|My view of St. Peter's cupola in 2011.|
I don’t usually retain many Latin expressions, but for some reason the inscription inside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome made an impact on me when I first saw it as a teenager in the mid-70's. I can recite it from memory to this day:
"TV ES PETRVS ET SVPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM. TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORVM" ("You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.")
I guess what must have made an impression is that, when I glanced up inside the basilica and saw the inscription, I actually understood what it said. I was thirteen, and that sense of awe that everyone gets when they first walk inside St. Peter’s basilica must have struck me as well, particularly as one looks up and sees the dramatic ray of light that enters through the cupola and spotlights the floor of the basilica. Which prompted me to conclude, my God, I can speak Latin! Well, not quite. It turns out that if you speak Italian you can almost get by on reading basic Latin.
Five years and three popes later, the Vatican had become more of a backdrop for me. I had in fact become a local in Rome, the kind that walks past St. Peter’s as if he might be walking past a McDonald’s. Perhaps with the occasional rolling of the eyes, when you become aware that there is a small fleet of tourist buses unloading Japanese, Chinese, Israeli, and Saudi Arabian, um, pilgrims.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not particularly religious. OK, who am I kidding – not at all. What I am is respectful of the essence behind all major religions. But my patience ends once you wander much beyond the essence. I believe the common denominator of all major religions is the prioritization of love, understanding, non-judgment, sacrifice, and humbleness. When you start dragging the essence of religion into politics, greed, hyper-judgment, superiority, terrorism or war -- that's where you lost me.
With that in mind: considering that Roman Catholicism is the largest church within Christianity, and that Christianity has the most followers on our planet, then the “McDonald’s” I was frequently walking in front of in Rome was in retrospect no ordinary place. There's a picture somewhere of me shaking hands with a future saint -- Pope John Paul II -- which I realize is not the same as shaking hands with Ronald McDonald. In fact, I actually liked the old Polish pope, the first non-Italian in one million years (give or take.)
When John Paul II was succeeded by yet another non-Italian pope I thought the Vatican was just maybe turning a corner. Maybe the church had decided to get back to its more universal roots – and who knows, maybe to its essence. As coincidence would have it, I was back in Rome for a few days on business during that particular transition. I had the best seats in the house actually, as one of my high school buddies was NBC's Vatican correspondent at the time, and he invited us to his report on the same rooftop from where NBC is reporting the transition these past few days. Which brings me to the developments of a few weeks ago, when Pope Benedict announced he was resigning. Once again, I was cautiously optimistic: leadership is not something one should take into senility, it is something one should pass on selflessly.
O Tempora O Mores!
My optimism was soon enough tempered by the child abuse sex scandal that has dogged the church for so many years. I had two completely different personal experiences on that subject, one direct and one indirect. Indirectly speaking, I grew up in a home with a parent that always hinted at personal knowledge of sexual misconduct within the church while growing up. Yet my direct experience was quite the opposite. The years I spent under the wing of a Catholic school took place not far from the Vatican, literally just down the road. Part of my primary and all of my secondary education was completed at an American boarding school in Rome, run by Brothers of the Holy Cross (of Notre Dame fame in the US). I often credit the brothers for the only amount of respect I still have for the Catholic Church. They were a very good example to me, spiritually and intellectually.
So I will try hard not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”, as the Catholic Church has offered the world many great things. It has provided refuge for persecuted peoples, food and shelter for the homeless, care for the sick; it has educated billions of people, something not many institutions can boast; and it has taught the great teachings of Jesus Christ, the “baby” in our baby and the bathwater analogy.
The “bathwater” was not exactly holy, historians have made sure we’re all aware of that fact. From the crusades to the inquisition, you can’t help but wince as a Catholic when you think about the overwhelming power-driven contradictions. Yet if power is something that the Vatican finally had to give up a long time ago, money is something they quietly continued to pursue. Which bought them a different kind of power, with a behind-the-scenes stability perk. Sooner or later, never mind outsiders, intelligent insiders were bound to notice the proverbial elephant in the room. From a simple economics perspective, there is nothing humble about the Vatican. When the pope’s home looks more like Buckingham Palace than the much glorified humble beginnings of Christianity’s founders, there’s a disconnection. When an ex-pope is whisked away in a helicopter to a castle on a hill where he will retire, there’s a disconnection. But when an ex-pope and the school of cardinals he leaves behind seek immunity from prosecution in a massive child sex abuse scandal, there is a major problem.
I realize some Catholics have reconciled these contradictions, but I suspect too many are not even fully aware of them. My belief is that many Catholics have turned a blind eye towards these fundamental contradictions, which they may be confusing with turning the other cheek. I also believe too many Catholics are subconsciously proud of the grandiosity of the Vatican, almost as if it gives them a sense of historic validity and moral strength. To my knowledge, that is not what Christianity’s founder had in mind when he talked about strength.
The strength I interpreted, as in the rock mentioned on St. Peter’s cupola, was the strength of character, of sacrifice, and ultimately of love. That “rock” is what a child looks up to when he or she trusts an adult. But when the adult lays his hands on a child for his own sexual pleasure, the rock has been covered in slime. Estimated cases are not insignificant, in the tens of thousands (over 4,000 reported cases alone in the US). Pope Benedict’s attempt to underplay the abuse scandal in a speech he gave during Christmas of 2010, by implying that the modern world's moral relativism was at fault, was the last straw for me. In that speech he said, "In the 1970s, pedophilia was seen as a natural thing for men and children…" While he goes on to essentially confirm that he does not believe pedophilia is morally defensible, his mixed signals were reminiscent of the logic some politicians have used on the subject of rape: society’s at fault, everyone carries some blame.
Of course we all carry some blame – understanding that is part of the essence of Christianity. But pointing that out should not come at the expense of another inconvenient truth: accountability. When an adult implies to a child that what another adult did to him was partly his fault, the child no longer feels he is standing on solid ground -- the proverbial rock. If there is no rock, there is no Catholic Church. It is time for the Catholic Church to undergo some serious soul-searching. It cannot possibly continue to look at Jesus Christ on one hand, the Vatican popes on another, and reconcile the two.