Belfast Telegraph

Friday 27 May 2016

Why the Pope's solution is simply beyond belief

Benedict's failure to carpet the Irish bishops over child sex-abuse is proof of a Church bereft of either backbone or principle, argues Malachi O'Doherty

Published 18/02/2010

For the Pope to say that the raping of children is a "heinous crime" and a "grave sin" is merely to make a statement of the obvious. For him not to have said it on Tuesday, after his meeting with the Irish bishops, would have been a story.

Yet much of the media responded as if these were brave words, a rallying call to a demoralised Church to recover its focus.

Actually, what he said was just a statement of the obvious, almost a tautology like 'Sin is a bad thing'.

He said also that the problem of sex-abuse by priests had arisen from a "weakening of faith".

Taking account of what the bishops had told him, his pastoral letter will now be issued during Lent.

It will, apparently, be a call on Catholics to strengthen their faith and restore the damaged relationship between the clergy and the people.

The Pope's words have been deeply disheartening for those who thought that he was going to carpet the bishops, demand some resignations, or at least accept the ones that have been offered, and impress the Irish with his vigour.

After all, this Pope is the notorious Joseph Ratzinger who, in the past has been well able to strike terror into the hearts of creative theologians he disagreed with and have them cast out of their teaching jobs in Catholic universities and seminaries.

He clearly has the resolve to get rid of those who offend his principles when he wants to, so, many thought, no bad thing if that famous wrath gets turned on the wimps and moral cowards among the Irish bishops and scatters them.

So why didn't it happen?

Well, probably because the Pope, inevitably, sees abuse of children by priests as a spiritual problem with a spiritual answer.

If you go to a biologist for an answer to the problem of celibate priests tinkering with children, you might get a recommendation of chemical castration or hormone therapy; go to a pope and you'll be told to pray. It's what popes do.

So we got the call for the bishops to observe the penitential season of Lent, to show true humility and to, in effect, pull themselves together and work to recover their standing among the Irish people.

Pope Benedict's preferred outcome from this crisis is that a celibate and male priesthood will once again inspire reverence in Ireland - and the sooner the better.

The optimism and relief exuded by Cardinal Brady at his Press conference, as he anticipated 'humiliation', suggests that he likes the medicine the Pope has prescribed.

But does Sean Brady seriously expect that the Catholics of Ireland will take heart from his readiness to face Lent in a prayerful and humble way?

Is it likely that most Catholics really believe that the abuse of children by priests is just a spiritual problem, arising from their forgetting to say their prayers and, therefore, remedied by more intense devotion?

The papal message appears to be that there is nothing wrong with Catholicism that can not be put right by Catholic teaching.

At the same time, many Catholics believe that what is really required now is a radical overhaul of the Church, an end to the bar on priests having sex lives of any kind and the ordination of women. It was always inconceivable that Pope Benedict and the bishops would have come up with solutions like those.

But the more worrying implication of Rome's management of the Irish bishops is its understanding that it is not part of the problem itself.

The Pope is content to have celibate priests working under the disgraced bishops who continue to administer schools and hospitals and welfare institutions in Ireland and to moralise to the rest of us about our sexual conduct.

He appears to have addressed the bishops like the CEO of an international corporation, pulling in the staff of a branch office and giving them the old pep talk about core values and sending them away again with the injunction to stick to the rules and not embarrass the firm again.

The papacy has always kept at a distance from the regional child-abuse scandals, talked of it as an Irish problem, even though it has instructed local bishops to maintain secrecy.

Its concern appears to be that allowing the scandals to raise questions about the Vatican's dealings would put doctrine in jeopardy.

Catholics might more readily make the case that it is the very structure of the Church which is the problem, particularly the requirement that a celibate priesthood pledge obedience to the bishops.

So, where do we go from here?

Many will think that the linkage of child-abuse to the weakening of faith is at least as eccentric as, say, Iris Robinson's claim that homosexuality can be cured. Indeed, in some ways, it is worse, for at least Mrs Robinson didn't claim it could just be done by prayer. And the danger now is that the bishops will return to Ireland smug and confident that they are on their way back to being in good standing with the Pope and with God.

Of course, it may be that Rome has more surprises for them and that we haven't yet seen the full package of measures.

The expressions on the faces of some of the bishops tell us, however, that they now feel they have survived the worst and that the climb back to dignity and respect has begun. They have taken their medicine from the Boss and it wasn't so bad after all.

But the Catholics of Ireland expected Rome to deal more harshly with them and - disillusioned now - may speak much more plainly themselves for want of a single human principle and a backbone to be found anywhere in this Church.

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