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Not conspiracy but sulkiness

February 3, 2013

American ire over the ongoing revelations of child abuse by Catholic priests continues to grow after another document release.  Meanwhile, the successor of Saint Peter (who was a fisherman, by the way, not a birdcatcher) is trying to recage one of his escaped birds, or at least screen him from public view.

The abuse scandals are not the outcome of the Vatican not caring about certain of its parishoners.  They are not the consequences of attempts to avoid bad press or public outcry.  They are not significant of a subculture of pedophilia within the church.  They are not even a case of the church striving to protect its own against outsiders.

The real heart of the problem?  The Roman church is uncomfortable in a world where it no longer has temporal authority.  Once it was a power said to be greater than kings, inasmuch as it had secure footholds in the territories of dozens of European princes, with its own role in government and its own active, independent legal system to boot.  So influential was the church that Martin van Creveld cites its potency as a primary factor in the development of the modern nation-state.  Proto-states strove to consolidate not only in response to their local rivals, but also as a reaction to the power of Rome, which had education, central organization, and spiritual predominance on its side.  The thousand year-long dispute eventually terminated in defeat for the Curia.  Its remaining territories were subsumed into the Kingdom of Italy and five successive popes refused to leave the Vatican until the Italian government eventually agreed to recognize them as independent sovereigns, reigning over St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding buildings.  The Lateran Treaty resolved the legal dispute.  It did not erase the resentment that the Catholic Church as an institution felt at being reduced and humbled.

As a result of that ongoing resentment, when something goes wrong within the church, it is extremely reluctant to call in state authorities, because doing so is a reminder of its own weakness.  If it has to rely on an outside judicial system to investigate wrongs committed by its own clergy, it effectively announces to the world that it has no power, that it is incapable of restraining or disciplining even those closest to the papal throne.  The realization makes for a vivid and painful contrast with memories of its former authority.  Hence Rome’s preference for covering up problems, regardless of whether the problems in question are simple mistakes or serious crimes.  If the Vatican still had temporal power and could convene ecclesiastical courts with the power to try and to punish, it would have dealt with the offending priests itself when they were orginally accused, and there never would have been a coverup.  But the church can’t bear to have someone else exercising that authority within what was once its own domain.  Rome can’t keep its own house in order, but it would rather hide the refuse and debris than call in an outside cleaning service.  It’s not a conspiracy.  It’s insularity, sulkiness, and pride.

But then, Saint Peter was reported to be a very proud person, so it’s not entirely surprising if his successors share that trait.


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