Mark Dowd: Vatican vexation
Pope Benedict’s forthcoming visit to the UK has been overshadowed by weeks of revelations over institutional child abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church. Mark Dowd takes a personal view of the Pope’s woes, having recently returned from a BBC assignment to the Vatican
Catholicism lifts your soul and breaks your heart in roughly equal measure.” So writes John Allen, a Vatican-watcher for more than 20 years. After the recent weeks of tumult over clerical sex abuse, you kind of know where he is coming from. Never have the Roman Catholic faithful had to deal with such a torrent of ghastly news.
This maelstrom has occurred at an especially interesting time for me. Late last year, I was approached by the BBC and asked if I would consider making a documentary about Pope Benedict XVI – they wanted a personal take on what a liberal-ish sort of Catholic like me made of the 265th Bishop of Rome. He is a man said to be both gentle and shy, yet having something of the “rottweiler” reputation about him when it comes to crushing dissenters. I took on the assignment and then, just before we were setting off for his homeland of Bavaria and moving on to record interviews in the Vatican, the sex abuse deluge began.
I have several things to share with you about what has been happening. The first is that the reaction to the crisis within the hierarchy has really exposed some polarised mindsets. Some of the old brigade have dismissed it all as “idle and petty gossip.” The Pope’s own personal preacher likened the treatment of Catholics by the press to the worst aspects of anti-semitism. And we have also heard many voices coming out with the mantra that there are fewer statistical cases of abuse among the Catholic priesthood than there are in married families or other professions.
This simply won’t do. The image of the Roman Catholic priesthood to the rest of the world is meant to be one of sexual purity. Priesthood, because it is special, standing in the place of Jesus Christ himself, cannot be evaluated just like any other sector of society. Imagine if the head of the fire service asked us all to relax because the facts and figures showed firemen were no more or less likely to commit arson than anyone else!
That said, many of the more brave and enlightened leaders have had no qualms about “telling it like it is.” Ultimately the scandal is not about a few rotten apples, it is about the barrel – the clerical system itself. Figures like the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols and his Viennese counterpart, Christopher Schonborn, have found the right tone and language when they talk of penitence, the need for humility and their insistence that other victims come forward with their stories, no matter what damage that does to the reputations of the powerful.
Many years ago, I reported a Channel 4 film called Abused and Catholic. In it, I interviewed a wonderful man called Father Tom Doyle, a Dominican (the same order that I joined in 1981 for two years as a young man before God called me to the grubbier echelons of journalism). Tom used to be a canon lawyer in the Vatican Embassy in Washington and is now a champion of the sex abuse victims. He has been a thorn in the flesh for many years now of the Catholic establishment. Tom told me that many clerics thought the role of the laity was to “pray, pay and obey.” This atmosphere of passive deference has been a key factor in the incubator of abuse. And so has the power of bishops to appoint their clergy. As one Catholic academic told me in that film: “Imagine if Catholic parents had been sitting on a panel alongside their bishops when many of these offending priests were re-assigned time and again to schools and parishes. Do you honestly think they would have had access to more victims?”
The real scandal has been the cover-up – the notion that Church law is above criminal law, the idea that you can buy silence from families to protect the reputation of an institution. Now that model is smashed and not before time. And there are many sanguine voices of authority who, like me, probably sense that in the long term, this will be no bad thing. “Clericalism speaks of privilege, prerogatives, special treatment, being served rather than serving,” says Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York: “It prefers sacristies to streets, and is usually more concerned with cufflinks and cassocks than care of souls.”
This was and is the Catholic church I grew up in. And, back to that quote from John Allen, this is the Church which has educated me, given me insights into culture, music and the arts. This is a one billion plus movement which, at its best, practically runs the health services in various developing countries, and sustains the lives of HIV patients and street children in Africa and Latin America. How can I, (as 42 per cent of Austrians appear to have done since January) simply rip up my membership ticket?
Pondering on the role of the Pope in all this, I was privileged to meet his brother, George Ratzinger, a fellow ordained priest who now lives in Regensburg. The 86-year-old Monsignor is a frail figure these days, who recently conceded that he used to engage in corporal punishment with several of his pupils in his choir school many decades ago. The impression I got from my hour spent talking with him was that this was taking quite a toll on his brother.
Joseph Ratzinger, to give the present Pontiff his full name, is ill-suited to hugely demanding management tasks. He is, by nature, a thoughtful and intensely probing academic theologian. One of the real pleasures in preparing my BBC documentary has been to sit for days on end reading such works as his 1968 Introduction to Christianity and his three papal encyclicals. (If you want a surprise, you might try Deus Caritas Est – “God Is Love” – for a quite poetic and quietly passionate discussion of the role of human eros and its capacity to bring us into deep communion with God.) Gifted intellectual that he is, it rather appears in the words of one commentator that “the professor is now alone in the classroom while the desks are empty and the school building is burning down.”
I feel sorry for this Pope. I do. While the evidence of this abuse built up, it appears that his predecessor was rather better at seeing off communism than dealing with the festering corruption within. True, Cardinal Ratzinger was influential under John Paul II, but Vatican politics are complicated to say the least, and it now appears that an unholy alliance of the curia were more concerned to protect the image of the church than deal with the issue and now the chickens are coming home to roost.
Does this spell “the end?” Not a bit of it. This is the most durable institution on the planet. The faithful, if they have had their trust in God placed in doubt by all this, need to ask themselves why they attribute so much importance to officialdom. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus appeared to put frailty at the heart of his mission of founding his church? Did he choose the disciple he most loved, John, to be his “rock?” No. Was it Matthew or one of the other evangelists? No.
It was a man who, when faced with the truth staring him in the face, did not have even enough faith to walk towards Jesus without sinking. It was a man who then, went on to deny him not once, not twice, but three times. The papacy, for all the loose talk about infallibility (invoked on only two occasions since 1854), is a potent symbol of our human weakness. In the end, we all rely on the grace of God. As Pope Benedict XVI scans the wreckage around him at the moment and prepares for his autumn visit to the UK, may that be of some comfort to him.
Mark Dowd is a Catholic writer and broadcaster who spent two years with the Domincan Order prior to becoming a journalist. His documentary, to be titled Benedict: Papal Enigma, was shown on BBC2 in early September prior to the Pope’s arrival in the UK
This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of Reform.Follow @Reform_Mag