An editorial in todays' New York Times responds to the U.N. report on the Vatican’s handling of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church. As the editorial notes,
The United Nations panel went to the heart of the matter in rejecting the church officials' claims that they were responsible for enforcing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child only within the geographical limits of Vatican City and not globally through their power over the Roman Catholic diocesan hierarchy.
In practice, this policy fed the pattern of cover-up by local church officials who sent abusers to other parishes and ducked the obligation to notify civil authorities of crimes. Since it was the Vatican that ratified the children's rights convention, it is responsible for ensuring its provisions are followed down to the parish level, the report said.
Note the all-important qualifying phrase prefacing the second paragraph: "in practice." The Vatican and its apologists have long maintained (and continued to maintain at the U.N. hearings) that the Catholic church has stellar policies for dealing with clerics abusing children, and has led the way among religious (and secular) institutions in applying those policies. The phrase "in practice" asks us to assess that defensive claim against the real behavior of church officials in case after case, when children's well-being has been balanced against the church’s image and assets and the self-serving and self-protective power of the hierarchy.
And then there's the issue of the conclusions reached by the U.N. report regarding how the Vatican’s position on issues like contraception, gay rights, and abortion ends up affecting minors. As the Times editorial notes, the Vatican is (as I predicted yesterday) already claiming that the U.N. committee has overstepped its boundaries and is intruding on the religious freedom of the Catholic church. But as the Times also notes, the primary point of the U.N. report is to ask how the Catholic church has handled abuse of children in its institutions:
In responding to the panel, the Vatican said it would study the report but complained that it interfered with church teaching and religious freedom — a reference perhaps to the panel’s comments on the church’s position on abortion, contraception and gay rights. The main issue of the report, however, was the protection of children from a scourge within the church that has damaged it severely. Dozens of predatory priests were found still working with children, the panel warned.
Compare the Times's editorial approach to the U.N. report with John Allen's in the Boston Globe: Allen zeroes in on the sections of the report that deal with what he characterizes as the "culture war" issues of contraception, gay rights, and abortion to argue that the report will undercut the efforts of reformers within the church to hold church officials accountable for their mishandling of the abuse crisis. He writes,
In several sections of its report, the committee joins its critique on abuse with blunt advice to Rome to jettison Church teaching on matters such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. At one stage the panel even recommends repealing a codicil of Church law that imposes automatic excommunication for participating in an abortion.
And he maintains,
That could overshadow the fact that there are, in truth, many child protection recommendations in the report that the Church's own reform wing has long championed.
In England, Austen Ivereigh of Catholic Voices takes a similar tack. For Ivereigh, the U.N. committee is a "kangaroo court" seeking to impose "an ideology of gender and sexuality" on the Catholic church (which presumably has no ideology of gender and sexuality of its own).
In prose that might well have been lifted from press releases of the USCCB or other Catholic hierarchical groups, Ivereigh writes,
[T]he Catholic Church in the western world has led safeguarding, creating guidelines and best practices which are routinely recommended by governments to other institutions to emulate.
He also maintains that priests known to pose a danger to minors have "hardly ever at all" been moved about "from the early 1990s, when the bishops began seriously to tackle the problem." And he flatly rejects the claim of the U.N. committee that the Vatican has any effective control over the behavior of individual bishops in their dioceses, or religious superiors as they govern their religious communities.
But the real sticking point for Ivereigh is the fact that the U.N. committee dared to ask the Vatican how its positions on what Ivereigh calls "gender ideology" issues affects the well-being of children. Ivereigh writes:
With breathtaking arrogance, the UN Report tries to change church teaching to bring it line with gender ideologies. In (25) and (26) it peddles the secularist myth that the Church’s teaching that sex is ordained by God for the possibility of procreation within marriage encourages homophobia, and patronisingly suggests that the Holy See condemn all forms of discrimination against gay people — which it does and has done for decades.
