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Is the Pope Catholic?
Published on Saturday, May 4, 2002 in the New York Times
Is the Pope Catholic?
by Bill Keller
 

Pope John Paul II turns 82 this month, and he looks more mortal by the day. In his photo op with the American cardinals last week, he was so infirm and unintelligible that you wanted to avert your eyes out of pity. But let's not. The uncomfortable and largely unspoken truth is that the current turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church is not just a sad footnote to the life of a beloved figure. This is a crisis of the pope's making.

I do not mean that the pope condones child abuse, although his zeal to combat it ranks right down with that of, say, Cardinal Bernard Law, the pedophile-juggling head of the Boston archdiocese. Despite what you may have read, the pope has not apologized for anything, nor has he acknowledged anything amiss in the hierarchy's decades of dissembling — or, as he dismissively put it, the way church leaders "are perceived to have acted." The fact that the pope's passing reference to the rape of children as a "crime" was treated as a bolt of divine enlightenment reflects just how eager we are to let him off the hook.

It should be clear by now that this scandal is only incidentally about forcing sex on minors. There is no evidence so far that predator priests are more common than predator teachers or predator doctors or predator journalists. The scandal is the persistent failure of the church hierarchy to comprehend, to care and to protect. The Boy Scouts, not an organization in the vanguard of sexual enlightenment, adopted a clear, firm policy to protect children from molestation 19 years ago. The Catholic bishops and their Vatican handlers, meanwhile, are still parsing the rhetorical fine points of "zero tolerance," which is at best an empty slogan (does anyone favor "10 percent tolerance"?) and at worst a way of abdicating responsibility.

The pope lamented last week that the child abuse scandal is eroding trust in the church. But that is rather backward. American Catholics have reacted so explosively to this sordid affair precisely because they felt so little trust to begin with. The distrust is the legacy of Pope John Paul II.

One paradox of the Polish pope is that while he is rightly revered for helping bring down the godless Communists, he has replicated something very like the old Communist Party in his church. Karol Wojtyla has shaped a hierarchy that is intolerant of dissent, unaccountable to its members, secretive in the extreme and willfully clueless about how people live. The Communists mouthed pieties about "social justice" and the rule of the working class while creating a corrupt dictatorship of bureaucrats. Russians boiled this down to a cynical adage: We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us. For American Catholics, the counterpart is: They pretend to lead, and we pretend to follow.

Like the Communist Party circa Leonid Brezhnev, the Vatican exists first and foremost to preserve its own power. This is disheartening for the many good Catholics who hope this crisis will provoke a renaissance in their church. Nobody quite says it this way, but one reason many Catholics see the moment as ripe for reform is that this pope is on his last legs. Soon, the hope goes, a vigorous new leader may emerge.

Maybe so. But like the Communists, John Paul has carefully constructed a Kremlin that will be inhospitable to a reformer. He has strengthened the Vatican equivalent of the party Central Committee, called the Curia, and populated it with reactionaries. He has put a stamp of papal infallibility on the issue of ordaining women, making it more difficult for a successor to come to terms with the issue. He has trained bishops that the path of advancement is obsequious obedience to himself. Alarmed by priests who showed too much populist sympathy for their parishioners, the pope, according to the Notre Dame historian R. Scott Appleby, has turned seminaries into factories of conformity, begetting a generation of inflexible young priests who have no idea how to talk to real-life Catholics.

Next month, after years of resistance, the American church is supposed to begin requiring that theologians teaching in Catholic universities accept a "mandatum" from their bishops, a pledge of allegiance to doctrinal orthodoxy. The American bishops fear this will stifle intellectual discussion, but the pope insists. No glasnost on his watch.

Nor is the pope about to let America's uppity laity exploit the current crisis to claim a greater voice in their own affairs. The American policy on handling sexual abuse is to be dictated by Rome. And while a large majority of Catholics want leaders who mishandled marauding priests to resign, the culpability of bishops is not even on the Vatican's agenda. It now seems clear that the pope declined to let Cardinal Law resign because he feared it might give the laity the idea their opinion mattered. Cardinal Law promptly marched home and quashed efforts by restive Boston Catholics to organize an association of parish councils. How Soviet is that?

What reform might mean in the church is something I leave to Catholics who care more than I do. I am what a friend calls a "collapsed Catholic" — well beyond lapsed — and therefore claim no voice in whom the church ordains or how it prays or what it chooses to call a sin.

But the struggle within the church is interesting as part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. That is a struggle that has given rise to great migrations (including the one that created this country) and great wars (including one we are fighting this moment against a most virulent strain of intolerance).

The Catholic Church has not, over the centuries, been a stronghold of small-c catholic values, which my dictionary defines as "broad in sympathies, tastes, or understanding; liberal." This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.

That seemed destined to change after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, which relaxed the grip of the papal apparat and elevated the importance of individual conscience. The Vatican II spirit of a more open and dynamic church invigorated American Catholic support for civil rights and other liberal causes. But it soon ran smack-dab into the sexual revolution.

Probably no institution run by a fraternity of aging celibates was going to reconcile easily with a movement that embraced the equality of women, abortion on demand and gay rights. It is possible, though, to imagine a leadership that would have given it a try. In fact, Pope Paul VI indicated some interest in adopting a more lenient view of birth control, and he handpicked a committee of prominent Catholics who endorsed the idea almost by acclamation. The pope agonized, and then astonished Catholics by reaffirming the old ban.

"If you want to look for where credibility on human sexuality got lost, it got lost there," said the Catholic University sociologist William D'Antonio.

There is some reason to believe the man who changed that pope's mind on birth control was the Polish cardinal who would succeed him. Whether or not that is true, once Cardinal Wojtyla ascended to the papacy he adhered to the most austere, doctrinaire view of sexual ethics, and the most hierarchical concept of church governance.

Implored by Catholics to consider, at least, the lifesaving power of condoms in the age of AIDS, John Paul II was unyielding. He actually grouped contraception with genocide in a litany of "intrinsically evil" acts that condemn sinners to hell for eternity. "The vast majority of Catholic married couples, that is, stand on the wrong side of the abyss with Hitler and Pol Pot," as Charles R. Morris observed in his splendid history of American Catholicism.

In America most Catholics ignore the pope on this, as they do on divorce and remarriage, abortion, sex out of wedlock, homosexuality and many other things Rome condemns as violations of natural law. It seems fair to say that a church that was not so estranged from its own members on subjects of sex and gender, a more collegial church, would have handled the issue of child abuse earlier and better.

There is a dwindling population of older Catholic conservatives who say, in effect, the pope's the man, love it or leave it. And there is a growing population of American Catholics who are doing just that — withdrawing tacitly from Rome while keeping the faith in their own parishes, if they happen to have accommodating clergy, or in their own hearts. Whether the church will reform, or fracture, or continue this continental drift, I have no way of knowing, but I wonder how long faith withstands such a corrosive rain of hypocrisy. 

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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