Why Popes Never Have to Say Sorry

The Pope can cite theology and tradition in defense of the church, but with many Catholics wanting a very modern kind of accounting for the sex abuse scandal, words and ritual may no longer be enough

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Stefano Dal Pozzolo / Contrasto / Redux

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Reforming the Church
The word reformation is a sensitive one for Catholics, raising the specter of one of the church's great historical challenges. But it has faced down danger before. Ratzinger once cited the legendary Cardinal-diplomat Ercole Consalvi, who, when told that Napoleon was out to destroy the Catholic Church, exclaimed, "He will never succeed. We have not managed to do it ourselves." This crisis may yet be the catalyst for change.

Can the church really change? Father Thomas Whelan, a professor of theology at Dublin's Milltown Institute, points out that "this very centralized church [tightly managed out of Rome] has only really been the case since the end of the 19th century." Now the pedophile-priest scandal has struck a massive blow against ecclesiastical autocracy. If the church doesn't clean house, the consequences will be dire. The scandals in deeply Catholic Ireland have led to a massive emptying of churches. Controversies in Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe have had a similar effect. "This memory [of sexual abuse] will now be forever encased in history," says Whelan. "In Ireland, at least, theology can't ever be the same without mentioning it — not just the abuse but how it was handled by the church."

For some liberals, the crisis over sex abuse is a chance to argue old questions of dogma and discipline once again: for example, to address the necessity of celibacy in the priesthood and the church's vision of sex, to expand the role of women and to define the status of Catholic homosexuals. Others say the authority of the bishops — and the Pope — must now be shared with the faithful. Conservatives, for their part, see this crisis as an opportunity to double down on their criticism of the sexual profligacy of modern culture and re-emphasize the core of what they believe are the traditional and biblical essentials of Catholicism, even if that means ejecting and rejecting fellow Catholics who can no longer subject themselves to full obedience to the teachings of the church and its fathers. Increasingly, those conservative Catholics are found outside the church's traditional home in Europe, among Africans, Asians and Latin Americans who are proud to be embraced by a 2,000-year-old institution. That shift in the core of the faithful — even without any ideological change — will bring about a metamorphosis in the Roman nature of the Catholic Church.

One vision for the future echoes from the past. A conservative website is circulating a prophecy uttered by a 42-year-old Catholic theologian in 1969, amid the turmoil of that year of radicalism and barricades. The priest envisioned a post-imperial papacy, shorn of wealth and pretenses of earthly power. "From today's crisis, a church will emerge tomorrow that will have lost a great deal," he said on German radio. "She will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning. She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor. Because of the smaller number of her followers, she will lose many of her privileges in society. Contrary to what has happened until now, she will present herself much more as a community of volunteers ... As a small community, she will demand much more from the initiative of each of her members and she will certainly also acknowledge new forms of ministry and will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs ... It will make her poor and a church of the little people ... All this will require time. The process will be slow and painful." The theologian was Joseph Ratzinger. And his vision from 40 years ago may now unfold in ways he could never have imagined.

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