The Catholic church will hold its nerve as usual
The papacy normally gets away with things far more lightly than our secular leaders do – and the record suggests it will also recover from the latest revelations
Good to see the pope in the media dock over the Catholic hierarchy’s conspiratorial role in child abuse by its priesthood. It was the lead story in the Guardian this morning, though the Daily Mail – usually a better barometer of public opinion, I fear – attaches more importance to the high court victory of a Catholic care agency keen to resist gay adoption.
Hey, ho, it’s a funny old world: gays bad, paedophiles not so bad. Is the Mail editor, Paul Dacre, a Catholic? I immediately asked myself. Mr Google tells me he is. That might explain a lot.
But the reason Pope Benedict warrants a stint in the public stocks is that he deserves it. He has got away with it far more lightly than our secular leaders routinely do in liberal secular media, which doesn’t take the power of faith very seriously – and therefore does not take the abuse of it seriously either.
As Riazat Butt and sets out in today’s Guardian this scandal has been unfolding for a long time. The Catholic hierarchy has been battered and beset by scandal and lawsuit in the US for more than a decade, though this latest strand of the ancient priests-and-sex scandal first emerged in Newfoundland, Canada’s most remote province, in the late 1980s.
It has belatedly spread to the point where Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor from Hamburg who went east, is cutting up rough this week and Cardinal Sean Brady, primate of all Ireland, is taking a long time to resign for his own part in the cover-up.
Heaven knows what goes on in Catholic Africa and Asia (Catholicism is India’s third largest faith) where society can be – not always – rather more repressive about sexuality. In due course we may find out.
None of which should suggest that Catholic priests and their hierarchy are uniquely wicked, though the penny is starting to drop that celibacy – a fairly late invention in the Christian tradition – has its drawbacks. Who’d have thought it, eh?
As Andrew Brown reminds us, a lot of abuse of children and teenagers (some try to claim that most abuse by priests was not of children, but of 16- to 17-year-olds) takes place within secular institutions, not least the family home. Think those grim court cases where social workers have failed, think the exporting of “orphans” to Australia.
But the cover-up has been instinctive, systemic and organised from the top over a long period of time. As Andrew Brown also concedes, secular society has proved wiser in seeking to address the past and make amends.
The pope’s choirmaster brother in Bavaria seems to have been badly compromised – among many others.
The papacy has endured worse crises before and survived them. As the west’s oldest institution it takes the long view, not subject to mere transient fashion in law or morality. The routine brutalisation of the innocent faithful – well, that was deemed an unfortunate price to pay.
Thus the late pope’s investigation instigated in 2001 took place in secret; it was revealed only in 2005. That sort of strategy is the church’s strength – and its weakness. At a time when all sorts of quack religions are doing well, it’s doing badly.
As it campaigns to resist secularisation, especially in Europe, it has let itself down. The record suggests it will recover.
Why mention it here? For the usual reason: proportionality. We live in an age where secular institutions that are accountable to citizens, notably elected governments and hard-pressed local councillors, get a terrible kicking day in, day out.
The media is usually to the fore. When in doubt, bash the NHS. The hacks are less keen to take on those with deep pockets and expensive lawyers, most of them not very accountable either.
But if you compare the profound power exercised by the church over millions of people’s conduct and imaginations with that of a transient elected government, it’s no contest, is it?
I’d say that Michael Ashcroft’s tax status, over which William Hague did himself more damage on Radio 4’s Today this morning, or Charlie Whelan’s union manoeuvres – both topical issues – get even more attention than they warrant, the papacy’s rearguard action rather less.
That leads to a larger point: humanity’s extraordinary capacity for selective indignation and a cheerful willingness to manipulate facts to fit our prejudices. We all do it and should try harder not to.
This very day news comes from Germany that an official commission of historians has concluded that the number of Germans killed in the RAF’s terrible night raid on Dresden – on 13-14 February 1945 – was as originally reported: up to 25,000, and not the 200,000-plus of later legend.
Naturally, protests have already begun. Neo-Nazis and assorted leftwingers have too much invested in the British “war crime” of Dresden to give up easily. David Irving, the talented-but-dodgy historian, played a significant role in hamming up the figures. So did Kurt Vonnegut, though he had an excuse: as a PoW he survived the attack.
And the papacy’s view? We await it. In his teens the future German pope, whose father was an anti-Nazi, was conscripted into the Hitler Youth against his will; unlike Günter Grass, who eagerly volunteered, so the great hero of the left confessed 50 years after the event – when he also claimed to have been a PoW with young Joseph Ratzinger as the war ended.
At the time the then-pope, Pius XII (1939-58) was also taking the long view that communism was a bigger threat than Nazism and espoused a less than evenhanded neutrality. He was certainly right on that score, but it was also convenient. Pius XI did better, even before the millions died.
As we speak Pius XII is on the fast track towards canonisation by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bernard Law, a fugitive from US justice for his role in the Boston sex scandals who has a job in the Vatican.
But give it a century or two and it will all blow over. It is a lesson in how to keep your nerve and take the long view.