The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal, Papal “Infallibility”, and Free Inquiry

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 31, 2010

In the last week, a storm of controversy has raged concerning the Roman Catholic Church and its ongoing sexual abuse scandal. For almost a decade this controversy has gone on, taking up space on newspaper pages here and there.  But now the whole sordid affair has taken on a new dimension with the revelation that Vatican officials, including the current Pope Benedict XVI (whom I call, with good reason, the “Rat in the Hat”), not only knew about such systemic & widespread abuse but also actively worked to cover it up.  According to a recent New York Times article…

Vatican Declined to Defrock U.S. Priest Who Abused Boys

Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church, according to church files newly unearthed as part of a lawsuit.

The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.

The documents emerge as Pope Benedict is facing other accusations that he and direct subordinates often did not alert civilian authorities or discipline priests involved in sexual abuse when he served as an archbishop in Germany and as the Vatican’s chief doctrinal enforcer.

What is almost as horrifying as these revelations of the systemic sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests and the effort on the part of Church officials to cover it up, apparently going all the way to the upper echelons of the Vatican, is the reaction from the Vatican in the last week.  Specifically, I am referring to the absolutely staggering level of cognitive dissonance being displayed by the Vatican regarding any responsibility their institution has in this scandal.

Consider, if you will, the various reactions from the Vatican as it attempts to spin its way out of this mess, outlined by this NYTimes Op-Ed…

First: Declare any new revelation old and unimportant.

At Palm Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York bemoaned that the “recent tidal wave of headlines about abuse of minors by some few priests, this time in Ireland, Germany, and a re-run of an old story from Wisconsin, has knocked us to our knees once again.”

A few priests? At this point, it feels like an international battalion.

A re-run of an old story? So sorry to remind you, Archbishop, that one priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, who showed no remorse and suffered no punishment from “Rottweiler” Ratzinger, abused as many as 200 deaf children in Wisconsin.

Archbishop Dolan compared the pope to Jesus, saying he was “now suffering some of the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob, and scourging at the pillar,” and “being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo.”

Second: Blame somebody else — even if it’s this pope’s popular predecessor, on the fast track to sainthood.

Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn defended Pope Benedict this week, saying that then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s attempt in 1995 to investigate the former archbishop of Vienna for allegedly molesting youths in a monastery was barred by advisers close to Pope John Paul II.

Third: Say black is white.

In his blog, Archbishop Dolan blasted church critics while stating: “The Church needs criticism; we want it; we welcome it; we do a good bit of it ourselves,” adding: “We do not expect any special treatment. …so bring it on.” Right.

Fourth: Demonize gays, as Karl Rove did in 2004.

In an ad in The Times on Tuesday, Bill Donohue, the Catholic League president, offered this illumination: “The Times continues to editorialize about the ‘pedophilia crisis,’ when all along it’s been a homosexual crisis. Eighty percent of the victims of priestly sexual abuse are male and most of them are post-pubescent. While homosexuality does not cause predatory behavior, and most gay priests are not molesters, most of the molesters have been gay.”

Donohue is still talking about the problem as an indiscretion rather than a crime. If it mostly involves men and boys, that’s partly because priests for many years had unquestioned access to boys.

Fifth: Blame the victims.

“Fr. Lawrence Murphy apparently began his predatory behavior in Wisconsin in the 1950s,” Donohue protested, “yet the victims’ families never contacted the police until the mid-1970s.”

Sixth: Throw gorilla dust.

Donohue asserts that “the common response of all organizations, secular as well as religious,” to abuse cases “was to access therapy and reinstate the patient.” Really? Where in heaven’s name does that information come from? It’s absurd.

And finally, seventh: Use the Cheney omnipotence defense, most famously employed in the Valerie Plame case. Vice President Cheney claimed that his lofty position meant that the very act of spilling a secret, even with dastardly intent, declassified it.

Vatican lawyers will argue in negligence cases brought by abuse victims that the pope has immunity as a head of state and that bishops who allowed an abuse culture, endlessly recirculating like dirty fountain water, were not Vatican employees.

Maybe they worked for Enron.

Ouch, that pretty well sums up the response from the Catholic Church to date.  But why is it that the Vatican is so resistant to accepting any sort of responsibility for these crimes, or the fact that some people wish to even investigate said crimes and the Church’s potential role in them?

Part of the problem has to do with the notion of papal infallibility, which is the idea that the Pope, being God’s anointed representative on Earth, speaks for God in all matters.  This idea has been codified in Catholic doctrine for centuries, ever since the First Vatican Council, and states unequivocally that the Pope is not to be questioned in matters of faith & morality.  But now, in the 21st century, we see very clearly the danger in such thinking.  I think it can be best summed up in this NPR article on the subject…

The current Vatican would likely resist openness with every fiber of its being. Secrecy has been considered the mode of operations by the ruling class of the church. To reverse this policy, by allowing investigators into these inner workings, is hardly imaginable. For the past 150 years, since the First Vatican Council declared the pope infallible in faith and morals, the Catholic hierarchy has run against the tide of history. While nations and institutions were toppling monarchical structures and embracing democracy, the church’s hierarchy was enhancing its power and control. Papal infallibility elevated that office to new levels of influence and invested it with an image of moral perfection.

