|By A.D. Freudenheim||
28 April 2002
The current turmoil in the Catholic Church - and in the American branch in particular - is mystifying indeed. The scurrilous behavior of many priests, and the complicity of many bishops and cardinals is grotesque, and one does not need to be Catholic to say so. Yet these men are human, after all, and humans are notoriously fallible. (Almost certainly, religious leaders of other faiths have committed similar immoral acts involving children (or adults) from their congregations, so Catholicism cannot be made to stand apart in guilt, despite the current situation.) Moreover, there is a long history of fallibility within the Catholic Church - epitomized by the legendary immorality of the papacy during the Renaissance. This ultimately lead to an official declaration, in 1870, that the Pope's words are considered infallible when it comes to establishing the moral direction of the Church - but of course, only when an institution and its leaders stand as truly flawed is it necessary to declare their irrefutable perfection. What seems even more strange is that it has taken this long for (American) Catholics to become so seriously disaffected with a religion that exercises such centralized control over everything from doctrine to action.
Many of the world's most prevalent religions do not have such authority structures. Most Protestant Christian denominations have membership-based church hierarchies, with committees established to vote on doctrinal changes; but these hierarchies are also dependent upon the memberships of each church and community, and they are ostensibly more open to change because their leaders are elected by the members themselves. Judaism and Islam share an understanding that there is only one master authority - God - and all other issues must be worked out by humans, within their communities and as appropriate to and for their people. Although both religions have, at times, had leaders with world renown (such as the various Muslim Caliphates), and both have many religious schools for training clergy, local religious leaders have always maintained the right to decide certain doctrinal debates. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism - these too lack centralized power structures; they may often have ethnic or tribal authority figures, but that authority is limited and does not (typically) pretend to be infallible.
In fact, some of the religions one might commonly think of as sharing a strong, almost authoritarian model are considered by many to be cults: for instance, the Unification Church, established by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon; or the Church of Scientology, founded on the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, and notable in part for its legal actions to protect the copyright and distribution of its church teachings and materials. This is to say nothing of the numerous small groups with varying theologies and doctrines offering better lives to their followers, whether through suicidal transportation to other planets (the Heaven's Gate followers of Marshall Herff Applewhite) or exclusionary behavior (the Branch Davidians come to mind). But whether these religions are cults or not, it is the authority structures themselves that make the difference - that dictate precisely how their devotees must behave, pray, ask for forgiveness, or decide whether forgiveness is even necessary. Those with authority ultimately determine whether any individual is devoted enough to be allowed to stay, or must be cast out, unwanted.
The Catholic Church is no cult. Its followers are free to leave, if they so choose, and there is room for some doctrinal dissent (at least, dissent in intellect, if not always in action). And although the Church does have the ability to excommunicate an individual follower for gross disregard for doctrine and for unacceptable behavior, this is not a tool used lightly. Yet that is what makes the current scandal that much more terrifying and - yes - fascinating. There has been knowledge of these child molestations for years, it seems, with little action taken. The authority structures of the Church have failed to protect those whom they seek to guide and nurture, even when they might have acted.
Many years ago, the Church also faced problems this serious - when the Church was selling its favors, known as indulgences, in the 16th century - and the result was Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation. Luther was fighting what he saw as the immorality of the Church leadership; but perhaps more important was the spiritual fight in which he engaged: battling the established doctrine that dictated that human connections to God must pass through the officers (clergy) of the Church. Nearly five-hundred years later, then, the question may very well be: Will the infallible power of the Pope win out over the tortured cries of the faithful, the victims, and the faithful victims? Or will Catholics around the world seize some of their own God-given power and start another, modern Reformation?
In 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses protesting Church behavior on the doors to the Wittenberg castle church, the methods for spreading word of his actions was slow and laborious. Nonetheless, his revolution took hold. In the age of the internet, where instant news and communication rule the day, a new Martin Luther could lurk around the next corner. Authority is a precarious thing, and easier to lose than to gain; the same can be said of respect.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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