The last few weeks haven’t been a good time for Catholics. Almost on a daily basis, the media has been full of reports about child abusing priests, and allegations that the current pope, Benedict XVI, failed to act against known child abusers when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. Despite penning an unprecedented letter to Irish Catholics, in which the Pope acknowledged the wrongs done by wayward priests, the scandal continues unabated. As victims of child abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy have emerged in a number of countries including Ireland, America, Germany, Switzerland and Netherlands, the scandal does appear to be a global one rather than one confined to a particular country.
Some of the stories that have emerged are truly tragic and disgraceful, and my heart goes out to the victims. I can understand their anger. It is a kind of rage that probably will last for the whole of their lives however many apologies they receive. That the cases of child abuse reported happened a long time ago, during the 1960s and 1970s, when Benedict XVI wasn’t even pope is inconsequential to them. They want revenge and their target is the pope. However, as Cristina Odone, writes: “This Pope has done more than any other churchman to address the issue of priestly child abuse. He has stopped the practice of turning over priests accused of abuse to therapists, as we now know that therapy seldom helps a paedophile. He has fast-tracked the defrocking of priests found guilty of abuse. He has promoted co-operation, at a diocesan level, between church authorities responsible for canon law and police.”
Apart from a few Catholic columnists like Christina Odone and Damian Thompson, who have defended the pope, the tide is very much in the other direction. Too many journalists seem content joining the dots and accusing the pope of being complicit in the cover-up of child abuse. The impression one gets from the media is that most of the Catholic clergy are child abusers. This is simply not the case. Research in Ireland (SAVI Report, 2002) indicates that 3.2% of sexual abuse victims in Ireland were abused by clergy or religious orders. On the other hand, 80% of perpetrators were known by the victim, who included family members (cousins, uncles, brothers, fathers, stepfathers, etc), neighbours, teachers, babysitters, childcare workers, sports coaches, and youth leaders. 25% of child sexual abusers were children themselves. One has to remember that child abuse has occurred in many secular institutions too.
To be frank, the media never really warmed to Benedict XVI right from the start of his papacy. As a conservative, as a staunch defender of the Catholic faith, as a critic of homosexuality and moral relativism, as a German who was conscripted in the Hitler Youth, and lacking the unique charisma of his predecessor John Paul II this was, I suppose, inevitable. However, Pope Benedict XVI is not a bad man. He is far better many previous popes who were morally and intellectually lacking in comparison. We are simply living in a different age when the authority of the pope in its traditional heartland, Western Europe, continues to decline – a decline that has been underway since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.
In contemporary secular Europe, the role of the church is diminishing fast. Today only a small fraction of the population goes to church on a regular basis. Congregations are falling so much that the survival and maintenance of many churches are under threat. Christians are increasingly seen as misfits in society who are sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, sexually repressed, and generally out of touch. They believe in authority and an invisible God. To the modern liberal secularist, who prides in unfettered individualism above all things, Christianity is an anachronism. Yet the products of unfettered individual freedom are all too evident to see: the collapse of the institution of marriage such that nearly a quarter of all children now live in a single-parent family; around 200,000 abortions in UK alone every year; an increasingly unequal society in which class determines one’s chances in life; and rising levels of teenage alcoholism and drug abuse. Christianity is being hounded out of the public space like never before. Unfortunately Christians themselves are complicit in this surrender. As Dinesh D’Souza says in his book “What’s so great about Christianity”: “Instead of engaging this secular world, most Christians have taken the easy way out. They have retreated into a Christian subculture where they engage Christian concerns. Then they step back into secular society, where their Christianity is kept out of sight until the next church service. Without realizing it Christians have become postmodernists of a sort: they live by the gospel of the two truths. There is religious truth, reserved for Sundays and days of worship, and there is secular truth, which applies the rest of the time.”
Modern Europe more or less mirrors the largely decadent Greco-Roman world in which Christianity was born. Modern day European secularists look at other parts of the world and remark with horror about the growth of religious “fundamentalism”. Of course, the religious militants of this world are a grave menace, but what they fail to distinguish is the growth of traditional religion; and Christianity is doing better than other religions even in the most hostile countries. In 1900, there were about 10 million Christians in Africa, representing about 10% of the population. Today there are 360 million, nearly 50% the population. It is estimated that in China there are between 80 million to 100 million members of underground Christian churches, unapproved by the state. To these people Christianity means something; it’s a form of social liberation and emancipation just as it was in the Mediterranean world nearly two thousand years ago.
Some people have said that the latest crisis affecting the Catholic Church is the greatest challenge since the Protestant Reformation. I don’t see it that way. The Reformation was a reaction to the widespread simony and corruption within the medieval Catholic Church. It was an internal conflict among Christians themselves. This crisis is entirely different. Most of the people attacking the Catholic Church are from outside the church, with no genuine interest in it's welfare, so there is unlikely to be a split within the church. What is more likely to happen is that the trend in secularisation will simply continue with renewed vigour. The Catholic Church has to be seen as the institution it is, made up of fallible human beings, but trying to preserve the catholic or universal doctrine based on the witness of all the apostles. Benedict XVI can take credit that today in England and Wales child protection officers monitor every encounter between children and clergy - a fact the British media conveniently ignores. As Bishop of Rome he is successor to Simon Peter, the apostle Jesus entrusted to be the “rock” upon which he would build his church, which according to his words, “all the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.” In the meantime, Catholic bashing is fair game.