March 30, 2010

The (Re)Reformation of the Catholic Church

Print More

In the wake of the horrendous sex abuse scandal which has afflicted the Catholic Church, criticism of Catholicism in its current form has exploded. Certainly much of the criticism comes with good reason, but simultaneously, one can sense that some critics seem to have a few other motivating factors behind their critiques of the Catholic Church, factors unrelated to the scandal itself.

Sun columnist Peter Finocchiaro ‘10 and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd have both written on this scandal. Given the topic of these columns, you would expect that if you removed any content not directly related to the sex abuse scandal from them, the columns would contain almost nothing. But instead of nothing, you would find a laundry list of complaints about Catholic doctrines or beliefs, complaints often made outside the context of a sex abuse scandal.

I myself am Lutheran, and for those of you vaguely familiar with the Reformation, you would know I have my own disagreements with Catholicism, including a few but not all of the items on that laundry list. Yet the sex abuse scandal should not become an excuse for any of us to renew our disagreements with Catholicism.

If we want the hold the Pope accountable as the accused, we must also remember that the accused is entitled to a fair and public hearing under Article 10 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, Dowd and Finocchiaro have already declared the Pope guilty, calling for his removal.

In particular, Dowd cites one example where then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger granted leniency to one priest accused of sexual abuse, citing the statute of limitations among other things. While she appears to have a smoking gun here, it turns out she actually jumped the gun.

The next day, another Times columnist, Ross Douthat, pointed out that when the allegations were finally brought to the Vatican 20 years after they were made, Ratzinger had actually initially waived the statute of limitations, only reinstating them and showing leniency later since the accused priest was terminally ill and would not live through his trial.

Should we be asking whether or not the Pope is responsible here, or should we instead ask why it took 20 years for the allegations to reach the Vatican in the first place?

Nonetheless, other examples exist where the Pope could have been partially or completely at fault. In these situations, one can call for the Pope’s resignation, the easy way out which would undeniably mollify critics. Or, one could instead investigate it further, figuring out the real truth of the matter and the facts of the case.

Not only would this approach ensure punishment for the guilty while not throwing the innocent with them, but it would also provide the best insight into how to prevent future instances of abuse.

Additionally, too often most of the criticism falls directly on Catholic theology, with critics naively believing if the Catholic Church abandoned all the “dogmatic” aspects of its theology, replacing it with a new set of beliefs acceptable in the eyes of their critics, these problems would go away.

Celibacy and the priesthood is a perfect example. I will note that Lutherans differ from Catholics here, allowing pastors to marry. But while I disagree with the Catholic Church on this issue, I still would not rush in to blame Catholic theology.

Any person, married or celibate, faces sexual temptations. Certainly many examples exist of pastors whose careers have been ruined by affairs, and even in politics many married leaders have fallen victim to sex scandals. No person, celibate or married, man or woman, religious or secular, is immune from the temptations that have brought down a great multitude of leaders.

Yet even if Catholic priests have the right yo marry, they can still opt to not exercise that right. Surely no one can force marriage to be a requirement for entrance into the priesthood. For priests who refuse to marry out of religious conviction, and for priests who are too focused on the heavenly realm to find a wife in the earthly realm — several great Biblical leaders of that type exist — allowing priests to marry does not make a difference, and it does not deal with the issues these priests will still face.

Nonetheless, this sex abuse scandal requires a solution and a change in the culture of the Catholic Church. Much of this pressure will come from outside Catholicism, and these outsiders should consider the example of the Christian disciple Paul, a celibate man himself. When he visited Athens, he initially was distressed since the city was full of idols for other gods. Paul, however, did not denounce Athens for their idolatry (for modern-day relevancy, insert a visual image of a traveling preacher telling Ithaca they will all go to hell); he instead appealed to the city’s religious nature in his evangelism.

Much like critics of the church have good reasons to be distressed, Paul also had his own reasons to be distressed. Yet he did not turn the issue into a referendum on their religions, and likewise critics should not turn the issue into a referendum on Catholic theology and beliefs. Starting another culture war with the Catholic Church will accomplish nothing.

Certainly pointed questions must be asked at times about certain aspects of Catholic theology, and the Pope will definitely have some things to answer for himself. Despite this, we cannot forget that this scandal is not about Catholic theology and beliefs or the Pope himself. It is about the victims.

Original Author: Mike Wacker