Will the Catholic Church become its own relic?

February 22, 2013

The first time I visited the Vatican as an adult I was in my 20s.  I was so excited. My boyfriend and I dressed up as if it were Easter Sunday. He wore a coat and tie. I wore a long sleeved black dress with pearls and little ballet flats. We were turned away. It seems my skirt was a half inch too short. I was crushed. I felt ashamed and humiliated. I certainly had not set out to offend anyone, much less God.

The last time I visited was five years ago, after the child sexual abuse scandal. Not long before, I had spent a weekend at Williamsburg, and I remember thinking that perhaps one day the Vatican would be like that same historic village. There would be actors dressed as priests and nuns and one actor playing the pope in flowing robes waving from the balcony, remembering an institution as it once existed.

But standing there in Rome, I thought about the reality of children being molested and priests who had committed those crimes being protected and excused by the Vatican, the complaints years earlier about my half inch too short skirt seemed pathetic in comparison.

Next week, Pope Benedict will step down, becoming the first pope to retire in nearly 600 years. The official explanation is that he has become too frail to perform his duties. I think there is more to it than that. I think that he either doesn’t want to or can’t deal with all that has gone rotten around him. Let somebody else do the dirty work.

What the Vatican needs to do to prove its viability is for the next pope, as his first act, to demand an accounting of every act of child abuse in the church. Every priest who is known to be guilty should be routed out, excommunicated and jailed. Every priest, bishop and cardinal who had any knowledge of these heinous crimes and protected abusers should be excommunicated and prosecuted in the courts. There should be a zero tolerance policy against child sexual abuse, or sexual abuse of any kind for that matter. If ever there were time for the church to ask, “What would Jesus do?”, this is it.              

Sexual abuse, however, is not the only issue the new pope must deal with.

Garry Wills, a devout Catholic and religion scholar, in his new book, “Why Priests? A Failed Tradition” argues that as we have seen in Vatican II, the church can and does change. And it should if it wants to stay relevant.

Wills’s book takes the reader back to Christ’s time and walks through the creation of the church.

Priests, he points out, were man-made, not prescribed by God. There were no priests in the New Testament and certainly no one held the title “pope.” (Many Christians agree, see: the Protestant Reformation.) The idea of priestly celibacy is relatively new, too, as is the sacrament of confession. Wills points out that even the central facet of the Mass, a belief that an ordained priest can literally turn bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, is not universally held.

According to Wills, some of the teachings of the church have had to be twisted like a pretzel to make sense of them. You have to be baptized or you will go to hell. So what about babies? That didn’t seem fair. Well, they could go to limbo (a holding place between heaven and hell). What about sinners who have been baptized? They can go to purgatory, not as bad as hell but not as good as heaven. But then, limbo didn’t really make sense so that was done away with.

Some 98 percent of sexually experienced Catholics have used birth control even though it is considered a sin by the church. The same percentage of Catholic women have abortions as non-Catholic women. The church is against women in its hierarchy. Women who haven’t already are going to start walking away. The church is against homosexuality. Gay Catholics who have not already will surely start walking. Priests are not always celibate. Soon they may not want to live such hypocrisy.

In old days, the Vatican operated much like a monarchy. The pope had the same kind of power as a king. And, like kings, popes accumulated a lot of money. They were extremely political. Read Hilary Mantel’s intriguing two books, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” to learn exactly how the Vatican used to operate and how Henry VIII broke away from the papacy in order to marry Anne Boleyn. The pope had much more power then than he does now.

Times change. Rules change. The Vatican moves slowly.  

 But Catholics have been drifting away, searching for their own kind of religion and spirituality, a personal spirituality which does not inflict rules on those whose lives are so very different from the celibate men in charge.

Colm Toibin’s novel, “The Testament of Mary,” brilliantly describes how it all may have started. The disciples sought Mary out in Ephesus after Christ’s death, where she had gone to get away, and tried to persuade her that the death was something different from what she had observed. They were already trying to build a church when all she saw was her son dying on the cross. They wanted it to be different. She wouldn’t play along. A lot of others did, of course.

Catholicism has come a long way in 2,000 years — from Christ’s sacrificial dying on the cross to the church’s self-protecting cover up of child sexual abuse.

But change it must, or else the Catholic Church may end up like Colonial Williamsburg, with the pageantry, the regalia, red shoes and all, a relic of what was once a vibrant, living institution.

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