My colleague, classmate, and friend, Aaron Pidel, balances the New York Times’s point of view with some very helpful facts and some wise insights regarding how one might work through a trying time such as this. Aaron helpfully points to articles by John Allen and others. I would add to his list, this morning’s piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Aaron also wonders if perhaps the more could have been done on the part of the Church and, in particular, the Holy Father. I would like to follow Aaron’s good points with some additional thoughts as I’ve reflected on the Church’s experience over the past few days and weeks. However, I would like to propose a different line of thought.
First, it is very tempting to get sucked into the New York Time’s powerful orbit. By that, I mean it is too easy to let the New York Times define the terms of this most recent revelation of crimes of Church members and the failures of the Church. The journal of record has its own motives. It should come as no surprise that the Times is no fan of the Catholic Church, and, likewise, do not think for a second that selling papers is not first and foremost in mind’s of the publishers. Moreover, these two details–anti-Catholic and pro-profit–are intimately, perhaps causally, linked. Anti-Catholicism has a long and healthy history in America. Although a variety of motivations have fueled anti-Catholicism in America, fear of the temporal power of the pope has been one of the chief and long-enduring reasons. In the nineteenth century, many argued that Catholics’ loyalty to the Roman Pontiff would weaken or undermine their civic duties. Because of the temporal claims of the pope, so the argument goes, Catholics in America could not freely exercise their liberty since their loyalties were split between Rome and home. To the typical nineteenth-century thinking person, Rome represented a serious and legitimate threat to the democratic project that is the USA. Examine the following political cartoon from Harper’s in 1871.
Click to enlarge the cartoon, and you will notice Lady Liberty, on the top of the cliff, being led to the gallows. On the river bank, crocodiles with mitres for heads threaten the school children. On the edifice of St. Peter’s notice the phrase “Political Catholic Church.” Thomas Nash drew this cartoon for Harper’s in the midst of a national debate on religion and public schools. The image of crocodiles, combined with the name Ganges, suggests the degree to which many Americans viewed Catholics as exotic and foreign. I would argue that the current strain of anti-Catholicism on display in the Times has its roots deeply buried in this history which I’ve outlined. The Times stokes this latent anti-Catholicism by using some of the same tactics as Nash–pointing out the strangeness of Catholicism vis a vis clerical celibacy. Furthermore, papers are guaranteed to sell if the Times can goad a response from the Vatican’s byzantine hierarchy then accompany its next article with a picture like the one below, which shows Benedict wearing what looks to be a Persian rug and hiding behind a talismanic plant sprung from the mind of James Cameron. To the average non-Catholic American all this looks very suspicious.
We should understand the true nature of the anti-Catholicism on display in the Times. It’s playing much more to America’s deep-seeded, historically-rooted anti-Catholicism–one based on a fear of some perceived power to undermine liberty. The Time’s beef with Rome is not doctrinal. In other words, the Times is not making an theological argument regarding the very nature of the Church. Perhaps, the Times isn’t even making a coherent argument at all. Whatever case they may or may not be making, it’s certainly not a new argument (cf. Nash’s cartoon). Therefore, let’s not get bogged down in these categories. In doing so we run a terrible risk in doing further damage to those members of the church who are most important: the victims.
Secondly, to approach this ‘crisis’ using the categories set out by the Times, is to risk making the crisis about the Pope, his prestige, his reputation, his theology, his performance, etc. To get into an argument with the Times (fueled as it is by a particularly American brand of anti-Catholicism) about the papacy is a fool’s errand. It leads people to defend the pope and the papacy, and, while that is important, it’s not the most important part of this whole sexual abuse equation. By taking a defensive crouch, by circling the papal public relations wagons (such as they are), the Church risks further harm to the victims of the abuse. We cannot forget that even one victim of sexual abuse is one too many and that, so long as there are victims of these crimes, they should be the primary focus of our empathy, our concern, and our Christ-like love. The Pope is a tough bird, and the papacy has been around, in one form or another, for a very long time.
In fact, the Pope himself, sent a moving and deeply felt apology to the Catholics of Ireland. The Pope focuses on the victims and their families: “I now turn to you with words that come from my heart, and I wish to speak to each of you individually and to all of you as brothers and sisters in the Lord.” He goes on to note many of the factors that contributed to the poor efforts of the Church regarding its treatment of these little ones, the victims. Among them are:
…insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 Mar 2010)
Then the Pope orders “urgent action” to address these factors which have played a role in obscuring “the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.” In this statement regarding persecution, the Pope seems to suggest that when it comes to the mission of the Church, i.e., spreading the Good News, it will always encounter persecution–not much you can do about it (cf. Jesus). However, the “egregious crimes” at the center of the scandal are many times more harmful to the mission of the Church, and something must be done. Towards this end, the Pope makes some powerful recommendations. To the abusers he says, “openly acknowledge our guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice.” To the bishops he advises “self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal” and recommends that they “deepen [their] pastoral concern for all members of [their] flock”.
Many thoughtful people will say the Pope has not gone far enough, and perhaps he has not. Nonetheless, in this pastoral letter he focuses on the victims with an eye towards healing. He establishes some priorities, at the top of which is Jesus, “the light of the Gospel”and the Church’s mission to the victims. The safeguarding of the prestige of the papacy and the good name of the Church pales in significance when compared the the reconciling and healing that is needed. More of Benedict’s brother bishops might want to follow his lead in putting the Gospel ahead of any fears of being misrepresented, slandered, or mistreated in the New York Times. God knows the victims suffered more than that.