Ichabod's Kin
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A Holy Mess

The Roman Catholic Church, in this post-Easter season, ledby a
    new and promising pope, should declare a world-wide Year of
    Mourning for all children abused by priests and others. 

    During this time, it would be wise to remove all those guilty of   such crimes, release their names, and place all relevant Church sanctions against them while providing secular law enforcement with information helpful to prosecution for civil crimes. This will allow, following a year of Confessional services, a fresh and important start for  Catholicism and for religion in general throughout the world.

 This is a time when one may make the mistake of a fatal pause so as not to offend friends, acquaintances and society at large, or risk a reputation for tolerance and even-handedness when dealing with the faults of others.
    Especially is this so in the matter of religion where, in the Western world, Christians have so often turned into lions and devoured their enemies and competitors, both real and perceived.
    To be sure, the sins of recent decades that have been documented within the Roman Church have been pervasive throughout Protestantism and its many sects. Any religious movement, mainstream or minimal, has been guilty of like moral and social transgressions.
    The Catholic Church claims 1.1 billion adherents world-wide. In the U.S., there are far more within its communion than the top ten Protestant denominations combined. It is also hard for Protestants and other sects to admit that the Roman institution is the pace-setter in so many religious endeavors, both for good and for ill.
    The child of one Catholic parent, I have no brief against Catholicism or its followers. When I entered the Protestant ministry my father assumed I would wish or insist that he follow me into my denomination as a matter of familial and emotional support. I knew that he remained Catholic more than anything, regardless of his estrangement from it since the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century when the Church there sided with the government and the wealthy landowners against the oppressed and poverty-stricken laborers.
    Indeed, he came to this country to start over following that conflict and was loathe thereafter to enter the doors of a cathedral. At the time of my ministerial decision, he softened considerably, leading to his suggestion that he follow me in my religious direction. In a moment of mutual reflection, I was sure that in his own heart his place was in the Church of his youth and family and, if so, I would accompany him to meet the local priest and begin his restoration to that faith. He did return to its fold and at his death was buried following the appropriate Mass in his name.
    I say this to defend myself against accusations, sure to come, that I have animus toward a faith that is not my own. I have deep appreciation for the rituals and practices of Catholicism; Protestantism is a faith largely of words–hence the centrality of pulpits in its chancels. Catholicism touches the emotional and unspoken in human experience via the sacraments and the Mass itself.
    But the Church and its considerable weight is in all our faces regardless of religious preference; it fills news reports at any given time; and lesser congregations in smaller communities know all too well how that weight affects their lives and social standing.
    In my own religious studies, I have followed the Catholic Church’s history and stayed current with its affairs since the early 1960s. I remember well another pope of great promise, Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII–the one who “opened the windows of the Church and let in the fresh air.” He convened the Vatican Council that made people of all faiths hope again that its vast institution would begin leading the world of faith to be what it was called to be.
    I followed also the career of Joseph Ratzinger who in time became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith–the direct descendant of the infamous Roman Inquisition of the mid-second millenium. I followed as well his efforts to dismantle the legacy of John XXIII with stunning effectiveness until recent times when one could hardly recognize it except for overt symbolisms such as priests facing congregations during masses. It is painful to say so, but by the time he became Pope Benedict XVI, he was effectively the Dick Cheney of the Church–the one behind the scenes who wielded far more influence that was deserved, in the interests of the institution.
    Before his accession to the papacy, Ratzinger also singularly held all the information regarding the disgraceful actions of abusive priests and higher-ups, which gave him additional power that calls to mind the FBI’s infamous J. Edgar Hoover and his hold on countless persons in crucial positions.
    Make no mistake, Benedict was the choice of Pope John Paul II, his predecessor. Both knew the devastating effects of the child abuse scandal, what they had failed to do to correct it, and how it could bring down the entire Roman hierarchy. It has been Benedict who has tried to hasten the elevation of John Paul II to sainthood to pre-empt the stain on his reputation. But the tentacles of the scandal could only embrace Benedict as well, even more so.
    And this is the back-story to Benedict’s resignation: there was no way he could shake the looming cloud except to step down and pray that his own successor might protect his memory as well. It is not altogether clear that this will come about during the papacy of Francis, who seems to have his own mind regarding the role and direction of the Church.
    Francis has begun well, with an abundance of symbolic moves and postures that indicate a change in direction. But popes, like U.S. presidents, have not as much power as we may think or wish. Francis will have to move quickly to mount a trend that can withstand the forces that will assail him within the Vatican and from among the backward and conservative Cardinals, the preponderance of whom were appointed by the prior two popes.
    John XXIII made the ingenious move of calling the famous Council of the 1960s and setting its agenda. Indeed, once in motion, it was temporarily unstoppable and cut a wide swath that would have been even wider and deeper save for the death of that pontiff. That is when Ratzinger and his retrogressive cohorts moved to reverse the gains so dearly made.
    One can only imagine how far that perverse influence may have gone beyond even our times, had not fate, or God(?), intervened with the child abuse scandal that would not die.
    If Francis can mount a new revolution and live long enough to see it through, we and the world could see the rebirth of the Roman Church as a leading edge of a Christianity whose work in the world may be far from done.
    Any moves to flush out and rid the Church of the disobedient priests must include investigation and revelation of the sins of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI–as well as Cardinal Bernard Law, who was by no means “banished” to Rome as many think, but as a means of escape from his considerable sins and legal liability in the American scandal, and from whence he lives in wealth and splendor as priest of a major “Chapel” in the shadow of the Vatican.
    Until such impediments are removed from the face and soul of the Catholic Church, redemption cannot come. And God knows, they, and we all, need it, so that if religion is to mean anything again it will begin with that oldest and (formerly) grandest of Christian expressions.
    Otherwise, this will be a Holy Mess without end. And who wants that?    

