occasion for their loss.
Some such thing seemed to be in the mind of the Irish pop singer Sinead O’Connor, whose rambling thoughts on the scandals were published on March 28 in the Washington Post. O’Connor long ago left the Church, but she still devotes a considerable amount of her time to criticizing it: “Christ is not with these people who so frequently invoke Him,” she pronounced, ex cathedra, and “the idea that we needed the church to get closer to Jesus” is “blasphemy.” America has its own share of this ex-Catholic irony. “Though I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I am, undeniably, culturally Catholic,” a columnist for the Huffington Post explained. “And I, like many others who have left the flock, should have a say in pressuring the Church to reform itself.”
What’s interesting about all this is that it seems to come, as a sort of post hoc explanation, entirely from people who left Catholicism for other reasons. After the American revelations of abuse in 2002, dozens of news articles appeared, each trying to find out why the scandals didn’t actually seem to have made Catholics lose their faith.
This year, the media reports over Easter were similarly a chronicle of attempts to find serious churchgoers who have left the Church because of the scandals. “As the faithful fill churches this Holy Week, many Roman Catholics around the world are finding their relationship to the church painfully tested,” one news story began—although the only example the reporter could find was a woman who explained, “I don’t believe in confession to the priest because I don’t know if that priest is more of a sinner than I am,” which suggests a certain unfamiliarity with either Christian doctrine or Catholic practice.
“Scandal Tests Catholics’ Trust in Leadership,” a headline in the New York Times declared on March 29, but the story mostly proved that even European Catholics are not losing their faith. “The controversy appeared at the forefront of many worshipers’ minds,” the reporter insisted—and yet, “turnout was often strong on Sunday, even in some of the cities directly affected by the crisis. At St. Ludwig Church in Berlin, the city where recent disclosure of molestation at an elite Jesuit high school in the 1970s and ’80s opened up the scandal in Germany, the noon Mass was filled to capacity.” Indeed, “with pews packed, churchgoers stood in the rear. One woman spoke of the victims she knew personally but said the scandal had not led her, nor anyone else she knew, to consider leaving the church.”
Packed pews, strong turnout, filled to capacity—that’s not supposed to be the storyline. The April 16 CNN poll showed approval of the pope at 59 percent among American Catholics, and the March 31 Gallup poll had Catholic approval at 61 percent. These are massive drops from the 81 percent Catholic approval rate the pope had after his 2008 visit to the United States, and the rate will likely decline further in coming months. But none of it suggests that Catholics are actually losing their faith because of the revelations of these old priestly crimes and the bishops’ shameful cover-up.
‘What else did you expect from that generation?” one young seminarian sneered when I asked him about the priest scandals. “Those old 1960s and 1970s types thought they were God’s gift to the ages. That they were smarter, better, more spiritual than anyone else had ever been. They said they didn’t need the old supervision and rules—the old wisdom about human behavior—that Catholicism had built up over centuries of experience. And, yeah, so, of course, when they finally got some power of their own, they ruined the liturgy, they wrecked the churches, and they buggered little boys. None of it should have been a surprise.”
What else did you expect from that generation? It’s not a satisfying explanation for why some priests 30 years ago were so corrupt. For that matter, the student was as arrogant, in his own way, as the generation he condemns.
But the line does suggest one easy rationalization available to young Catholics. Large numbers of them have drifted away from the Church, but those who remain, formed during John Paul II’s pontificate, already see themselves as agents of change: the remnant, repairing with greater fidelity and stronger belief the damage done by the old priests and bishops. News of these scandals doesn’t change their self-image; it confirms their picture of themselves.
Even they, however, are not out defending Catholicism in the world. George Weigel, Raymond de Souza, and a few other commentators are publicly standing up for the Church, but the general response of ordinary Catholics in America has been a sigh and a mumble. The Vatican bureaucracy—poorly governed, it must be said, during Benedict’s pontificate—has swung ceaselessly and cluelessly between oblivious silence and tone-deaf whining.
For that matter, Catholicism no longer has as defenders the once-great ethnic blocs of European Catholics. The Irish, for example, ceased to see themselves as Catholics more than a generation ago. And Ireland has now, in Brendan O’Neill’s useful phrase, redefined itself as a nation of the victims of Catholicism. Thanks to 10 years of the government-run inquiry into Catholicism, “many of Ireland’s social problems—including unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and heavy drinking—are now discussed as the products of Ireland’s earlier era of abuse rather than as failings of the contemporary social system.”
Who does that leave to speak against the hysteria? A handful of non-Catholics can get away with it. Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding, defended the Good Friday sermon at the Vatican in which the Franciscan priest Raniero Cantalamessa quoted a letter from a “Jewish friend” who said the attacks on the pope reminded him of the “more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.” The Lutheran theologian John Stephenson darkly warned that the frenzy was part of a turn against all of Christianity.
“Enough already,” wrote Ed Koch in the Jerusalem Post. “Should Richard Dawkins be Arrested for Covering up Atheist Crimes?” asked an irritated Irish journalist. “This tragedy should not be used as an excuse to attack a large and revered institution that does much good throughout the world,” Harvard law school’s Alan Dershowitz noted on April 9, and eventually a few more contrarians, professional opposers of conventional wisdom, will cry foul.
But for the rest of us, the charge of tolerating child-molesters—the accusation that we cannot feel the pain of the victims—remains too poisonous.
At the peak of the day-care abuse panic of the 1980s and early 1990s, any suggestion that the public reaction was disproportionate to the provable facts was met with excoriation. Yet it now seems plain that the narrative of children being raped at day care centers and preschools was being made to carry more than it would bear—that it was expressing our cultural anxiety and outrage about modern neglect and abuse of children. Even today, no one doubts that some children were molested in American day care centers; given the general figures for pedophilia, it must have been so. But the cultural emotion—the drive to find an explanation for our fear and shame—somehow resulted in wild visions of Satanists in charge of our toddlers.
One cannot compare the charges of those days to the Church’s current situation. Day care workers who are now recognized as innocent served years in jail as a result of that panic, while few today claim the railroading of innocent priests.
And yet, this much seems true: The current hysteria over the Catholic sex-abuse scandal derives at least in part from the same source that fed the panic over rape at preschools and day care centers 20 years ago. These are, in this one respect, two chapters of a single story—the story of a culture whose views of sexuality put its children at risk.
That risk is real. Our contemporary understandings of sex are a jumble of contradictions and insanities, and the young are among those paying the price. The news reports about the Catholic scandals have purchase on us precisely because they echo down the canyons of our cultural anxiety. And to account for that anxiety—to localize and personalize its causes—Catholicism is far more useful than outlandish charges of Satanism ever were.
For some of the commentators on the current scandals, any stick is a good one if you can poke it at religion. Most people, however, are just looking for an explanation. They worked so hard to build the life the contemporary world demands, and still they are anxious. They rejected the sexual strictures of the past, just as they were taught to do, and still their children are in danger.
There must be a reason for the unfulfilled promise of modern sex and modern life. There must be a mystical, magical key that will unlock the door to paradise. Why have we been thwarted? Why aren’t we there yet?
The Catholic Church, of course. That’s the answer.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and editor of First Things.
Recent Blog Posts