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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The New Rome challenges Old Rome

I recently came across a book review for Fallen Order, a book about pedophile Catholic priests in the 17th Century. It raised the salience of the Catholic scandal back into my consciousness and I reflected on some interesting religious aspects of the scandals from a few years ago and my negative reaction to the treatment the church received.

Not that I am defending the priests involved. I think what those specific men did was indefensible. But the problem I had with the debates at the time were that the litigants were suing the church, not the individuals. And the justice department was talking about threatening the church's tax status and holding the Bishops legally accountable for their subordinates' actions.

The original case had come to public attention when a family made a public outcry about a priest who had molested their sons was about to be appointed as a superintendent of a Florida school system. They argued that such a choice was a violation of human decency and that the individual in question should have been stripped of his collar.

Ironically, the family was violating a non-disclosure clause of their hefty settlement 25 years earlier to bring this to public attention. They were technically the ones breaking the law.

Several things struck me as odd about this initial case:
1. Even if the priest had been charged with a crime, the statute of limitations had long since past.
2. Not having been convicted in a court, he could have sued the family for slander.
3. The family was also going after the bishop in charge of the man's relocation as an accessory to the sexual abuse.

In that case (which was different than some of the ones that followed), we saw a priest who had committed an action, been reprimanded by his church superior, and then reassigned to a job away from children. Twenty-five years later, he gets a job as an administrator in charge of an organization that educates children, and not a position that even really brings him in contact with children.

The issues that burned me in that case were the question of church authority. Does the Bishop have the right to discipline and take confession from said priest and forgive him? Does forgiving that man of his sin really wipe it away (as the Catholics believe), or is he still accountable to a secular legal body? In essence, does the Catholic Church have the legal ability to forgive sin?

The justice department was coming dangerously close to saying that it doesn't. That the church must conform itself to the regulations and norms of contemporary society, or be judged accordingly. That a Catholic priest or Bishop has no real authority in spiritual matters outside of the boundaries of what the law of the land provides.

And ultimately, that the Church of Rome must adhere to the cultural norms of the United States of America or face legal, financial and political sanctions.

We blast the Catholic Church for not taking a more active and counter-cultural stance against the Nazi Socialist movement and then in the same breath demand that they bow to our cultural values?

I struggle with this.

I'm not Catholic, and I don't acknowledge Papal authority over my soul. But I respect those who do. And I read in the Constitution how the state is not supposed to intervene in the matters of church (an interpretation that stood until Kennedy became the first Catholic president and Congress became afraid that the Pope would rule over the country. The Establishment Clause's contemporary interpretation, which is about 50 years old now, is about protecting state from religion, and the U.S from the Pope).

I believe that the United States Department of Justice cannot have authority over the spiritual and personnel decisions of a religious body. That was precisely the scenario that drove many of our ancestors from the Old World in the first place.

And yet it does. We forced the Mormons to change portions of their religious culture before we would allow Utah to enter the union. We do not respect the religious cultures of people not of the Book. We certainly didn't hesitate to mount an assault on David Koresh.

We have a tenuous relationship between our faith and our social science. We just don't know where one is supposed to end and the other is supposed to begin. It's a problem that was created 200 years ago and we're not any closer to solving it today than we were then.


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