“Secrets of the Vatican”February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
Tags: "Secrets of the Vatican", "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk", "The New Anti-Catholicism", Anti-Catholicism, Boz Chividijian, Catholic clergy sex abuse, PBS Frontline, Philip Jenkins, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II, Thomas Doyle
As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.
But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.
So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?
It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?
The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe. Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.
Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.
Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.
Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?