"Lord!" the man begins. It is night, and the torches cast flickering shadows on the ancient walls. "Your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side." It is a somber statement, particularly coming from a senior member of the Catholic Church.
The priest continues, speaking of weeds in the fields of the Lord, and of how much "filth there is in the Church," the result of priests' betrayal of God. "The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again." He beseeches God, saying: "Have mercy on your Church; even within her, Adam continues to fall again and again."
These were prophetic words. They reflected a bitterness and lack of illusions that could only have been expressed by an experienced cardinal who had exhaustively studied the files outlining the "filth in the Church."
The speaker was Joseph Ratzinger. He was chastising his own church during the Easter holiday five years ago, in 2005. It was a bitter indictment by a veteran of the Church, who apparently had little hope and was on the verge of retirement. It was meant as a legacy and as a warning, but what Ratzinger did not do was to specify the actual misconduct.
At the Center of the Filth
Five years later, the situation in the Church has caught up with Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. The filth in the Church has seeped out of the secret dossiers and hidden corners of vestries, seminaries and schools and has been brought to light. As the head of the Church, the captain of this battered ship, Ratzinger now finds himself at the center of the filth.
The pope is now confronted with accusations from all over the world, accompanied by increasingly urgent appeals to finally render his ship seaworthy again. The sex abuse cases which were initially a problem only for national bishops' conferences, particularly in the United States, Ireland and Germany, have merged into a crisis for the entire Catholic Church, a crisis that is now descending upon the Vatican with a vengeance and hitting its spiritual leader hard. Meanwhile that leader seems oblivious to what has happened so suddenly.
In Germany, churchgoers are demanding to know why Benedict has not said a word about the crimes of priests in his native country. Christian Weisner, a senior member of the reform movement "We Are Church," is deeply disappointed by the pope. Benedict XVI, says Weisner, has "not understood the true scope of the distress."
Demands for Repentance
The Poles are angry with the pope, because they fear that his inaction in the face of the crisis could harm the reputation of "their" pope, John Paul II, whose beatification they expect to take place soon. "A public mea culpa would have given him credibility in the fight over the purity of the Church," wrote the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
The Irish, to whom Benedict wrote a pastoral letter in which he assigned the responsibility for the abuse cases to local bishops and, in what was not exactly a sign of remorse, to the "secularization of Irish society," were disappointed in the pope. Writing in the Sunday Tribune, an Irish Sunday newspaper, columnist Maurice O'Connell demanded: "Why, for example, can Benedict not jump on a plane, come to Ireland, and, on Maundy Thursday (as he will be doing in Rome), wash the feet of 12 victims?"
Finally, in the United States, where about 12,000 abuse cases have come to light in the last few decades and the media are already accusing the pope himself of having covered up the scandals, the attorney of one abuse victim even wants to force the pontiff to appear in court. Many Catholics who suffered as a result of the sexual urges of their priests 30 years ago have given up hope that the pope will show any remorse at all. David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), accuses the pope of ignoring the suffering of the victims. "Actions, not words, protect innocent kids and heal wounded victims," says Clohessy.
Papacy In Jeopardy
Suddenly, the worldwide chorus of outrage seems to be putting the German pope's entire papacy in jeopardy.
Benedict XVI began his papacy by embarking on a project of reconciliation which went beyond the Church itself. The newly elected pope wanted to rule with the word, and with discourse, not prohibitions. That was what he had been doing for 23 years in his previous position, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). And now he was suddenly advocating an open, self-confident dialogue on several fronts: with the secular world, with Islam, with the Jews and with the traditionalists within the Church. Perhaps even with the followers of Martin Luther.
Now, after five years in office, Benedict has seen his project fail and himself become a spiritual shepherd lost in a world that no longer understands him. The secular world now views the pope with, at best, indifference, if not downright hostility. The Church's dialogue with the Jews suffered a serious setback in the wake of the scandal surrounding Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson. An icy silence still predominates in parts of the rabbinate, and the planned beatification of Pius XII, whose role during the Nazi era is controversial, will hardly change that.
Many Muslims have never forgiven Benedict for a lecture he gave in Regensburg in 2006, where he examined the issue of violence and Islam in a bold but ineptly executed move. The speech unleashed a torrent of protests in the Muslim world.
Even radical opponents of reform, such as the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) and other traditionalists, have not hurried back to Rome, even though the pope has opened all doors for them, declared the Latin mass to be equally valid and reversed the excommunication of SSPX's bishops. Meanwhile, Benedict's gesture of reconciliation toward the extreme right fringe has angered more liberal dioceses in Germany and France.
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