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Pope Benedict Should Resign In Wake Of Catholic Church Paedophile Scandals

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford
Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI should consider resigning the papacy after revelations of his involvement in possible cover ups of paedophile sex offending by priests.

This past week has witnessed a new round of revelations surrounding the abuse of Deaf schoolboys in the United States by a now deceased former priest during the 1960s. The most alarming revelations, however, have surfaced from within Benedict's former German archdiocese where it is alleged that he took part in the cover up of child sex abuse by priests there during the 1980s. Furthermore, it has been reported that when Benedict (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) was head of the Vatican's doctrinal office under Pope John Paul II, he was very slow to act on cases of child sex abuse that were reported to him in that capacity.

It is now becoming clear that the papal throne is beginning to look shakey, at least while Benedict stays on it. While most Christian denominations have been rocked by sex abuse scandals in recent decades, the Catholic Church has had a particularly bad record given the huge numbers of faithful spread around the globe and its role as the pre-eminent Christian denomination. Revelations of historical child sex abuse in the Catholic Church have been ongoing since the 1990s and in heavily Catholic nations like Ireland, for example, they have managed to see many of the faithful turn away from darkening a church door on a Sunday.

It is now clear that the Roman Catholic Church could be heading for its greatest crisis since the Reformation occurred 500 years ago. With the current Pope now becoming more implicated in possible cover ups (after earlier championing a policy of zero tolerance for sexually abusing clergy), his position could become untenable. I believe that if Benedict has done what he has reported to have done in his previous church roles, then he should resign. If he did that, it would be the first time that a Pope had resigned for many centuries.

In saying this, some other Popes have had question marks placed over their ethical and moral behavior too. Pope Alexander VI (who reigned in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries) was a member of the infamous Borgia clan who, amongst other crimes, had incestuous sexual relations with family members and produced some illegitimate children into the bargain. The influence of the Borgias inspired Michiavelli to write his famous treatise on political power and its abuse The Prince (which is still a much used political philosophy text today). In more recent times, the role of Pope Pius XII (who reigned during World War II) has been called into question due to his silence on the fate of European Jews and other persecuted minorities at the hands of the Nazis. I also recall that a furore erupted when David Yallop alleged in his 1984 book In God's Name that Pope John Paul I (who had the shortest modern reign of 33 days in 1978) had been murdered by the Italian Mafia. Only in recent years has the truth been revealed that John Paul I died of a heart attack following years of chronic heart disease.

Still the undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the Catholic Church has led to many serious allegations having been made about its conduct over the years. The church's adherence to outdated conservative stances on the role of women, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, sexual reproduction and clergical celibacy have all contributed to a sharp decline in church attendance, particularly in Western Europe and Australasia. Besides, the church has taken a tough stance on any progressive viewpoints that have emerged within it such as those relating to 'Liberation Theology'. Liberation theology was preached  by a small but still not insubstantial number of Catholic clergy in Latin America during the 1980s who actively won the support of the poor and oppressed through calling for the Church to actively promote social justice and political liberation. This was at a time when the United States backed repressive right-wing military regimes throughout most of Central and South America. Under the Polish pontiff John Paul II, the Church toughened its already hard stance against Communism and, short of that, any form of democratic socialist regime. The Church was active in opposition to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, for example, which included a number of liberation theology adhering clergy amongst its members.

It is nothing but ironic, therefore, that some commentators have rightfully referred to the Roman Catholic Church as being the last bastion of Marxist-Leninist style democratic centralism. Like the Soviet Communist leaders of old, the highest echelon of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Rome determine the theological and political positions that the Church takes with no formal consultation whatsoever with the ordinary faithful or lower level clergy. That factor has contributed to the Church becoming a hypocritical organisation which preaches sexual morality on the one hand and has clergy who then overstep that predetermined morality on the other. 

That's why I believe that if the Roman Catholic Church is to remain relevant, Pope Benedict has to resign and his successor call a new Vatican Council (Vatican Three). This council should include elected representatives of the ordinary faithful (including women), ordinary clergy, representatives of currently discriminated against groups within the church (gays and lesbians) and should fairly reflect the diverse political and spiritual views held by its nearly 1 billion adherents. The council should seek to fully democratise the Roman Catholic Church by ending the ban on the ordination of women and gay clergy, permitting the election of the Pontiff by all members of the faith (even if it does take a while longer but with modern technology and communications, it should take no longer than recent highly secretive conclaves have) and impose term limits on the office. It should update its teachings to reflect the realities of sexual harrassment and abuse and firmly defrock clergy and hand them over to local judicial authorities for investigation when child or other sex abuse is alleged to have occurred. The ban on clergical celibacy should be lifted and it should seek to review its basic stance, at least, on contraception and premarital sexual relations with a view to bringing them into line with what their ordinary members are actually doing (i.e. having premarital sex, living together and using contraception). Any reforms should ultimately culminate in the abolition of the doctrine of Papal infallibility whereby it is the Pope who formally hands down canonical decisions from on high like a feudal medieval monarch. This doctrine should be replaced at both the global and local levels by democratically elected Catholic people's assemblies. Already many of the Protestant faiths (such as the Presbyterian Church) are successfully governed by democratically elected synods. 

While I am not a Catholic, my Irish brother-in-law plus many other friends are. I have to admit that the Catholic Church has made some very progressive statements in recent decades on worker's rights, the environment, nuclear weapons, the use of the death penalty and in acknowledging past wrongs against Jews and other religious groups. Some of its lower level clergy (Father Peter Murnane of the Waihopai Three and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean) do much good work within their communities and have demonstrated courage in calling for the Church to take more progressive stances on social justice issues. But if the Catholic faith is to continue doing good works, then it must be rid of the moral hypocrisy that surrounds it and what better way to begin that process than with the resignation of Pope Benedict.

So, in this Holy Week preceding Easter, it is very clear that not only the Pope but the wider Catholic Church has a lot of thinking to do about the future. 

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