Timely reflections from Integrity VP for National & International Affairs, The Rev. Canon Albert Ogle.
The issues that surfaced during the Easter weekend of 2010 may soon be forgotten. Amnesia is the church’s most dangerous sickness.
This past Easter weekend made history when the Vatican offended child molestation and holocaust survivors in one perfectly-timed sermon - comparing criticism of the Pope to anti-Semitism. Later, that same weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury offended the Irish Catholic church over its handling of the sexual abuse scandal by claiming the Irish Church “had lost all credibility”. Not to be outdone, Pastor Fred Phelps offended every decent American by being awarded $16,000 in legal fees from the father of a dead gay marine. Phelps, (who pickets high profile funerals) also managed to alienate the Jewish community with an Easter DVD that blamed the Jews for killing Jesus. We have not heard this much Easter un-joy since the Vatican reinstated a Good Friday liturgy two years ago (that Pastor Phelps would have enjoyed) that managed to upset every Rabbi in Rome! The liturgy implied the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus and opened “wounded memory” between Jews and Catholics.
The German aspects of this controversy are particularly sensitive. Germany’s hidden child molestation stories represent the outward skin on this onion, but underneath, there are much deeper issues that the sexual misconduct cover-up that are coming to the fore. They represent a deep wounded ness and chasm between Jews and Catholics over the holocaust and systemic anti-Semitism. Given the present Pope’s history with Germany’s past, including the Hitler Youth Movement and the Catholic Church’s full embrace of National Socialism, his performance as Archbishop of Munich is now under particular scrutiny. Both religions are based on the retelling of stories and the preservation of community memory, yet both religions are having difficulty in agreeing on the truth of what happened in recent years, from the holocaust to the sexual abuse scandal. One unresolved wounded memory stimulates another, as we have witnessed so painfully this past weekend. Secular society looks on with disbelief.
For example in the early 1980’s a Christian memorial to 100,000 Christians who were killed at Auschwitz and erected by a convent came under increasing scrutiny by Jewish leaders. When crosses appearing on the burial grounds of Birkenau alongside a number of Stars of David (next to the crematoria where the ashes of hundreds of thousands of incinerated corpses had been dumped) Jewish leaders saw the crosses and the convent, not in terms of memorialization but in terms of the longer range context of historic anti Semitism that had led to the Holocaust itself. Their anger and belief was the Christian world had still not shed its identity as a force for the oppression and persecution of Jews. This ugly exchange of accusations and recrimination throughout the 1990,s and the affair was eventually settled by removing all religious symbols from the World Heritage site at Auschwitz. Jonathan Webber, using this example as a major breakdown of communication for a very complicated interfaith issue (in “Memory, Religion and Conflict at Auschwitz” in the book “Religion, Faith, Violence, Memory and Place”) asks “Why, one might ask, has institutional religion removed itself from the theater of one of the greatest challenges to our age –to try to make sense of the incomprehensible?..Should it not be the case, rather, that religion should throw all its energies into the need for a sense of healing in European culture, the need for reconciliation and for moral and spiritual repair of the world?”. We now have a new window of opportunity to repair a deep wound and what good might come from this recent celebration of “New Life”?
The issue is also bigger than Catholics and Jews. This inability to deal effectively with moral leadership in the face of large scale human suffering affects every culture. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments on the Irish Catholic churches handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal opened an old wound between Ireland and her former political oppressor, England. Even the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin distanced himself from Williams by claiming it was “unfortunate”.
Many of our North American National and World Heritage treasures are vast stretches of beautiful lands that were removed from the Native American community, either through conflict or at a fraction of their real worth. The United States Supreme Court has never given the Native American side of the story the opportunity to be heard, never mind receive some semblance of justice. Living in places like Taos and parts of New Mexico is challenging for three very different cultures that all have a different interpretation on what actually happen in the middle of the 19th century. These kinds of historical traumas do not disappear. We struggle to find language and rituals to heal the past. The new museum in Santa Fe is a courageous attempt to tell more than one story about the blood soaked land on which it now rests. Certain stories remain taboo, like the massacre of a local native community in a local church by the military. It is difficult for truth telling and without it there can be no deep healing.
In more recent living memory, the church has also ensured a lack of culpability for atrocities like the Rwandan genocide. Pope John Paul II said the institutional church could not be blamed for the actions of a few bad apples. Even thought there is a wealth of historical evidence that both the Catholic and Anglican churches used their communication and leadership structures to organize the 6 week genocide that claimed the lives of over 600,000 Rwandans, the cover-up has been relatively successful. Only a few scapegoat nuns and bishops took the heat for something that was much more systemic than has been publicly admitted. Now the Papacy is using the same argument over clergy sexual abuse - that a few bad apples need to be punished, but the institution remains clean.
The recent attacks on the gay and lesbian community from the Catholic, Evangelical and Mormon churches in places like Maine and California over the rights of gay people to marry, appear to be another form of contemporary scape-goating. Last week, the New York Times carried an ad last week from the Catholic League deflecting the clergy sexual abuse scandal towards the American LGBT community. “The Pedophile crisis is a homosexual crisis” This is a consistent deflection of responsibility by the Vatican that has systematically “cleansed” Catholic universities and seminaries of all sympathetic progressive theologians and all LGBT academics and gay seminarians. The policy attempts to cleanse the church of gay (even celibate) clergy as its strategy to deal with clergy sexual abuse, even thought the vast majority of pedophiles are heterosexual. The church has not only failed to grasp the issues, but it has scape-goated the LGBT community that continues to be persecuted by the church.
So the Vatican and the Catholic church has, like Teflon, managed to deflect a series of important charges and accusations that, in the scale of human suffering, present even more significant moral crises that the current sexual abuse debacle. From the Holocaust, to the Rwandan genocide, nothing sticks to an institution or a leader that claims “Infallibility”. Will this be old news in a month? It is only when the lay Catholic community and a significant number of clergy publicly calls the church to account for its actions, (no doubt horrified by some strategic lawsuits that challenge the so called independence of the church in criminal issues), that we may see some changes in our lifetime. But the record during my lifetime shows we will probably not.