Should the pope resign?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The Catholic Church is battling the widespread perception that it is rotten to the core. Even the Chief Exorcist of the Catholic Church says that all this abuse and cover-ups by high officials of the church are signs that “the Devil is at work inside the Vatican.” (Yes, there actually is such a post as ‘Chief Exorcist’, if you can imagine it. If anyone had any doubts that the church is still an institution with medieval sensibilities, this news should surely settle it. He claims that he has dealt with 70,000 cases of demonic possession in his 25 years on the job. That’s almost eight every day, including weekends and holidays! Give that man a raise.)

As Christopher Hitchens writes:

This is what makes the scandal an institutional one and not a matter of delinquency here and there. The church needs and wants control of the very young and asks their parents to entrust their children to certain “confessors,” who until recently enjoyed enormous prestige and immunity. It cannot afford to admit that many of these confessors, and their superiors, are calcified sadists who cannot believe their luck.

And now there are reports that the Boy Scouts have also been covering up the sexual abuse of young boys.

The Boy Scouts of America has long kept an extensive archive of secret documents that chronicle the sexual abuse of young boys by Scout leaders over the years.

The “perversion files,” a nickname the Boy Scouts are said to have used for the documents, have rarely been seen by the public, but that could change in the coming weeks in a Portland, Ore., courtroom.

The attorney for a man who was allegedly molested in the 1980s by a Scout leader has obtained about 1,000 Boy Scouts sex files and is expected to release some of them at a trial that began Wednesday. The lawyer says the files show the organization has covered up abuse for decades.

It seems like we should be extra vigilant about hierarchical organizations that place young children under the unsupervised care of dominant older people. Such situations seem to create just the right conditions for abusers to take advantage of children.

Richard Dawkins says that despite the calls for him to resign, the pope should not do so:

As the College of Cardinals must have recognized when they elected him, he is perfectly – ideally – qualified to lead the Roman Catholic Church. A leering old villain in a frock, who spent decades conspiring behind closed doors for the position he now holds; a man who believes he is infallible and acts the part; a man whose preaching of scientific falsehood is responsible for the deaths of countless AIDS victims in Africa; a man whose first instinct when his priests are caught with their pants down is to cover up the scandal and damn the young victims to silence: in short, exactly the right man for the job. He should not resign, moreover, because he is perfectly positioned to accelerate the downfall of the evil, corrupt organization whose character he fits like a glove, and of which he is the absolute and historically appropriate monarch.

No, Pope Ratzinger should not resign. He should remain in charge of the whole rotten edifice – the whole profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution – while it tumbles, amid a stench of incense and a rain of tourist-kitsch sacred hearts and preposterously crowned virgins, about his ears.

Dawkins surprisingly missed ‘gay-loathing’ in that list.

Of course, all this will not prevent religious people from trotting out that old chestnut that we can only get our morality from god and the Bible and religion, that without them we would be totally amoral or downright evil people. They will claim that acts of a few bad apples do not mean that religion itself is a bad influence. The problem is that they try to have it both ways. The power of the Catholic Church and the clergy arises from their claim that they have a direct line from god, through the laying of hands by the pope, archbishops, and so on. All the trappings of the church, the rituals, the incense, the robes, the fancy hats, the rings, are meant to instill in people the idea that the clergy are holier than them. Priests cannot claim that privilege when it suits them and then say ‘Oh, we should not be held to higher standards than ordinary people’ when it emerges that they are often worse than ordinary people.

Defenders of the church will argue that the number of priests involved in abuse cases is small (though that argument is becoming harder to sustain as the scale of the abuse keeps growing) and that there are good priests doing wonderful work. They are right. There have been many inspiring Catholic priests and nuns, especially in Latin America, who bravely used the protective cover provided by the church in a good way, to fight for justice and to end oppression by cruel and murderous dictatorships. It is interesting that both Ratzinger and John Paul II actively saw the crushing of such priests and the associated liberation theology as a prime task, just as they sought to suppress the movements of progressive nuns and priests in Europe and the US.

Both popes seemed to see the abuse by priests as something secondary, to be covered up so as to not distract from the fight against doctrinal heresy. It would have been nice to see them use all that energy to combat abusive priests instead. But instead, priests who severely abused children could expect sympathetic understanding from the church’s top echelons while those who merely advocated the abandonment of policies of priestly celibacy or a male-only priesthood or the prohibition against contraception risked being severely rebuked.

Given the long-standing demands from popes to all high church officials that they should essentially cover up the acts of abusive priests, probably a high fraction of all the current crop of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have such skeletons rattling around in their closets. So one should expect more and more allegations of cover-ups to emerge, coupled with an increasingly solid wall of resistance from the entire hierarchy of the church as it dawns on them that they are all at risk of exposure and that, in the words of Ben Franklin, they must all hang together, or assuredly they shall all hang separately. One has to look for the few remaining bishops who have clean hands to have the moral courage to go against the policy of stonewalling.

I have no doubt that the pope and its priests and bishops will continue to have the gall to act as if they are still the guardians of morality. Ratzinger now is trying to evade guilt by saying that the problem is that humanity in general is in crisis and in need of deep change for which, of course, he and the church can provide moral leadership. As this cartoon by Jesus and Mo says, this is what they always say, even if it is becoming increasingly clear that they have absolutely no standing to make the claim of being moral leaders.

POST SCRIPT: How the Catholic Church really works

Actor Louis CK investigates for Funny or Die how the church works and tries to find some humor in the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church as the abuse horror stories multiply. (Warning: Very strong language and sexual content.)

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