Almost every week during the past six months, the Vatican has had to deal with one scandal or another in what many are seeing as a horrible year for the Catholic Church.
The clerical sex abuse of minors has put a spotlight on how the church hierarchy has dealt — or often, gravely dealt — with such crimes. But other scandals (some unsubstantiated) involving the Vatican more directly also have hit the headlines. These concern a couple of senior Vatican officials who served under John Paul II, and allegations of corruption and a prostitution ring involving a lay member working in the papal palace.
Some of the abuse scandal has been magnified by the liberal media, or used by the church’s enemies to attack it. The New York Times is one example that seems to believe it can bring down Pope Benedict XVI, even though church commentators strongly argue evidence of willful wrongdoing on his part doesn’t exist.
But some scandals have come to light properly, leading some to wonder whether this is part of a necessary cleansing of the church that will, in the end, work to the good — the consequence, at least in part, of today’s information age.
Last week, L’Unita, although a communist Italian newspaper, carried a noteworthy interview with professor Eric Frattini, a controversial Spanish author of the new book “Popes and Sex: From St. Peter to Benedict XVI.”
Referring to the many grave sins of a few past popes, he opined that these wayward church leaders never would get away with such behavior today. Such matters were “unspoken and hidden,” he said. “There was no Internet but now the Church cannot ignore [scandals], the Pope has had to publicly condemn pedophilia.”
Frattini’s observation pointed to the possibility of greater transparency and more accountability within the church. By shedding more of a media spotlight on the Vatican in particular, it might help mitigate what many, rightly or wrongly, perceive as secrecy and hypocrisy within its ranks — or what Frattini described as “a lot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
One Vatican official likewise saw the benefits of such coverage, going so far as to praise the media for their reporting on the abuse scandal.
Richard Rouse, who works in the Vatican’s council for culture, said: “We’ve got to thank people for what they’re doing,” adding that the Vatican also must correct the media for inaccuracies, or when matters get out of proportion. There’s a need for balance, he said, and also a space in which the church can share its good news.
And although he didn’t refer to the media directly, Benedict XVI reminded Catholics of the grave seriousness of scandals in an institution that should be held to a higher standard, while at the same time alluding to the media’s ability to uncover the truths behind them.
The church, he said at a papal Mass last week, “suffers her greatest damage from that which pollutes the faith and the Christian life of her members and her communities.”
But quoting Scripture, he added, “Men who work evil will not make much progress, because their folly will become plain to everyone.” This, he explained, is "a guarantee of freedom that God gives the church: freedom from material ties which seek to impede or inhibit her mission, and from spiritual and moral evils which can damage her authenticity and credibility.”
Catholics are aware that their church will never be perfect because it’s a school for sinners in need of redemption. But the hope is that the events of this year, although painful, will prompt further internal reform, leading to the kind of just and healthy institution to which many believe the Catholic Church is called.
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