St. Peter and the Minarets

St. Peter and the Minarets

Mini Teaser: The Catholic Church is under assault. A secularizing West, the encroachment of Islam into Europe, and the sexual-abuse scandal all threaten the Vatican's ability to influence the masses. The Church's response will be felt worldwide.

by Author(s): Harvey Cox

The words of Jesus, “blessed are the peacemakers,” have increasingly become a central concern of the popes. But as even a casual reading of history shows, most religions have had their outbursts of violence. Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for some of these. Now Benedict will need to continue to grapple with the Vatican’s mixed record in this area in the face of an Islamic religious tradition which is fighting its own demons.

AMONG ALL this speculation, an overarching question, of course, remains: can the Church survive, let alone deeply impact global policy as it wrestles with serious failings of its own, not just in governance, but in morality? Certainly the Church’s social teachings, in varying degrees, inform lay Catholics and thus enter into public-policy discourse. But its actions—or inactions—inform them even more. As I write this, the Catholic Church is mired in what some of its most sympathetic observers have called the greatest crisis it has confronted in centuries, possibly in its entire history. Beginning over eight years ago in the Archdiocese of Boston, and eventually reaching around the world, the clergy-sexual-abuse scandal is now knocking at the gates of the papal palace itself.2 Some observers insist that the attention the press gives to the current crisis is nothing more than a vogue, and that it will soon pass as a scandal-hungry public finds something else to feast on. Others consider it much more serious. Whatever happens, it cannot be doubted that it is taking a severe toll on the laity’s confidence in anything the Church says. How the Vatican handles this will have everything to do with the Church’s future influence.

But the scandal has opened an even-deeper crisis. Not only must the Church now deal with the moral revulsion people feel about the inexcusable behavior of both the offending priests and the bishops who covered for them, but its halting response has also torn the curtain away from the self-serving culture of secrecy, deception and dissimulation that seems to engulf the Vatican’s inner life. Veteran Rome reporter Rachel Donadio described a recent statement by the Vatican on the scandal as made up of words “chosen precisely to obscure much meaning.”3

All governments of course are practiced at issuing ambiguous pronouncements, but the Vatican seems to have raised this technique to a fine art. In the face of the present crisis, this will simply not suffice. The pope and the Curia will have to do things differently if they have any hope of restoring the Holy See’s moral authority among their own people and in the wider world. First they will have to deal swiftly, justly and openly with the thousands of priests and bishops whose conduct has created immense anger and sadness among innumerable Catholics and provoked justifiable rage among additional millions of people. But second, the Vatican will now have to break from its long tradition of concealment and artful ambiguity, and make a strenuous effort toward transparency. The idea of “mystery” may be rightly applied to the Mass; but it is inappropriate when it is used to shroud the workings of the Church bureaucracy, whether in Rome itself or in diocesan headquarters anywhere in the world.

There can be little doubt that at least some recent popes have enjoyed a significant amount of moral credibility. Certainly John XXIII was one. Immensely popular both among Catholics and others, he helped bring about a tidal change in the relations of the Church to other Christians, to Jews and to people of other faiths. He also moderated the Church’s previously intransigent stance toward Communist countries. Historians are still uncovering exactly what part John Paul II played in ending the Cold War, but his role in inspiring Solidarity and the Polish resistance is beyond a doubt. Still, recent investigations suggest that the Polish pope dragged his feet in response to the pedophile scandal. The result of his and the Vatican’s arbitrary and authoritarian style has severely damaged its moral sway. One wonders how it could be regained when it is not only tainted by an epidemic of sexual abuse but diluted by a polished, self-serving duplicity.

Unfortunately, it does not seem that either the present pope or the Curia is willing to make the necessary changes. Consider the following: On Monday, June 28, 2010, the Vatican issued a communiqué reporting on a meeting between the pope and two key cardinals. One was Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, sixty-five, archbishop of Vienna and sometimes rumored to be a favorite as the next pontiff. The other was Angelo Cardinal Sodano, eighty-two, who is currently the dean of the College of Cardinals and served as John Paul II’s secretary of state. The pope convoked the meeting because Schönborn had publicly declared that when Sodano was head of that department he had stood in the way of a thorough investigation of allegations about the sexual misconduct of an archbishop in the 1990s. Despite reminding Schönborn that such criticism (presumably in public) was the sole responsibility of the pontiff himself, not of a fellow cardinal, the Vatican’s report on the meeting did not deny the substance of his complaint. Nevertheless, this was the first time ever that a pope had aired such internal disagreements in public. It is possible this was a tiny move toward openness, but it more likely simply provides further evidence of the Vatican’s skilled capacity to handle awkward issues with a minimum of clarity.

Then, in July 2010, the Vatican issued an announcement that set out new procedures for dealing with abusive priests, rules that most observers found woefully inadequate. But, to make matters considerably worse, the announcement linked pedophilia, a “grave sin,” with ordaining women to the priesthood. Many read this not just as ineptitude, but as an outrageous insult. The growing lack of confidence in the moral authority of the Church was deepened.

IT IS hard to imagine at this point how the Vatican can ever regroup, rethink and adapt. Many Catholic lay organizations seem to have simply given up on the prospect, and are either defying or just ignoring the Vatican. The Church’s official ban on contraceptives is a dead letter in America and in many other places. Many priests welcome divorced and remarried Catholics to the Communion rail. Thousands of Catholics practice yoga despite Vatican warnings about its links to pantheistic Hinduism.

Thoughtful Catholics at all levels agree that the rigid, pyramidal structure of the Catholic Church’s governance needs to change. But is this just a far-fetched dream? Certainly it seems improbable for now, but it should be recalled that given its two millennia of history, the Catholic Church’s ultracentralization is a fairly recent innovation. The mills of the gods grind slowly, and those of the Catholic Church are among the slowest. There have indeed been lurching starts toward another polity. At Vatican II, the world’s bishops tried to shape a more decentralized pattern in which they would share authority with the pope and the Curia. Though the system did not undergo any significant transformation, the vision is eloquently advocated by influential members of the hierarchy. During the last years of John Paul II’s papacy when Carlo Maria Cardinal Martini, then archbishop of Milan, was considered a serious candidate for the papacy, he often complained that the concentration of power in the Roman Curia was, after all, a rather new development, having surged mainly in the nineteenth century. Martini advocated a radical decentralization. Although he garnered a few votes early in the conclave of 2005, Martini was soon outdistanced by Ratzinger. He then retired as archbishop of Milan and now quietly pursues the biblical studies for which he is widely respected in the scholarly world. But as John XXIII demonstrated when he convoked the council, with consequences that—despite setbacks—have lasted for over half a century, popes can make a huge difference.

If the current crisis further erodes the laity’s confidence in the way the Vatican does business, and if another Martini, with decentralization on his agenda, were to become pontiff, the creative energies of lay Catholics might find their way into the Church’s international policies, power might be dispersed and a whole new picture might emerge. But whatever happens, the Holy See, confined as it is to .17 square miles, will remain an actor, mainly playing a small but not insignificant role on the world stage.

Harvey Cox is Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard.

1 Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Caritas in Veritate: Benedict’s Global Reorientation,” Theological Studies 71, no. 2 (June 2010): 291–319.

2 Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger, “Amid Sexual Abuse Scandal, an Office that Failed to Act,” New York Times, July 2, 2010.

3 Rachel Donadio, “In Rare Memo, Vatican Rebukes Cardinal,” New York Times, June 29, 2010.

Image: Pullquote: Perhaps at few times in recent Vatican history has its religious agenda so overlapped with its secular-political one as it now does in relations between the Holy See and Islam.Essay Types: Essay