Posted on | May 4, 2010 | 3 Comments
I have never been less surprised by anything in my entire life than I have been by the global revival of the Catholic sex scandal. Anyone who bought the idea that the pedophile scandal in the US Catholic Church was a US-only event caused by priests being in an unhealthy, sexually permissive atmosphere is an idiot. The US broke the news because we have a free press and a legal system that protects people, children in particular. The clutch-the-pearls attitude about the fact that abuse was happening all over the world is absurdist. No kidding it was happening all over. Did you just get to this planet? The sex drive will come out somewhere. As you suppress it, you only succeed in making that outlet more extreme and potentially distressing.
Aside from the fake shock, two elements of this story just don’t sit well with me.
A. How is it that the old pope gets off the hook for all this? We’re very happy in this country to blame Germans for anything and everything, so now that Benedict XVI is in office, we can fire at will on this pope. But somehow, the last one was and still is off limits, even though he was the principal architect of the modern church’s hyper-conservatism on sexual issues, a hyper-conservatism which I believe led directly to the cover-up of the crimes now being investigated.
John Paul II closed the door on women being ordained as priests, then on the reconsideration of the celibate priesthood and then, in one of those encyclicals that is deemed infallible, he closed the door hard on birth control. Vatican II, the church counsel in 1968 considered all these points, but backed away from making comment on them. Every pope since, including JP the deuce, has made statements affirming the party line on these conservative and suppressive sexual issues.
I get that he lived a long time and that he’s popular, but Pope John Paul II was the head of the church for the whole coverup and while most of the molestation that is now in the news actually happened. How does he get off scot-free? And conversely, how does the new pope get all the blame? I understand that Ratzinger was the chief child-molester juggler for the church, but who do you think was telling him to keep those balls in the air?! The Easter Bunny? No, the old pope was yelling, “Juggle faster!”
B. Most of the victims of the repression of priest sexuality were not children, but were grown women. The molestation of children is outrageous, period. I don’t want to lessen than. But I also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that only a small portion of men (sworn to celibacy or not) are inclined to express their sexuality with a child under any circumstance. Most priests over the years who have acted out their human need for physical love have done so on the grown ladies of their flock. (This element of priest sexuality is discussed in a terrific documentary called Deliver Us from Evil.)
For decades and centuries, women have fallen in love with priests or been seduced by them only to find that when the babies come or they are found out, the priest gets moved and counseled while their lives are ruined. Now they are the town whore, have to move out of their village in shame, etc. etc.
The other victims of priestly celibacy are the priests themselves. They are asked to make an inhuman sacrifice. That this sacrifice makes some of them behave in inhuman (or maybe all-too human) ways should not in any manner surprise us. Before we can reasonably expect that priests will stop abusing members of their flock, we must demand that the Catholic church stop abusing their priests with the demand for celibacy.
C. I’m disturbed by the amount of Catholic bashing in the discourse around this crisis. I was raised Episcopalian, am currently agnostic, so have no stake in a denominational debate. I just don’t like the tone of how the Catholic church is being discussed. So for the record, I would like to give time to several things I do like about the Catholic faith.
Between 1870 and 1968 (the years between the two ecumenical counsels, Vatican I and II), the Catholic church was arguably the greatest force for good in the Western world. (I only say Western world because that’s where most of my historical knowledge resides.) The Vatican all but emptied the treasury after WWI to relieve the sufferings from the war and the influenza and the forced migrations. The US Catholic church was the only group to consistently stand against the horrors of the negative eugenics movement which sterilized and institutionalized “simple” or just “promiscuous” young women in the early 20th century. The Catholic church in Germany was the last group within Germany to take a stand against Hitler and the first international body to criticize the Nazis at all. (Pope Pious XII has been villified for his behavior during the occupation, but scapegoating him just isn’t credible. He drafted the 1937 encyclical denouncing the Nazis, Mit brennender Sorge. With historical distance, I think we will find that he probably did his best in a phenomenally difficult situation. The head Rabbi of Rome apparently converted to Catholicism after WWII in appreciation for what the pope had done to protect Roman Jews, so I take my lead from that.)
Finally, and to my intellectual bent most importantly, the Catholic church (thanks to JP II, actually) officially recognizes Darwinian evolution as the way god apparently made life on this earth. Whatever discoveries science makes, the Catholic church looks at them, says, “Hmm, is that how God did that? That guy!” and then they go on with their day. (The much touted Galileo incident was more about Galileo being an asshole to his old friend the Pope than about scientific content.) In contrast, religious fundamentalists in my own country are so vocal about Darwin being the devil incarnate that biology has become an elective in many public schools. The science of life is an elective! “You don’t need to know it because we’re batshit crazy.”
So before US fundamentalists get get drunk on their own sense of virtue over this sex scandal, respect the fact that the Catholic church has been adapting to changes in this world for centuries with a theology that is intellectually rigorous to the extent that it makes your theology look like a monkey banging on a trashcan lid.