The Church’s Cardinal Sin

Back in 2002, when reports of the Catholic sex scandal first started flooding the press, we already knew that the situation was bad. Over 10,000 American children were sexually abused by thousands of Catholic priests. We learned that instead of trying to clean up the situation, the Catholic Church refused to hold these criminals responsible or report them to the police. Instead, the Church performed a large-scale cover-up of the crimes. Acting out of a desire to preserve its own self-image, the Church simply transferred the sex offenders to different areas, where they would go on to abuse even more children.

Initially, it seemed like a uniquely American phenomenon. But recently, we have learned that the situation is just as bad in Europe. Worst of all for the Catholic Church, the cover-up scheme has finally been traced back to Pope Benedict XVI himself. It has recently been reported that the Pope, in his previous capacity as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was aware of acts of sexual abuse committed by priests in both the United States and Europe. In both cases, Ratzinger had the authority to do something about the abuses, but did nothing. In one case, the abusive priest was simply transferred; in the other, Ratzinger’s office stopped the investigation of the abuser. The Pope, of course, denies all of these allegations and claims that the media is conducting a smear campaign.

There are simply no words to describe the level of destruction that these actions have caused in the lives of the victims. It is difficult to imagine something more evil than the sexual abuse of a child by someone who is supposed to be his spiritual and religious leader.

Now that we know that this is a worldwide and Church-wide phenomenon, it is fair to call a few things into question. First, I would argue, as others have, that celibacy is one of the root causes of this problem, if not the root cause itself. Celibacy was not obligatory for Catholic priests until the 12th century; it is not vital to Christianity in general or to Catholic theology specifically. Even today, it is not understood as an official doctrine of the Church, but only as a policy. Policies, of course, are subject to change. In the case of celibacy, it is clear that a change needs to be made.

Most of us understand how essential a healthy sex life is to a healthy life in general. When you tell a man that he can never have sex, ever, you are asking for problems. It is unnatural and wrong, and even if it weren’t wrong it would still be a completely unrealistic expectation. Sexual repression within Catholicism is a major contributing factor to the sexual abuse phenomenon. It would be difficult to imagine such widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests if they were permitted to enter into normal, healthy sexual relationships.

The concept of papal infallibility is an even more recent development than celibacy; it was not until 1870 that it became established doctrine. To be fair, the concept does not necessarily establish that the Pope is unable to sin – it only states that he may issue pronouncements that can be considered infallible. At the very least, however, Catholic doctrine does place the Pope above reproach. He is supposed to represent God on Earth, and he is expected to conduct himself in that sort of manner.

People need to wake up and smell the coffee. The Catholic Church, like every other organized religion, is operated by human beings who make mistakes. Sometimes, these mistakes are serious. Regardless of the beauty of the Catholic tradition or the significance of its teachings, the Church is in the hands of men who are no different from you and I. It is unrealistic to expect perfection from our religious leaders; to do so would be to practice the very idolatry that our religious traditions teach us to avoid. Like celibacy, the concept of papal infallibility needs to be thrown in the smoldering ash heap of history.

Although he is not going to do this, the Pope really should come clean about this whole situation. The ethical and truly moral thing to do would be to admit error, apologize for it and enact thorough reforms in Catholic doctrine and policy to eradicate the problem and ensure it doesn’t happen again. He may lose people in the process, but the entire Catholic community would be stronger and better for it.

Charles Hicks is a third-year religious studies major. He can be reached at cbhicks@uci.edu.