As I read Allen's and Ivereigh's special pleading in light of the Times editorial, I have ten critical questions:
1. It's interesting, isn't it, that both John Allen and Austen Ivereigh sound an alarm bell about the U.N. report's recommendations regarding how the Vatican deals with issues of contraception, gay rights, and abortion, insofar as the Vatican’s positions on those issues affect the lives of children?
What's that alarm bell about, I wonder?
2. And why does Allen want to use it to divide Catholic progressives into antithetical camps—those who want to see the abuse crisis resolved, and those who want to see the abuse crisis resolved while noting connections between the abuse crisis and the church’s handling of matters of sexual ethics?
3. Why does Allen want to create two camps—good guys and bad guys—among Catholic progressives, and to use what he calls "culture-war" issues as the tool for separating the sheep from the goats? What agenda underlies this prescriptive journalism masquerading as descriptive journalism? Where do Allen's own commitments and interests lie in this game of separating acceptable progressives from unacceptable ones, "real" Catholic progressives from bogus ones?
4. Both Allen and Ivereigh maintain that the U.N. report seeks to force the Vatican to change its teaching on contraception, gay rights, and abortion, whereas what the U.N. report actually says is that it would hope the Vatican can look at the way in which its teachings in these areas affect the lives of minors. Why the insistence that the U.N. is seeking to force the church to change its teachings?
5. And what, in any case, are we to make of the implicit claim of Allen and Ivereigh that Catholic teaching on these issues is fixed, set in stone, unchangeable, when every measure of real-life Catholic belief (and here) about these issues coming to our attention in recent days shows us that real-life Catholics don't accept church teaching about these issues?
6. Is "Catholic teaching" something entirely set apart from what the overwhelming majority of real-life Catholics actually believe? Is it something established by journalists (in this case, by leading Catholic journalists of the center who both happen, interestingly enough, to be white heterosexual married men)?
7. Is the price of upholding "Catholic teaching" at this point in history for all of us within the Catholic community to go around pretending, in a vast cynical masquerade, that we believe what we don't believe, that we’re acting in ways in which we don't in the least act?
8. And speaking of pretending: "[T]he Catholic Church in the western world has led safeguarding, creating guidelines and best practices which are routinely recommended by governments to other institutions to emulate."
Really? Mr. Ivereigh writes such a line with no embarrassment at all?
9. And: priests known to pose a danger to minors have "hardly ever at all" been moved about "from the early 1990s, when the bishops began seriously to tackle the problem."
Can anyone say Shawn Ratigan? And Robert Finn? Who continues to sit on his episcopal throne in a church that, according to Mr. Ivereigh's testimony, has led the way in creating and following best practices in the handling of abuse issues? Though he's been convicted of criminal behavior?
Priests posing a threat to minors have "hardly ever" been moved about since the early 1990s, when Catholic officials began to "get it"? Really?!
10. And the U.N. report "peddles the secularist myth that the Church’s teaching that sex is ordained by God for the possibility of procreation within marriage encourages homophobia, and patronisingly suggests that the Holy See condemn all forms of discrimination against gay people — which it does and has done for decades."
Really? All real-life Catholics shape their sexual behavior around an ethic that sees sex as ordained for procreation within marriage?
Really? Mr. Ivereigh--Austen Ivereigh--writes this statement with no sense of abashment at all?
And the Catholic church is known for its opposition to discrimination against gay folks, just as it is well known for its exemplary behavior in the area of protecting children?
I have to admit, I'm more than a little embarrassed for John Allen's and Austen Ivereigh's sake. And as I read their astonishing apologias, I wonder how long we Catholics are going to continue to be asked by our best and brightest--by our intellectual and journalistic elites--to keep playing the game of pretending, of pretending that we all believe what they tell us we must believe if we're to be good Catholics.
Of pretending that church teaching can't change and never has changed--because they tell us this is the case. And of pretending that their self-interests as heterosexual males has nothing at all ideological about it, that it in no way influences their perspective on these issues. And of pretending that "Catholic teaching" just happens to be synonymous with their heterosexual male self-interest.