Friday, April 16, 2010

Hans Küng on Healing a Church in Crisis: No Denying That Ratzinger Engineered Cover-Up

Some members of the boys’ club rallying to the Vatican’s defense in recent days are now proclaiming that the crisis in the church is over.  The Vatican has weathered the storm quite well, these defensores fidei are announcing.  The storm is already abating.

This announcement, which purports to be objective description of how things stand at present, is, of course, spin.  It’s designed to give those who call for continued open discussion of the abuse crisis—and, in particular, of the Vatican’s role in it—the impression that their continued conversation is silly and ineffectual, mere petty gossip and pubtalk.  It’s designed to close ranks even more tightly and to keep outsiders from straying into a pub that has hitherto been exclusively clerical (and therefore exclusively male).

If the announcement that the Vatican has weathered the storm and the storm is already abating is accurate, then the price we’ve all paid for bringing the barque safely to harbor after this round of crisis is enormous.  And one wonders how anyone who truly cares about the future of the church would wish to pay such a price for weathering the storm.

Headlines this past week have announced that German Catholics are leaving the church in droves—in the heartland of German Catholicism, the southern part of the country from which Pope Benedict comes.*

In the same week, an 8 September 2001 letter of Vatican official Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos to French Bishop Pierre Pican has come to light, in which the cardinal praises the French bishop for not having reported to the police the crimes of a priest who had sexually abused children. 

Hoyos’s letter states,

You have done well and I am delighted to have an associate in the episcopate who... preferred prison to speaking out against a son-priest.

Hoyos also adds,

To encourage brothers in the episcopate in this delicate domain, this Congregation will send copies of this letter to all bishops' conferences.

Readers may recall that 2001—the year in which Hoyos wrote this letter—Cardinal Ratzinger centralized the handling of all cases of abuses in his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  And, as we’ll see in a moment when I discuss Hans Küng’s recent open letter to the bishops of the Catholic church, it was on 18 May that same year that Ratzinger sent all the bishops of the world a letter informing them that all cases of abuse were sealed under the secretum pontificium, and that there would be severe penalties for any bishop who violated that seal.

All abuse cases from that point forward were, in other words, to be handled directly by Cardinal Ratzinger’s office itself, and only secondarily and under an oath of solemn secrecy by bishops themselves, reporting to that office and receiving instructions from that office about how to proceed in each case.

And so the storm we’ve just weathered successfully: in March alone, over 2500 Catholics resigned from the church in the diocese of Freiburg, and over 2500 more resigned in  the diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.  Over 5000 all told.  In one month.  In only two dioceses in southern Germany alone.

And now we learn that in 2001 the man who headed the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy at the time praised a French bishop for covering up crimes and for dealing tenderly with a “son-priest” who had committed those crimes.  The letter makes no mention at all, of course, of the tenderness and mercy (and justice) that the victims of that “son-priest” deserved.

And if that’s enough reason to wonder whether the announcement that we’ve weathered the storm quite well is misguided, then there’s the  discovery this week that more than 30 priests credibly accused of having abused children in parishes in developed countries are still working in parishes in developing nations, where they were quietly transferred when their abuse became known in their previous workplaces.

And as all this happens, Bishop Richard Williamson of the reactionary Society of St. Pius X, who questions the Holocaust and repudiates Vatican II, but whom Pope Benedict has chosen to welcome back into the church, heads to court in Germany.  Where denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense . . . .

Weathering the storm quite well?  The storm has abated?  If so, what are we to make of the preceding developments—people walking away in droves, letters being discovered that show Vatican officials praising bishops in 2001 for covering up abuse cases, new evidence of the exceptionally disturbing practice of shifting child-molesting clergy to developing nations where they continue in ministry involving children, and a reminder that a bishop who denies the Holocaust and repudiates Vatican II has been rehabilitated by the present pope?

If that’s weathering and abating, then I wonder what a real storm could possibly be?

In my view, Swiss priest-theologian Hans Küng has a far more accurate—and tonic, and therefore healing—optic on what’s happening in the church right now.  Küng has just published an open letter to the bishops of the Catholic church, in which he reminds them that he and Pope Benedict were the two youngest theologians at the second Vatican Council, and are perhaps now the two oldest theologians left from the council who are still active.  (Küng leaves out my graduate school professor Gregory Baum, who is several years Küng’s senior, and still going strong.)

Küng’s letter pulls no punches.  It tells the bishops of the world where we have to start, if we’re to be effective in addressing the crisis in which we now find ourselves: we have to start with a recognition that the problem goes to the top, and no amount of image management and spin will disguise that fact.  Küng states:

There is no denying the fact that the worldwide system of covering up cases of sexual crimes committed by clerics was engineered by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (1981-2005). During the reign of Pope John Paul II, that congregation had already taken charge of all such cases under oath of strictest silence. Ratzinger himself, on May 18th, 2001, sent a solemn document to all the bishops dealing with severe crimes (“epistula de delictis gravioribus” ), in which cases of abuse were sealed under the “secretum pontificium” , the violation of which could entail grave ecclesiastical penalties. With good reason, therefore, many people have expected a personal mea culpa on the part of the former prefect and current pope. Instead, the pope passed up the opportunity afforded by Holy Week: On Easter Sunday, he had his innocence proclaimed “urbi et orbi” by the dean of the College of Cardinals (boldface emphasis added).

Despite the spin, the lavish media-oriented spectacles showing the united front of the Curia and the college of Cardinals, despite the enormously expensive world youth days that draw only a tiny segment of conservative JPII Catholic youth, Benedict’s program of restoration has been a dismal failure.  People are not deceived by the pomp and circumstance, and the vast majority of Catholics in the developed nations continue simply to ignore Catholic sexual teaching, because it refuses to listen to our lived experience of faith:

The Curia does its best to stifle criticism in the episcopate and in the church as a whole and to discredit critics with all the means at its disposal. With a return to pomp and spectacle catching the attention of the media, the reactionary forces in Rome have attempted to present us with a strong church fronted by an absolutistic “Vicar of Christ” who combines the church’s legislative, executive and judicial powers in his hands alone. But Benedict’s policy of restoration has failed. All of his spectacular appearances, demonstrative journeys and public statements have failed to influence the opinions of most Catholics on controversial issues. This is especially true regarding matters of sexual morality. Even the papal youth meetings, attended above all by conservative-charismatic groups, have failed to hold back the steady drain of those leaving the church or to attract more vocations to the priesthood.

Where do we go from here?  If a crossroads is to be a moment of opportunity, the one path we cannot choose, it seems to me, is the one that replicates the road that has brought us to this point.

And choosing another path begins with the recognition that the truth Hans Küng tells in this open letter to the world’s Catholic bishops is unavoidable, painful though it may be for many of us to hear.  And like many unavoidable truths, it is essential to our healing.

If healing is what we really intend now.

* This link seems to be working intermittently.  If it fails to open the article, then click here instead.