By Michele Dillon
Over the past few months, following years of evidence of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and its systematic cover-up by church officials, Pope Benedict has reiterated a commitment to church actions to redress what he eventually came to acknowledge as “the sin inside the church.” Canon laws in effect since 1922 have long given the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith authority over the handling of sex abuse cases; yet, as we now know, these rules and others outlined in more recent years, were mostly ignored by Vatican officials, whether intentionally or not.
This week, the Vatican outlined more new rules for the disciplining of abusive priests, and called pedophilia a grave crime constituting egregious violations of moral law. In the same breath, the Vatican also reaffirmed its opposition to women’s ordination and reminded Catholics that “the attempted ordination of women” is a grave crime too.
The jarring juxtaposition of these two disparate issues seems mindboggling. Their insensitive conflation highlights that Vatican officials still do not fully apprehend the grave emotional cost of the irreparable harm done to numerous individuals and their families by the actions of priests and church officials. It also shows that the Vatican does not fully grasp how the scandal has diminished its credibility among Catholics, victims and non-victims alike, who want to find pastoral healing, spiritual strength, and moral leadership within the Catholic Church.
It might well seem that the Vatican is poorly versed in basic principles of public relations management; particularly during Benedict’s papacy there have been several notable public relations gaffes. There is, however, a larger context to the Vatican’s juxtaposition of sex abuse and women’s ordination. Since becoming pope, Benedict has time and again publicly denounced the increased secularism of the West, and has exhorted Catholics to return to the orthodoxy defined by the authority of the church hierarchy. Indeed, quite remarkably, the Vatican has explicitly linked the causes of the sex abuse crisis to secularization forces. Pope Benedict’s much anticipated pastoral letter to Irish Catholics (in March 2010) stated that the “overall context of the disturbing problem of sex abuse” is related to secularization and its impact on “people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values” and “loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.” It is difficult, however, if not impossible, to forestall secularization. Catholics in Europe and especially in the U.S., where they are far more involved in parish life, persist in exercising judgments that are autonomous of Vatican teaching, and which are highly critical of the church’s structure and institutional practices, including its exclusion of women from ordination.
Pope Benedict’s focused attentiveness to the threats posed by secularism contributes to blinding the Vatican to the pastoral consequences of the sex abuse sin within the church. Besieged by secular forces, the defensive response is to reaffirm the church hierarchy’s authority and, in particular, to denounce the threat of any change to its constant tradition of a male priesthood. Since the 1970s, the Vatican has been unambiguous in denouncing women’s ordination and its advocates. And these statements, many of which were issued with the authority of the then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), did not get muddled by other issues; no public relations stumbles there. The simultaneous categorization of sex abuse and attempted women’s ordination as grave offenses, therefore, may not be so bizarre. It is the Vatican’s assertion of authority against internal and, in particular, what it perceives as external threats. It is understandable that the church wants to uphold certain traditions and is concerned about the consequences of overturning what it considers core doctrine. But in doing so, the Vatican risks losing sight of the damage done to the victims of priest sexual abuse and the consequential further erosion of its pastoral and moral authority.
Michele Dillon is Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire.