Sunday, May 2, 2010

What Are They Thinking in the Vatican?

In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid, all-male Vatican hierarchy that bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is HIV-positive. Yet there is another Catholic Church I admire intensely. This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. Lepers, prostitutes, and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns, and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

Nicholas D. Kristof

During my time as President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary I have met many rectors, deans, and faculty members of Roman Catholic Seminaries. Because of our affiliation with the Association of Theological Schools I have been able to work alongside these men, and yes, women at workshops, business meetings, and accreditation visits. To a person I have been impressed with their deep commitment to Christ, their compassion for their students and the world and their humanity. I have never felt they considered me any less a Christian for being a Protestant. They have been patient with my questions, interested in my concerns, and curious about my experiences. Now I realize that not all leaders in Roman Catholic seminaries are like this—any more than all Protestant or Evangelical seminary presidents and deans. We are all, after all, subject to original sin. Nevertheless, I have not experienced the rigid and paranoid hierarchy Kristof refers to, but an open and compelling community.

The same is true of the Roman Catholic members of the North Park University faculty. For several years I have interviewed prospective faculty members. My interviews are concerned with “mission fit.” I want to know if the applicant is a follower of Jesus. I want them to understand the ethos and commitments of North Park University and the Evangelical Covenant Church. As a result of these interviews and my work with University faculty, I would observe that most of our Roman Catholic faculty members are as deeply committed to our Christian mission as anyone on our faculty and staff. Many, in fact, are among the most committed to that mission. Worshipping, serving, and teaching with Roman Catholic faculty and staff has given me a deep appreciation for the Roman Catholic Church at its best, whatever my theological questions and concerns.

Nevertheless, having observed the Vatican’s response to the sexual abuse crisis over the last few years I am bound to say that seldom has a community been more ill served by their leadership than the Roman Catholic Church. I have been perplexed by their slowness to respond, their mulishness and defensiveness. I have been shocked that the hierarchy has appeared more concerned for their abusive priests than their victims. The Christian faith, if nothing else, is, or should be, a champion for victims. It seems that for many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy the victims are a problem to be dealt with rather than wounded to be cared for. I know this is not true for everyone in every case, but it has been true in enough cases to raise questions. Why does the Vatican and Catholic leadership in general seem so tone deaf about this issue?

I would suggest that Pius XII provides some clues. Pius was the Pope during the devastation of World War II. He was faced with an unprecedented threat to European civilization. The Roman Catholic Church faced the challenge of both Fascism and Communism. Priests and nuns suffered in the hands of Hitler’s Germany as well as Stalin’s Russia. Any critique of Pius must take seriously the threat the church faced. We have the benefit of hindsight. We know the allies won. For Pius the outcome of the war was at certain points very much in doubt. Pius despised the Nazis. And yet he has been accused of being “Hitler’s Pope” because of his hesitancy to speak out regarding the fate of the Jews. I have read a good deal about Pius and I am not convinced he was anti-Semitic. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that he did not speak plainly on behalf of the Jews when he had the chance. His reticence perhaps explains the contemporary failures of the Vatican.

Pius was concerned about the survival of the church as an institution. He was concerned about preserving the structures, facilities and agreements forged with governments around Europe, including Germany. He feared the Germans would pillage the Vatican and slaughter its inhabitants if he spoke openly in criticism of Hitler. He had good reason for such a fear. Nevertheless, I would argue that Pius’ failure to speak out for the sake of preserving the church as an institution is one of the great moral failures of the 20th century. I would suggest that the failure of the Roman Catholic hierarchy today to speak out plainly and consistently on clergy sexual abuse is based in the same concern for the preservation of the institutional church. Although this is not another holocaust, it is, in my opinion, a moral failing of the same order. It also reflects a stubborn refusal to let “outsiders” tell the church how to do its business. I believe this is at the very least incredibly shortsighted and a severe disservice to deeply committed and compassionate followers of Christ. One can only hope that something will change, but I fear that a Pope John XXIII only comes along once in a century. There are some signs that some in the leadership are finally “getting it.” I hope it is not too late.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

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