In trying to ram through the sainthood of his old buddy John Paul II, Benedict XVI is running up against both historical scandals and contemporary law, some of it church law that grew out of those scandals. One of those scandals involved Popes who tried to create hereditary empires so they could extend their power beyond the grave through their sons. Another was the scandal of female popes. (It happened long before women’s lib.) Christians have always struggled with confusion over issues of birth and sexuality, since their founding figure had a virgin for a mother and a god for a father, but no descendants we know of, though there have been hints. In short, supernaturalism collides with human reality.
One of the first -- and most brilliant -- bits of mental footwork came in dealing with the idea of a Jesus who was the Christ, who would return on a horse at the head of a cavalry that could rout Roman centurions. (Call Mel Gibson.) People then, as now, were given dates and deadlines and some took them seriously enough to make practical preparations. When the dates passed, then as now, some lost their faith and others sought an explanation, which was that the return was “not of this world.” That the battle was a “virtual” one, a struggle of inspirations, a different dimension. This also meant, as Paul appreciated, that Christians were more than a sub-group of Jews who thought Jesus was the Messiah. If this real (incarnated = made meat) man were translated into a virtual (spiritual) figure, the opportunities for expansion were unlimited.
But in some ways the Christian doctrine was doomed by a merger with the very Roman Empire that had oppressed them. (Another story that repeats through history.) In taking on Caesar’s Rules of Order, the Roman branch of the Catholic church assumed both privileges and obligations. (USA take notice.) It’s hard work to maintain an empire and the Romans found that the near-deification of leaders was very helpful. No one wants to follow a loser.
So the rule of celibacy (an anti-Caesar rule) was coupled with infallibility and the requirement of absolute obedience to the Pope. It was a Devil’s bargain. The only way to be so “un-human” is illusion. (And so we leave Kansas now.) There was still sex. Sometimes there were probably well-hidden babies and maybe a few secret ladies if not a few “accidentally” deceased. But one strategy was partners who were obedient and powerless, who could be pulled into the family business (Mafia), and who would NOT get pregnant. Boys.
You can’t make an omelet or even eggs benedict without breaking eggs (babies) and here we are with another semi-secret scandal that has escaped (hatched): the sexual abuse of boys. I don’t know where dead Popes are before they are sainted -- a kind of Limbo, like unbaptised babies? But I know how John-Paul, assuming he’s not in Hell, can become a saint for sure. One of the proofs for sainthood is an act of healing. All he has to do is to heal every boy infected with HIV by sexually abusive priests.
If it turns out that if John-Paul is not in a position to perform miracles, Benedict could do a lot of good. I recommend these courses of action:
- Immediately rescind the ban on condoms.
- Make condoms freely available in every Catholic church and rectory.
- Devote the Vatican treasury to financing research for a cure for AIDS and to subsidized meds for low income people with AIDS, worldwide. Much better to spend the money upfront and aggressively than to pay out huge amounts for litigation later when sued.
- Return to married priests as preserved in practice by Greek and Russian Orthodox churches (and in some circumstances by today’s Roman Catholic Church).
- Allow gay marriages on the same terms. (Gays are not necessarily pedophiles, who should be absolutely excluded as is now only theoretically enforced.)
- The polyamorous should be excluded from the priesthood on grounds that they are likely to be also polyreligionists, unsuited for the demands of a committed clergy sustained by an institutional church based on faith in one concept.
- Allow female priests on the same terms as males.
- Include in the curriculum of seminaries and their feeder all-male schools, particularly those that are residential, an overview of human sexuality.
- Elevate to a newly created category of sainthood all those killed by AIDS contracted from a priest.
- Add to the prayers of every mass, prayers for the souls of priests who prey on children.
One might argue that these policies and practices would eliminate the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. Resisting the impulse to ask “What’s wrong with that?” we must point out (as Protestants do) that Christianity did not begin in all-male splendor and arrogance like the Roman Empire but in fact was born in congregations based in homes and community, recommending both humility and generosity. This was the revolution powered by the personhood of Jesus, who was revolutionary and heretic in terms of the standing order of his times. Not to accept and live out Jesus’ Gospel is not to be Christian.
There is something in humans that wants empires. As soon as religion-based institutions are founded, unless there are efforts at prevention, there begins a drive towards empire, special classes, and the accumulation of wealth. This is true of Hindu and Islam and Native American tribal groups. Many worthy religious systems try to build-in ways to restrict or shape such tendencies: jubilee, tithing, potlatches, reversals, parables, and so on. The priests’ vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were meant to be this kind of restraint. If the Pope is indeed the top of the hierarchy and if a Pope like Ratzinger spent years as an enforcer of the rules of the historical institution, then his business is to be rooting out abuses, not suppressing and denying them. This should take precedence over seeking sainthood for old friends or protecting the image of the Church.
I am aware that many priests, especially in the immediate past decades, live harsh, pinched lives, overburdened with sometimes impossible tasks and diminished resources. I am aware that priests in Ireland have grown up in a political and economic system that has deformed and famished them. The church should feed and console its priests as well as guiding and shielding them. The terrible craving for power and the willingness to use little children for sex are linked. Linked. Entwined.