February 12, 2013
The Disastrous Influence of Pope Benedict XVI
Posted by John Cassidy
Spare me any more reverential coverage about Pope Benedict XVI and his decision to give up his office. On a personal level, I wish him well. At the age of eighty-five and increasingly infirm, he surely deserves a rest. But as far as his record goes, he can’t leave office a moment too soon. His lengthy tenure at the Vatican, which included more than twenty years as the Catholic Church’s chief theological enforcer before he became Pope, in 2005, has been little short of disastrous. By setting its face against the modern world in general, and by dragging its feet in response to one of the worst scandals since the Reformation, Benedict’s Vatican has called the Church’s future into question, needlessly alienating countless people around the world who were brought up in its teachings.
Not that it matters much, but you can count me among them. When I was a boy, in Leeds, West Yorkshire, the nuns at Sacred Heart Primary School taught my classmates and me the New Testament from slim paperbacks with embossed navy-blue covers. We each got four of them: “The Good News According to Luke,” The Good News According to Matthew,” “The Good News According to Mark,” and “The Good News According to John.” Of the four gospels, the most thumbed, by far, were those of Luke, which contains many of Jesus’s parables, and Matthew, which features the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…”
It was the early seventies, an era of hope and optimism for many Catholics. Following the lengthy Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1959, the Church had made a determined effort to modernize some of its doctrines and practices. Masses, which for many centuries had been confined to Latin, were now celebrated in other languages. Priests, who traditionally faced the altar during services, had been instructed to face their congregations and invite them to participate. In place of a stultifying focus on ancient dogmas and ceremonies, there was a return to the actual teachings of Jesus, which were being interpreted in increasingly liberal and egalitarian ways, as evidenced by the words of a popular folk hymn we used to sing, a few lines of which I recount from memory:
He sent me to give the Good News to the poor.
Tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more.
Tell blind people that they can see,
And set the downtrodden free.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the church’s concern with bread-and-butter issues had been expressed from the top. In 1967, Pope Paul VI, John XXIII’s successor, issued “Populorum Progressio,” an encyclical on “the development of peoples,” which asserted that the global economy should serve the many, not just the few. Updating the Church’s teachings to take account of widespread poverty and inequality, the Pontiff recognized the right to a just wage, security of employment, and decent working conditions. He even recognized the right to join a union.
Not everybody shared the vision of Catholicism as an urgent and uplifting force for social justice, though many people in South America and other developing areas of the world did. (In some places, it became known as “liberation theology,” a phrase coined by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez.) Many older priests, including the venerable Canon Flynn, who oversaw my local church, Our Lady of Lourdes, had little time for innovations. They were content to celebrate the sacraments as they always had, saying Mass every day, issuing the last rites to stricken parishioners, and doling out “three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys” to penitents, such as my young self, who came to confess their sins. But the energy and the future of the church appeared to rest with the modernizers.
This was despite the fact that Paul VI also reaffirmed many of the Vatican’s traditional teachings on social issues, such as extramarital sex, birth control, homosexuality, and enforced celibacy for priests and nuns. Paul was hardly a revolutionary. He wasn’t willing to challenge the harsh, self-denying ordinances that a series of Roman popes had foisted on Christianity during the Middle Ages. But in calling for peace and social justice, in reaching out to other faiths, in traveling extensively—he was known as “the Pilgrim Pope”—and in making some reforms at the Vatican, such as surrendering his tiara (the papal crown) and barring cardinals over the age of eighty from voting in papal elections, he seemed interested in reconciling the Church to modern reality.
With the arrival of Pope John Paul II, in 1979, all that started to change. In many ways, Karol Wojtyla was an admirable man: a part of the Polish resistance against the Nazis; a vocal opponent of wars and militarism (in 2003, he criticized the invasion of Iraq); a supporter of canceling debts in the developing world; and a massively charismatic leader. In theological and practical terms, though, he was a dreadful throwback. With the Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, at his side, as the Vatican’s chief theologian, he set about unmaking much of the modernization project of the previous twenty years. He issued lengthy and emphatic rulings condemning abortion, birth control, and homosexuality. He dismissed calls for the relaxation of the celibacy rules for priests, and for the ordination of women. He criticized liberation theology and surrounded himself with dyed-in-the-wool conservatives like Ratzinger. Within the hierarchy of the Church, questioning traditional teachings, even gently, became a potential career-ender.
After John Paul died, in 2005, and Ratzinger took over, the conservative counter-offensive continued. Indeed, it intensified. The Vatican eased restrictions on the Latin Mass and invited back into the Church some excommunicated members of the Society of Saint Pius X, an ultra-conservative group dedicated to reversing the Second Vatican Council. (One member of the group, an English bishop called Richard Williamson, turned out to be a Holocaust denier. Last year, belatedly, the Society expelled him.) In criticizing the “culture of relativism” in modern societies, and “the anarchic freedom that wrongly passes for true freedom,” Benedict made clear that he saw his primary mission not as extending and enlarging the Catholic Church but as purifying it, by which he didn’t just mean dealing with the child-abuse scandal. He meant casting off extraneous growths and getting the Church back to what he saw as its proper roots. If this process alienated some current and former members of the faith, so be it. Benedict said numerous times that the Church might well be healthier if it was smaller.
