World

The Catholic Church's Dirty Little Secret Is Out: Now What?

Sexual abuse, which was allowed to continue for decades, has burst into the open. Can anything be done to restore the Vatican's credibility?

More than 40 years ago I, was automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church for "attempting marriage." Our "attempted marriage" was conducted at my parents' home with four priests presiding together with my bride, the former Sister Maura Killene of Maryknoll who had served in Southern Chile. We have now celebrated four decades together and now have two children and five grandchildren. There is nothing "attempted" about it. It is a wonderful marriage followed by a life of full-time work for justice and peace.

The excommunication has never upset me, mostly because of the guidance of my mother who had admonished me to "take it with a grain of salt." This was her comment on many ecclesiastical directives, including celibacy. She was very disturbed that I went off to the seminary to become a priest in the first place.

"Why don't they marry? It's not normal," she insisted. Both of her parents were born in Italy and they had a wonderful understanding of the irrationality of Canon Law. That's right. They loved their church and were very comfortable criticizing it and even making fun of it. But as is becoming increasingly clear amid almost daily revelations of sexual abuse among the clergy, much of church behavior is really not funny.

While tens of thousands of us priests have married (or "attempted marriage," followed by automatic excommunication), we can't help but look at what happens to pedophiles in the clergy. They are not excommunicated, but are simply sent to another parish! Church leaders are accessories to crime; the bishops are told to send all of the evidence to the Vatican immediately, with a mandate of absolute secrecy.

Many issues have come to the fore in this scandal. One of them is clerical class privilege, or clerical impunity. That includes impunity for those who remain subservient to ecclesiastical authority. It does not include any impunity for dissidents. Obfuscated clerical thinking might say, "Well this sinful priest has gone to confession and therefore must have a firm purpose of amendment." Sorry folks, that does not cure a pedophile. Silence is not an option. Silence is complicity.

Celibacy is not the problem; both Jesus and St. Paul spoke of it as a personal choice. However, the Law of Celibacy -- which came with the Second Lateran Council of 1139 AD -- is part of the problem.

Another part of the problem is a cult issue. A clerical class is expected to have both impunity and immunity. This is the delusion of all cult leaders. We can look back to Pius IX who declared himself infallible and declared his Infallibility to be both retroactive and future active. And here is where much of the problem resides. It is called doctrine. Since the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, the focus of the church has been on doctrine. In effect, the church is saying, "We will tell you the truth about God. Other religions don't have that truth." This is called imperial religion and was the product of Constantine the Great. The unbeliever was to be granted death because error has no rights.

In the 20th century there was a strong movement against this imperial religion. In 1962, a revolutionary old man known as Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in order to bring some fresh air into a very stuffy church.

The Council had a profound effect on those of us who were in the field at that time. I was in Guatemala in the midst of a civil war. We heard directives from the Vatican that turned us loose: Enter into the hopes, desires and anxieties of your people … hasta las ultimas consequencias … (wherever it takes you). This led us to practice what was later called liberation theology. The objective was to focus on the virtues of pre-Constantine Christianity -- that's right, on the teachings of Jesus. Fundamentalist doctrinal rigidity is not the defining factor of liberation theology. On the contrary, the defining factor is a life that radiates the fruits of the spirit: justice, peace, joy, courage, love, compassion and endurance.

The goal is not to say how much we know about God, but rather how little we know about God and how we must respect the sacred stories of others religions in order to be reverent.

But there was a Grand Inquisitor within the church who frequently attacked liberation theologians. This was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

If he had paid attention to the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Ratzinger would not have spent so much time trying to claim that he knew so much about God and that he, as the Grand Inquisitors of old, was going to be a hammer of heretics. If he were concerned about morality more than his ideas of doctrine, he would not have wasted his time trying to protect the "image" of a church that was suffering from abhorrent legalistic formalism. Rather than attack and silence some of the finest intellectuals in the church, he would have openly denounced the behavior of sexual predators in or out of the clergy.

Now sexual abuse, which was allowed to continue for decades, has burst into the open, precipitating a crisis of credibility for the Vatican.

So what is to be done?

First, the church should immediately end the nonsensical law of celibacy in the Roman Rite, and invite the clergy to marry rather than be excommunicated for "attempting marriage." Priests who have married should be invited to resume their ministry. Women should be allowed to be ordained as priests. Finally, the Vatican should end the cult of silence that is also the law of the mafia, the CIA, the FBI, the military, and corporate headquarters.

None of this will end the evil of pedophilia, but it will no longer be anyone's "dirty little secret."

Blase Bonpane, Ph.D., is director of the Office of the Americas and author of “Guerrillas of Peace: Liberation Theology and the Central American Revolution,” (Excel Press).
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