A Loss of Nerve?

New Oxford Review

October 17, 2008

Some readers have wondered why we haven't devoted much attention to Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S. this past April. The reason is simple: The Pope's visit has been analyzed to death in both the secular and Catholic press; what good would yet another analysis do?

But we haven't completely ignored his visit. We quoted from Pope Benedict's speech to Catholic educators in our September New Oxford Note "A Question of Conviction," and Lucy Carroll comments on the papal Masses in Washington, D.C., and New York City in her article "Why the Music Is so Bad" in this issue (p. 32). And we did have occasion, in our June New Oxford Note "Blaming the Victim -- Again," to address what we perceive to be the most significant aspect of his visit: "The clerical sex-abuse scandal was a recurring theme of Pope Benedict's visit. He spent time praying with a few hand-selected abuse victims on April 17, his third day in the U.S. The Pope had told U.S. bishops the previous day that the problem of predator priests had been ‘very badly handled,' and at the April 17 stadium Mass in Washington, D.C., he called on the Church ‘to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt' by abusive priests."

It was an unprecedented gesture and a valiant breaking of the long papal silence on the most horrendous scandal to hit the Church in modern times. It speaks to Benedict's change of heart in regard to the nature of the clerical abuse: When the scandals broke in 2002 he dismissed the "constant news" of clerical sexual abuse as being "intentional, manipulated" attempts by the secular media to "discredit the Church." He said, inaccurately, that "less than one percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type." But he later called his Friday-morning duty, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to examine the seemingly endless number of files on abusive priests his "Friday penance." Then on Good Friday in 2005 he famously bewailed the "filth" in the priesthood. Clearly this Pope grasps the gravity of the crisis.

During his July visit to Australia for World Youth Day 2008, Pope Benedict repeated his April gestures (meeting with abuse victims) and words (though this time he actually apologized, uttering the words, "I'm sorry"). In both Australia and the U.S., the Pope's pastoral side shone through.

But as we said in our June New Oxford Note, "It remains to be seen whether his words and gestures translate into policies and action."

That brings us to a letter we received from one of our readers, Mr. Eugene Feeney of Sagaponack, New York, who chided us for our silence on the April papal visit. His letter read, in pertinent part:

It is true that Pope Benedict XVI managed to condemn pedophiles during his recent visit to the U.S., and vowed to get them off the block. But this only takes care of the predators of prepubescent kids. What about the more numerous teenage victims? Did we hear what he was going to do for them? Not even, "you guys are next on my list." I hate to think that there's been a loss of nerve at the lighthouse.

Mr. Feeney brings up an excellent point, one which stirred us to probe a little deeper into the Pope's visit.

On the April 15 papal plane ride en route to the U.S., reporter John L. Allen Jr. asked Benedict, "The Catholic church in the United States is large and dynamic, but also suffering, above all because of the recent sexual abuse crisis. The American people are waiting to hear what you have to say on this subject. What will your message be?"

Benedict, who was briefed on the questions prior to the interview, replied, "It is a great suffering for the church in the United States, for the church in general, and for me personally that this could happen…. We will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future…. We now have also norms to react in a just way. I would not speak in this moment about homosexuality, but pedophilia, [which] is another thing. We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry, this is absolutely incompatible. And who is really guilty of being a pedophile cannot be a priest." (The Pope's response is repeated here verbatim from Allen's transcript from the papal plane; Benedict is not a native English speaker.)

What are the "norms" to which Benedict refers? In May, Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone sent a letter approved by Pope Benedict to the bishops of the world that reaffirmed the 2005 "Instruction Concerning the Criteria for the Discernment of Vocations With Regard to Persons With Homosexual Tendencies in View of Their Admission to the Seminary and Holy Orders" as being universally applicable without exception. Cardinal Bertone's letter and the Instruction restrict from seminary "those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture.'"

But that hardly covers all varieties of the homosexual inclination, and in fact leaves massive loopholes through which homosexuals can waltz into the priesthood, including, as expressed by the Instruction, those for whom homosexuality was "only the expression of a transitory problem -- for example that of an adolescence not yet superseded." Not yet superseded? It's a pretty fuzzy distinction between that and "deep-seated" tendencies. As Leon Podles writes in Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (reviewed in our July-August issue), "The source of the [clerical] sexual scandals was homosexual priests who were stuck in adolescence and sexually attracted to adolescent males." There doesn't appear to be a discernable difference between being "stuck in adolescence" and an "adolescence not yet superseded."

Contrary to the Pope, and with all due respect, pedophilia is a red herring; homosexuality is the root of the problem. Podles writes that "most of the [clerical sex] offenders were not pedophiles, but ephebophiles…compulsively attracted to young adolescents." Ephebo­philia, he says, is "simply a form of homosexuality." The U.S. bishops' National Review Board verified this in 2002 when it stated that "more than 80 percent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature."

In his July meeting with a few hand-selected Australian victims of clerical sex abuse, the Pope was reported to have told them that abuse must be stopped "at the seminary training stage." Podles warns us that "the seminary environment remains full of predatory homosexuals."

If the Pope is serious about curbing clerical sexual abuse before it happens - and we don't doubt that he is - then it is high time he took off the pastoral gloves and "absolutely excludes" homosexuals from the seminary.


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