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May 4, 2010

My Poor Church

Roy Meachum

The New York Times was dragged through pitch-hot coals for reporting on the Catholic Church sexual scandals. The paper has been accused of conducting a campaign of vilification and vituperation against Pope Benedict XVI.


What the “good gray lady of American journalism” has done is, in fact, American journalism, at its best.


Little swayed by influence and fear, The Times did its job. I know because I was in on the beginning of the modern epoch of the Church of Rome. I was the assigned reporter on the eruption at Catholic University over attempts to fire moral theologian Charles E. Curran. Blinded by what the curia said and what really happened, almost every faculty member and the students saw the 1967 battle in terms of secret rule by the Vatican; things were then supposed to be open.


In attempting a “wrap” on the story, The Times was wrong; the newsroom did not take a cue from Benedict who at least mentioned Vatican II in his letter to Irish bishops. Maybe because of youth of both editors and reporters, last Friday’s story by Rachel Donadio, datelined the Vatican, points to “an epochal shift” occasioned by the sexual abuse crisis.


Ms. Donadio certainly speaks better Italian, but she was born too late to understand what’s really happening, despite Pope John XXIII and Cardinal Augustin Bea. Pontiff and Jesuit wanted to bring to the world’s largest Christian denomination “aggiornomiento” – a word that begins with “today” in Italian, and communicates the sense of modernization. That’s the basic basis on which Vatican II met.


If they had been successful in the 1960s’ Councils, we would not have the present crisis triggered by thinking the church was above civil law.


The centuries-old concept still prevails in the Vatican curia despite evidence that the world is no longer the same as when Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stood in the snow at Canossa three days waiting for Pope Gregory to annul his excommunication for flaunting papal authority.


When peasant-born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (John XXIII) succeeded aristocratic Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII), the church was coming apart – but not obviously. The education level in the Western world forced Catholics to face ancient superstitions, which were rejected.


In pockets, notably Latin America and southern Italy, where a few lorded over the vast majority, little changed. Vatican II became an attempt to fend off most Catholics awakening to discover their church had its head under a chalice cover. At the moment, a vigorous Protestant crusade in Third World nations denies a blank-check for the Vatican to do as it will.


The pope and the Jesuit cardinal attempted to make the church more accessible and transparent to head off inevitable crisis, like right now. No matter what anybody says, including The New York Times, the current dilemma faced by Rome has little to do with sexual abuse. It’s entirely about confidence in the magisterium, the very foundation for papal authority that governs the principles and their interpretation.


In the years after World War II, the Vatican anticipated a return to normality: the faithful kissing episcopate rings and accepting priestly utterances as the word of God. Instead they faced a reality where the faithful attended mass in a desultory fashion. No matter the bishops’ pretension to their loyal legions, church attendance sagged big time. Stalin in the middle of the war asked how many divisions the pope commanded; the answer now would be couched in mere squads.


Since always human nature is to look for someone to fault, the search is quick. Cardinal Afredo Ottaviani was the chief of the crusade to keep the church apart from the world. Cardinal Amleto Cicognani contributed greatly; he spent 25 years as the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States. He returned to the curia to take charge of the Holy Office, for years known as the Holy Office of Inquisition, which the present Pope headed until he grabbed the keys of St. Peter.


If that sounds harsh, please accept the reality: the Vatican brutally scythed all dissent.


Individual Catholics were stuck in the middle of a theological argument that had nothing to do with them. They sometimes watched – and understood less – the changes in their church’s structure. Latin one day yielded totally to ordinary languages and then was restored in an attempt to bring the congregations back in line.


Eating no meat during Lent served the purpose of reminding Rome’s followers of the church’s presence in their daily lives; it’s gone now – perhaps because today’s Catholics are more holy than their predecessors? Hogwash!


My poor church. Again. Still.


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