Behind Francis’ Liberal Push, Colltalers
When the chief of an institution with an estimated membership of over a billion declares that two percent of its almost 500,000 lieutenants are child molesters, and that he intends to set up tribunals to judge and kick them out, one by one, that’s big news.
We’re talking, of course, of Pope Francis I who announced last week the Catholic Church’s first practical step to identify and defrock at least some of those allegedly 100,000 pedophile priests still speaking about Jesus and committing horrific acts.
No question, it’s a positive step in the right direction and all that. After all, just a few years ago, the church was spending an obscene amount of hush-hush money, just to keep its child molesters out of jail and off the headlines, victims and their destroyed lives be damned. Also, it’s the first time a pope acknowledges that there is, indeed, a problem, and that it’s hurting the faithful.
Plus, such a move is a relief to the majority of priests and bishops and archbishops and cardinals who, to be fair, felt disgusted with the conduct of their peers, but had to face a big dilemma as to whether to denounce them and lose their careers.
Francis, who’s collected plenty of street cred with statements about the poor, gays, women, climate change, and even the evils of capitalism, has shown that he’s as shrewd a populist as any politician, except perhaps Alexander VI, or Roderic de Borgia.
But even as he’s displayed a flair to capture the attention of both the impoverished and the nauseatingly wealthy Catholic, with this decision, he actually goes from the merely stated to the actually enforced, or so it seems according to the Vatican.
In a statement, it said that the tribunals would operate under the feared Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and that the goal is ‘to judge bishops with regard to crimes of the abuse of office when connected to the abuse of minors.’
It’s a carefully worded statement, but nevertheless one issued by the powerful Sé, as it’s known by insiders, which used to be presided by the previous Pope Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger, then an archbishop under Pope John Paul II, took pains in ‘filing’ abuse allegations as quickly as they seemed to multiply in the 1990s. Luckily, he’s no longer in charge of anything.
On the other hand, the decision can be perceived as yet another maneuver to divert attention of the real issue of ingrained child abuse at the core of the institution – how it got to be that way and how come no one took the initiative from inside before the allegations surfaced – focusing instead on singling out a few individuals whose expelling would help bury all about it.
SNAP, a well known organization of victims of pedophile priests, has said that the pope should have gone much further, but at least for the moment, it’ll ‘withhold judgement’ until the panel that will lead the judicial proceedings prove its worth.
So far, few have pointed out that, by creating a separate tribunal instead of using the court system, the church is in fact emulating a well-proven corporate tactic of self-regulating. It’s what allows big corporations to avoid stiff penalties for their offenses, while almost always delivering spotty results to consumers. One may even argue that the Catholic Church is just like a corporation.
It also allows it to be as opaque about its inner proceedings as it deems necessary to be, and where it differs radically from a business company is also where it gathers the most strength: since it’s not a public company, it owns accountability to no one.
On top of that, there is also the matter of rhetoric, and how at times a gesture, a limited set of measures, or a grandstanding statement can go a long way of establishing a pseudo-new reality, while having to realistically change very little.
In other words, even an initiative as concrete as the tribunals plan seems to be, can look much more effective on paper, and presumably in front of the cameras, than it is in reality. Besides, no one yet know how they will operate, based on what criteria prelates will be submitted to this new Inquisition-like public expiation, and what, ultimately, will be their punishment.
Will those accused of misconduct be then handed to the court system to be possibly retried, since it’d be the only judicially accepted way for them to be sent to jail? Or they’ll only ‘prescribe’ some sort of reparations from the abusers to their victims?
One could spend an afternoon stretching all implications of an institution of the size and scope of the Catholic Church engaging in a judicial process that is not part of its original ‘mission statement.’ Will the accused be simply handed to god, then?
But the plan and its limitations and flaws should not be the main focus of attention here. For besides everything else, it’s so far just a plan, and it’s doubtful that even once it’s in effect, it’ll be opened to public scrutiny or hijacked by its critics.
More important is to take this latest foray of the church into a kind of self-flagellation path, no unlike the one it often advises its own followers to take, in the context of today’s challenges it faces to remain relevant. Never before it’s been confronted by two formidable and polarizing extremes threatening to undermine for good its former hegemony: growing Islam and atheism.
The threat is not new, only it seems to have shifted just as the very foundation the Catholic Church has planted its claim has also been shifting. Besides those two adversaries, Francis has also to contend with a resurgent Evangelical movement in Latin America, specially its radical branch, the Messianism, which has also taken hold of large swaths of Africa and even of the U.S.
In fact, whereas Africa has been plagued by a certain brand of extreme Christianity – which turned out to be an America export -judging by the way some rightist presidential contenders speak, there’s a reactionary movement taking hold of increasingly impoverished communities throughout the U.S. that runs counter the direction Francis seems to want Catholicism to head.
Between these two ideological extremes, fighting an inflamed Islamism and widespread Evangelical proselytizing, and dealing with the Vatican’s own hawks, already mounting an offensive against his liberal moves, Francis has only one force he may gain strength from, in order to remain atop his firm: the masses. So, naturally, he embraces them and their causes, up to a point.
All and all, as it’s been said before on this space, it’s an interesting turn of events that the first South American pope, whose controversial dealings with the Argentine military dictatorship in the 1970s have not been completely scrutinized, is becoming the pope of the masses and of popular causes. In a rhetorical level, at least, he’s been unbeatable. And well liked. Good for him.
Not completely clear is whether such a willingness to take up big social themes, and making statements that have frightened even American politicians of the right, will translate into actions and, going forward, mark his legacy with a positive slant.
Child abuse is not, unfortunately, exclusive of the Catholic Church, the same way that male institutions founded on the principle of denying entry to women – from seminaries to Boys Scouts, the Armed Forces to jails, and so many others – are often festering with violent sexual repression and destructive behavior. They’re also places where gays and transgender people suffer terribly.
Which doesn’t mean that protecting children from that special kind of entitled predator, such as priests but also educators, coaches and authority figures in general, shouldn’t be a top priority, and that church’s efforts to rid itself of them are not valid.
Sexual molestation of minors, rape, emotional manipulation of youth and underlings are not about sex but power, and it’s despicable that someone graced with it would use it against the innocent or the vulnerable. Society seems to concur, as there’s so much animosity towards child molesters, even if at times, they too are lifetime victims and emotionally crippled by it.
Back to the church, it’s either a place of comfort for those who seek it for shelter and support, regardless of their status or even previous beliefs, or it’s just another useless point of sale, trying to push wares we don’t need in exchange for our loyalty.
When it serves as a hideout and protection to sexually dysfunctional adults preying on children entrusted to their guard, it has no longer any right to exist. It already has no use to billions, but if it allows monsters to wear its garb, then it should be outlawed. So kudos to Francis if he’s sincere in his efforts. But from our part, the court system should suffice. Have a great week ahead. WC