Tags: Bishop John Cummins, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Ratzinger, cholera, clergy sex abuse, diphtheria, Maureen Dowd, photovoltaic grids, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II, sex abuse by Catholic priests, sex abuse by clergy, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, typhoid fever, Worlds Without Women
I may have spoken too soon. As my Catholic cousin Maureen Dowd reports in today’s New York Times, the AP has broken “the latest story pointing the finger of blame directly at Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, quoting from a letter in Latin in which he resisted pleas to defrock a California priest who had sexually molested children.” So here is the proof I said in a previous blog didn’t exist. The pope, in his previous position, took years to respond to a letter from the bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, asking permission to “defrock” an admitted child abuser. And when he did respond, “God’s Rottweiler” urged “the diocese to give the 38-year-old pedophile ‘as much paternal care as possible’ and to consider his young age” as well as “the good of the universal church.”
Now it’s possible to quibble a bit with Dowd’s interpretation. For example, we might take into account a report on NPR Saturday attributing part of the problem here to Pope John Paul II’s decision to staunch the flood of men leaving the priesthood after Vatican II by making it much more difficult for them to receive laicization.
But this is precisely the kind of buck-passing for which the Vatican is much criticized of late. Let’s stick to Maureen Dowd’s column. Let’s consider, for example, the column’s sub-head: “Suffer the little children. Don’t make the little children suffer.”
Now it seems perfectly obvious which little children Dowd is referring to here: the thousands of American and European Catholic boys and girls who have been sexually abused by Catholic priests. In recent years, however, I have become interested in another group of little children, those who live in the Global South and die in large numbers from water-borne diseases (diphtheria, typhoid, and cholera, for the most part). Experts tell us that one child dies of such a disease every fifteen seconds.
Now you may well think that there’s no comparison between the millions of children who die of these diseases every year and children abused by priests. After all, the children in the Global South die. Their sufferings are over. Sexually abused children, however, suffer for the rest of their lives.
My late mother would disagree. When she was four, her six-year old brother, my uncle Jimmy, died of diphtheria. Mom told me many times that her parents never recovered. After her brother was buried (he could not have a funeral because of the contagion), her father sat looking out the window for six months. My grandmother took in laundry so they could eat. And that grandmother heaved deep and frequent sighs throughout my own childhood.
Others may argue that unlike sex abuse, these diseases are natural. Nothing can be done about them. You will note, however, that epidemics of diphtheria, typhoid, or cholera are pretty rare in the US these days. After World War II, we became rich enough to put in sewerage systems and make potable water almost universally available. The debt-burdened countries of the Global South, on the other hand, can’t afford to do this, so their kids die in droves.
There is something you can do about the suffering of some of these little children, however. The nuns who educated me, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, are constructing a photovoltaic grid in Congo, where their African sisters work, to provide electricity. Such electricity will, among other things, make it possible to purify the water that local children and their families drink.
You can make a donation right now toward the construction of this photovoltaic grid. Just send a check made out to the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Here’s the address: Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur Congregational Mission Office, 30 Jeffreys Neck Road, Ipswich, MA, 01938.
But perhaps you are hesitating. Your life is pretty complicated. You have many commitments, many things to consider. You’d better not hesitate too long, though, because just since you began reading this column, a child or two died. And if you wait much longer, someone may denounce you for temporizing while little children suffer, much as Maureen Dowd denounces the evil Cardinal Ratzinger in today’s Sunday Times.
Tags: "Is the Reformation Over?", attempted assassination of John Paul II, celebrity, clergy sex abuse, John L. Allen Jr, John Paul the Great, Mark Noll, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II, Pope John XXIII, popemobile, Second Vatican Council, the prisoner of the Vatican, Tiger Woods, Vatican Council II
So what do Tiger Woods and Pope Benedict XVI have in common? They’re both celebrities. And of course, recently they have both gotten some very bad publicity about sexual misbehavior, either for engaging in it, or, apparently, for covering up somebody else’s.
For a long time–from the liberal European revolutions of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries till the second half of the twentieth century, more or less–that the pope would be a celebrity was inconceivable. The “prisoner of the Vatican” was no star. Rather, he was pinched, hidden, and adamantly opposed to the world many of us lived in–the modern one.
I suppose the change started with Pope John XXIII announcing Vatican II and pointing the Church in the direction of the “modern world.” But the real credit for making the pope a celebrity goes to Pope John Paul II. John Paul, now called by some Catholics “John Paul the Great,” studied drama as a young person, and his acute stage presence, whether in his popemobile, the papal helicopter, his journeys around the world, his addresses to sports stadiums full of cheering followers, even, I’m tempted to say, his managing to survive an assassination–made him a global celebrity. Perhaps the global religious celebrity.
Besides JPII’s gift for acting, another thing that has made the popes celebrities is the amazing get-ups that they wear. I am reminded here of Mark Noll’s question, the title of one of his books, “Is the Reformation Over?” In thinking about the pope, I’m inclined to say: yes, and the Catholics won. For a long time this seemed not to be the case, of course. The Protestant ethic underpinned the emergence of capitalism. And the shift to the Word from the Image at the beginning of the modern era seemed a no-brainer, with the printing presses running, and only illiterate peasants peering at stained glass and statues anymore.
But since the invention of television, and even more, the internet, I’m not so sure. Think of my poor husband, the ordained American Baptist. He occasionally wears an academic gown, but mostly, he makes his way through the world in a suit and tie. Whereas the pope looks like a character in Avatar. He’s the symbol of world Christianity, just by virtue of his vestments, even if half the Evangelicals in the world still don’t believe Catholics are Christians.
Now I have to admit that the current pope, Benedict XVI, doesn’t have anything like the stage presence of the previous pope (though he does have those red shoes!) But the veneer of celebrity achieved by JPII does not wear off all that easily.
Which brings us to the similarities between B-16 and Tiger Woods. In each case, nothing sells more newspapers, draws more viewers, gets googled more often than celebrities and sex. And so we have Benedict XVI in the news about as often as we had Tiger a few months ago.
Never mind that there are certain dissimilarities between them as well. That there was actual evidence against Tiger, who confessed his infidelities, and apologized to the world. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, has offered no such confession for failing to turn in priest sex abusers. Of course, it may be that he actually was not aware of these abusers, no matter how many times reporters announce that the scandal is “getting closer to the Vatican every day.” No text messages have been discovered in Benedict’s case. There were four hundred parishes in the archdiocese of Munich when Benedict was the archbishop there. Hard to tell what he knew and if he knew it.
In point of fact, in last Sunday’s New York Times, NCR’s John L. Allen, without minimizing the current crisis, argued that Benedict has done better than any pope in history at responding to clergy sex abuse. Better, it would seem, than John Paul II, about whom a documentary will run on PBS this weekend that proclaims him a saint.
But the current pope is another matter. He’s not a saint; he’s a celebrity. And the beat goes on.