English: Pope Benedict XVI

English: Pope Benedict XVI (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 Responses to “A Holy Mess”

  1. They might also apologize for helping the Nazi war criminals escape to South America by giving them Vatican passports.


  2. John,
    Thank you for this very thoughtful, insightful and inspiring thesis. Brief though it is, it conveys a powerful message that should be heard by all who are concerned about the future of Catholicism and Christianity. May we all benefit from the leadership of Pope Francis I.

  3. John, thanks for educating me about the RC papacy, and like your first paragraph. However, until the RC church gives up its misogynistic mindset and allows females equal access to the priesthood, Papacy, etc., it will continue to be oppressive to women and thus oppressive to our children. The odds are well against this massive patriarchy making such change which would alter its power blocs, so though I attended Catholic school as a child and was briefly married to a failed Catholic, the RC papacy remains irrelevant to my life, and I detest all the public attention given to its existence: essentially, the RC pope isn’t wearing any clothes despite the pretense that he isn’t naked.

  4. Bravo, John. Although you are a rank outsider of the RC institution your recommendations are consistent with RC theologian Hans Kung. He suggests that the church revisit the 11th century institution of papal authority and celibacy by calling another council along the lines of Vatican II, and that the council include lay people, along with bishops and priests. I assume lay people would include nuns, and married people.
    Like you, I have followed developments in the RC Church since the 50’s, including a 60’s article in Redbook, by a priest who talked about widespread sexual abuse and the book, A Question of Conscience, by leading theologian of the UK, who left the priesthood and the church for its alleged failure to support human values. I was also encouraged by the positive reforms of John XXIII and Vatican II
    During my 30 years as a clinical pastoral educator I had many RC students; priests, nuns [sisters] and married lay. Almost all struggled with their relationship to their church. Many of them experienced significant liberation. Some remained within the church system. Others left, either marrying or staying single. They included priests and women that had been victims of clergy abuse, sisters that wanted to be ordained as priests, and at least one seminary president whose school had been investigated by the Vatican for allowing women to take courses for the clergy professional degree. The destructive influences of the official views of the church on authority, celibacy, women and sexuality were wide spread, not only among my students but also among the patients that I visited in the hospital. During this time religious vocations were in radical decline and many good pastoral priests were getting married. I officiated at one’s marriage and sat at the wedding dinner table with his parishioners. They said given the way the church had treated him he should have done this long before. They also said they would welcome if as a married priest if they were given the choice. Incidentally, his bishop later resigned after being charged with sexual abuse.
    So you are right. The church needs a radical change. Nothing less will do. The people, both religious and lay or longing for it.

    • Hans Kung’s is a beautiful mind. I’ve followed him since the ’50s as well. He’s largely persona non grata with the Church but he’s their Socrates, their gadfly. But a great inspiration to me since first knowing of him.

      As for the abuse, indeed, this is not recent but has been in the Catholic water through modern times but is even older than that. I once wanted desperately to get a grant to go to Italy and see what I could dig up by interviewing families who had had sons in priesthood (or started off there) and ascertain any suspicions re things that didn’t make sense. And I’m talking about going back generations. My guess is it’s centuries old, and can you imagine during the years of all that power, influence and riches of the church, a young man telling his parents their priest abused him?–they’d take him by the ear right to said priest for discipline and thus the priest would have carte blanche with the poor young soul thereafter. It’s a terrible stain on the Church and a horrible betrayal on the part of the priesthood.

      Glad to be back now and to continue discourse…

  5. John-A fantastic column and my thoughts exactly on the horrific state of the Church. I stopped attending Mass 8 or 9 yrs ago except for weddings and funerals and have not received the sacrements either. I have seen my own son receive communion (which I cannot believe that he would do),divorced people receiving among other things that the church forbids. I have considered returning to the Methodist church, but sometimes think I am just too lazy to go. Am I destined to Hell? Maybe I should look into your faith.

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