Missing the Target


We live in an age obsessed with peeling the onion, with digging into the secrets and mysteries that our forebears accepted. While weaker institutions have been pierced by our obsessive desire to scrutinize, the Church has resisted all efforts to bring it into the light. It has held tighter than a clam. Will the recent attacks (including Christopher Hitchens' call for his arrest) on Pope Benedict about his role in covering up the abuse of children by priests, his refusal to punish the offenders and his efforts to shield them from investigation and punishment by secular authorities change this?

Not likely.

So long as Benedict is the target of the criticism the Church will be able to roll with the punches. The attempts to tie him directly to the cover-up of such abuse are damaging, for sure, but they fall short of the kind of information that would force change. Not a terribly popular man or pope, the attacks may even allow Benedict to strengthen his position as he comes to be seen as a martyr for a larger cause: the protection of the reputation of the man who bears the most responsibility for the Church's enabling and protection of sexually predatory priests. And that of course is Pope John Paul II.

In its long history, the Catholic Church has inflicted an awful lot of pain and misery on an awful lot of people. From the perspective of sheer magnitude, such high profile crimes like the Inquisition, its attack on enlightenment, its support of Fascism, its negligence regarding the spread of HIV and its long tradition of virulent anti-Semitism capture the public's imagination and provide fodder for conspiracy theories of all shapes and sizes. But, and I say this as the scion of an Irish and French Canadian catholic family tree, the Mother Church has reserved her most brutal side for its own believers.

Most of this brutality has been banal on the surface as compared to the more spectacular behavior discussed above. And it has been for the most part meted out by parish priests and local bishops in the form of bullying, hectoring, interfering, favoritism, strategic excommunications, and the active suppression of debate or contrary opinion. And sexual abuse has always been present. While the Church may claim that it is the weakened morals of the west and the sexualisation of popular culture that influenced the actions of a few rogue priests, those of us who have some history with the church tend to see the abuse of children as inherently related to this tradition of brutality and dominance. It is insidious to suggest, as the Church has, that this is a new phenomenon. It is a disease inherent in the very DNA of the Church.

The have been few Popes in history who had the same measure of control that John Paul II had over the church. For almost 30 years he molded and shaped the church in his own image, infusing it with a unique mix of reactionary conservatism and eastern-rite influenced irrationality that allowed it to maintain a powerful critique of modernism. Dissent in John Paul's church was simply not tolerated and contrary views were sidelined, marginalised and, if necessary, punished through canon law. The Church's enabling of the abuse of children and the protection of predatory priests were supported and directed by the increasingly centralised Church bureaucracy. Pope Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, rose to prominence as being an efficient and tireless supporter of John Paul's vision. He was, one has to say, just following orders.

No Pope in history has had the positive public profile of John Paul II. He was respected and revered around the world, hailed as a destroyer of communism, a force for ecumenism and as a dynamic leader. He made the Catholic Church relevant and powerful despite the full force of modernity.

Pope Benedict knows the importance of this and the main thrust of his papacy has been to ensure the canonisation of his predecessor as fast as possible in order to maintain relevance. In December, he signed the first of two decrees required to elevate John Paul to sainthood. The second is expected to be signed in the autumn. The flurry of attention and good press around this will almost certainly provide closure on the criticisms of Benedict and the Church. It will be time to move on. Benedict will have ensured the reputation of the man the Church is now calling John Paul the Great.

Unless, that is, the criticism shifts from Benedict to John Paul. If his role in the cover-up of the sexual predation of children is brought to light, his canonization would be seen for what it is, a desperate act to remain relevant by an institution with a decayed moral authority that has grown out of touch with its teachings and its members. A sustained focus on the hypocrisy of the canonization of John Paul will hit the Church where it lives and is more likely to deliver the kind of blow necessary to produce real change. These potshots at Benedict may be enjoyable for the press, but they miss the point and they will prove to be ineffective. - Beta



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