The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian church in the world with over a billion members. If you consider the fact that the global population is around 6.5 billion, then Catholics comprise around 15% of the world’s population. The Catholic Church claims that it is the original Church established by Simon Peter, disciple of Jesus Christ and the first Pope. In any event, it cannot be denied that most other Christian churches, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church etc. are breakaways from the Catholic Church. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church, led by its Popes, has played an important role in the Western World. Popes have organised crusades against Muslim ruled Jerusalem, appointed and anointed Kings and Emperors, sanctioned wars and authorised and blessed the conquest and colonisation of the New World.
After the Second World War, when the West entered a period of unprecedented prosperity, the power and influence of the Catholic Church has waned in the West due to a fall in the numbers of its faithful, though it continues to grow in Asia and Africa. In South America, even now a Catholic bastion, it has lost some ground to Evangelical and Pentecostal versions of Christianity.
Of late, the Catholic Church has been rocked by serious allegations, many of which have been admitted to be true, that Catholic Priests have abused children under their care. These allegations initially surfaced in the 1980s. Most of these incidents took place in the United States, Canada and various European countries. There have been a few cases from South America as well. It is now widely accepted that Pope John Paul II (who died on 31 March 2005) did not act as firmly against the guilty priests as he ought to have done. Greater emphasis was placed on protecting the reputation of the Church than in punishing the guilty priests. In many cases, victims were sworn to silence after an inquiry by the Vatican. The priests in questions were not always punished, and in some cases, they were actually allowed to continue to be in contact with children, only to offend again.
After Joseph Ratzinger took over as Pope Benedict XVI, there was a change in the Church’s approach. Benedict conceded that they Church has been at fault and there have been apologies. However, Benedict’s apologies have not always pacified the victims and others indignant at what is perceived as a grievous breach of trust. The problem seems to be that the Catholic Church treats these offences as sins rather than as crimes. Also, preserving the reputation of the Church is still considered to be just as important as preventing abuse. Pope Benedict himself has been accused of not taking action against a Californian Priest (Stephen Kiesle) who had been sentenced in 1979 for lewd conduct with two boys when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which deals with sex abuse cases. Cardinal Ratzinger allegedly resisted (in 1985) the defrocking of Kiesle, a convicted offender, saying "good of the universal Church" needed to be considered. In 2004, Kiesle was sentenced to six years in prison for molesting a young girl in 1995. This is a very serious allegation and there have been calls for Benedict to step down, something which the Vatican vigorously resists.
One of the key features of Catholic clergymen and nuns is that they are expected to remain celibate for their entire lives post ordination. Celibacy is not mandated in the Bible and many of the early Popes were not celibate. However, celibacy was always extolled as a higher way of life, the idea being to emulate Jesus who Catholics and many other Christians believe was celibate during his entire life. Celibacy for priests and nuns was only established as a rule in the early part of the 12th century. Can it be said that the celibacy rule is directly responsible for priests behaving like monsters towards children? There are arguments for both sides. The Vatican is eager to point out that child abuse is committed not only by priests, but also lay persons, some of whom are married. Even married Anglican priests have been found guilty of child abuse, but their numbers are much smaller.
The allegations and charges against the Catholic Church have shocked many Catholics and it can be said that the Church is at its lowest point in the West. India Knight, one of my favourite journalists who contributes a regular column to the Times, has summed the feelings of many Catholics in this article. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, has called for the arrest of Benedict when he visits the UK in September 2010, a call which has received support from various quarters. What really incenses most people, including myself, is the attempt to cover up by the Catholic Church, the effort to treat crimes as just sins and the belief in the Pope’s infallibility, a doctrine which definitely needs to be revisited.
I haven’t heard of similar charges against Catholic priests in India or other Asian countries or in Africa, though one Father Jeyapaul who used to work in the US and faces abuse charges there, is currently living in Ooty (a mountain resort in Southern India), a free man. Most probably the reason for such accusations not surfacing in Asia or Africa is because there isn’t a culture of making such charges public, whoever may be the perpetrator. The total number of child abuse cases brought to court in Asia and Africa is abysmally small compared to Europe and America. Which is not to say that child abuse doesn’t take place in Asia or Africa. Far from it. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India is currently in the process of framing guidelines to deal with deviant priests, in the event such incidents are brought to light.
The law of statistics and averages dictates that a percentage of those who enter priesthood anywhere in the world are bound to be deviants and social misfits, men who would have trouble living a pedestrian married life. It takes a minimum of six or seven years (depending on the region) to complete the training to be a priest. The average time taken is around ten. Many trainees drop out before they complete their training and are ready to be ordained. It goes without saying that Catholic priesthood could be a convenient refuge for social misfits and deviants. The dropouts are much more likely to be normal people who don’t like the idea of a celibate life or find the Church’s insistence on total obedience too stifling. The percentage of deviants and misfits who complete their training and become ordained as priests is bound to be higher than in the original trainee intake. I have this theory that the percentage of deviants and social misfits amongst ordained priests is lower in Asia and Africa and possibly South America because in these regions, one important reason for wanting to be a priest is the social mobility and respect that priesthood offers. Many Indian Catholic priests that I know of come from families that are economically backward. Also, Catholic priesthood still carries a certain degree of respect and admiration in society. Thanks to the relative prosperity of the West and the lack of much social status for priests, practically no one decides to become a priest to escape poverty.
As a result of these scandals, I foresee the following:
1. I don’t expect the current Pope (Benedict XVI) to change the rules on celibacy. The doctrine of papal infallibility (that the Pope is always right) will also stay in place. As a result, the Catholic Church will become even more weak in the West.
2. The Asian, African and South American wings of the Catholic Church will become stronger. The next Pope will be from one of these regions and will be just as dogmatic and conservative as the current Pope and his predecessors.
3. The Catholic Church is unlikely to change its stance on homosexuality or admission of women to priesthood, since it will always be run by men who know-it-all and are ‘never wrong’. For example, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has very recently claimed that the Church's current crisis is linked to homosexuality and not celibacy among priests.
I hope to be proved wrong on all the above counts.