Pope Benedict calls for Catholic church penance, but questions about reform persist

Pope Benedict XVI said it's 'necessary to perform penance' in response to public outrage at revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. But some analysts say those hoping for change are up against a deeply conservative hierarchy.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP
Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile following his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Wednesday.

With new accounts of unconscionable behavior toward Catholic students in a Bavarian monastery, fresh reports of Vatican delay in handling a pedophile priest in California, and a papal visit this weekend to Malta, where 84 cases of child abuse by priests were recently revealed, the Roman Catholic church continues to struggle with damage control and the perception of drift in a crisis it was quite unprepared for.

Pope Benedict XVI has come under fire from critics outside the church – and some inside it – for not decisively expelling priests from the clergy when credible evidence of the sexual abuse of children emerged. The evidence dates back to his tenure as Archbishop of Munich in the 1970s, and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal enforcement body, from 1981 until his election as pontiff in 2005.

On Thursday, there were mixed messages from the Vatican. The pope said at the end of a homily delivered in Rome that in response to the "attacks of the world that talks to us of our sins," the church sees "how it is necessary to perform penance." They were perhaps the most contrite words yet from the pope on the matter. But the same day, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who as prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy has direct oversight of the world's roughly 400,000 Catholic priests, called on the clergy to descend on the Vatican to demonstrate "a determined rejection of the unjust attacks of which he is a victim."

Nevertheless, a situation that National Catholic Reported described as "the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history" is taking its toll and creating sharp expectations of change.

Outcry continues

An angry outcry continues in the US, Germany, and Ireland. In Germany, favorable views among Catholics of the pope, born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, have dropped from 63 percent in 2005 to 24 percent this month. A priest in western Massachusetts last Sunday called for Pope Benedict to resign if he is not truthful about stonewalled cases of abuse. Lay Catholics have renewed calls for everything from more church openness and transparency to reforms of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.

This week, Vatican officials posted their policy for handling priests who abuse children, a change from a defensive strategy of blaming the media for targeting abuse problems it says are mainly 20 years old. And for the first time, the Vatican publicly advocated turning over child abuse cases to civil authorities.

But within the church, evidence is emerging of a strong and broad countermovement to defend the pope and the church, exemplified by Cardinal Hummes's letter Thursday. The church’s hierarchy appear disinclined to pursue the kind of Vatican shakeup some in the media and general Catholic public are clamoring for.

A few days before Easter, some 70 French intellectuals, corporate leaders, and actors signed a statement defending Pope Benedict. The “A call to truth” petition decried pedophili, but blamed the press for playing “gotcha” with the pope. On the same day, some 4,000 European students from the ultraconservative Opus Dei order converged in Rome to support the papacy and to blame media as “sowers of doubt and discord.” Both the French and Opus Dei rallying cries emphasize the good the church has done and is still doing.

Saying no to change?

Church analysts say beneath the "blame the media" strategy is a structural opposition to reform based on ingrained tradition, culture, and belief. They argue a proud and ancient church is not eager for change – especially not under pressure created by a scandal involving sexual abuse among within the priesthood, the foot-soldiers for church teaching and outreach.

“The tradition is strong to protect the institution, to do everything to protect the church,” says Guillaume Goubert, editor of La Croix, the leading Catholic newspaper in France. “Many strong Catholics including in Rome believe the institution is holy and can’t commit crimes. Pope John Paul asked us to forgive the church for its errors and mistakes. But Benedict has a different conception.”

"I can't imagine the pope resigning," Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and professor at Duquesne University law school, told the Associated Press. "The people who are calling for this have no idea the seriousness of what they are asking."

Indeed, a strategic Catholic “map” shows fairly staunch support in deeply Catholic countries like Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, and Poland, where there have been fewer reported priest abuse cases, than in America, Germany, Austria, and Ireland.

