I’m about as un-Catholic as they come. I grew up in Massachusetts, where the Roman clergy formed a reactionary vanguard scorned by my family and friends. The magical beliefs at the core of Christian dogma strike me as risible, and I’ve been known to bedevil Catholic friends by making sport of them.
Not much fun in that these days, so palpable is the pain and frustration among Catholic laity over Pope Benedict XVI’s Nixonian defense of the sex abuse cover-up scandal enveloping his papacy and the church. No one can take pleasure in their present grief. Like other non-Catholics I suspect, I’ve been struggling with how to express sympathy for their estrangement from an institution they love and I find unlovable. In Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof’s offered an answer:
In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid, all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church — obsessed with dogma and rules, and distracted from social justice — is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.
Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.
This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives. This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa.
Or, you might say, the church of L’Arche.
The youngest two theologians to take part in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) were Joseph Ratzinger, now pope, and Hans Küng, a Swiss priest whose right to teach Catholic theology was later suspended by the Vatican for his persistent criticism of the Roman hierarchy. Last week, the Irish Times carried an open letter from Küng to all Catholic bishops, in which he enumerated the missed opportunities of Benedict’s papacy, and proposed a route out of the crisis.
The consequences of all these scandals for the reputation of the Catholic Church are disastrous. Important church leaders have already admitted this. Numerous innocent and committed pastors and educators are suffering under the stigma of suspicion now blanketing the church. You, reverend bishops, must face up to the question: What will happen to our church and to your diocese in the future? It is not my intention to sketch out a new program of church reform. That I have done often enough both before and after the council. Instead, I want only to lay before you six proposals that I am convinced are supported by millions of Catholics who have no voice in the current situation.