Benedict: Unfit to Serve

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Benedict: Unfit to Serve

          It seems pretty clear, from two reports in yesterday’s New York Times, that the Pope was implicated in two separate coverups of child abuse by priests.  In one instance from 1996, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a body with some jurisdiction to sanction priestly abuse, ignored two complaints about the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who apparently molested 200 boys at a school for the deaf, and then, to all appearances, Ratzinger, through his second-in-command, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, put a stop to a secret canonical trial of Father Murphy.  In another instance from 1980, it appeared that then-Archbishop Ratzinger lent himself and his archdiocese to the process of shifting around rather than exposing and discharging a priest, in this case a Rev. Peter Hulleman, known to have molested children.

          Acknowledging that the practice Benedict engaged in – try to get them treated, hush the matter up, and put them back in service – was standard operating procedure for the Church of that era, for my money these revelations show that Benedict is absolutely unqualified to serve as pontiff.  I’m not saying Benedict is evil (I have no idea), but I am saying he’s not papal timber.

          If the faith is about anything it must be about the truth.  Either there is a God who gives our lives meaning and purpose, or there isn’t.  And those who teach that God exists are pulling against the weight of considerable evidence, it must be said.  If they are to dispel our reasonable doubts, they must be visibly and consistently honest and reliable.  Someone who has participated in a coverup of criminal activity simply cannot command our trust that way.

          There’s more to it than that, though.  I know from my own religious upbringing that a large part of the process of developing faith is being taught by holy people.  People who are close to God can help us see Him/Her.  With all the disillusionments I and every Catholic of my generation has gone through, I still believe there are holy people (many of them being of other creeds, I can add, but that’s okay; they still help us understand and believe). 

          The Church has invested a great deal of energy in trying to make us picture a guild of allegedly celibate males as the acme and epitome of teachable holiness.  Look at the pantheon of canonized saints (i.e. men and women whom the Church has picked out as patterns of holiness), and pick out how many of them were explicitly sexually active during their holy time.  You won’t find many.  (Saints sexually active in their misspent youth like Augustine don’t count towards that total.)  Look for the women.  You won’t find many.  Look for lay people.  You won’t find many.  It’s priests who are the vanguard of official sainthood, and priests we are mainly encouraged to look to, both those in the great hereafter and those who are here.

           It’s time to stop looking so fixedly at the priests, at least as we recruit them today.  It’s time to stop pretending that celibacy is either healthy or achievable for most people, or that it is a particularly reliable path to holiness.  It’s time to stop pretending that most priests can stop having sex lives, or that the supposed suppression of their sexuality makes them holier with any reliability.  It’s time to recognize that the reason most people who do it gravitate towards a life of ostensible priestly celibacy is that it frees them from something, be it demands for the give-and-take of family life, expectations of heterosexuality, or scrutiny of their activities with children.  It has precious little, much of the time, to do with holiness. 

          Let me be clear; I am not saying that celibacy is never achievable and/or never frees people up to be holy.  Sometimes it achieves those ends, and I have been fortunate enough to know some splendid priests I believe were able to follow bona fide celibacy as a path to holiness.  (I should add though that the very holiest priest I ever knew, the one who had the most to do with my beliefs to this day, I am pretty certain was actively gay, God rest his soul.) 

          What I am saying is this: that populating the priesthood (the supposed holiness specialists, if you will) solely with purportedly celibate males has proven a disaster in good measure because it encourages the flock to look for patterns of holiness amongst a group whose members will more often than not be either sexually or socially dysfunctional to a degree, or closeted homosexuals who may have chosen ostensible celibacy as a cover for something good and natural but not necessarily spiritual, or at worst frank predators who chose ostensible celibacy as a cover for something bad that was certainly not spiritual. (A friend told me that the dullest, most content-less sermons she ever sat through were delivered by a priest she later heard had been an abuser.)

          The deception that Benedict contributed to in his by-the-late-20th-Century-book approach to priestly child abusers was all about shoring up that image of the priesthood and the mystique that made it almost the exclusive pattern of holiness – and by implication distracting the flock from the more reliable, not to mention applicable, exemplars of faith, most of whom would be lay people of every marital status and sexual orientation.

          I cannot count how many Catholics I know who have been turned away from their faith, not so much by the abuse as by the coverup.  We need a pope who had no association with those callous lies. 

          We need to start focusing on the people in our midst who really can tell us about God — and few of them are priests.  The present pope will never tolerate that shift of focus. 

          And we need to integrate the priesthood now.  No good can come of excluding the sexually active, the avowedly homosexual, the married, and the female any more.  We have seen that exclusion, and we know how it inevitably ends, with scandal and coverups.  The present pope will never allow the priesthood the required kind of inclusiveness.  But it needs to happen.

          For all these reasons, Benedict should go.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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  1. Jack, may I salute you and thank you for this, another, dependably thoughtful, cogent piece. This from someone who in youth went to Mass every morning at boarding school, sat so many vigils during Lent (hours upon hours upon hours), and who because a tad jaded upon becoming more aware of not only the scandalous sexual conflicts and coverups, but the horrific intolerance of others who might be “true believers” but of a different faith. A truly religious, giving, holy man in life if a Methodist, would simply not be saved, because of this “my way or the highway” presentation of what is in sum merely an organization with a mission. Many religions are organized and have missions, each seeking to grow their flock, their presence, their baskets ….. and then you go see the riches of any of them, including the Vatican, and wonder why there are poor people in this world with splendor such as exists within these tax-free enclaves. Again, my compliments for your clear thinking and writing.

  2. MarkSpizer says:

    great post as usual!