The State of the Church

May 27, 2012

[with audio]

The Catholic Church has been in the public spotlight a lot this year. The issues of contraception and gay marriage have been part of the presidential campaign and church leaders have weighed in. There have also been new revelations in a case involving leaked Vatican documents, and it may actually be a case where the butler did it. Host Rachel Martin speaks with John Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.


For more on the potential impact of this case and the overall state of the U.S. Catholic Church right now, we're joined by John Allen. He is senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter. He joins us on the line.

Thanks so much for being with us, John.

JOHN ALLEN: Rachel, it's a pleasure.

MARTIN: We just heard Barbara Bradley Hagerty outline the gist of this case against Monsignor Lynn. What are the implications? What does this trial mean for the Catholic Church?

ALLEN: Well, on one level it is a sad confirmation of the narrative that is already terribly familiar, which is that there was a pattern in the church of when accusations of sexual abuse against personnel would be brought forward, not to report them to police and prosecutors; to try to handle them internally and, in some cases, to sweep them under the rug.

But the new element here is that for the first time, we have a senior church official who's been criminally indicted, not for the abuse itself but for the cover-up. And what that does is send a powerful signal to other administrators in the church that if they engage in the same kind of conduct, they could pay the same price.

MARTIN: The American Catholic Church has been in the headlines over the past few weeks and months, and really at the center of the presidential campaign season this year. Last week, 13 diocese filed suit against the Obama administration's mandate that employers cover the cost of birth control for workers, and those dioceses arguing that this is a violation of religious liberty.

Birth control has long been a divisive issue within the church. But, John, is this deepening the rift right now?

ALLEN: Well, if by rift you mean the rift between the sort of grassroots in the leadership, that's probably the case. When it comes to the issue of contraception, polls overwhelmingly show that a substantial majority of American Catholics made their peace with the moral acceptability of birth control a long time ago. And therefore, would have a different outlook on that issue than the hierarchy does.

There also are clear divisions at the Catholic grassroots with the regard to the broad campaign the bishops have launched, in opposition to the Obama White House, not only over the mandates issue but the fundamental question of whether there is an attack on religious liberty unfolding in the United States. There certainly would be one wing of Catholic opinion that would aggressively support that. But there certainly is a substantial bloc of Catholic opinion that would either be ambivalent about it or outright opposed to it.

And, of course, adding on top of all of that the fact that the bishops have seen their moral authority compromised to some extent because of the sex abuse crisis. I think there's no doubt that the bishops are finding it difficult to mobilize a kind of unified bloc of Catholic opinion on the mandates issue or on anything else.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, John, I'd like to ask you about a bizarre story out of the Vatican. Apparently Pope Benedict's butler has been arrested in some kind of leak scandal. What can you tell us about this?

ALLEN: Well, Rachel, the soundbite is: the butler did it.


ALLEN: Look, you know, the Vatican has been gripped since January in a massive leak scandal. At one point in February and March, there were confidential documents rolling out almost on a daily basis. They've now been collected in a book. And since this scandal erupted there has been a kind of internal mole hunt going on in the Vatican. They have identified a suspect who is an Italian layman named Paolo Gabrielli, in his early 40s, who since 2006 has served as the butler in the papal household.

It remains to be seen how strong the case against him will be. There are many Vatican watchers who believe that even if Gabrielli is involved, they're skeptical that ultimately all of this could've come from one relatively humble and modest papal butler. The theory therefore would be that he may be a sort of scapegoat potentially for the involvement of other more senior figures in the system.

MARTIN: John Allen is a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter. Thanks so much for talking with us, John.

ALLEN: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.


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