In a surprise move Joseph Ratzinger, AKA Pope Benedict XVI, AKA Benny The Rat-zinger, decided he was not going to follow the example of Karol Wojtyla and slowly, painfully fade away in office. With Benedict XVI riding off into the sunset, this is as good a time as any to not only review his time in office but John-Paul II’s as well.
While both had a hand in helping Soviet Russia’s final death rattle, both also had a hand in the scandal that has laid the Roman Catholic Church low: Pedophile Priests.
Ratzinger was the doctrinal enforcer during John-Paul’s Papacy, and when Ratzinger took up the throne of Peter, he also had to deal with the issue of Priest gone wild. In neither case did either man cover themselves with glory.
The prolonged coverup and lack of accountability of the matter has had a highly corrosive effect on the ethos of the Church. Bluntly put the faithful have lost trust in the hierarchy of the church. Hundreds of children were molested, abused and yes raped by trusted men in clerical garb. Nothing was done to protect the children, everything was done to shield the Priests.
Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was instrumental in the church response to the scandal of Pedophile Priest. The charge against Ratzinger was that he was also instrumental in an attempted cover-up that came close to obstruction of justice.
What the whole affair pointed out was the Roman Catholic Church’s problem with both sex and power. Let’s deal with sex first, not only the act but also with gender roles.
Ratzinger and Wojtyla were throw-backs when it came to sex and gender. The were were very much anti-secular, anti-feminist, and anti-sexual. They were rigidly anti-modern, attempting to reenforce a tradition firmly grounded in early 20th Century mores. They wanted a return to tradition. Unfortunately Catholic tradition has taken a hell of a beating from the early 1960’s onward. Being anti-sex is not the route to popularity in the 21st Century, at least not in the developed world.
The whole Catholic attitude to sex has become more rigid and more repressive as the secular world has become more lax and liberated. The insistence on monogamous, heterosexual, procreative sex being the only “correct” form runs at right angles to the sexual liberation movement that has been gathering pace since the release of the pill.
More damaging to Catholic Dogma has been the changing role of women. In developed, Post Modern nations the option of Mother/ Virgin/ Whore as the only possibilities out there is no longer accepted. The toxic misogyny of the church is causing its most important adherents to desert the fold. Women in the Post Modern world have no truck with a role where they are to be subservient dutiful wives spitting out babies at a prodigious rate. They demand options.
But the Church only doubled down on the reactionary misogyny. It had nothing to say about the modern understanding of sexuality. The Roman Catholic Church rejected this understanding. It rejected the messy, conflicting realities of human sexuality as it exists in the modern landscape and retreated to the “traditional” understanding. Unfortunately that understanding was and is poisoned with fear, ignorance, patriarchy, misogyny, and sexual phobia.
Which brings us to the other obsession of the Church: power. I have often said that the Vatican is the last Absolute Monarchy left standing because it is. To truly understand the Vatican you have to go back to the High Middle Ages, which was the true salad days for the Holy See. The Vatican is still stuck in that time.
The hierarchy, the concentration of power, the justification for the whole structure, is hermetically sealed in the idea of the Divine Right Of Kings. If anything, the loss of an actual land to rule, the loss of the Papal States, has made this tendency only worse. Cloistered away in the Curia, the Princes of the Church attempt to accumulate ever more power to themselves, become ever more absolutist. There is no check on the Pope, no way to reign him in. In the bad old days the Pope had to worry about a peasant uprising or the invasion of a foreign power. Today, there is no check, no counter to the Pope. No one is going to storm the Vatican, no foreign leader is going to invade Vatican City. Within the confines of Holy Mother Church all power flows upward to the Pope, the final arbitrator of the Faith. And it is this truth, this process, that has been the most toxic to the See of Peter.
For both John Paul II and Benedict XVI the prerogatives of the Vatican, the top-down approach, the assertion of hierarchy has been the overriding concern. Both have been deeply reactionary. Both have been deeply anti-democratic.
In insisting of hierarch, on a rigid top down ideology, both men have given short shrift to the most vulnerable, children. In a hierarchal structure children will always come dead last, being the very lowest rung on the ladder, just below women. It should come as no surprise that in the scandal of the Pedophile Priests the Vatican championed the cause of the adult male Priests over the victimized youth. It is no surprise that the Vatican, via its Bishops and Archbishops, shuffled Priests from parish to parish. In the hierarchal view of the Curia the Priest matter much more that the lowly parishioners. The hierarchy is quite serious about its faithful being sheep; dumb, ignorant, sinful sheep that must be lead their betters. The laity are still seen as Surfs by the Princes of the Church.
In many ways what we are witnessing is the Church’s inability to adapt to the realities of the Modern. It has been fighting a rear-guard action every since the French Revolution exploded on to the scene. The Church had barely come to a modus vivendi with Protestantism when it was viciously mugged by the Age Of Enlightenment and it’s bastard offspring The French Revolution.
Floored by the changes brought on by that Revolution, the Church has never really regained its footing. The Church kept on loosing ground to Modernity; kept loosing ground to the handmaidens of Modernity-- Science and Technology; kept loosing ground to the ideas of Modernity: egalitarianism, rationalism, utilitarianism, materialism, individualism, empiricism. Long before George W. Bush and his Republican Party showed up, the Vatican was in a twilight struggle with the Reality Based Community.
There is no easy exit from the dilemma. The hierarchal, monarchal, Vatican can not suddenly turn democratic and collegial. No absolute ruler has ever given up power of his own accord. It’s even worse for a man who has been declared “infallible” by fiat. How do you walk that back? How do you pry the Holy Father out that particular bit of fetal positioning and thumb sucking?
Not being Catholic or even sympathetic to the Roman Catholic Church, I have no particular need for Holy Mother Church to cut this Gordian Knot. The Church has had a good 1700 year run but it has no particular right to last one more day. Maybe, as in other times of crisis, it will find a way. Maybe, it will have enough plasticity of mind to adapt. Or maybe, it will abandon the Developed world for the possibilities of Africa and other areas more attuned to its conservative doctrines. Or maybe, it will continue to drift as it did with Ratzinger and Wojtyla, hunkering down and hoping that somehow Modernity will just go away. Or maybe, Catholicism will throw down a wild card, a game changer that crusty materialist rationalists cannot predict. It’s happened before, no one could have predicted Francesco Bernardone, and the profound changes he wrought as Saint Francis of Assisi. Never underestimate the ability of those darn Catholics to pull a game-changing mystic out of their hats when the chips are down.
If the Church is to thrive and flourish it does need reboot. The current Roman Catholic Church is rotten. It’s head is rotten. It’s body is rotten. Too many scandals have rocked it to the core. From the Magdalene Laundries, to the horror show that was the Boston Archdiocese, to the tacit support for all forms of right-wing Authoritarian evil, the Vatican has failed one moral test after another. It has changed “suffer the children to come unto me” to “suffer the children because they came unto me.” That is the issue in a nut shell.