Editor's Note: The papal conclave has announced that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, will be Pope Benedict's successor. He will be known as Pope Francis I. Shortly after the announcement of Pope Benedict's resignation, Frances Kissling wrote the piece below, in which she argued that a merely electing a pope from Africa or from Latin America wouldn't be enough to spur the fundamental changes the Catholic Church desperately needs.
“In Benedict, the Catholic Church got the pope it deserved,” writes John Patrick Shanley in The New York Times.Shanley, author of the play Doubt, pulls no punches. Pope Benedict, he correctly charges, is “a protector of priests who abused children. He’d been a member of the Hitler Youth. In addition to this woeful résumé, he had no use for women.”
This pope led a multinational corporation mired in financial scandals and unable to fire the most egregious criminals in its midst. There is almost no country he can visit where Catholics have not suffered because of the Church. In Africa, the church’s opposition to birth control and to condoms to prevent AIDS transmission contributes to high rates of maternal death and AIDS. In Mexico, site of one of Benedict’s recent trips, Catholics were still outraged over the case of Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the ultra-conservative order of priests, who raped young seminarians, fathered several children, abused drugs and misspent church funds. In 1998, eight Mexican priests charged Maciel with sexually abusing them. A year later, the priests were told the case had been shelved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who, for the uninitiated, later became Pope Benedict). In the United States, the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whom the Vatican claimed paid too much attention to poverty and not enough to fighting against abortion, was widely derided by Catholics and others as a further example of the Vatican’s foolishness, and gave rise to a popular “Nuns on the Bus” anti-poverty tour. No wonder he’s tired and his doctors say no more travel.
So, if Shanley is right and the church gets the pope it deserves, what is it about the Catholic Church, an institution that, after all, claims to be the moral beacon for modern society and the one true religion, that results in such bad leadership? Why do Catholics worldwide put up with such corrupt leaders and stay in the church? Why should it be up to a pope to resign instead of up to a church to fire him? At the peak of the pedophilia scandal in Boston and worldwide, the reform organization Voice of the Faithful emerged. It sidestepped controversial church positions like insistence on clerical celibacy; all it wanted was better controls to prevent pedophilia and financial mismanagement. All it could garner in the way of support from Catholics was a mailing list of fewer than 50,000 people—just a sliver of its goal of 10 million members, let alone the 64 million Catholics in the US—and ongoing budget woes. The organization faces the reality that most Catholics were too apathetic to say no to a church that was abusing its children, and cardinals that were covering it up. Meanwhile, there was no mass exodus from the pews and no indication that Catholics were giving less money.
As long as Catholics continue to accept the lines they are fed about papal infallibility, it will make not one whit of difference who the pope is. As long as Catholics are expected to accept rigid, sexist and blatantly illogical doctrine, there can be no real change in the church. From the Vatican down to the local parish priest, the early narratives—stories, really—that sought to explain who we are, why we are here, and the meaning of life are still taught, despite the fact that they are even less credible explanations of who we are than they ever were. By now, they are narratives of the oppression of women and in many ways of the human sprit. The insistence that Jesus Christ was born of virgin is among the most destructive. It suggests that women—married or single—are forever tainted by sexual activity. It reflects the early Christian distaste for all sexuality. It clings to the notion that there would have been something unseemly about God coming into the world through a birth canal through which semen had passed. Holding to the virgin birth is not a benign teaching. It undermines the idea that pleasure is sacred, that sexual intercourse is normal and healthy. It certainly does nothing to undermine the idiots who think that the woman’s body will reject the sperm of a rapist. It’s not just a matter of religious doctrine—at a policy level, it is at the root of the rejection of contraception, even for married people, insurance coverage for the same and most definitely abortion.
Some Catholic priests and bishops actually believe these narratives; most refuse to face the fact that they are not “mysteries” but relics of a time past that urgently need to be rejected. Progressives among them soft-pedal the demand for literal adherence and instead describe these stories as allegories from which we can learn virtue and develop good behaviors. Whether well meaning or just following the company line, it comes down to lying about God.
This is cynicism—teaching things that are not true—at its most damaging, and it is the foundation of the modern church. The virgin birth is only the start of it. Heaven and hell, the turning of bread and wine into the body of Christ (a core teaching that polls tell us most Catholics reject), the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven (how could her body have gone to heaven when we are now clear it is not a real physical place?), the infallibility of the pope telling these untruths and insisting that Catholics must believe them to be Catholic—this all leads directly to corrupt popes and priests who lack compassion. Lying or just fudging it demoralizes those who teach in the name of the church. From such demoralization stems the need to protect the institution and oneself, to protect pedophiles, to let women die in childbirth by denying contraception, to allow the transmission of HIV and to keep alive a dysfunctional institution. It is no accident that priests have historically had a high rate of alcoholism; not only were they isolated by the solitude of the priesthood but by the dissonance in what they were bound to teach and preach and their own understanding of life and goodness.
A new pope will change nothing. Not a woman, not an African, not a Latin, not a nice guy. In fact, if anything is to change, the first thing that needs to happen is no pope, and certainly not an infallible one. Infallibility, unique to Catholicism, has led not only to internal despotism but also to an attempt to impose on the world all that has hurt Catholic women. What needs to change is the church.
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