21 March, 2010

Reactions to Benedict's Letter to the Irish People

Before all else, people owe it to themselves to read the Pope's full letter.

There was never a question but that the Holy Father:'s  the letter would please some and anger others. In his letter:
  • He shows his personal sorrow over the sex abuse charges.
  • He speaks directly to those abused with words of comfort.
  • He chastises the abusers and the bishops of Ireland.
  • He asks for forgiveness for the abuse in the name of the Church.
  • He says that he is currently setting up a "Visitation" (investigation) of the dioceses and Catholic institutions in Ireland.
  • He directs the clergy and bishops to cooperate with civil authorities in bringing abusers to justice.
  • He directs that "spiritual practices" be carried out in penance and petition for healing; he specifically mentions Eucharistic Adoration in every diocese, a mission for all the clergy, and year long petition and penance by all the Irish people.
No one who is fair-minded can deny that this is a positive step in the right direction. John Allen gives a number of instances in which, for a number of years, as Cardinal Ratzinger and as pope, Benedict has taken other positive steps to stop child sex abuse.

Today however, many remain critical of the pope and his letter to the Irish. The most salient criticisms seem to be the following:
  • He placed all the real "blame" on the accused priests and local bishops alone.
  • He did not discuss, what many believe is the crux of the problem: the systemic nature of Clerical power and actions or inaction of the higher clergy in hiding or covering up abuse.
  • He did not address the increasing international sex abuse scandal, currently being investigated in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Italy and Brazil.
  • He, himself, didn't announce specific Vatican actions and programs for a "zero tolerance" policy similar to the program approved for the U.S.
  • He didn't accept personal responsibility for the system nor say anything about his own role in these cases while he was archbishop of Munich.
Most of the dailies (Washington Post, New York Times, National Post) reported on the letter with a mixture of fact and subtle interpretation none of which was particularly positive. That may be  because of the outrage over such hideous crimes. The "comments" by readers of the various articles were all disappointed or angry that the pope did not take a stronger stand. The comments made in  the three British dailies (The Guardian, The Times, and the Daily Telegraph) I follow expressed extreme anger over the sex abuse and how the Church has handled it. These comments were often vicious attacks on the Catholic Church itself.

Personally, I agree that the Church must discover and implement a process that is much more transparent and honest; a process that places the victims of abuse and the People of God above the "protection" of the institutional church's current manner of dealing with new issues.

Yes the abusing priests committed unspeakable crimes. Yes, the bishops made terrible "mistakes" as the Holy Father said in his letter. These men must accept the responsibility for what happened. On the other hand, the Vatican has fostered or allowed practices of secrecy, even directing all involved: Bishops, clergy, abusers, and very often the victims themselves to remain silent under the pain of sin or excommunication. Why?

The easy answer is "pure power" and maintenance of the the status quo. There is some truth to that argument. However there are other elements to consider. Most of the Cardinals and senior bishops come from a time and a culture in which alcoholism and sexual deviance were understood only as moral problems. In that culture it was sufficient to confess, do penance and renew one's prayer life. Such moral deviance was the province of the Church to cure or punish. It was never understood as something that related to secular authorties.

This view easily led to the idea of "protecting the Church" from "scandal." Although not right, it is understandable as part of the early defenses of the Church after the Reformation. The exercise of near absolute power by the hierarchy became "standard operating procedure."

But as 20th century theologians, liturgists and Scripture scholars began to understand and appreciate the situation of a Medieval Church facing the modern world, they suggested ways to speak to this new world. Pope John the XXIII was inspired to call Vatican II with its many changes. However, many old inadequate procedures continued. For some reason fundamental changes never came about.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the sex abuse scandals are forcing the Church to reassess its internal and external processes and methods of operation. The Church hierarchy are called to enact more transparent and collegial ways to lead the People of God; more compassionate ways that include justice tempered by mercy.

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