Sunday, March 31, 2013

Douthat on the importance of Church cleaning house

As a reader remarked to me recently, a couple of the sanest pieces written about Pope Francis amid the recent cacophony of conflicting voices may be found, of all places, on the Op Ed page of the New York Times.

The most relevant piece at the time of this posting is Ross Douthat's article, "Lifting the Shadow of Scandal" (New York Times, March 18, 2013). Douthat writes:
There has been so much enthusiasm around the public style of Pope Francis — who has been populist, self-effacing and unscripted in his first few days as pontiff — and so much eagerness from so many quarters to see him as the reformer that the Catholic Church needs, that I felt like a bit of a downer accentuating the negative in my Sunday column, and emphasizing all the moral credibility that still needs to be rebuilt. But if personal holiness and seriousness of faith were sufficient qualities in a Roman pontiff, the last ten years would not have been a period of crisis in Catholicism, and the shadow of the sex abuse crisis would be fully lifted from the church. And it’s especially important, at the outset of a new pontificate, to understand the precise nature of that shadow, because at this point it’s no longer really about priestly sex abuse itself. Rather, it’s about a church that has cleaned house effectively and set up impressive structures of accountability everywhere except at the most prominent levels of the hierarchy.

Here are two names whose cases richly illustrate that problem. First: Roger Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, one of the cardinal electors who just cast their votes in Rome — and among the worst of the worst when it comes to prominent hierarchs who kept predator priests in circulation while protecting them from prosecution....

Second: Angelo Sodano, formerly the Vatican’s Secretary of State under John Paul II, now Dean of the College of Cardinals. Sodano is alleged to have intervened on behalf of two prominent churchmen accused of sexual crimes — protecting Hans Hermann Groer, the former archbishop of Vienna, from canonical proceedings related to charges of sex abuse in the mid-1990s, and then protecting Father Marcel Maciel, the drug-addicted, seminarian-molesting bigamist who ran the Legionaries of Christ, from a church investigation until 2006, when the newly-elevated Pope Benedict finally barred Maciel from ministry....

* * * * * * *

[W]hile I can appreciate the qualities in Pope Francis that so many people have found immediately attractive, I would trade all the humble mannerisms and charming gestures for the promise that the Mahonys and Sodanos of the church would be consigned, once and for all, to lives of penitence and silence.

* * * * * * *

There are other names and cases I could cite, but Mahony and Sodano are particularly high-profile figures, and thus particularly representative of the unfinished business that Benedict’s papacy left behind.... [T]aking more punitive steps [than allowing age-mandated resignation to take its course] would have required Benedict to serve as a kind of “one-man Supreme Court” within the church — not the pope’s normal role, the mythology of papal power notwithstanding, and one that he clearly shied away from claiming.

But extraordinary crises call for extraordinary steps, and the choice to shy away from them was a fateful one: The absence of real accountability within the hierarchy helps explains why Benedict never earned sufficient credit for the many things he did right on sex abuse, and why the church as a whole is still struggling to put the era of scandal behind it. It ensured that the sex abuse crisis would recede only very gradually, that the closure that many ordinary Catholics want to feel would remain elusive, and that the crimes of the past would keep intruding, with every public appearance by a compromised cardinal, into an otherwise much-improved present.

If real closure is to come, if the sex abuse era is to be firmly ended rather than ever-so-slowly left behind, the beginning of this papacy is probably the church’s last, best opportunity. And so while I can appreciate the qualities in Pope Francis that so many people have found immediately attractive, I would trade all the humble mannerisms and charming gestures for the promise that the Mahonys and Sodanos of the church would be consigned, once and for all, to lives of penitence and silence.
[Hat tip to J.M.]


bill bannon said...

Excellent piece. Sodano's family profited from construction projects of the Legion via his nephew who was a builder....very Rennaissance Cardinal nepotism thing.

JM said...

I like this from another column:

But it’s one thing for Catholics in a Catholic culture, possessed of shared premises and shared moral ideals, to accept a certain amount of “do as I say, not as I do” from their pastors and preachers.

It’s quite another to ask a culture that doesn’t accept Catholic moral ideals to respect an institution whose leaders can’t seem to live out the virtues that they urge on others.

In that culture — our culture — priestly sex abuse and corruption in the Vatican aren’t just seen as evidence that all men are sinners. They’re seen as evidence that the church has no authority to judge what is and isn’t sin, that the renunciation Catholicism preaches mostly warps and rarely fulfills, and that the world’s approach to sex (and money, and ambition) is the only sane approach there is.

Such worldliness should not be confused with atheism. Our age is still religious; it’s just made its peace with human appetites and all the varied ways they intertwine. From the sermons of Joel Osteen to the epiphanies of “Eat, Pray, Love,” our spiritual oracles still urge us to seek the supernatural, the numinous, the divine. They just dismiss the idea that the divine could possibly want anything for us except for what we already want for ourselves.


If Catholicism has a future in the Western world as something more than a foil, an Other and a symbol of the Benighted Past We Have Safely Left Behind, it needs its leaders to set an example that proves these voices wrong. Before anything else, that requires a generation of priests and bishops who hold themselves to a higher standard — higher than their immediate predecessors, and higher than the world.