Dealing with Benedict’s legacy

A common affliction suffered by intellectuals is their ability to think arguments through to their logical conclusions. US audiences watched a minor example unfold quite recently when self-styled libertarian Senator Rand Paul was honest enough to defend the implications of his intransigent commitment to restraining Federal Government activism: ‘principled’ opposition to the Civil Rights Act and, consequently, the perpetuation of segregation in the South. Charming. Practically every Catholic living outside the Vatican Palace could have recognized the Senator’s problem. Legislating on everyday life based on a dogmatic insistence on abstract principles produces laws that are wicked and silly or both.

Several of the more deranged policy priorities that chacterized the reign as Pope of Benedict XVI are a case in point. The late Christopher Hitchens, as ever, cut to it

AIDS is bad – but not quite as bad as condoms

Benedict’s love of his Church’s traditions, its centuries-old laws and its detachment from the passions of the crowd of the day might appear Burkean but that only obscures a core legacy of his reign: the utterly irreparable breach in trust between his institution’s hierarchy and its believers.

By refusing to change – and in many instances to act – Benedict has changed the Catholic Church forever.

Castigating the French Revolutionaries of his era, Burke reflected that they “love humanity but hate men”. The essence of Burke’s loathing was less the act of revolution (hence Paine’s initial astonishment at his former friend’s Reflections) than the fidelity to abstract principles that blinded the revolutionaries, stripping them of compassion for victims and dissidents. Previously known as Pope John Paul’s Rottweiler, Benedict XVI’s commitment to ideology was ferocious, life-long and devastating in its consequences.

The former Archbishop of Munich’s commitment not only to pontificating on, but to ushering the full force of his institutions’ might behind, many of the worst causes of modern times is a source of distress for millions of Catholics who believe in the simple truth of “love thy neighbor” and the notion that their Church should be a force for social justice. To these Catholics, the Church’s opposition to birth control is unconscionable while the fixation on the sex lives of consenting adults is baffling and disturbing. But the anger and disillusion with the hierarchy’s contemporary agenda goes well beyond policy disagreement and political priorities and is located, to no small degree, in the personal influence and modus operandi pursued and encouraged by Benedict since he took the reins of the The Inquisition’s contemporary heir, The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

A case in point was Rome’s treatment of American nuns who have dedicated their lives to living the Gospels and working with the poor. Here many of the worst tendencies of Benedict’s approach are captured in one case study. A hierarchy residing in splendor in Roman palaces as out of touch with the outside world as it is with the Gospel’s rejection of material comfort; a collection of angry, suspicious men conspiring to humiliate and control a group of already excluded, subordinated women; the ludicrous prioritization of conformity and obedience over the actual work of charity, especially alleviating the suffering of the sick; agenda setting based on contempt for debate and reason and, instead, a pathetic assertion of authority. This is Benedict’s legacy.

Benedict’s former college contemporary, theologian Hans Küng, observed during the recent clampdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious that,

“… he [Benedict] is absolutely against freedom. He wants obedience…He is against the paradigm of Vatican II. He has a medieval idea of the papacy.”

The price of that culture of obedience has been incalculably damaging to the Catholic Church.

Silence in the House of God aired last week in the US. For anyone assessing the legacy of Benedict XIV it is simply devastating. The documentary attempts to explain the inexplicable lack of compassion, common sense, respect for the rule of law or for children’s safety that characterized Rome’s catastrophic approach to the child rape and abuse epidemic.

The documentary discusses how Canon Law has been a barrier to what would otherwise have been decision-making processes based on easy, urgent and duty-bound obligations to report suspected child rapists to the criminal authorities. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of that debate since the absurd proposition that there could be anything remotely complicated about what one should do upon discovering active child rapists prowling around the children of the parish is offensive.

Much more interesting was its investigation into the hierarchy’s approach to dealing with its own bishops on matters of child abuse. Irish readers have a sense of this: Bishops were instructed to swear victims to secrecy, perpetrators were left free to abuse; many rapists, upon any hint of potential exposure, were provided with refuge in fresh parishes where they were free to continue abusing others for years – and all to protect the institution from scandal. Irish readers may be less aware of what happened in Wisconsin. Deaf victims of sexual abuse, having summoned the courage to hold abusers to account, and thereby protect others from live threats, were coerced into writing letters of apology for having had the audacity to bring scandal on the institution.

At the heart of this operation was Benedict himself, the man with more data on all abuse and cover-up cases than anyone else in the world. How many of those cases could have been avoided had the policy been one based on prioritizing the safety of children, only he can made an informed guess.

This Pope has done real damage. My own sense of the anger many Catholics and former Catholics currently feel is that it extends beyond considering the victims’ lives shattered by egregious violations made possible by his policies. For many people raised in Catholic institutions where the experience was largely positive, there exists a white hot anger at the legacy of suspicion and abandonment fostered by the culture of deference, denial and obedience Benedict was permitted to cultivate under his predecessor.

My own experience of the Church was totally incongruent with the negative images Benedict’s leadership has brought on the institution. To this day, if I had to list the ten most enjoyable, wide-ranging and challenging conversations I had, for example, over three years at Queens, the local chaplin would be associated with more of them then anyone else.

For thousands of priests, nuns and lay people who have dedicated their own lives to the Gospels through the vehicle of the Church, this pope, in my view, acted more like a factory floor boss than a champion or inspiration.

Think of it this way. A threshold question in US presidential debates centres on the “3am phone call” question. “Mr. President, there’s been…” Supposedly the subject matter of this call is so severe that none of the President’s countless highly qualified staff could handle it. For your typical parish priest 3am calls are routine and while the crisis may be local in nature the universe of the afflicted family is generally shaking on its axis. “Fr., so and so is dying; he needs the last rites urgently”.

For immediate family members gathered in vigil, the sense of crisis and fear can be as acute as anything they’ll ever live through. The priest is expected to navigate each crisis, in-person, alone, urgently and with the ability to relate the dignity of everyone involved. That’s a 3am call few would have the stamina, faith or commitment to take on time after time, year-on-year, decade after decade. Moments like that must be profoundly lonely work.

The primary victims of the Ratzinger’s command to prioritize secrecy and obedience were of course the children who were raped and abused, their families, and the sense of trust that existed between parish and church. But for thousands of priests and nuns the world over, men and women who devote their lives to the service of the sacraments, Ratzinger’s directives were effectively an additional betrayal, a policy that compounded the loneliness of ministry they accepted with a further enforced loneliness born of a bureaucracy that commanded its yeomanry to make the following choice. Either betray your vows to your hierarchy or make a mockery of your original motives for swearing those vows to begin with.

It’s no exaggeration, at least by my reading, to depict the dilemma faced by Bishops who received Ratzinger’s instruction-come-threat to report all sexual abuse only within the institution – on pain of ex-communication for those who disobeyed – as a choice between living one’s life according to the Gospels versus maintaining fidelity to the hierarchy.

Preaching and enforcing obedience to institutional authority was the central, consistent driver of Joseph Ratzinger’s career. As the conclave tasked with electing his successor gather in the weeks ahead, they would do well to resign that legacy with him.