March 28, 2010

A Chance to Renew Faith in the Catholic Church

Today marks the opening of Holy Week, the dramatic close of Lent when Catholics commemorate Christ’s triumphant ride into Jerusalem, the institution of the last supper, the crucifixion and resurrection. It is the holiest week for Catholics, and also serves as the final step of Christian initiation for those adults who choose to join the Church.

Holy Week also provides an opportunity for the faithful to renew and reinvigorate their spiritual life. Christian faith implores its followers to lead a life of constant conversion - to be always on guard against those actions that separate us from God and to regularly recommit to the basic tenets of Christ’s teaching, most fundamentally universal love.

This year, that message from the Pope has been clouded by the ongoing sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Church to its core. In his homily at this morning’s Palm Sunday mass, the Holy Father struck a defiant tone, asserting that he would not be intimidated “by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.”

As a Catholic, I want to stand behind that sentiment. I want to rally around the head of my church in the most trying time of his office.

But the meaning of this week won’t let me.

For decades, the Church’s leadership has led a closeted existence. While preaching the values of Christ, too many priests, bishops and Vatican officials knowingly put Catholic children in the jaws of sexual predators. Instead of exposing the crimes of the wayward priests, and turning them over to police for criminal prosecution, a fraternal network of priests and bishops shuffled the pedophiles from parish to parish and diocese to diocese.

In recent weeks, the media has shed new light on the role of Pope Benedict XVI in the unfolding scandal. While archbishop of Munich in 1980, then-Bishop Ratzinger allowed a priest who molested children to return to pastoral work. And after being appointed to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith – the Church’s highest ranking body on matters of dogma – Cardinal Ratzinger refused to defrock a priest who molested at least 200 deaf children in Wisconsin.

Pope Benedict has, past and present, shown remarkably bad judgment. He did not work to fully expose the crimes of priests for the past three decades, and as leader of the Church he has not fully investigated the scandal. (Even now, the Pope seems more interested in cracking down on liberal nuns in the United States than in settling the sex abuse scandal once and for all.)

And for weeks, the response from the Vatican has been neither introspective nor compassionate. The Church has generated excuse after excuse, with the Pope trying to push responsibility off on other officers while ignoring that, as a bishop and cardinal, the buck often stopped with him.

I do not dislike my Pope and I am not entirely disenchanted with my Church. But the office of the pope requires moral legitimacy. Any leader of the Church – at any level – who tried hiding abusive priests instead of bringing them to justice should stand aside.

Holy Week gives us, as we will be reminded over the coming days, an opportunity to renew our faith. The Holy See should also use it as an opportunity to renew our institutions and recalibrate the moral compass of the Church. I fear the true message of Christ will be drowned out by the cries moral outrage until that happens.

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