There is a great deal to admire about the Roman Catholic Church: its theology, liturgy, advocacy for the poor and provision of social and health services. None of these are Rome’s exclusive products, far from it, but in most of its public works the Church behaves impeccably.
So why does it find itself caught up in worldwide scandal (again)?
The problem—the scandal, the shame and crime of the Church—is located in its system of governance.
It’s your basic dictatorship, and in that sense is not much different from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Castro’s Cuba.
Wikipedia offers a definition of totalitarianism:
Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a political system where the state, usually under the control of a single political organization, faction, or class domination, recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. Totalitarianism is generally characterised by the coincidence of authoritarianism (i.e., where ordinary citizens have no significant share in state decision-making) and ideology (i.e., a pervasive scheme of values promulgated by institutional means to direct the most significant aspects of public and private life).
Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that controls the state, personality cults, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of state terrorism.
In Lord Acton’s famous quotation, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is no reason this should be different in the Church than in any other human institution.
In the present widespread, international pedophile crisis, the Church has chosen coverup and conspiracy over the needs and rights of innocent children because telling the truth would tend to undermine the Church’s power. The Church has tried to suppress scandal, thus causing much more scandal.
It’s always done this, so there’s no reason anyone should be surprised.
When you have a strongman at the top of a hierarchy, he and his underlings will do anything necessary to maintain his position. Mao did, Stalin did and so do the popes.
The antidote to all this is called democracy—power to the people and all that.
If you ask average American Catholics, clergy or lay, why they put up with Church dictatorship, they invariably reply, “The people are the Church. The hierarchy isn’t the Church.” They’re right, but it’s a little too convenient; formulaic buck-passing as if ordinary Christians bear no responsibility for crimes committed in their name.
But indeed, the people in the pews are responsible. They can blame the system all they want, but indeed they have power and always have had. They just shirk their responsibility, live in denial, blame the hierarchy and worship Jesus while plugging their ears.
They’re the only ones who can change their Church. And the only way to do it is to take responsibility for it—to depose those in power and create mechanisms to limit future office-holders.
Do they want to do this? No. But the net result is catastrophic; more innocents victimized and countless millions who turn away from the Church in disgust.
The independent National Catholic Reporter asks this week in an editorial:
“The focus now is on Benedict. What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew?”
The stakes are high; the NCR knows it:
“We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history. How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine the future health of our church for decades, if not centuries, to come.“
It is as foolish to believe that the pope will institute reforms as it is to think that Kim Jong Il will someday see the light. They have to be forced; and as long as today’s Catholics are willing to put up with totalitarianism, nothing much will change.
Secrecy. Child abuse. A criminal syndicate. Blaming the victims. “The Supreme Leader is infallible.” Propaganda. The cult of personality. All decisions made by Rome. No questions asked or tolerated. “God has ordained it this way forever.”
The problem isn’t clerical celibacy, foolish though that is, or the all-male priesthood, so that women have no power; the problem is dictatorship, with all the lying and thieving that goes on because of it.
The divine right of kings doesn’t work anymore; five hundred years ago people noticed that kills people. But Catholics still yammer on about their “Holy Father” as if life stopped in the 1500s.
In my church if something goes wrong, we throw the bums out.
In my church we elect our local pastors, bishops and archbishops. The whole church has to ratify bishops’ elections. If they don’t perform we get rid of them; this isn’t rocket science.
Catholics have been way too passive, gullible and irresponsible. If they don’t force democratic changes on the hierarchy, they’ll continue to get children victimized by criminals. Subsequent generations will reject Jesus as the symbol of a scam, not the Savior of the world.
I wouldn’t want all that on my conscience, but Catholics don’t seem to mind.
Jesus was infallible; popes are not. Jesus rose from the dead; popes, like all the rest of us, need major help with that.
Laypeople: limit the pope’s power or cover your own head in shame. You are responsible, and don’t be surprised if God holds you to it on the day of judgment.++