Two questions for the pope.
By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, April 14, 2008, at 12:55 PM ET
The visit of his holiness the pope to the United States this week will be an occasion for all kinds of manifestation of deference and servility from politicians and from the press. There will also be the usual speculation about the growth of a specifically or distinctively "American" Catholicism: a Catholicism that, for instance, this week sent me a heavy envelope of material titled Catholics for Choice, arguing against the church's dogma on abortion. The phenomenon of "cafeteria Catholicism," by which the faithful pick and choose among the doctrines that do and do not appeal to them, has long been understood. It was Joseph Ratzinger's role, when he was the right-hand man and enforcer of the last pope, to recall the flock to a more traditional and orthodox version of the faith. The chief interest of this trip, at least for Roman Catholics, will be to see how explicitly he addresses himself to a flock that is too used to making up its own a la carte rules.
Meanwhile, all this piety and ceremony is a bit of a bore and a waste of media space for the large majority of us who are still not Roman Catholics. How should we get through the week? I have two suggestions.
As well as being the head of his church, the Roman pope differs from the other Christian popes in being the head of a foreign state with which the United States maintains diplomatic relations. Small as the papal state may be, the implications of its foreign policy are sometimes of interest. It signed important concordats with the fascist powers in the 1920s and '30s, for example. In the 1990s, it was the only state to recognize the government established by military putschists after the overthrow of Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide. During the period when sanctions and diplomatic isolation were aiming to keep Saddam Hussein in his "box," the only fully accredited ambassador from Baghdad anywhere in Western Europe was in the Holy See. In the recent past, and in response to protests at his remarks on Islam, the pope has agreed to receive more than 20 ambassadors, from nations defining themselves as Muslim, at his residence at Castel Gandolfo. This seems to many of us to be licensing the right of foreign states to interfere, on matters such as the Danish cartoon furor, in the internal life of secular Europe.
So journalists and reporters who can manage to get off their knees might want to ask the pope if he is conducting his own foreign policy and, if so, in consultation with whom? Then there is another question, which also raises a matter of diplomatic propriety: Why is the Vatican continuing to shelter Cardinal Bernard Law?
It will be remembered that Law resigned his position as head of the Archdiocese of Boston in late 2002. He had little alternative. A series of lawsuits and depositions and disclosures had established beyond doubt that, as my Slate colleague Dahlia Lithwick phrased it, "Law was not only aware of egregious sexual misconduct among his subordinates but was apparently engaged in elaborate efforts to cover up incident after incident of child rape." (I pause to praise her for employing that latter term instead of the grubby all-purpose euphemism abuse.) To be specific, the cardinal admitted in a deposition that he knew that the Rev. John Geoghan had raped at least seven boys in 1984 before he approved Geoghan's transfer to another parish where other boys were at risk. Further disclosures revealed that the Rev. Paul Shanley, who at one point was facing trial for 10 counts of child rape and six counts of indecent assault and battery, had been moved from ministry to ministry in what amounted to an attempt to protect him. Law himself lied to a West Coast bishop about Shanley's history and certified in writing that another rapist priest, the Rev. Redmond Raux, had "nothing in his background" to make him "unsuitable to work with children."
A vast majority of Americans told the polls at that stage that they favored prosecution of any clerics who had knowingly failed to act on the exposure of child rape in the church. In certain jurisdictions it nearly did come to that, but in Massachusetts, as Lithwick dryly pointed out, there was no mandatory reporting law. In other words, a person with information about child rape was not obliged to come forward with the facts. Or that, at least, was the shame-faced excuse of the Massachusetts district attorney. However, suppressing information about a crime can also be a crime in itself, and Cardinal Law and seven of his bishops were at one stage subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.
The whole question became moot after his resignation because Law thereupon abruptly moved to Rome and took up a series of positions in the Vatican. He resigned only as head of the Boston archdiocese he had so gravely outraged and was allowed to retain his cardinal's hat. He was appointed as archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and made a member of the congregations of Oriental Churches, Clergy, Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Evangelization of Peoples, Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Catholic Education, and Bishops, as well as the Pontifical Council for the Family! He took a full part in the conclave that selected Ratzinger as the successor to John Paul II.
So, I think that we are entitled to hear, as the vicar of Christ and holder of the Keys of Peter favors us with his presence, whether he regards his brother Bernard Law as an honored guest in the holy city or as someone who has been given asylum. And even if we cannot get a satisfactory answer, it is essential that we hear the question. Will the press do its job, and will our elected representatives remember their responsibilities to so many thousands of tortured and exploited children? Some of us will be watching and keeping an account.
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