The slow drip of acid on the Catholic church, and especially on the pope, from the daily revelations of non-feasance, malfeasance, and active coverup is going to go on corroding the machinery, and burning the gilt off the façade, for a long time. We haven’t even started to hear the horror stories screaming to be let out from Latin countries, except the Legion of Christ disaster. It may be a while in coming; the Corriere, for example, saw fit to publish the most fawning, reality-free op-ed today, going on and on about the holiness of Benedict and blaming plaintiffs’lawyers money-grubbing victims, and the common-law system of Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions for everything.
I sense several different ways to understand why the church has been harboring this cancer, all interesting despite the ghastly behavior it forces us to watch. The first is a theological model, which I sketched in an earlier post: if you’re about the salvation of souls, you’re about sinners rather than victims, and the sinners are your own priests and religious (nuns and monks). The suffering of the victims doesn’t put their souls at risk of damnation and endures only a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. After all, this is an outfit that used to torture heretics to death in order to get them to confess or convert and be saved. “Tuez-les tous; Dieu connait les siens!”
The next, which I have cribbed from members of an off-the-record listserv [I’ll link if they post something], is an instinct of institutional preservation, the church hierarchy protecting itself from the civil power by denying the courts access to its own felons, and from the laity by circling the wagons around priests and bishops.
This story has also activated the immune system of feminists and LGBT advocates who read it as one more example of straight men being their worst men selves, and gay men being damaged by an intolerant society. I think there’s something to that. Even if all priests were men, if the bishops and predator-enablers had wives to come home to and talk about stuff at work, it would be harder for them to get so far off the rails. We shouldn’t get too carried away with this story, though: the Irish nuns were quite the vicious abusers of the orphans and “delinquents” delivered to their mercies. I don’t mean name-calling and sarcasm, I mean beating with sticks and clubs.
Then there’s a management story, which comes from today’s NYT: Ratzinger just didn’t do his job in Munich. He’s obviously a judgmental, punitive, rigid ideologue at heart, and a bully, but he’s also a luftmensch, lost in abstraction and theory, who would rather win an argument than learn something, and he gets his rocks off nailing people for doctrinal mistakes rather than actually doing anything or attending to stuff that’s happening on the ground. When he had an archdiocese to run, which sort of goes with the position of archbishop, he just didn’t do it.
I think Ratzinger is toast, though unfortunately maybe not soon. The question is whether this enormous hierarchical bureaucracy, besotted with the myth and illusion of its own holiness, can shake itself awake.