Pope Benedict Hears it in German

What was it like to hear the truth in his own native language?

Pope Benedict XVI met victims of sexual abuse by clergy on the second day of his visit to his German homeland, an encounter that left him “deeply shaken”, Vatican officials said.

During a 30-minute meeting with abuse victims in Erfurt, the pope said he was “moved and deeply shaken by the sufferings of the victims,” the Vatican said. Church officials described the meeting as “very, very emotional”.

“The Holy Father expressed his deep compassion and regret over all that was done to them and their families,” said a Vatican statement.

Nothing will change except in places where ordinary Catholics take charge and bring the institution into line with secular laws that protect children and parents. That is happening all over the world as the Church trails behind and tries to put the issue to rest.

I wrote some speculative fiction about what might happen if the Pope confronted his own seduction by a vicious regime and the abusive frenzy of the adults and authorities around him. A fourteen-year-old boy in Nazi Germany didn’t have choices, but the Nazis depended on the complicity of German Catholics and Protestants in the murder of their Jewish neighbors. If, in his advanced years, Joseph Ratzinger could speak honestly of this history, he might give real moral leadership to the world.

Kmareka occasionally reports the news before it happens, so we post this book review from next year…

New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2012
My Life in Hitler Youth by Pope Benedict XVI
Translated from the German by Sophia Magdalena Scholl and Hans Scholl
With commentary by Steve Biko, Rabbi Hillel, Badshah Khan, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and the Ven. Mahaghosananda
Forward by Archbishop Oscar Romero

While confessional literature has won an enduring readership, it is unusual to find a religious or political leader who is willing to attempt it. Most are less given to autobiography than to self-promotion.

It is all the more surprising that Pope Benedict XVI, whose tenure had been characterized by autocracy, even, some would say, arrogance; has humbly and honestly laid bare his experience as a teenage German boy caught up in the Nazi war machine.

In today’s world child soldiers are cannon fodder in countless civil conflicts. Teenagers are recruited to sign ten, or even twenty-year contracts with the privatized militias favored by the developed nations. The desperately poor allow their children to be implanted with RFID chips and fed psychotropic drugs to increase their value on the mercenary market.

Pope Benedict’s book stands as a powerful challenge to our 21st century way of war.

The catalyst for this amazing book was a 2010 meeting in Rome with survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
“I prayed with them, I assured them that never again would such violation of innocence be tolerated. Committees would be formed, the guilty would be routed out. I thought I was doing all that I could, but there was no mistaking the disappointment in their eyes. They wanted to hear something more from me.”

From that day, Benedict began to suffer from insomnia. He was tormented by nightmares in which he was visited by the ghosts of his Jewish playmates who disappeared in the Nazi violence. A letter from ‘Konrad’, a boyhood friend and fellow Hitler Youth, triggered a spiritual crisis. Benedict flew to Germany, secretly and under high security, to hear his friend’s confession and to give last rites.

“Konrad needed to unburden his soul to someone who knew what we did, and what was done to us. Our souls were violated, we were seduced by hate. Only to each other could we admit that we sometimes enjoyed the seduction. We were robbed of our innocence, and the loss did not diminish with time. It was not for me, his fellow sinner and fellow victim, to grant absolution. We prayed together for God’s forgiving grace. We wept together. Then we forgave those who had done this to us. They themselves were seduced.”

The Pope returned to Rome with a new resolve to address the needs of the world’s children. His Encyclical, ‘The Sin of Obedience’, shocked many in the Catholic hierarchy, but did much to mend relations with parishes torn by the sexual abuse scandals. His eloquent stand against war, previously muted by his close relationships with the world’s aggressors, was broadcast worldwide. Benedict’s frank conversations with Rabbi Hillel concerning the abuses that occur when religion becomes handmaiden to politics led to a change in direction that some call ‘radical’. His account of that conversation is not only a heartfelt apology for the failure of the Catholic Church to effectively oppose the Nazis, but an admission that political expediency corrupted the Church’s response to the atrocious acts of that regime.

“Christians had forgotten that the greatest Rabbi, Our Lord and Savior, spoke truth to power, even at the cost of his life. Being truly Man, as well as truly God, he suffered as we all do.”

The Pope’s incognito visit to Brazil, where he met some of the poorest of his flock in the favelas (slums), celebrating Mass in a tin shanty, washing the feet of meninos da rua (street children) will go down in history as an act of saintliness.

Since then, the Pope has led his flock in a direction that is changing the global Church. The Pope’s recent encyclicals have drawn criticism as well as praise.
‘A Little Child Shall Lead Them’ prompted one conservative commentator to remark that the Pope, who was formerly known as a crusader against abortion “now expects us to waste our tax dollars on snot-nosed welfare brats.”

But despite accusations of betrayal from many of his former allies on the American religious right, this pope is enjoying a surge of popularity not seen since the reign of Pope John the XXIII. The attrition of the past few decades is reversing as the Church gains more new converts and lapsed Catholics return to the faith.

