A pope retires, a Church reels

By John Lloyd
February 28, 2013

“The servant of God’s servant departs in peace,” was the headline on an article by the British novelist Piers Paul Read this week. The piece was a eulogy to Benedict XVI’s papacy, in which Read argued that the pope had left the Church much richer in doctrine – conservative doctrine – than he had found it. Watching the televised images of Benedict touring St. Peter’s Square in his Popemobile ‑ smiling, waving, embracing the babies passed to him from proud parents as he went, speaking about the joy and light he finds in God ‑ you would be inclined to agree.

But in that final address, he also said that in his eight years, “I have had … moments that haven’t been easy … moments of turbulent seas and rough winds … at times it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.” He offered no details on the rough winds nor on what events the Lord was sleeping through, but it’s likely that those that gave him the most heartache concerned the people with whom the Lord’s servants were sleeping with. Sex is roiling the Catholic Church.

Benedict has been accused of much of which he is innocent: his membership, brief and mandatory, in the Hitler Youth when a teenager; his supposed anti-Muslim comments attributing violence to Islam, actually a quote from a medieval emperor, from which he dissociated himself; and an attribution of anti-Semitism because he reconciled the Church with the Society of Pius X, one of whose members was a Holocaust denier. He has been so accused because of his orthodoxy, and orthodoxy has been taken by his more radical critics to include prejudice and worse. But it is unlikely that his prejudices include pro-Nazism, or anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic views.

He is a moral absolutist, and the morality to which he cleaves is that of his predecessor, John Paul II, who was much more charismatic but just as conservative. It includes a strongly orthodox view of marriage as an institution that can only be recognized and sanctified if it is a union that can produce children; an absolute rejection of women priests and of marriage for priests; hostility to birth control, abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage; to cloning of embryos and genetic manipulation; even, in an ambiguous way, to the theory of evolution. Marriage is indissoluble, and Catholic divorcees cannot participate in the Eucharist 

These were the views of a pope who last October received a report that, according to an apparently well-founded article in Rome’s daily La Repubblica, revealed to him how rotten – in his terms – the Church was. Compiled by the 82-year-old Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz Casado, a member of the Opus Dei sect and close to Benedict in his views, it was a response to the scandal that has washed about the Church for the past two years. After leaks of correspondence and confidential documents Herranz Casado was charged with finding out where the scandal lay, and in reporting back to the pope.

The report that he handed over in the pope’s study contained the dread news that a network of homosexual priests, and their superiors, existed – and that they were thus under the threat of, in Latin, impropriam influentiam (improper influence) ‑ or, more simply, blackmail. What Benedict had preached against was now present in the Church itself.

Two days after that doleful delivery, the pope gave an address, to the faithful and the tourists in St Peter’s Square, commemorating the opening of the Second Vatican Council 50 years before. In an extraordinary passage, the importance of which was not understood at the time, he said:

In these last 50 years, we have learned and experienced that original sin exists, and it issues forth always in personal sins which can become structures of sin. We have seen that in the fields of the Lord, there is always discord. That in Peter’s net, there are always rotten fish to be found.

A little over two months later, Benedict resigned – in favor, he hoped, of a man “strong, young and holy.” Indeed, Benedict’s successor  will have to be all three to deal with Herranz Casado’s dossier.

As if in confirmation, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in the UK, was alleged by the Observer to have had “inappropriate relationships” with four priests, one of whom had left the priesthood. He resigned a few days later, just before Benedict’s own resignation.

O’Brien had been the most outspoken of the British Catholic hierarchy against gay marriage, describing it as “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved.” The gay rights group Stonewall named him “bigot of the year.” The group’s Scottish director, Colin Macfarlane, said, with a certain malicious overtone, that “we hope that his successor will show a little more Christian charity toward openly gay people than the former cardinal did himself.”

That is unlikely, unless the Church undergoes a revolution. Led by aging men who have spent their life believing, or at least claiming to believe, that a vow of chastity can be observed by all priests, it now must confront a reality of which its leaders seem to have been willfully blind. 

