Sunday, September 26, 2010

CNN Report on What the Pope Knew: Final Impressions

I did watch the CNN documentary on Benedict's role in the sex abuse crisis last evening.  I found it balanced and well-done, despite persistent claims by right-wing Catholics that it is nothing but another anti-Catholic hit-campaign to embarrass the pope.  If anything, the documentary bends over backwards to permit John Allen and David Gibson time to make the case that, in contrast to his predecessor, Benedict has moved more quickly than the Vatican normally moves to address the sex abuse crisis.

And so one impression with which I was left by the documentary: it's remarkable, how quickly those who used to defend John Paul the Great are now willing to throw him to the wolves to defend Benedict.  I'm not speaking here of Allen and Gibson, but of a whole sector of papal apologists today, of whom the documentary reminded me.  The need to create an invincible apologetic wall around the current pope is seriously impeding the drive to canonize JPII and is eroding his reputation.  Even the Vatican prosecutor Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, an institutional yes-man if there ever was one, was willing to make at least one invidious comparison between the behavior of JPII and Benedict vis-a-vis the sexual abuse situation, to defend Benedict in the CNN documentary.

Second impression: as more and more cases break open suggesting Benedict's complicity (whether passive or active) in the cover-up, David Gibson's star is rising and John Allen's is in decline.  And for good reason: Gibson comes across as a rational and sympathetic commentator on issues Catholic, whereas Allen comes across as a defensive insider who is playing an unappealing left-vs.-right game in which he purports to have a superior vantage point, while he clearly functions as a point man for right-leaning Catholics.

As with his reporting on Catholic issues in general, in the documentary, Allen resorted to his usual analysis of a church divided between leftist and rightist extremists, held together by a few sober centrists like himself, who refuse to be taken in by either the left or the right.  But in the final analysis, this purportedly descriptive journalistic paradigm is actually prescriptive, and it tacks right.  It turns its critical edge almost exclusively to the left wing of the church and heavily defends the right wing--where Allen's institutional power is invested, where he obtains his interviews, from which his paychecks (and cozy dinners with Vatican officials) emanate, etc.

As I noted in my last posting about Catholic centrists and their implicit defense of the Catholic right, what is perhaps most distasteful of all about the position of centrist superiority is that while it accuses those on the left of elitist superiority, it wants us to believe that it occupies a superior vantage point that gives it unparalleled ability to move between right and left, without being swayed by either side.  It is, in fact, far more elitist and far more superior in its claim to untarnished, objective vision than are the leftists it constantly excludes from the conversation space of the center, while it knocks these brothers and sisters of the left as elitist.

Finally, I was struck above all by the documentary's conclusion: that, despite what Vatican insiders would have us believe (Gary Tuchman says this as the film cuts away from John Allen's final remarks) about Benedict and his proactive role in solving the abuse crisis, millions of ordinary Catholics and people outside the church are now decisively certain that Benedict not only has done far too little to resolve the crisis, but has been a large part of the problem.

And, if this is correct (and I'm certain that it is), I have to wonder about those who continue with the papal apologetics, who argue that they are on the defensive because they want to defend the church.  The future and reputation of the church do not depend on this pope--on defending this pope or any pope, on whitewashing the record of this or any pope.  Nothing about being Catholic requires one to sign a blank check that says a particular pope is above the law, irreproachable, incapable of doing wrong or making grievous mistakes of judgment.

The most serious problem the Catholic church now faces throughout the world is an apologetic one at the most fundamental levels possible.  This is a challenge not of defending the papacy and Vatican, but of defending the claims of the Catholic church to be a credible moral voice when, in the view of millions of ordinary people, the church has forfeited those claims by the behavior of its leaders in the abuse crisis.

Anyone who cares about the future of the Catholic church will stop the ludicrous defense of the indefensible, of a pope who does not deserve our defense, and start addressing this far more serious apologetic problem.  It is impossible to watch Terry Kohut describe his years of abuse at the hands of Fr. Lawrence Murphy at St. John's School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, and then to see footage of the current pope, and to wonder about the huge disparity: about the disparity between the humanly compelling face of Terry Kohut and the far less compelling face of the pope.

It is impossible to hear Kathie Thompson describe how Fr. Stephen Kiesle put his hand up her skirt and that of other Catholic school girls in Pinole, California, whom he raped, and then look at the evidence for the current pope's involvement in keeping Kiesle (and here) and Murphy in the priesthood despite their records of child abuse, and not feel intense revulsion.  Revulsion at decisions that seem inexplicably oblivious to the pain of children, while they put the good of the church above children being molested by predatory priests.

For many of us, both inside and outside the church, it is increasingly difficult to see the current pope as not only any kind of exemplary moral leader, but as any kind of credible moral agent at all. And any apologist for Benedict who does not recognize the seriousness of this problem, but who continues the belligerent defense of the indefensible without adverting to the massive and growing body of evidence of Catholic disaffection, is tragically missing the boat.  

Telling Terry Kohut and Kathie Thompson not to show their faces--their human faces--while plastering the face of Benedict XVI across television screens as he parades through Britain in an empty show of pomp and circumstance paid for by the very rich is not going to retrieve the lost moral authority of the church.  Nor is the embarrassing attempt to depict that empty show (Catholics lined up six deep! Game-set-match, Ratzinger!) as some kind of triumph for Catholic values in the face of godless secularism going to do so.

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