March 15, 2010

The Vatican Owes More Than an Act of Contrition

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Just before his ascension to the head of the Catholic world in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI — then Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals — railed against moral relativism in modern society. He has returned to this rebuke often, blaming “the dictatorship of relativism” for the prevalence of all kinds of sins that the Catholic Church’s hard-line conservative base perceives.

So adamant has the Pope been in his conviction that there are moral absolutes — pure good and unqualified evil — that one begins to wonder why this righteous certitude has so often been compromised during his time as a man of God. If there were ever such a thing as evil, Ratzinger has stared it straight in the face, particularly in the actions of clergymen under his jurisdiction. But rather than accord with the principles he so often professes, he has instead turned a blind eye to monstrosities, over and over again.

“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins …”

Most are probably weary by now of the seemingly endless string of incriminations, tying members of the Catholic clergy to acts of pedophilia. The details of the sexual abuse aren’t just gruesome. They’re downright repugnant and an affront to every standard of decency we have.  But, while the grisly truth is hard to stomach, we unfortunately need to cast our attention to that dark place once again.

Though the story has gotten little play thus far in the States, new allegations of abuse — committed over a span of decades in countries all across Europe — have been surfacing in recent weeks and months. These allegations cast a harsh light on the edifice of the Church, not least because they make clear the lengths to which Catholic leadership has gone to conceal the nature and scope of the misdeeds from public scrutiny.

Of particular note is a story of abuse that occurred in Germany. In 1979, a priest took a boy — now only known as Wilfried F. — to a remote location in the Bavarian Alps. Over the course of the trip, the 11-year-old was submitted to sexual abuse by his ostensible guardian, described here by Slate’s Christopher Hitchens: “[The boy] was administered alcohol, locked in his bedroom, stripped naked and forced to suck the penis of his confessor.”

“Because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell …”

The nature of the subsequent cover-up should offend everyone. After catching wind of the abuse, Ratzinger — at that time the archbishop of the diocese in question — relocated the offending priest for some form of rehabilitation. It wasn’t long, however, before the man was restored to his position, and thus given free reign to continue tormenting children.

But there’s more. Beginning in 2001, when he was a senior official under Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger oversaw the Church’s effort to distance itself from the widespread allegations of child molestation — which had gripped the U.S. — and performed damage control to shield the Vatican from culpability. In short order, he issued commands to every Catholic bishop dictating that anyone who so much as hinted at priestly abuse would face excommunication. The implication was that the Church was above the law, subject not to the codes of secular bodies, but only to that of the Holy See.

“But most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love …”

Lucetta Scaraffia, an Italian journalist and scholar of history, penned an article last Thursday — published in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper — which tackled the subject of child abuse and the priesthood. In it, she argues that, “a greater female presence [in the Church] … would have been able to rip the veil of masculine secrecy that in the past so often covered the reporting of these misdeeds with silence.” That same day, Austrian Archbishop Christoph Schonborn became the most senior member of the Catholic hierarchy to suggest a link between the vow of celibacy — a requirement of all priests — and acts of sexual abuse.

Calls for reform to Roman Catholic practices — particularly with regard to celibacy and the role of women — have been sounding for years. Perhaps now, when the religion’s highest authority has been thrust in the middle of the controversy, some progress might actually be made.

And it wouldn’t be a moment too soon. The election of Ratzinger to the papacy in 2005 was an endorsement of Catholic arch-conservatism, and a tacit refusal to address the legacy of egregious sexual misconduct that had been hidden in the shadows for decades.

First thing’s first, though, Ratzinger should resign the papacy.  It is fairly clear that his involvement in the cover-ups — as archbishop of Munich in 1979, and as the dean of the College of Cardinals this past decade — was both complicit and far-reaching. His moral authority is beyond compromised, and his continued dominion over the spirituality of a billion Catholics around the world is a travesty.

“I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

Though I was raised and confirmed Catholic, I am no longer a person of faith. While my argument here is not that of a devout Christian, it is that of someone who understands that spirituality has a role to play in many people’s lives. It’s easy to be cynical about religion, but I’ve always resisted that impulse, in spite of my differences of opinion with many aspects of Catholic teachings.

Still, faced with an abomination of this order, there’s really only one conclusion to be drawn. An institution so warped by anachronistic notions of tradition — and gripped so fully by the instinct for self-preservation that it would endorse such vicious means to an end — doesn’t deserve to exist in its current form any longer.

Much more is required now than an act of contrition.

Peter Finocchiaro, a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is a former Arts  and Entertainment Editor of The Sun. He may be reached at pfinocchiaro@cornellsun.com. Everyone Choose Sides typically appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Peter Finocchiaro