Mopping Up the Holy Mess in the Catholic Church
For a man of his advanced years, Pope Benedict XVI is generating a tidal wave of bad publicity that would make Lindsay Lohan envious. Angry protesters in England are demanding his resignation. Atheist-provocateur Christopher Hitchens is actually calling for his arrest. Cheerfully caustic columnist Maureen Dowd, tongue only half in cheek, wrote that we could use a female pope — preferably a no-nonsense nun: “Habemus Mama,” the Church would declare on that fateful day.
By now, everyone this side of New Guinea has heard about the predatory priests and the failure of the Church to take decisive action. Pope Benedict himself is immersed up to his ears in the scandal: people are wondering , Watergate-style, about the extent of the unholy cover-up: “How much did the Pope know, and when did he know it?”
All that accusatory chatter is fine, even necessary. The Pope needs to be held accountable. After all, he was put in charge of investigating priestly abuses when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. But nobody seems to be asking the most pertinent question of all: “How is the Pope going to prevent further abuses?” Because whether the Pope realizes it or not, the moral authority of his Church has been shaken. Seriously shaken. An institution that promotes itself as the supreme moral authority can’t afford to squander its moral capital.
So what can the Pope do to prevent further abuses? Eliminating the celibacy rule would help pad the seriously dwindling ranks of aspiring Roman Catholic priests, but it wouldn’t eliminate pedophilia. Even married men are capable of preying on young people.
No, the answer seems so simple (at least to this non-Catholic) that I’m almost embarrassed to propose it: Keep the priests away from the kids. More precisely, forbid any and all one-on-one contact between the clergy and the young people in their midst.
The embattled Church might have to swallow hard before implementing this rule (institutional pride has a tendency to stick in the throat on its way down) but we’re looking at a rule that desperately needs to be implemented. Just as male gynecologists typically have a female nurse on hand when they examine their patients, all priests should be accompanied by a nun when consorting individually with young people. Let it be the rule.
Let’s go even further… let’s remove the temptation wherever it can be removed. About a decade ago, in my earlier incarnation as a cynical columnist, I suggested (a little flippantly, but not unseriously) that altar boys be replaced by altar geezers: balding men with trusses, or burly 75-year-old Irish women. Surely the Catholic mass can survive without the presence of vulnerable young males at the altar. The Church should also strive to reduce the number of other venues for direct contact between children and priests. But having a nun on hand at all times might be enough of a deterrent to halt the abuse.
I apologize if I seem to be indicting an entire class of clergymen, most of whom provide their flocks with selfless and blameless leadership. Only a minuscule minority are predators. But look at it this way: an even smaller minority of airline travelers are terrorists — yet we all have to submit to screening before we can climb aboard. Similarly, all priests should be subjected to limitations on their contact with young people.
The Church has weathered numerous crises and scandals durng its 2000-year history. (Of course, most of us are too young to remember the Inquisition.) The difference today is that the Pope can no longer count on the blind faith of his followers. We live in a skeptical age: European Catholics, with the exception of the Poles and the Irish, have been quietly deserting the Mother Church for the past half century. American Catholics are growing restive. The future of the Church seems to lie in the Third World, where it will undoubtedly continue to ban birth control and unwittingly push impoverished people further into poverty.
The well-publicized priestly perversions are merely a symptom of deeper problems within an ancient and increasingly remote institution. The world-class charisma of the beloved Pope John Paul II helped mask those problems for a quarter of a century. But his heir is no rock star.
The Church today is literally petrified, afraid to examine its beliefs, customs, rules and governance. If it wants to survive as more than a Third World institution, it needs to open some windows. It needs to welcome ideas that will usher it into the 21st century without compromising its core beliefs. It needs reforming now — not by a new Martin Luther who will form a breakaway church, but by enlightened and nuanced minds who want to refurbish it and restore it as a force for good in the world.
In other words, the future of the Roman Catholic Church rests in the hands of committed moderates. Let them show their faces and prevail over the reactionaries while the Church can still be saved.