The most recent sex abuse scandal implicating the Pope in a cover up was filling the airways, so I saw no reason to pile on. In addition, the story has the whiff of a "dog bites man" piece, not surprising in the least. Newly damning evidence that the Pope knew about and actively protected pedophile priests is hardly a shock. But then I read a defense of the Church from three prominent officials and could no longer contain myself in the face of their outrageous statements.
Vienna's Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said the following: "I admit that I often feel a sense of injustice these days. Why is the church being excoriated? Isn't there also abuse elsewhere? ... And then I'm tempted to say: 'Yes, the media just don't like the church! Maybe there's even a conspiracy against the church?' But then I feel in my heart that no, that's not it."
Warsaw's Archbishop Kazimierz Nycz criticized the media for "targeting the whole church, targeting the pope, and to that we must say 'no' in the name of truth and in the name of justice."
Finally, saving the most outrageous for last, we witnessed the Pope listening in silence in St. Peter's Basilica as the Rev. Raniero Cantalamessa compared "accusations against the Church and Pope to 'collective violence' suffered by the Jews."
I challenge anybody to read those claims and not feel nauseated. Schoenborn's lament fails at many levels and makes a mockery of morality. But let's just look at two specific points. First, he claims to feel a sense of injustice. Really? Injustice compared to that experienced by the boys sexually abused by their priests? Compared to thousands of boys penetrated and masturbated by authority figures they were told to trust? Schoenborn does not even have the right to use the word injustice unless he exclusively applies it to victims of the Church. To claim that coverage of the scandal and uncovering the abuse is a form of injustice to the Church is nothing short of criminal, not to mention extraordinarily creepy.
Second, he complains that the Church is being unfairly targeted because abuse happens elsewhere. This pathetic defense boils down to "other people do it, too, so it's not so bad." But in his world the Church is meant to be the pinnacle and shining example of moral behavior as a gift from god himself. In asking his sick question, Schoenborn abdicates all claim to moral authority of any kind by equating the Church to nothing different from any other secular institution in which abuse might take place.
Nycz is no better. With some seriously twisted logic, Nycz believes that "truth and justice" require him to say "no" to media coverage. Where was his invocation of truth and justice as his stable of priests had sex with little boys? Where was his indignation when children were violated repeatedly in parish after parish? We know of at least 5,000 priests accused of sex abuse involving more than 10,000 children. Why now the hypocritically righteous defense of the Church instead of the truly righteous defense of abused kids when they most needed the help?
Let us be clear what Cantalamessa means to say: he is comparing the suffering of the Church caused by the sex scandal coverage to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. Beyond the obvious absurdity in equating the Church's predicament to victims of mass murder, note something important here easily lost in the broader pathology of the statement: the Church suffers not because the institution is responsible for the rape of thousands of children, but because the media is exposing the scandal.
What is so clearly missing from the Church in these and virtually all statements about the scandal is any sense of moral outrage. Such silence fundamentally undermines the very credibility of the entire enterprise. After all, a basic tenet of the Church, of all religion, is that morality is derived from our relationship with god. If the institution responsible for defining that relationship, and securing moral behavior in human society, is itself morally corrupt, the original claim to moral authority is highly suspect to say the least. More than the crisis itself, the response to the crisis reveals a Church devoid of any moral core. This revelation comes in three stages: first, priests sexually abuse kids, a heinous crime; second, the Church actively protects those pedophiles from external scrutiny, shuffling them off to new parishes to start abusing anew; and third, when the scandal breaks, the Church abandons any pretense to moral authority by blaming the victims, and claiming persecution by the media instead of acknowledging the moral failures of not only the individual abusers but of the institution that protected them.
These are not the actions and reactions of an institution to which we should look for moral guidance. Sexual abuse by priests is not an anomaly; abuse and pedophilia are institutionalized realities embedded in the very fabric of the Church. So, facing a growing cancer the Holy See reacted to the expanding crisis of pedophile priests and papal obstruction of justice by emulating Richard Nixon, who routinely blamed the media whenever his fortunes declined. The terrible fate of thousands of sexually abused children is reduced to the problem of an overzealous media rather than a failure of religious morality.
Nixon started perfecting his practice of deflecting blame early on with the now-infamous Checkers speech following his losing bid for the governorship of California in the election of 1962. Rather than blaming his decisive defeat on far-right opposition to his candidacy, his little-concealed yearning for higher office, or his lackluster campaign, he held the media liable for "kicking him around." Nixon was blind to his own failings and lashed out at others to explain his predicament. He externalized his failures to avoid accepting personal responsibility. This tendency of self-delusion has consequences. Given that problems are always the fault of others, covering them up is easily justified. After all, why should the real victim (Nixon) suffer so unfairly from exposure by unscrupulous enemies? In retrospect Watergate was no surprise in light of Nixon's paranoid insularity.
Like Nixon then, the Vatican now refuses to acknowledge the obvious and is in danger of suffering from that same form of paranoid insularity. Rather than confront the moral rot within, the decay of rampant pedophilia and the institutional bias that fails to curb such deviance, the Church lamely cries persecution to deflect attention from the abused children. Rather than acknowledge moral failure as an institution, the Vatican lashes out at the press. Nixon would be proud. So we now have Pedogate. The perpetrators become the self-described victims, the real victims are neglected, and those responsible for the original crimes and subsequent cover-up go largely unpunished.
The rapidly expanding tentacles of pedophilia strangling the Church from within should give us pause, and an opportunity to contemplate our future. We need to stop pretending that the Church is some arbiter of morality. Corruption, greed, ambition, and sexual deviancy define the Catholic Church, and all organized religion, as much as piety, charity and compassion. If the moral corruption of the Church is not already evident in the thousands of cases of sexual abuse, no doubt remains in how the Church responded when the cases of abuse came to light.
The time has come for us to accept that morality is not derived from religion at all but is instead a consequence of our biology and evolutionary history. The genesis of our moral core is not subject to the failures of human institutions but is rather a natural outcome of our inherent sociality. To explain this idea further I conclude with a few passages from a book I published last year.
Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche and not dependent on proclamations from the Church. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others, and reciprocity are probably primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could likely thrive only in cooperative groups. We know that functioning as a coherent group in many circumstances conveys significant advantages on members of the group. Good behavior, what we now call moral behavior, would therefore almost certainly strengthen the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. We can reasonably postulate that morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers.
Associated with sociality is altruism, which is sacrificial behavior that in some way promotes the propagation of the genes of the altruistic individual, usually by aiding the survival of a close relative sharing some common genetic stock. The ultimate altruistic behavior would be dying for the sake of another's survival. An uncle getting in harm's way to protect a nephew is an example. Social cooperation and altruism are significant factors in the success of our species, a fact that underlines the biological basis for our moral core. Morality is a defining and adaptive human characteristic. Morality is our biological destiny, not a gift from god, and not a false mandate from the flawed institutions of organized religion.
Without the burden of a wrathful god or the constraints of a failed Church, we have the power to create our own meaning, our own sense of purpose, our own destiny. By rejecting the false premises of religion and the corrupt proclamations of religious institutions, we are free to move beyond the random hand we are dealt at birth to pave our own road to a better life.
Amazing clarity is achieved in realizing that life is not controlled by some unseen and mysterious god, or by religious leaders, but by an individual's power to make decisions, and a personal choice to be moral. There is tremendous joy in understanding that purpose and meaning in life are self-derived, and that these precious commodities are not some gift from above that can be taken away arbitrarily by a wrathful deity working in mysterious ways. We are the masters of our own fate. Nothing is more powerful, or more satisfying.
And nothing could be further from the sick corruption of the Catholic Church.