The US television news coverage of Benedict XVI’s last day in office was extremely annoying because it mostly wasn’t good journalism. CNN kept talking about “pageantry.” We “witnessed history,” we were told. I don’t know what that means. We witness history every day. History is the record of the past.
Almost no sharp questions were asked. Why was Benedict resigning? Was it something in Vatileaks that could yet come out? CNN’s correspondent mentioned only vague ‘crises’ afflicting the church.
I have a feeling that Benedict’s resignation is a turning point for the church, and not in a good way. It is the culmination of long decades of post-Vatican II backtracking and attempts to keep the church authoritarian and on the side of the political right wing. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict himself had crushed the Liberation Theology movement and kept the church aligned with right wing elites in Latin America, with the predictable outcome that the poor fled to Protestant evangelicalism in their millions.
That authoritarian instinct is the hallmark of the scandals about priests’ child abuse. Roman Catholic priests probably commit child abuse no more frequently than secular school teachers. The scandal is that church authorities, including Ratzinger himself, covered up the abuses where they came to know of them, and protected the offending priests. They thus sided with pedophiles in the church hierarchy against their own lay parishioners and their children, which made them look monstrous to millions of even devoted Catholics, who have therefore abandoned the church.
It should be remembered what is being lost with the virtual collapse of the church, at least in Europe and the Americas. The Roman Catholic Church has often taken principled stances on world affairs. Pope John Paul II opposed Bush’s Iraq War. The Church is among the few Western institutions that gives a fig for the plight of the oppressed and stateless Palestinians. It opposes capital punishment, a brutalizing practice. It has often stood with immigrants and the disadvantaged. Its social institutions such as schools and universities have been key to urban neighborhoods. Church congregations have been community spaces for spiritual connectedness that psychiatrists have found contributes to well-being. The church is peopled by sinful human beings and has often acted in deeply flawed ways, as well, of course. But the point is that the modern church has been a mixed picture, doing much good along with its lapses. That good is in danger of being lost.
German Catholics, some 30 percent of the country, have abandoned the church in droves in the past few years, over the cover-ups of priestly child abuse. Some have become Protestants, others have given up on religion. (West Germany used to be unusually religious among European countries, with 80% saying they believed i God; that percentage has plummeted). In the Netherlands, thousands of Catholics have ‘de-baptized’ themselves, in the wake of Benedict’s offer to ally with other religions in trying to stop state recognition of gay marriage. The news that the church in the Netherlands in the 1950s had castrated 10 little boys as ‘treatment’ for being gay didn’t help.
Many youth of the Baby Boomer generation had left the church already in the 1960s and 1970s in places such as Quebec. The issue for them was the Church’s idiosyncratic stance against condoms, and its opposition to elements of women’s liberation. But now even stalwart communities such as Ireland and Bavaria are deserting the church in droves. (One Irish acquaintance of mine even mused that if the Irish gave up religion across the board, the Protestant-Catholic dispute in the north might rather subside).
All the problems of the church that have led to this crisis are rooted in authoritarian models of governance. If the priests are treated as special, then of course they will be protected even when they commit crimes. If the opinions of the laity don’t count, it won’t matter that anti-gay prejudice in the hierarchy disgusts them. Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is nowhere truer than in religious organizations. The laity tend to be too trusting of them and fail to subject them to sufficient accountability.
These flaws of the Catholic Church today are not unique to it, though the rapidity with which believers are fleeing may be slightly greater in its ranks. All religious institutions are being challenged by post-modernity, by the end of privacy and by social media and the release of secrets. Clergy malfeasance is increasingly difficult to hide.
Only by moving to a more democratic model of church (and mosque and temple) governance can the good in the religions be preserved. The path that Benedict was on all his life, the path of reaction and authoritarianism and the protecting of criminals in priestly ranks– that path leads to a bleaker, irreligious world in which the celebration of the spirit is abandoned.
Matthew Fox at Democracy Now! puts it in a way that I would not, but his points are worth considering: