What’s wrong with the Catholic Church?

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And how did It get that way? – a commentary.

Throughout early medieval history, the issue of “benefit of clergy” was a source of contention between church and state. This was the idea that members of the clergy were not subject to civil law but could only be tried in church courts. If the privilege had been restricted to fully ordained priests, they might have gotten away with it. However, true to its usual practice of taking every opportunity to expand its authority, the Catholic Church allowed the definition of “clergy” to grow to include almost anyone who could read and write, as long as they tonsured their hair (hastily if need be) and put on a robe.

The consequent undermining of civil authority became intolerable. It was this issue that led to the infamous murder of St. Thomas A’Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170, by agents of King Henry II.

While largely discredited by the 18th Century, Benefit of Clergy was not formally eliminated in England until 1827. In the U.S., it was eliminated by act of Congress in 1790, though a few special privileges such as the sanctity of the confessional do remain in the law.

In a larger view, the controversy is but one aspect of the conflict between church and state authority that delineated much of the politics of the Middle Ages. It still is not fully resolved. The church has traditionally seen human society as a pyramid reflecting on Earth the hierarchy of Heaven. God is at the apex of the heavenly pyramid, so the Pope is at the apex of the earthly one. The royal dynasties of Europe tended to agree with the pyramid model but saw the king as being at the apex.

Some day a new King of England will be crowned. When that happens, pay attention to the ancient ritual of coronation and you will note the monarch is anointed with sacred oil, like a priest, and also like a priest, takes communion on the inside of the altar rail. This symbolizes the divine nature of kingship and makes the statement that the king embodies both civil and spiritual authority. Emphasizing this, the king is presented with two swords – the sword of justice and Curtana, the Sword of Mercy. On the other hand, the actual crown is placed on the king’s head by the Archbishop, thus symbolizing the dispensation of the church.

On the European continent, the conflict is most evident in the violent struggle between Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Pope Gregory VII. This battle for supremacy first led to Henry, in 1077, being forced to walk barefoot through the snow as a penitent, begging the Pope’s forgiveness, but ultimately to the capture and sack of Rome by Henry’s forces and the utter humiliation of Pope Gregory. This power struggle has continued in various forms throughout European history.

Today though the remaining kings and queens occupy a largely symbolic role, the primacy of civil authority their royal ancestors advocated is embodied in the law of modern governments. It is not however, fully digested by the Vatican even now after all these centuries. Reinforced by the fact that the Vatican city-state is the only case of a religion that has its very own, fully independent country, tiny though it is, the Catholic Church still has a tendency to act as a law unto itself and with the protection of its own status and privileges as its paramount consideration.

These privileges remain significant. In Italy, “Princes of The Church” are immune from arrest – a privilege not shared by clergy of other faiths. The finances of the church are secret. Priests cannot be made to reveal confidences given in the confessional under any circumstances. All of this and more has clearly supported the Vatican and the international hierarchy of bishops and cardinals in the idea that they are special – that civil authority does not really apply to them.

Nowhere does this attitude of superiority to the law reveal itself in more stark relief than in the child sex scandals that have threatened to overwhelm the church in recent years. No country in which the church has a significant presence has been exempted from these scandals. In The U.S., we have seen such disgraceful episodes as Cardinal Law of Boston fleeing to the safety of the Vatican after being revealed as guilty of a major cover-up and a senior official of the Diocese of Philadelphia being indicted by a prosecutor who stated he would have indicted Cardinal Bevilacqua as well, were he not already far gone in senility.

Perhaps the worst of these scandals have been those that have virtually destroyed the once preeminent position of the church in Ireland. A series of blue ribbon government investigations have revealed a pattern of child abuse that pervaded the entire church, especially its schools and orphanages. In Ireland, the huge system of orphanages run by the church served the purposes attended to in the U.S. by state youth and children’s services and the foster care system. That many of these institutions in Ireland were hell-holes of torture and child rape has now been documented, as has been the role of top church authorities in covering up the abuses.

The most recent scandal, breaking this past week, involves the Diocese of Cloyne and its Bishop, John Magee. The Irish government investigation reveals that Magee, on instructions from the Vatican, did his best to cover up allegations of child sex abuse involving 19 priests in the diocese. Magee’s whereabouts are unknown, having fled the country following his resignation. This latest scandal, coming on top of a series, has devastated the position of the Irish Catholic Church. The Prime Minister delivered a scathing speech in parliament, laying blame directly on the Vatican. The Papal Nuncio was threatened with deportation and new legislation is being debated that would punish failure to report child abuse with 5 years in prison and may even include information received under the seal of the confessional.

Putting the Irish crisis in the context of the Catholic Church’s world-wide mess in which in country after country – Belgium, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Latin America – senior church officials have repeatedly covered up child sex abuse by priests on an astonishingly large scale and, according to evidence in the Irish situation, on instructions from the Vatican, some observers have raised the question of whether the Catholic Church is in fact an international criminal organization. A clear pattern has emerged in which, in each new scandal, church officials express tearful apologies, profound regrets, firm assurances of change – and then the same things happen all over again and again. Clearly, in the minds of the bishops, cardinals and the pope, the ancient issue of benefit of clergy is not yet truly resolved, nor is that of the primacy of the church over civil law.

In view of the preceding, the hypocrisy of the church, especially the Council of bishops and the Catholic League, in their active opposition to LGBT rights in general and marriage equality in particular is nothing less than breathtaking. It would seem they have abdicated any reasonable claim to being an arbiter of morality. The organized conspiracy to protect the perpetrators of the most disgusting and abominable abuses of children is well established. The church needs to stop trying to distract attention from its own grotesque misdeeds by using queer rights as a red flag.

 

And how did It get that way? – a commentary.

Throughout early medieval history, the issue of “benefit of clergy” was a source of contention between church and state. This was the idea that members of the clergy were not subject to civil law but could only be tried in church courts. If the privilege had been restricted to fully ordained priests, they might have gotten away with it. However, true to its usual practice of taking every opportunity to expand its authority, the Catholic Church allowed the definition of “clergy” to grow to include almost anyone who could read and write, as long as they tonsured their hair (hastily if need be) and put on a robe.