Those who, unable to suppress their sexuality, seek relief do so – inevitably – in furtive, often oppressive ways, trading on what authority they have to enforce silence.

Benedict, against whom no scandal seems to have been whispered, this week steps away from the implications of all of that: but not, as Read’s article had it, in peace. He hands a colossal burden to his successor, however young, strong and holy he may be. For what the dossier in the papal safe appears to say is that here is a church that has covered up a monstrous hypocrisy. The next pope’s choice – to uncover and face up to its consequences, or to attempt to continue in apparent ignorance while hoping that too many Cardinal O’Briens do not appear – is unenviable. But in it lies, perhaps, the future of the Church.

PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI waves for the last time from the balcony of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo February 28, 2013. REUTERS/ Tony Gentile

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3 comments so far

“that a network of homosexual priests, and their superiors, existed – and that they were thus under the threat of, in Latin, impropriam influentiam (improper influence).”

Doesn’t everything sound authoritative in Latin?

Homosexual priests would have had to lie to become priests. The Church never had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. That was the same argument used against them in the State Department for decades. The SD types that wrote that were saying it at a time when it was illegal in many states to be openly gay. Remember “Advise and Consent”?

If homosexuals are not under legal threats, than what undo influence could be brought to bear on them?

Threat of blackmail by whom: the priests, the hierarchy or the congregations? But I’ll bet the Mafia of Italy has them by their cassocks. All they have to do is make it difficult for the churchgoers – a few convenient accidents – and they would have access to the funds. They still extort protection money in Italy. I saw two of them looking pleased with themselves and they were very sharp dressers sitting behind my table in a restaurant they had torched twice because the owner refused to pay protection money.

It’s about time the Catholic Church took off Caesar’s crown. If the Catholic church loses membership because of that – it means most of those “good Catholics” were really only going for the gold and prestige anyway. One of the tiers of the Pope’s triple crown was useless anyway since the unification of Italy. I can’t actually remember what the three tiers meant anymore. I think the Popes claimed they were lords of time somehow?

It’s Ironic, but Jesus always denied he was looking for a kingdom on earth. But Jesus wasn’t a big employer and didn’t get a dime for his mission. There was even a movement decades ago to revive the simplicity of the early church and only the Quakers seem to do that well anymore. They meet in each others houses or in a simple meeting house: at least the one in this area. But someone has to pay for the magnificent piles that Catholics have built around the world.

Other churches do make an attempt at theological consistency and they don’t have Popes! They also seem to know how their churches raised money, how much and where it was going. The Catholic Church ends to like their congregations ignorant of church finances and treats them like idiot children. A lot of the time they were. They treat them like idiot children when it comes to sex too. The Protestant reformation left Europe divided between those countries that actually read the Bible and those under the Catholic sway who only heard someone else read it to them. The Protestant countries promoted literacy and education far more than the Catholic countries.

They ought to face it – heterosexual life and children are becoming very expensive. Education has also trumped church doctrine.

PSST – there never was a tree of “the knowledge of Good and Evil”. Christians, and even Jews and Muslims, have liked the idea since the story became a part of their faiths. According to Genesis, God knew the knowledge all along and now you can find it in “People” or the daily news. They and many others reduced that allegory to the simple lesson – do what you are told!

I submit that the jig was up for the innocent “first parents” the moment Eve was confronted with a question about who was telling her the truth? That tends to get most people’s mental ball rolling. But it doesn’t seem to have worked on most of the faithful.

There is never anything original about “sin”. It’s always the same old, same old.

Even myths eventually become obsolete. But it’s still a dandy allegory for the nature of being a conscious human being.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

“There is never anything original about “sin”. It’s always the same old, same old.”

That’s not fair to “sin”, because even the people who fight it “know it” and everyone is intensely fascinated by it. Perhaps, there is no such thing as a personality without it? But no one can ever come up with anything more than variations of “the classic shapes”.

It’s also more colorful than the white light of intelligence.

