The Vatican’s fix: abuse and renewal

The burgeoning international scandal involving the abuse of children by Catholic clergy is the biggest crisis for the church since the 16th-century reformation, says Michael Walsh. He adds:The Vatican is helpless in the face of the current abuse scandals because it shares the same mindset, the same clerical culture that gave rise to it. It recognises such abuse as a scandal, but wants to contain it within the ranks

The Archbishop of Vienna has broken ranks. Few observers would have regarded Cardinal Christoph Schönborn as a radical – after all, he was largely responsible for the much criticised Catechism of the Catholic Church. Now, however, he is on record as suggesting that, in the light of the exposure of sex-abuse scandals in at least four European countries, the church should look again at the obligation of celibacy for Roman Catholic clergy. In the Vatican, whose corridors he frequents, such a proposal is utterly taboo In any case, if he believes this is the panacea he is almost certainly mistaken: paedophilia afflicts married men (and some women) as well as single ones, which would indicate there was no direct link. There may, however, be an indirect link. 

There are many reasons given for the imposition of celibacy on (the majority of) Catholic clergy, an obligation with a long and problematic history. Some of these reasons are practical, others ascetical, but there are good arguments for claiming that celibacy was originally imposed to mark off clergy as a separate caste within an increasingly Christian society. That was a long time ago, but the “caste” mentality survives to this day. 

It is not true, of course, for all Catholic clergy, many of whom are well adjusted human beings, but it is true for some that they socialise almost entirely within clerical circles. Their closest friends are often other priests, especially those who had been in the seminary with them. They have regular class reunions, rather like schools and colleges, but with the difference that, unlike college graduates, they have not moved on into a more diverse and mature world. Many have not had their values challenged or, if they have, are they are bolstered in their beliefs by the support of those who have grown up alongside them. There is, in other words, a distinctive clerical culture which celibacy has an obvious role in maintaining. In their daily lives they are not challenged by wives or children. Certainly not by interaction with housekeepers, always a rare breed and nowadays almost extinct. 

The most deleterious aspect of this culture is the assumption by the clergy of the mantle of authority and the power they assume goes with it. It is insidious. It is exercised without reflection. It used to have some kind of basis in the better education clergy enjoyed, but that distinction is now gone. Their parishioners rightly show reverence to an ordained minister, but that is exploited. It is exploited unthinkingly in many minor ways, but it is also exploited by some in their abuse of women and of children. They are in a position of power bestowed on them by the church’s law, and they make use of that power for their own ends, sometimes immoral ones. Not all, of course, do so, not even most, but enough have done so in so many different countries of the world (clerical culture is a global phenomenon) that they have brought about the greatest crisis in the Catholic Church since the 16th-century reformation. And just as in the 16th century, the Vatican is floundering.

A lesson unlearned 

The problem with the Vatican is that it shares this clerical culture, and to excess. There is a pious belief among Catholics that the Vatican is run by the best clerical civil servants the church can produce. It isn’t. With some few exceptions it is staffed by people who have drifted into their jobs by inertia, because they happened to be in Rome, or because they wanted to be close to the source of power in the church. And they regard that power as untouchable, answerable to no one under God. There was a canonical phrase, much beloved by medieval canonists, that the pope may be judged by no one. Papal power has in fact waxed and waned, but at the moment it is at its height. The so-called Magisterium – or teaching authority to which obeisance is demanded and is widely made – dates (in its present incarnation) only from the mid-19th century. It is a new thing, but no one except academics seems ready to question it. 

And it is no longer limited only to the papacy. It has been extended to the Vatican offices, the “congregations”, tribunals and committees that make up the administrative structure of the Catholic Church. This is nonsense, but again it goes unquestioned. The Vatican does what it likes. It is imposing a new and unwelcome (by many if not by most) English translation of the liturgy. It is attempting to attract back into the fold the highly reactionary Society of St Pius X which went into schism as a result of the Second Vatican Council. It has, apparently without consulting even those in the Vatican charged with ecumenical matters, made an offer to dissident Anglicans to reunion, which has caused embarrassment to the English Catholic bishops and irritation to their Church of England counterparts. 

Yet Rome seems supremely unconcerned as it progresses from one gaffe to another. It is the supreme power in the church and does not consider itself accountable. Catholics will no doubt turn out to greet Pope Benedict XVI when he visits Scotland and England (leaving out Wales was another blunder) on 16-19 September 2010, but Rome appears to be entirely unaware of the little importance it plays in the lives of Catholics – except for the irritation of learning the new version of the liturgy being imposed upon it. 

It could all have been very different. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council talked of collegiality, the sharing of authority in the church. It has been forgotten. It described the church as the people of God, but this implied model was far too democratic-sounding for the ecclesiastical powers-that-be, and the phrase has been banished from official utterances. The church is a self-contained system whose leaders appear to regard themselves an answerable to no one. Why does no one ask whose church is it anyway? 

The publication in 1968 of the encyclical Humanae Vitae banning artificial means of birth-control was the turning-point – in two ways. First, the pope of the day, Paul VI, rejected advice from a reasonably representative committee of Catholics, both lay people (including a married couple) and clerics. Had he not done so, and quite irrespective of the decision reached, it would have been a potent symbol of consultation within the people of God. Second, after initial heartsearching the ban  was in any case widely ignored by Catholics. This seriously undermined papal authority. Pope Paul was aware of the danger, and never issued another encyclical. Pope John Paul II and his successor tried to make the acceptance of their interpretation of papal authority on these matters the test of one’s Catholicity. It hasn’t worked. Catholics haven’t necessarily left the church in droves, though many have indeed ceased to practice. They are simply paying less and less attention to Rome. 

A time to renew 

The Vatican is helpless in the face of the current abuse scandals because it shares the same mindset, the same clerical culture that gave rise to it. It recognises such abuse as a scandal, but wants to contain it within the ranks. It acknowledges the moral failings of some of its clergy, but has for too long failed to insist that such behaviour is not only sinful but it is a crime. The letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the church in Ireland at last acknowledges that priests guilty of paedophilia must answer to the civil, as well as to the ecclesiastical, authorities (see “Pastoral letter of the Holy Father… ”, Bollettino, 20 March 2010). That is an important step from a man who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appeared to want to keep these accusations secret within the bosom of the church. But who does he blame for this scandal? The modern world and the misinterpretation of Vatican II. His remedy? Just more old-time religion. 

After the crisis of the reformation the Vatican survived, oddly enough with its prestige enhanced, for two reasons. A reforming council was called, the Council of Trent (1545-63); and there was an extraordinary renewal of the men at the top.  The modern church has had its reforming council, Vatican II. It has not yet had the renewal of the men at the top. This is long overdue – and some women would be a start.

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