The rumor that the Vatican will soon make priestly celibacy optional has sparked a renewed interest that promises to alleviate the dire shortage of priests in the developed nations; and if implemented would legitimize the de-facto priestly marriages that are common in Africa.

Meanwhile, in Central America, the revival movement known as ‘Caridad’, endorsed by the Church despite its strong resemblance to the ‘Liberation Theology’ that was dismantled by Benedict just a few years ago; promises to take the wind out of the sails of the Protestant Evangelical revival as former Catholics return to the faith of their childhood.

Here in the US, it is interesting to see some of the same politicians who enjoyed support from the pulpits of their local Catholic churches now invoking the principle of separation of Church and State.

Worldwide, the Catholic church has undergone a profound shift in emphasis. New orders of nuns and other religious operate with a freedom and authority unimaginable just a few years ago. With the goal of protecting children, nuns have organized on behalf of women in practical ways–health care, literacy, employment, respect.

‘Space Your Children’ a family planning pamphlet by Liberian nun and midwife Sr.Grace Wah, has been tacitly approved by papal authorities despite its frank endorsement of birth control. Sr.Wah would have been facing censorship, if not excommunication, for such views prior to Benedict’s change of heart.

Pope Benedict continues to reach out to those who have suffered the most from global war. His conversation with Hussam Abdo, a teenage would-be suicide bomber disarmed by Israeli police, and Zawadi Mongane, a rape survivor from the war in Congo, is still being parsed by theologians for its affirmation of living a whole and healed life in the wake of unbearable wrong. Truly, Pope Benedict has become a voice of conscience for the Christian world and extended the hand of friendship to other faiths.

This Pope, who began his reign determined to roll back the changes of Vatican II, now stands in the shoes of John XXIII, and promises to take his legacy farther than any thought possible.

Defending Celibacy

Anyone remember the Providence Journal’s ‘Face of Religion’ page? A frequent contributor was Dale O’ Leary, who liked to rant against feminists. Just before the Catholic church sex-abuse scandals broke, she began writing columns about forgiveness. After the first pedophilia stories came out, she claimed that enemies of the Church were gloating.

Well, I’m not an enemy of any church, except maybe Fred Phelps’ band of lunatics. I can’t work up a snark about the pedophilia stories either. It’s sickening, and it’s frightening. As a parent, it worries me that trust can be betrayed like that. As a parent, you have to be able to send your children into the world and trust that adults in authority will act honorably. When they don’t, it’s not only an occasion for outrage, but for grief.

I can’t really get into it now, too heavy and sad.

But there is a Catholic scandal I can enjoy. I wish more priests had followed the example of Father Cutie. The popular priest made headlines when he was photographed kissing a pretty woman. Soon after he was outed, he married his girlfriend, who was 35 years old and single. Gloat, gloat.

Father Cutie said that he still defends priestly celibacy, but he thinks it should be optional.

This is a very humane and realistic view. Opinion writers are suggesting that celibacy is the reason for the troubles in the Catholic church.

I think that’s simple-minded.

Celibacy is a valid life choice, and the Catholic church has institutions and traditions that allow celibate people to live in community. The Church is one of the few organizations that celebrates and honors the celibate life. Blaming celibacy wrongs the nuns, brothers and priest who serve their communities with dedication.

Most people, if they are honest, will have to admit that there were times in their lives when they were celibate. It’s not something we like to talk about, it’s worse to be on the shelf than in the closet.

It’s this ex-Catholic’s opinion that the sex-abuse scandals in the Church are an extreme manifestation of a culture of child-abuse. The Pope’s brother, while denying knowledge of sex-offenders in his organization, apologized for slapping choir boys. A couple of years ago three denominations in Canada were implicated for decades of systematic child abuse– the Catholic church was the only one of them that refused to acknowledge wrongdoing. Physical punishment and humiliation of children was accepted in Catholic schools for decades after society had renounced these harsh methods. The indifference to children’s vulnerability and fear allowed predators to hide in plain sight. They knew that no one was listening to the children. The Church today is paying for denial and cover-up long past any excuse. Victims of abuse pay a higher price than money.

Is celibacy the cause? Don’t make me laugh. Abuse of power, a secretive hierarchy and a lack of honesty about human sexual feelings is where I would look first. The Church will scapegoat its homosexual priests and the World will blame celibacy.

I like the Unitarian church, where homosexual members and clergy are respected. Where celibacy is not disparaged and single people are not ignored in the rush to ‘family values’.

The Catholic church could certainly ease its priest shortage by making celibacy optional and ordaining women. Or it could pay more attention to the ethics and mental health of its clergy and identify and remove abusers of all kinds. Or it can cling to its power and blame the world for being worldly.

I just want to defend the good people I know who really do practice a celibate life, with a love that extends to the community, and with passion. Celibacy is a valid choice, and celibate people should not be stained with a scandal that is rooted in abuse of power and fear of change.