In a 2011 interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Hans Küng, a dissident Swiss theologian who knew Pope Benedict when they were both young priests in Germany, made a telling comparison between him and Vladimir Putin, pointing out that the two leaders had inherited a series of democratic reforms they set out to reverse. Putin and Benedict both “placed their former associates in key positions and sidelined those they didn’t like,” Küng said. He added:
One could draw other parallels: the disempowerment of the Russian parliament and the Vatican Synod of Bishops, the degradation of Russian provincial governors and of Catholic bishops to make them nothing but recipients of orders; a conformist ‘nomenclature’; and a resistance to real reforms.… Under the German pope, a small, primarily Italian clique of yes-men, people with no sympathy for the calls to reform, were allowed to come into power. They are partly responsible for the stagnation that stifles every attempt at modernization of the church system.
The strategy of circling the wagons and seeking to defy the world was displayed, to terrible effect, in the Church’s reaction to the child-abuse scandal. As the Vatican official that John Paul II asked to deal with the crisis when it broke, Benedict was presented with extensive evidence that sexual abuse was widespread and tolerated by church authorities. But it wasn’t until many years later, when tremendous damage had already been done and many further crimes had been committed, that Benedict, as Pope, apologized for the acts of pedophiles in cassocks, adopted a zero-tolerance policy for the Church, and met with some of the victims. Even then, though, say some critics, he and his colleagues in the Vatican resisted efforts to find and punish the perpetrators.
“His record was terrible,” David Clohessy, executive director of the twelve-thousand-strong Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, told The Guardian. “He knows more about clergy sex crimes and cover-ups than anyone else in the Church, yet he has done precious little to protect children.” From Ireland, where investigations are continuing into extensive abuse at church-run orphanages and schools, John Kelly, one of the founders of the country’s Survivors of Child Abuse group, said, “I’m afraid to say Pope Benedict won’t be missed, as the Vatican continued to block proper investigations into the abuse scandals during his term in office.… For us, he broke his word.”
As a result of the sex scandals and the Vatican’s futile attempt to turn back the clock, Pope Benedict’s Church is in increasingly perilous shape. Throughout much of the developed world, the number of people attending services is declining steadily, and yet there is a tremendous shortage of priests. In places like Ireland and Benedict’s own Germany, young people are deserting the Church in droves. Even in developing countries like Brazil, the Church is facing challenges from other creeds.
Of course, in a religion of more than a billion, there are some bright spots and some inspiring individuals. When I went home to Leeds not so long ago, I found that an enthusiastic young Polish priest had taken over my childhood church and was trying to save it from closure. To do some good, and raise some money, he was planning to turn the rectory into a halfway house for young offenders. Listening to him celebrating Mass like a man possessed, I was reminded of the Catholicism of the Sermon on the Mount and of St. Francis of Assisi—the Catholicism that the nuns had tried to drill into me decades before.
In Rome, however, the conservative theologians and placeholders are still running the show. Sadly, that is likely to continue. “During [Benedict’s] time in office,” Küng noted, “he has ordained so many conservative cardinals, that amongst them is hardly a single person to be found who could lead the Church out of its multifaceted crisis.”
Photograph: Stefano Dal Pozzolo/Getty.
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Victims' complaint to the international criminal court accuses Pope Benedict and three others of failing to prevent abusers
Pope accused of crimes against humanity by victims of sex abuse
Pope Benedict XVI, who has been cited in a complaint to the international criminal court.
Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images
Victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests have accused the pope, the Vatican secretary of state and two other high-ranking Holy See officials of crimes against humanity, in a formal complaint to the international criminal court (ICC).
The submission, lodged at The Hague on Tuesday, accuses the four men not only of failing to prevent or punish perpetrators of rape and sexual violence but also of engaging in the "systematic and widespread" practice of concealing sexual crimes around the world.
It includes individual cases of abuse where letters and documents between Vatican officials and others show a refusal to co-operate with law enforcement agencies seeking to pursue suspects, according to the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a US-based organisation that represents the claimants.
Pam Spees, human rights attorney with CCR, said: "The point of this is to look at it from a higher altitude. You zoom out and the practices are identical: whistleblowers are punished, the refusal of the Vatican to co-operate with law enforcement agencies. You see the protection of priests and leaving them in the ministry and because of these decisions other children are raped and sexually assaulted."
She said: "It's not only the facts of the abuse but the way that the church deepened the harm in sometimes irreparable ways."
According to the document filed by CCR, the pope, as head of the Catholic church, is ultimately responsible for the sexual abuse of children by priests and for the cover-ups of that abuse. The group argues that he and others have "direct and superior responsibility" for the crimes of those ranked below them, similar to a military chain of command.
The others named in the complaint are Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals and former Vatican secretary of state; Cardinal Tarcissio Bertone, now secretary of state, who previously served at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the organisation tasked with handling sexual abuse cases under the pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger; and Cardinal William Lavada, head of the CDF, whose handling of previous sexual abuse cases has been criticised in the past.
Megan Petersen, from Minnesota, is one of two named US victims whose cases have been included in the complaint to the ICC. Petersen was awarded $750,000 (£500,000) last week in a civil claim against Crookston diocese, in which she alleged that a priest, Joseph Jeyapaul, had raped her repeatedly as a child.
Speaking at The Hague, where the complaint was being launched, Petersen said of Jeyapaul: "He was a man of God and I was very devout. I wanted to be a nun. I trusted him.
"Part of why I'm here is to protect kids. My perpetrator is still serving among kids and vulnerable adults, despite there being criminal charges against him. Ratzinger is the head of this organisation and these are his sheep, his flock. I will do everything in my power to make sure this does not happen to another child." Jeyapaul has denied the abuse from India, where he is serving as a priest.
Amnesty International's latest annual human rights report, which cited the Holy See for the first time, concluded there was widespread evidence of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy over past decades, and an "enduring failure" of the Catholic church to seek redress.