Arm-chair psychoanalyzing the Pope

Peter Popham (the most awesome name I’ve seen on a journalist ever) gives us a thoughtful analysis on the current Pope in today’s Independent:

Vatican II had seen the Church move to embrace the modern world in all its complexity – but for Ratzinger, the events of 1968 proved that the only result would be the Church being suffocated, trampled and abused. It risked, he later wrote, being instrumentalised “by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal and cruel… The abuse of the faith had to be resisted… Anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity.” Ratzinger chose to retain his integrity by giving up being progressive – and giving up also his cherished place at Tübingen and moving to a new and obscure university in Regensburg.

(more after the jump)

There is a common thread running through all such howlers: ever since those ugly encounters on the campus of Tübingen in 1968, Ratzinger has seen both himself and his faith as cornered, besieged, menaced and undermined, by its out-and-out enemies, but also by its declared friends in secular society, and those trimmers and time-servers “who still passed themselves off as believers when this was useful”, as Ratzinger wrote in 1997. In stark contrast to the expansiveness of Vatican II, and the willingness of John Paul II to share ideas with Buddhists and listen to Bob Dylan, it is a paranoid vision, in which the Church and its Pope are the victims of history and must be constantly on their guard, constantly rebuffing those false friends who would lay traps for them.

Actually, this explains a lot.

As more and more reports come to light of child abuse by priests and the cover-up thereof by the Catholic hierarchy, the question that keeps running through my head about the highest levels of the hierarchy is: how do they think this makes them look to the rest of us?

Which is surely the wrong thing to think when learning about more victims of child sexual abuse, but here’s the problem: I’ve heard about so many instances of kids getting beaten and raped by Catholic clergy, and of other clergy conspiring to cover it up, in so many countries, over so many years, that it’s no longer news to me. The real scandal, IMO, is not that children were beaten and raped, per se; in any institution with adults having responsibility over children, there will be some sick people involved and some children will be abused. The scandal is not that the abuse happened, but that it was covered up, that the abusers were shuffled around to other parishes with unknowing families and more defenseless children rather than reported to secular authorities for prosecution and treatment. The scandal is the amount of energy that the highest levels of the Church put into keeping the abuse a secret from the outside world, when they could have put a lot less energy into making sure the child-abusing priests were denied further access to vulnerable children.

I’ve become so jaded by the depth and breadth of this scandal that learning of more victims in more countries is no longer news. It’s gotten to the point where I basically assume that wherever the Catholic Church has influence, it has priests who have raped children in their congregations and bishops who have enabled and protected those priests.

With that in mind, I keep wondering about the men in positions of power with the Church, especially the current Pope: While they keep on acting like there is no scandal, how do they think they look to those of us on the outside? I will leave other writers to explore how the Church’s conduct toward sex abuse victims appears to faithful Catholics, and perhaps it is their perceptions of their church’s power structure, and not mine, that matter.

However, the Church is in no position to claim that outsiders have no business commenting on the power structure’s actions. If Catholicism eschewed proselytizing and were uninterested in politics, then the argument could be made that I should poke my little non-Catholic nose elsewhere, but such conditions do not apply. In reality, the Church is not content to say that Catholics must eschew family planning, that Catholic gays and lesbians must be celibate, and that Catholics must combat the spread of HIV through marital fidelity and premarital abstinence, but that everyone else is free to fuck, marry and procreate (or not) on their own terms. No, the Church seeks to prevent the spread of marriage equality for everyone, to prohibit contraception and abortion for everyone, and so forth. When the Pope goes to Africa and tells millions of Catholics that using condoms will only make the AIDS epidemic worse, it would be destructive enough if HIV-positive African Catholics only had sex with other Catholics, but the problem is that human sexuality is not as neatly governable as Catholic doctrine would like to believe. They cannot bully their followers into keeping it in their pants except for within the sanctity of procreative heterosexual marriage. (And in the AIDS epidemic in Africa, procreative heterosexual marriage is how most women get infected.) They can’t even control their own ordained clergy.

Since the Catholic Church is a proselytizing organization which seeks to influence public policy by ostensibly secular governments, it should be interested in what outsiders think of its high-level behavior. This is what we see: we get old men who supposedly don’t have sex at all, ever, telling the rest of us when, where, with whom and for what purposes we’re allowed to have sex. We get people who have sworn off family life, and whose room and board are always covered by their employer, telling the rest of us that birth control is evil. We see one of those celibate old men visiting the most HIV-saturated region on Earth and telling people who are inclined to listen to him that they shouldn’t use condoms. Then we find out that some of these ostensibly celibate spiritual leaders, who have succeeded in convincing large numbers of people that they (the leaders) have God on their side, have been sexually abusing children in their care, and we find out that the higher-ups have been doing their darnedest to keep the victims quiet. We get these people who tell us that they’re better, they’re closer to God, than those of us who live secular lives and enjoy sex, and that if we don’t listen to them, we’ll be in poor standing with our Creator and thus be condemned to an eternity of suffering after we die, and then we find out that many of them have been either raping children in their care or enabling those abusers, and we’re still supposed to listen to these people? We’re still supposed to believe they can tell us about God, and that we should feel guilty for having sex and enjoying it because they say so?

In less prosperous parts of the world, we see women dying in childbirth because they had no access to contraception, people dying of AIDS because they’ve been taught that condoms are evil, and children becoming orphaned. In America, we see Catholic leaders trying to bully politicians into advancing the pro-life cause, and withdrawing charities to jurisdictions that legalize same-sex marriage. In America, Australia, Ireland and Germany (don’t even get me started on Ireland, we’ll be here for days) and probably several other First World countries that have gotten lost in the shuffle, every day we learn of more sex abuse victims of priests (and sometimes of nuns), and more bishops and cardinals whose first priority was to make sure no one found out.

To put it bluntly: Pope Benedict XVI, your church has no authority on anything at this point. Its leaders come across by and large as a vast conspiracy of degenerate, delusional bullies who never met a power they couldn’t abuse. Its followers are becoming increasingly disturbed, disillusioned and alienated from their religious organization. To those of us outside the faith, it is, at best, the punchline to an ever-expanding line of dirty jokes.

Perhaps what I’ve been missing all this time is that Pope Benedict XVI isn’t as interested in gaining converts as other Popes have been. Maybe Popham is right in that Ratzinger cares more about making the Church a purer, stricter environment rather than a more popular one, and there would be something to respect in that if his idea of purity didn’t include enabling pedophiles who abuse their power over children. His view of the Church as the victim might not be quite so absurd if his religion’s teachings on safe sex, family planning and homosexuality hadn’t victimized so many other, less privileged people already. If this were a secular organization, it would have been raided, prosecuted and shut down long ago. However, it is not a secular organization, and it is still powerful enough that it will continue to get away with victimizing countless children for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it is because of that privilege that men like Joseph Ratzinger don’t need to give a shit what people like me think.

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  1. #1 by dj357 on March 17, 2010 - 12:42 PM

    hiya Alyson, just been reading through your blog posts, good stuff! just on this one, I think any organisation that has a high-ranking official speaking seriously about the physical presence of the devil being ANYWHERE (nevermind in the Vatican itself) should be ignored, in so much as laughing your ass off at something is ignoring it! I did think it was great piece on the current pontiff though!

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