And that’s the crux of the matter, right there.  When an organization such as the Vatican so deeply convinces itself that it’s doing the work of God, it naturally assumes the role of being unquestionable.  This is one of the problems I have with religion in general, and it should be noted that numerous other religious groups have had trouble with sexual abuse scandals (just note how the Southern Baptist Convention is having similar troubles).

By extension, clinging to such a deeply engrained religious mentality of infallibility, “speaking The [one and only] Truth”, representing God, whatever, is anathema to the spirit of free inquiry which is necessary to expose falsehood and show us reality as it is (not as we’d like it to be).  By hiding behind their cloaks of religious rhetoric & superiority, the Vatican displays for all to see just how corrupting the thinking of the true-believer can really be.  It also displays the necessity of free inquiry into all matters, including those of various forms of religious dogma, no matter how docile they may seem.

And try as the Vatican might to cast blame elsewhere while dodging their own responsibility, now that Pandora’s box has been opened, nothing will (or should) stop the investigation into these crimes.

As a final thought, let me conclude with this: Whenever we surrender our capacity for reason and critical thinking to someone who claims to speak for an ultimate authority, such as a god, how can we be surprised when the inevitable atrocities occur?  History is filled with the unfortunate results of such irrationality.

Hopefully, we’ve learned our lesson.

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11 Responses to “The Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal, Papal “Infallibility”, and Free Inquiry”

  1. [...] is the original post: The Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal, Papal “Infallibility”, and … Post a [...]

  2. [...] The Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal, Papal “Infallibility”, and Free Inquiry « T… [...]

  3. Michael said

    As the world faces its worst period in history (with the rise of the Anti Christ in America)the Catholic Church decides it is time to elect an undoubted NAZI as Pope!! This man condones and assists in covering up world wide child abuse and insults the worlds intelligence with comments to the effect of ‘ this is a test of me and the church’ !!!! Well you have FAILED the test sir! while this incumbent Pope remains in the office, there is no Catholic church!

  4. [...] The Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal, Papal “Infallibility”, and Free Inquiry « T… [...]

  5. Matt –

    The behavior of the RC Church is absolutely deplorable (something I’ve written about myself), but I don’t think this really has anything to do with the doctrine of papal infallibility.

    It *does* have plenty to do with organizational codification of authority, but that’s not just present in the Catholic church; it’s present in almost every organized religion and most secular organizations as well. People in charge have a tendency to protect the organization first; it’s a regrettable but natural outgrowth of embedding power in a hierarchy.

    Papal infallibility is a very specific bit of Catholic dogma that is wildly misunderstood, even among Catholics. There’s only two outright accepted cases of papal infallibility that I know of in the history of the church, and both of them have to do with theology, not morals. Lots of popes have made statements regarding the standing of homosexuality, for example, but none of them has ever spoken ex cathedra about it.

    The Catholic church is not the monolithic organism that most outside observers think it is, and papal infallibility doesn’t mean what most people think it does.

    All that said, the church is pretty much spot-on guilty of all your points regarding its collective behavior in the ongoing abuse scandal.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Got it, thanks for the primer. However, my point isn’t so much about the doctrine of papal infallibility as the practice of it. I think we can agree that the Vatican acts, for all practical purposes, as if the Pope is infallible; and the source of this hubris is their doctrinal assertion that he is (and by extension, the Church is) God’s representative on Earth.

  6. Joanaroo said

    As an ex-Catholic I am appalled at their hubris. Personally I was shocked when my mom told me when she married my dad in 1955 she had to agree to raise my sister and I Catholic. We went to public school but every Sunday for 17 years had to go to that same old rerun that was Mass and I hated every minute of it! Then all these sex crimes are reported and my dad is so repulsed he quits the church as do most of our Catholic relatives. I told him, See, I knew something always seemed weird about that religion!

  7. Joanaroo said

    By the way, not only is the SBC under fire for that, but their past vice president is still associated with them and has been distributing his ‘prayer list’ calling for taking out President Obama and had been asking for prayer to have PA Rep. John Murtha die (which he did from surgical complications) and his family suffer and his children be barren. Sure are alot of assholes in religion!

  8. The truth will set us free. Church officials are still more concerned about their image than protecting the lives of the innocent children placed in their care.
    It is the clergy who have brought the Church to near ruin. It is the laity who will lead the lost flock to a place that will be revered for truth and justice in the future.
    It is long past time to end the rule of the disconnected pedophile protecting long robes in the Vatican.
    God Bless and Semper Fi, Tom Holloran, Queens, NY.

  9. stories of child abuse…

    [...]The Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal, Papal “Infallibility”, and Free Inquiry « The Skeptical Teacher[...]…

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