The white light is also sunlight and tends to be taken for granted.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I’d like to make a little correction. I read a little about the old triple crown. It hasn’t been used since Paul VI. I think the last time I heard about it was when I was in grammar school or Junior high? This is just wikipedia info. Once during the Napoleonic era is was gilded papier mache. It weighed as much as ten pounds of metal – not sure if it was ever solid gold. It might have been vermeil or even gilded bronze: the article doesn’t say. I like the idea that it was papier mache. I also like the idea that the enormous giant order pilasters in the nave of St. Peter’s aren’t really marble but are scagliola: plaster made of marble dust. On a visit with my folks after high school we went in and one of the piers was stripped for a few feet and exposed the underlying rough plaster surface. The true marbles – objects reclaimed from the numerous ruins – are in the monoliths in the flanking isles and I think, some are from the Constantinian building the present one replaced. Those are antiques. Old Rome was scavenged for every piece of marble they could find for several hundred years and is seen reworked, or not, in the palaces and churches of the modern city.

The three tiers symbolized temporal, juridical and spiritual rule. Evidently the Pope’s don’t actually wear a crown at all anymore. The temporal power is the one that became obsolete with the loss of the Papal States. The juridical rule did also in some cases, like Gabrielli’s, from the sounds of it, in as much as the Italians have taken over for his imprisonment, apparently? Or is he still in the Vatican? I don’t know why Benedict tried to revive that nebulous power? Catholics are not citizens of the Vatican. I’m not sure there is such a thing?

The Pope’s could easily become as unnoticed as the Archbishop of Canterbury. For most of my youth they were. The only time I ever saw a bishop was at confirmation. The celebrity role seems to be why they will have to retire early now. Travel can be hard on very old people in flagging health.

I had a first year prof in college who could never resist an anti Catholic jab, it seemed. He was probably stoned one day (or I thought he was) and came in and talked about the tarot deck – it’s hermetic meaning – and he dismissed the papacy as the meaning behind the major arcana figures “the Hierophant”(the high priest). It was not a theology class or a place to discuss religion at all and I thought it was a cheap shot. I was not the only Catholic in the class and none of us talked back. What do you say to that kind of observation? The Tarot was popular in the late 60s. I even have a set because it was being printed in some pretty editions. But whenever I try to use it in a bored moment, I will deal the deck until I find a reading I like. No silly deck of cards is going to tell me what to do with my life or what it means. But now I also feel the same way about Papal rule and remote hierarchies.

I have lived in protestant communities most of my life and they don’t tend to think of their lives as dominated by the decisions of hierarchies. I think I understand now why so many people with an Anglo-Saxon or northern European heritage were hostile and suspicious of Catholic immigrants from Europe. I still don’t quite understand why they were also hostile to Jews? The Jews tended to be more literate. Perhaps they had too strong a “tribal” identity? The southern European immigrants tended to be the huddled masses used to being told what to do and how to do it. And few could read, apparently? Democracies require literacy and freedom of conscience. I am sure my grandparents never really understood what the constitution meant and I am quite sure they never tested the limits of “liberty” or “freedom”. My generation did and my deceased grandmother is probably saying her beads till they are hot in her hands if she still has any idea what we’ve been up to. My grandfather might envy us a bit, but my grandmother tended to be the “madonna” so I’m not at all sure. The women in Italy – it seems – tended to be household guardians of “the faith”.

It’s always called “Holy Mother Church” and more churches are named for Mary than for any other saint of even Christ. It is almost the direct descendant of the most popular ancient Roman cult of “Cybele”, also called “magna mater”.

I don’t dismiss my grandparents as “idol worshipers” as, I understand, some Islamic theology thinks about Catholic ideas like the Trinity (actually a quaternity with the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, about 1950, acording to carl jung anyway). It’s just a very old traditon that never died and softens some of the severity of the far more male oriented Jesus stories, just as it softened the severity of very male dominated Roman civilization. Not many people look at crucifixion as a happy ending and people don’t tend to want to raise their kids with that thought upper most in their minds.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive
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