The arrogance of Catholic Church authorities – Thomas de Zengotita

Thomas de Zengotita“In the last analysis, these Catholic Churchmen value themselves above others. They are outraged, not at the abuse, but at the very idea of a secular authority intruding on sacred precincts over which they have presided for 2000 years. For them, that is the real issue. The Middle Ages never ended.” – Thomas de Zengotita

Pope Francis "the Humble"What I want to get to is the unique sense of self-importance that informs some of the language that Churchmen have been using in response to criticism. I don’t need to go into just how vile were the deeds–the actual abuse and the cover-ups. Activists among the abused are tending to that. I just want to stress, by way of transition, that priests taking advantage of children in this way are not just exploiting authority—as would be the case with doctors or teachers or scout leaders. They are exploiting the fact that, in the minds of their victims and congregations, they represent God on earth.

And they belong to a church, which promulgates that idea–in proclamation, in ritual, in doctrine. The institutional claim of the clergy to actually be emissaries of the Lord is made more categorically in the Catholic Church than in any other Christian denomination and the same holds, as far as I know, for other established religions as well.

What Church authorities–caught by surprise in the multimedia spotlight, speaking without much PR guidance–have been revealing about themselves, in their very words, is this: they believe they are what they say they are. One needs to dwell on this fact. It’s so big, it’s easy to miss. It explains not only what they have been saying, but what protectors of the abusers were doing.

Federico LombardiConsider first a recent example from a Vatican Spokesman addressing a council of Bishops: “This is the age of truth, transparency and credibility,” said the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. “Secrecy and discretion, even in their positive aspects, are not values cultivated in contemporary society. We must be in a position to have nothing to hide.”

This contrasts sharply with earlier comments, as we shall see. It shows some willingness to learn. But the adjustment is so painful. After all, this is a Papacy that defined itself in opposition to “contemporary society,” to its relativism and secularism.

How anguishing to adapt to it, even if only at the level of damage control politics. And Rev. Lomabardi is manifestly longing for the good old days when “secrecy and discretion…in their positive aspects” were values. Even in a wake up call to a council of bishops, he can’t control himself–the reference to those “positive aspects” slips in as he oh-so-smoothly blends “secrecy” with “discretion.” In the good old days those in authority could decide what should be known–as when then Cardinal Ratzinger urged a California Bishop to postpone action against an abusive priest and to bear always in mind the “good of the Universal Church” in dealing with such matters.

Two more years went by before that priest, a serial abuser, was defrocked.

Cardinal Sean BradyNow, it is important to remember that it was revelations of abuse and cover-up in Europe that threw this story back onto the front pages. Until then, the Churchmen were claiming that the scandal was an American problem, an argument that converged happily with ongoing efforts to blame the ’60s and popular culture for the generally decadent atmosphere. Which takes us to the earlier case of Cardinal Sean Brady of Ireland and the conduct for which he expressed shame and apologized “with all my heart … to those who feel I have let them down,” an apology that preceded Pope Benedict’s letter to the Irish bishops which was, the Pope said, intended to help with “repentance, healing and renewal.” Cardinal Brady, having repented, kept his job—but what exactly had he done?

“Cardinal Brady has faced numerous calls for his resignation in the wake of revelations that he took part in an abuse investigation in 1975 in which a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old were forced to sign secrecy oaths. Cardinal Brady, who was a priest at the time, never went to the police; the priest who had been accused, the Rev. Brendan Smyth, was convicted in the 1990s and admitted to molesting and raping about 100 children in Ireland and the United States.”

Fr. Brendan Smyth: He did a hundred boys!“Repentance, healing and renewal”? After letting a serial abuser walk away into a future of continued abuse on a massive scale and forcing two frightened boys to sign secrecy oaths? How can that be? How is that possible? How could the sheer awfulness of that picture not register with the Churchmen?

The answer to that question emerged on Easter weekend, back when Church spokesmen were not showing as much discretion in expressing themselves as the good of the Universal Church required:

“A senior Vatican priest, speaking before Pope Benedict XVI at a Good Friday service, compared the world’s outrage at sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to the persecution of the Jews… the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa, took note that Easter and Passover fell during the same week this year, and said he was led to think of the Jews… “They know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence…” said Father Cantalamessa, who serves under the title of preacher of the papal household…”

This mind-boggling comparison, so openly made on so public an occasion, exposed the basic architecture of this special form of arrogance, in the literal sense of the word. On the basis of his intimate association with the Papal entourage, Fr. Raniero CantalamessaCantalamessa obviously took for granted that the analogy would resonate with his immediate audience, his fellow Churchmen—the only audience that really mattered. But the comparison is, by any objective measure, borderline delusional–which is why it’s so revealing. And what it reveals is how these men think of themselves, compared to ordinary mortals—be they Jews or their own choirboys. The Jewish experience of the holocaust is on a par with their own experience of being publicly investigated and criticized. The violations are somehow proportional. The ultimate source of this monstrous distortion is, of course, the conviction that an attack on them is an attack on God. It all comes back to that.

And so, when they circle the wagons around themselves, they believe they are defending God Almighty. No wonder they don’t get it. When one of their own succumbs to temptations of the flesh, well, it is regrettable, no doubt–but the victims are part of a flock, you see, one sheep is much like another, the same ancient rituals and formulas conduct every one of them from cradle to grave to the life beyond. Their little joys and sorrows, their trials and tribulations on this earth, are all of a kind. It is a flock of millions and millions, after all–the world over, for thousands of years, all of them consigned by Christ himself to the care of … Us.

Cardinal Darío Castrillón HoyosFrom the upper reaches of the Universal Church, the flock appears as a homogeneous mass; only the shepherds are individually visible. Which is why we get things like this:

“Meanwhile on Thursday, the Vatican confirmed the authenticity of a 2001 letter written by a top cardinal, Darío Castrillón Hoyos, praising a French bishop who was jailed for three months for not reporting a pedophile priest to civil authorities. ‘I rejoice to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and all the other bishops of the world, preferred prison rather than denouncing one of his sons, a priest,’ the letter to the bishop, Pierre Pican, read.”

A private letter, from one Prince of the Church to another–a stunning glimpse into their hearts and minds. It shows how, in the last analysis, these men value themselves above others. They are outraged, not at the abuse, but at the very idea of a secular authority intruding on sacred precincts over which they have presided for 2000 years. For them, that is the real issue. The Middle Ages never ended.

Quick clarification. While I am sometimes tempted, in angry moments, to concur with dogmatic opposition to religion in the manner of Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchins—that is not where I come down in the end. There is something deep and Paedophile priest church window.genuinely universal about religion, something that goes to the core of what it means to be human—something that escapes Enlightenment critique. Personally, I incline to metaphysics of silence, like Wittgenstein, but—like Wittgenstein again—I cannot bring myself to scorn other ways human beings cope with finitude, not with a blanket indictment. So I wouldn’t dream of questioning, for example, those heroic nuns and priests whom Nicholas Kristof so justly celebrates and there is no doubt in my mind that they are motivated by their Catholic faith. I’ve been talking only about the authorities in the Church whose arrogance I have just described—in the hope that those who serve with genuine humility, rather than that bogus piety Nietzsche unmasked so effectively, will move for reform. – HuffPost, 5 May 2010

» Thomas de Zengotita is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. He teaches at The Dalton School and the Draper Graduate Program at New York University. His book Mediated was awarded the 2006 Marshall Mcluhan Award for outstanding work in the field from the Media Ecology Association

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