At a Catholic chapel in downtown Paris, among many rank and file priests and nuns, a call for the pope to resign or for major rethinking of church policy is heard as something like a call to change the rings of Saturn. It’s incomprehensible and alien.

“The church is rooted in Christ, and that isn’t changing,” says a priest from Moulins, in central France, who is planning to visit the Vatican next week with 10 priests and the local bishop to show support. A nun, Sister Asuncion, when asked about "the crisis," mainly thought the question was about the lack of Catholic churchgoers in Europe.

Indeed, the crisis is playing out against a policy dating back to 1981 when Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, took over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and began systematically rousting church liberals who support the more open and transparent church model advocated by Vatican II, the church council in the 1960s that advocated sweeping ecumenical reform.

Many current traditionalists including the Vatican's No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, are known to see the abuse crisis as a stalking horse for liberals to push changes that would treat the church as more human, and less divine. Cardinal Bertone this week made headlines arguing that pedophilia stemmed from homosexuality, not the celibacy Catholic priests accept.

Marginalized moderates

Frank Flinn, a Catholic theologian at Washington University in St. Louis and author of an encyclopedia of Catholicism, says Vatican dynamics under Benedict has marginalized moderates “similarly to the way moderates are marginalized in the Republican party today by the conservative wing.”

The appointment April 12 by Pope Benedict of an Opus Dei bishop, Jose Gomez, to lead the Los Angeles archdiocese, the largest in the US, is one example of circling the traditionalist wagons. Opus Dei is a deeply traditional group and its leaders have closed ties to Pope Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

Mr. Gomez takes over from Cardinal Roger Mahony, who was not replaced by the Vatican despite the costliest child abuse scandal in the US, which involved a pay-out of some $660 million dollars in 2007 to more than 500 victims of sexual abuse.

The Ryan report in Ireland described more than 380 cases of sexual abuse. Figures in Germany run into many hundreds, and in the US, there are more than 5,000 known cases.

Mr. Goubert of La Croix says Pope Benedict has been “very courageous” in disciplining church figures like Marcial Maciel, head of the ultraconservative Legion of Christ in Mexico, who fathered children and was charged with child abuse and drug problems while remaining on good terms with Pope John Paul. “For Benedict, the problem is not with the church, it is with individuals,” he says.

Weapons against the church

The former dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano, highlighted current thinking around the papacy in comments to the Vatican newspaper L"Osservatore Romano: "By now, it’s a cultural contrast. The Pope embodies moral truths that aren’t accepted, and so the shortcomings and errors of priests are used as weapons against the church."

Gabriel Fackre, a United Church of Christ theologian and emeritus professor at the Andover-Newton Theological Academy in Massachusetts, cites the apostle Paul in Corinthians, saying that when “one member suffers, we all suffer. As churches, this hurts all of us. We have our own history of abuses in Protestantism. So from an ecumenical standpoint, let those who are without sin cast the first stone.”

At the same time, Mr. Fackre hopes the Vatican stops foot-dragging: “The mutuality that binds us together also means mutual accountability, and there needs to be a calling to account of events of this sort," he says. "It is not a time for a fortress mentality in Rome.”

Yet “Catholicism has changed, is changing, and must change,” argues theologian Tom Beaudoin at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. He finds Catholic groups demanding more participation, new views of Catholic spirituality, and self-governance to be rife at any American Catholic convention, showing that “on the ground,” as he puts it, the church is evolving. But in the most sacrosanct halls in Rome, there remains a “concentration of power among traditionalists.”

MR. Beaudoin wants a greater “spirit of truth” to animate the church structure. In this sense, he says, Benedict could build a bridge: “The current bishop of Rome is rightly interested in fidelity to the truth. So I would say this is a point of convergence between his vision and what is happening in the abuse crisis. We have to be a church that practices and is relentless if not reckless in its commitment to the truth about itself. It will be a very painful process that legal scholars would call disclosure – a process of letting go of illusions about who we thought we were and instead committing ourselves to the truth in a more demanding way.”

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