Catholic Humiliation in UK

By Mathew N. Schmalz
Washington Post
September 21, 2010

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has returned from the UK, most commentators will surely label the trip a failure, in spite of Vatican characterizations to the contrary. Preceded by a major gaffe by a highly placed cardinal and by rumors that charges would be brought against the pontiff himself, the trip seemed to confirm the depth of negative reactions that Benedict has evoked since his election. To be sure, the trip perhaps did not fulfill the gloomiest forecasts: there was an apparently cordial meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and attendance at papal events was greater than had been predicted. But overall, the impression was one of humiliation. Benedict himself acknowledged this humiliation and did so in a surprising and compelling way.

The Pope's arrival in the UK was heralded by a facetious, and leaked, Foreign Office memo suggesting a simultaneous inauguration of a line of "Benedict condoms." Condoms, along with pink mitres, were also fashion accessories for protestors for a gathering near the site of the Benedict's vigil at Hyde Park. American media commentators were no less scathing in their criticism. Lisa Miller argued that the Pope's concern with "arcane" doctrines shows that he's fiddling "while Christianity burns." The image of a Nero-like Pontiff--oblivious, persecutory, and licentious--finds parallel in a number of cyber photo-montages mocking Benedict's papal regalia. Also playing on papal sartorial pretense, Gary Wills wrote that Benedict is "the best dressed liar in the world." Wills went even further by suggesting that the Pope's characterization of cardinal Newman as a defender of papal authority would have led the now deceased cardinal to have called for the pontiff's "demise"--a wish that has been echoed in different contexts throughout the blogosphere. This is the language not just of substantive criticism that seeks to challenge, but of seething anger that seeks to humiliate.

The curious aspect of such protest and commentary is that it does little to persuade those to whom the criticism is directed. It also unwittingly strengthens the two default positions that the Catholic church often maintains in the face of criticism: defensiveness that draws attention to anti-Catholic or secular themes or triumphalism that takes refuge in an image of the church as a "perfect society." However, as his UK journey developed, Pope Benedict decisively broke with this pattern.

During his homily at Westminster Cathedral, Benedict remarked that he hoped the humiliation and shame endured by the church would bring healing to the victims of clerical sexual abuse. In one sense, Benedict was drawing upon classical Catholic atonement theology that connects the experience of suffering with reparation and redemption. But in a more subtle and equally important way, the Holy Father was recognizing the religious significance of the victims' anger.

The pope connected humiliation with shame. Shame, unlike guilt, has an unmistakably communal and public dimension. Acknowledging, and accepting, humiliation and shame seeks to reestablish, and indeed revalue, the relationship between victims and the institution responsible for their abuse. For many Catholics, including myself, this public humiliation of the church has not gone far enough, especially since some complicit or obstructionist bishops still retain their ecclesiastical dignity. Because of this, many Catholics have only been able to express their anger outside the Church in ways that could lead to a destructive fracturing of the Church itself. This is why Benedict's words at Westminster are important: they open a necessary space for taking seriously the humiliating and constructively religious dimensions of anger both within and at the Roman Catholic Church.

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