by John Shelby Spong
Those of us who remember the last years of the papacy of John Paul II wonder why age and infirmity has become an issue all of a sudden, since it was obviously not an issue in John Paul II’s final years. The traditional, hierarchical voices of Roman Catholicism grieve for this pope who was their bulwark against the changing forces of the modern world, holding those forces down with great power. This was not, however, the response of those Catholics who saw in the reforms of Vatican II the hope of the future, nor was it the response of the ecumenical world.
This was the Pope who visited Africa with its AIDS epidemic, its poverty, its high rate of starvation and infant mortality, its tribal and civil wars and yet the only moral issue he chose to address was the use of condoms specifically, and birth control generally. This was the pope who, serving as the head of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” or the “Cardinal Inquisitor” under John Paul II, began the systematic suppression of any and all creative thinking. He undercut the work of those young Vatican II theologians who were the stars of that life-giving council, called by the much beloved Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, when he became Pope John XXIII. Among those who were either removed from their posts as “catholic theologians,” silenced or harassed were such giants of the church as Hans Kung, probably the best known and most widely read Catholic theologian of the 20th century; Edward Schillebeeckx, probably the best known Roman Catholic biblical scholar in the 20th century; Leonardo Boff, the father of the Latin-American version of liberation theology; Charles Curran, probably the best known Catholic ethicist in the 20th century, and Matthew Fox, the popular and much published advocate of what came to be called “Creation Spirituality.”
The only progressive Catholics escaping suppression by this pope were Catholic lay women, who were theologians. Theologically trained Catholic women are not subject to vows of obedience to the church’s hierarchy, so they were simply marginalized, indexed or refused both appointments and honors by those institutions under Catholic hierarchical control. I refer to great thinkers like Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Rosemary Reuther, Margaret Farley, Sister Joan Chittister, Jeannette Rodriguez, Jane Schaberg, Pheme Perkins and countless others. This was also the pope who presided over the tragic violence of child abuse and its subsequent criminal cover up that has engulfed the entire Catholic world.
At first, when these cases began to come to light, we were told that this was just the work of a few bad priests. As the crisis grew, however, the priestly abuse of children became evident in Ireland, the Philippines, Australia, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Scandinavia, France, Spain, the United States and many more nations. This widespread abuse clearly revealed a pattern pointing to a systemic sickness that infected the entire ecclesiastical structure. This is why the cover up, which today is undoubted, became so necessary. The cover up was a strategy of survival that revealed just how deep the scandal was. In the United States it reached the level of the cardinals. In Massachusetts Cardinal Bernard Law is so obviously guilty of a massive cover up. His hands were not only on the records of priests guilty of massive abuse, but he was also responsible for the choosing of many bishops appointed throughout the United States, who were also subsequently revealed as guilty of both abuse and cover up.
Instead of dealing with that issue and letting Cardinal Law face his accusers in court, the Vatican, near the end of the pontificate of John Paul II, moved to extricate Cardinal Law from any criminal investigation and probable imprisonment by “promoting” him to a senior Vatican position where he will remain for the balance of his life, thus removing him from the possibility of ever having to testify under oath or of responding to a subpoena. The “second in command” in the Vatican when this decision was made was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. No Vatican action could have announced more publicly that a cover up was the official policy of the Catholic Church than this. Cardinal Law was thus placed into a position of high honor instead of going to jail and he was present to say one of the official masses at the death of John Paul II. He has remained in this senior prestigious position during the entirety of the pontificate of Benedict XVI. So Benedict XVI was touched by and involved in this scandal from the very beginning of his papacy.
In the midst of Benedict’s pontificate, stories emerged out of Germany, which revealed that while he was the Archbishop of Munich, he failed to take the necessary steps to address the child abuse scandal and, as the investigation got closer and closer to his office, the hierarchy of that church went into its most protective, defensive posture, seeking to remove him from any responsibility. A closed investigation, however, never does that, so the Munich odor is still abroad, still waiting to be dispelled by truth. The truth will eventually be made clear.
Just before the time of the Benedict XVI’s resignation, hundreds of subpoenaed letters and documents revealed beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles had been literally directing the cover up activities, while all the time publicly proclaiming just how thoroughly he was prosecuting those guilty of molesting children. Since child molestation is a crime, then protecting a person guilty of child molestation is also a crime. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles is thus now charged with criminal behavior and ought to be prosecuted under the law. His successor in office in Los Angeles, Archbishop Jose Gomez, has forbidden him to function publicly. Cardinal Mahoney, in a recent blog to his friends, however, asked for their prayers as he flies to Rome to participate in the papal election. Does not everyone understand why there is public disillusionment both within the Catholic Church and beyond it?
This was the Pope who would rather close churches, which has been done by the thousands across the world, than open ordination to allow priests who resigned to get married to function as priests. He would rather have no priests than to break the 12th century celibacy requirement or to allow women to be ordained. This was the Pope who continued to call homosexuals “deviant,” a definition almost universally rejected in the scientific and medical community. This was the Pope who spoke out against any politician who supported same sex marriage and then sat back to watch a majority of Catholics in the United States vote for the election of Barack Obama, who endorsed this position. This was the pope who must have seen our nation marching irrevocably toward a Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of gay marriage.
Today on that court of nine judges sit six Roman Catholic and three Jewish justices. Few people doubt the ultimate outcome of this debate or the ultimate outcome of the Supreme Court decision. The only question is how long will it take for the prejudice against gay and lesbian people, so deeply supported by institutional Christianity through the centuries, to come to its inevitable death? If not from the Supreme Court as presently constituted, then which Supreme Court in which year will deliver the inevitable coup de grace to our nation’s church supported homophobia?
There is always hope in transition. Hope is dampened, however, by the realization that all of the 117 cardinals who will cast their votes for the next pope were appointed by John Paul II or Benedict XVI, and even those appointed by John Paul II were influenced by Cardinal Ratzinger, in the number two position in the Vatican under John Paul II. So there is, people say, little realistic hope for change. That is not a certainty. Many an American president has appointed justices to the Supreme Court whose voting record has been surprisingly different from what the appointing president anticipated. One recalls Dwight Eisenhower’s appointment of Chief Justice Earl Warren, John F. Kennedy’s appointment of Justice Byron (Whizzer) White and George H. W. Bush’s appointment of Justice David H. Souter.
No one can finally control the thought processes of another and, as the poet James Russell Lowell once noted, “Time makes ancient good uncouth.” So no one should despair until the choice is made and the white smoke appears. Remember that John XXIII was chosen as a compromise candidate who, because of his advanced age, was thought to merely be a “seat warmer” until a consensus leader emerged. John Paul XXIII proved to be far more than that as he lit the fires for a new reformation, for the modernization of his church, for new ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, and he opened the door to a new spirit. Every pope since, clearly frightened by change, has expended enormous energy in trying to restore Catholicism to its controlling pre-Vatican II lifestyle.
Truth, however, cannot finally be suppressed simply because it is ecclesiastically inconvenient. So hope still burns brightly in the hearts and minds of millions of Catholics the world over. That hope just might turn out to be nothing less than a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Will this Spirit be seen, felt and responded to by the Sacred Concave? Only time will tell. The odds appear to be long, but the future of the Roman Catholic Church and maybe of Christianity itself, may well hang on the choice made by these 117 generally old men.