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June 29, 2010

Vatican “Astonishment”

Roy Meachum

Belgian police raided Catholic files and wound up holding the bishops of Belgium in custody for hours. They were seeking to unearth records on church clergy who sexually abused youths.


The Vatican pronounced “astonishment,” particularly on officials raiding tombs of two deceased cardinals, looking to see what evidence was buried with them. Brussels’ ambassador to the Holy See was called on the carpet and thoroughly admonished – in other words, chewed out.


The pope condemned the raids “deplorable” at his Sunday audience from his balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, and announced himself united with the Belgian hierarchy. So what’s new? Benedict XVI, when still a cardinal, participated in the sexual cover-ups, earning universal condemnation.


What a far cry from the Roman Catholic Church I grew up in. Then, we learned of papal supremacy from the story of Canossa.


Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stood outside a castle for days, barefoot and in a hair shirt, praying in icy snow late in January, 1177. Pope Gregory VII huddled inside the impregnable Canossa fortress, afraid that Henry would depose him if he came outside its walls. Instead, the emperor presented himself as a penitent, asking the pontiff to lift his excommunication. At stake was the loyalty of various kings and princes who swore fealty to the pope. Gregory relented and removed the excommunication, reinforcing the principle that the state was inferior to the church.


On the other hand, about 450 years later Henry VIII ordered England into the Reformation, rather than submit to papal authority over his right to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Ann Boleyn; he joined German rulers sympathetic to Martin Luther’s teaching on Rome’s corruption. It took revolution in France to escape the Vatican. As I discovered first-hand when covering a bishops’ synod, the Italians are cynical on the subject of religion.


Then the world learned of the sexual abuse of minors, a scandal that surfaced in Boston; it tore away most of the respect Catholic priests, brothers and nuns once enjoyed – as recently as World War II. Benedict XVI did his church no favor by electing himself pope; he brought with him to St. Peter’s chair a reputation for cover-up and ignoring the abuse while he headed the bureau once known as the Holy Office of Inquisitions.


When Belgian police seized the Catholic files in Brussels, they were not taking revenge for Canossa; they simply broke down the eggshell-thin wall that remained of the once strong civil obeisance to the church and its leaders. They kicked over the standing stones and bricks erected by Pope Gregory VII.


Isolated Americans should take note: the oldest and previously strongest daughter of Christianity had stripped away, country by country, all pretence to moral leadership. It was not that “some” of the clergy sinned by raping and molesting children, the Vatican was revealed as complicit in their crimes by not handing the offenders over to the police in the respective nations.


In the hey-days of the Spanish Inquisition, it was accepted practice that once the church found individuals guilty they were consigned to civil authorities for burning, hanging or punishment in whatever ways. Since the Roman Curia has no jurisdiction over physical transgressions, it should have ordered accused clergy to stand trial in courts, where they could be found guilty or innocent. In any event, few judges would stand up to religious institutions by convicting priest-ministers.


In this instance, I’m reminded of a Latin text: “Deposuit potentes de sede…” (He has put down the mighty from their seat). The rest of the saying goes:  “…et exltalvit humiles” (and exalted those of low degree).


To which I can only add a fervent: Amen!


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