Sunday, March 03, 2013

In Defense of That Guy I Just Bashed

In defense of John Cornwell and the many other people who are writing speculative, unsubstantiated "exposes" of Benedict XVI's ostensible reasons for resignation, this must be said:

Keith Cardinal O'Brien will not take part in the conclave.  Last week, Benedict accepted his resignation as Archbishop of St. Andrew's and Edinburgh, the ranking Catholic prelate in Scotland.  Although he once called for "discussion" on the topic of sexuality, both homo and hetero, O'Brien began to toe the line when he was given the red hat, and this is apparently no coincidence.  However, it appears that, years ago, he made unwanted advances to a number of seminarians and young priests, several of whom have made official complaints.

Roger Cardinal Mahony will participate in the conclave, despite a grassroots campaign calling for him to recuse himself as well.  Mahony did not proposition any young men, but has been shown to have helped protect predatory priests.

An ABC News article contrasts the two thusly:
The difference in cases boils down to the fact that O'Brien himself was accused of improper behavior, whereas Mahony has been shown to have covered up for other priests who raped and molested children - a distinction that has long shielded bishops accused of cover-up from Vatican sanction.
And here we have one of two further things that must be said.  It has not hitherto been clear to the Roman Catholic hierarchy that protecting a criminal is in fact "improper behavior."  This reflects a vast, almost indescribable, moral myopia ingrained deeply into their system of governance.  (Whether it is ingrained also in Roman Catholic theology is a delicate and debatable point, upon which we are reluctant to venture an opinion.)  Protecting child abusers is probably a crime, and if it isn't then the criminal codes should be changed.  It is, by any reasonable estimation, far more improper than violating one's chastity or (arguably) even abusing one's office by making a drunken pass at a subordinate.

In other words, we find Mahony's presence in Rome this week far more problematic than O'Brien's would be, and his absence far more desirable.  Consequently, we are inclined to see in O'Brien a figure of greater circumspection, and one whom we might even find admirable despite his failures.

The second thing that must be said is that the shadow over these two prelates in particular may give a certain bitter comfort to some traditionalists.  Both Mahony and O'Brien have reputations as "liberals," a word which must be used ever-so-carefully in ecclesiastical matters.

It was Mahony, for example, whose pastoral letter encouraging careful Eucharistic planning in parishes so enraged Mother Angelica some 15 years back.  She evidently misread the letter, and announced on the air that Mahony did not accept the doctrine of transubstantiation.  For this reason, she told viewers in his diocese that she hoped they would be disobedient to him.  Mother Angelica was eventually moved to apologize, albeit grudgingly, and her supporters continue to treat Mahony as the epitome of all that is modern, liberal and hateful.  (It is likely that they are less enraged by his teaching on the Eucharist than by his reluctance to excommunicate pro-choice politicians).

As for O'Brien, his apparent support for an end to compulsory clerical celibacy, restated just recently, gives a sense of where he stands.

No, neither man is well-loved in conservative circles.  But of course, Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the very conservative Legionaries of Christ, appears to have been an abuser of seminarians, father of children by several women, child molester, drug addict and, somewhat incidentally, plagiarist.  He makes Mahony look like ... well, a saint.  Only Degollado's death prevented Benedict from mopping the floor with the guy.  Officials of the Legion, who surely knew some of the facts and protected him from scrutiny, are still under investigation by the Vatican.

Point being that many, many Roman Catholic officials, upon close scrutiny, will be found to have made grave moral errors -- and that this includes prominent figures on both sides of every liturgical or theological question.  Sin does not come from our opinions, but from our broken and fallible natures.

All of which means that, while we still wish Cornwell et al. would offer facts instead of speculation, it is easy to see why their speculation has reached such a fever pitch.  They are responding emotionally, as nearly the whole world is now responding, to the revelation of a systematic pattern of misbehavior in the largest Christian communion, which, while it validates centuries of vicious Protestant polemic, also shames and enrages the faithful of every Christian church, and brings upon us all the stink of association when we leave our sectarian dugouts to confront a culture of doubt and disbelief.  Whether the rest of us like it or not, the future of Christianity is deeply entangled with the future of Roman Catholicism.

In other words, Cornwell's "analysis" of Benedict's resignation, like Hans Kung's comically unrealistic vision of a "Vatican Spring" in which decades of liberal fantasies are realized at once, may be disconnected from the facts.  But both are deeply connected to something else, which is the desperate, almost-universal sense that radical change must take place at the highest levels of the Roman communion.  We say "almost" because only the results of the conclave, and of the actions taken soon after by the man it elects, will reveal whether this sense is shared by those people who have the most power to act upon it.

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