Catholicism in Peril

The pope's response hasn't quenched the criticism

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As Germany--the pope's own homeland--continues to be rocked by allegations of priestly abuse, many are wondering how high the scandal will go--after all, Pope Benedict XVI himself, as archbishop of Munich, approved an abuser's therapy treatment without reporting it to authorities, though he claims not to have known about the abuse. Meanwhile, the pope's attempt to put out a similar fire in Ireland with a letter this past weekend is stirring mixed reactions.

All this has convinced some commentators that this controversy is different from the American abuse scandal. In fact, some have begun to ask whether the Vatican--and even Catholicism itself--will pass through unscathed. If so, will it still resemble the Catholic Church of old?
  • Of Course It Will  In the National Review, George Weigel argues that those looking "to cripple the Catholic Church" have had that long-wielded "card of 'cover-up'" taken away from them by the pope's recent strongly-worded letter regarding the Irish abuse cases. He thinks it did the trick. But he's not entirely free from worry: "Those who care for the Church, on the other hand, must now hope and pray that the follow-up from the Vatican is as vigorous and unsparing as the Pope's letter."
  • Will the Pope Lose Ireland?  The editors of The Independent disagree somewhat with Weigel, noting that the pope didn't apologize for the coverup. "But even at the level of apology the Pope has chosen, this pastoral letter may turn out to be the first of many he will have to write," given the way abuse cases seem to be multiplying across different countries. "As the sex abuse scandal continues to unfold and tolerance is stretched to breaking, it is surely not fanciful to ask whether Ireland will still define itself as a Roman Catholic country within a generation."
  • 'The Current Vatican's Death Throes'  The Atlantic's own Andrew Sullivan has been all over this one. He, too, finds spread of the scandal to Ireland--"Yes: Ireland"--noteworthy. He points out, as well, that if the German case follows the usual pattern, "the number of victims will grow," and despite the Church blaming the stories on "anti-Catholic media ... at some point, the whole grisly truth will come out." The difference, he thinks, is that this time the current Pope is directly and personally implicated through his actions while a German bishop. And, frankly, Sullivan--a Catholic himself--is just fine with that:

Please: raping children is not a hard call for a Christian. Today or at any time in history. Covering it up is evil. If defending the perpetrators, rather than saving the victims, is not immoral, what is?

So when will this Pope resign? And what happens to the church hierarchy's moral authority if he doesn't?

  • It All Depends on the Coverup  National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr. notes that "relatively few people know or care how far the Vatican, or the pope, have come over the past eight years"; while Benedict has revolutionized the Church's response to priestly abuse, he has not similarly revolutionized the Church's response to concealment of priestly abuse. To many, that's "a job half done," and "that ... is what makes the revelations in Germany [about Benedict's own actions with regard to abusers] so potentially damaging." To wit:
if other cases of abusers who were reassigned emerge, even fair-minded people with no axe to grind may be tempted to ask: Can Benedict XVI credibly ride herd on bishops for failing to manage the crisis, if his own record as a diocesan leader isn't any better?

Much about the church's capacity to craft an "exit strategy" from the crisis--and, perhaps, much about Benedict's own legacy--may hinge on his ability to offer a convincing answer.

  • The Fall of Catholicism in Europe?  "The Church has survived many, many dreadful things," admits Newser's Michael Wolff. "But not like this." With Pope Benedict himself implicated, and his competence in crisis management in question, Wolff thinks history may begin to erode Catholicism's remaining support structure. His point is that crisis in Europe is radically different from crisis in America:
The historical argument with Catholicism, an argument that has been going on for so many centuries, which the wily Church has defeated or circumvented or stonewalled or built mighty barricades against, is back on the table again.

This time, the Church could very well lose it.

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