Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tut Buße, das Himmelreich ist nahe herbeigekommen

It was a year ago—liturgically speaking, if not calendrically so—that I was in Vienna, attending the Maundy Thursday service at the Stephansdom. Cardinal Schönborn—who is reputed to be papabile—presided. Now the Roman Church in Austria is reeling from an abuse crisis, and only yesterday Schönborn presided at a "Day of Repentance" service in an attempt to acknowledge the Church's complicity in shielding abusers. This would be rather passé for us Americans, except that more allegation-makers (er, 'allegators'?) have stepped forward with details about a pedophile priest in the archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The thing everyone prefers to argue about, of course, is the root cause of this scandal. In more liberal quarters the tendency is to blame, besides an insular and hierarchical culture that encourages unswerving loyalty, the mandatory celibacy required for all (Western-rite) priests. More conservative commentators, such as the charming Bill Donohue, have put all the blame on homosexuals. (Did you catch the Catholic League's quarter-page advertisement on the editorial page of the NY Times this week?)

Of course, the best way to go about this scientifically would be to split Catholic priests into two groups, identical save for the fact that one group also has married priests, and the other group has no queers—not even, or rather, especially not, the closeted ones. Give both groups twenty years, and tally the number of abuse cases.

What would be the result? Well, I don't know. I'm resigned that there will always be pedophiles; even the most disgusting abuse of trust can be explained by the fact that people are sinners, all of them. But what gets my figurative goat is that the Church hierarchy, either by design or by neglect, failed to stop the bad priests. How, exactly, are Church leaders working to alter the system in which abuse could not only occur, but recur? If the Romans are to maintain any credibility as the visible Body of Christ on earth, they've got some reforms to enact.

1 comment:

  1. I agree entirely. A question Catholics ought to ask (and since forever, probably, have asked) is what the benefit of such a vast Church hierarchy really is. If the rationale can be captured in a single sentence fragment, it'd probably be something like this: to ensure fidelity. Fidelity to the Word. Fidelity to dogma. Fidelity to tradition. Fidelity, in short, to God. And indeed, the High Church has as far more venerable intellectual and cultural history--and record of preserving that fidelity--than does the Low Church ("Give it time," you can hear Mark Hanson whisper), due in no small part, one supposes, to this hierarchy.

    But of course, the power that parishioners have vested in the hierarchy can be, and has obviously been in the case of the pedophiles, turned against the parish. What to do? Well, like you said, reform is clearly the watchword of improvement here, but what reform? Well, let's look at the crimes.

    We know there were pederasts, and we know that members of the hierarchy conspired to conceal them. So yeah, something ought to be done about that. But what to do about what I take to be the most egregious crime in this whole filthy saga--that is, what to do about the Vatican's unwillingness to treat the problem posed by the child molesting priests as endemic to the operation of the Church. There would be no wide-spread, decade-long scandal, were the hierarchy not able to protect the guilty priests. And the sense of outrage emerges from the incommensurability of the crimes with the Vatican's response; where it wants to treat the priests as a sort of renegade bunch, the rest of us see the Vatican as implicated in each and every scandal. This, I think, is just what feeds the sense that the Vatican, and thus the Pope himself, is complicit in priests' misbehavior.