Arguments that shed light

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates an evening vigil service in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to mark the end of the Church's year of the priest, on June 10, 2010. A year that has been marred by revelations of hundreds of new cases of clerical abuse, cover-up and Vatican inaction to root out pedophile priests.Thousands of priest from around the world gathered in St. Peter's square in a major show of support for Pope Benedict XVI amid the clerical abuse scandal. During the ceremony Pope Benedict XVI strongly defended celibacy for priests but he didn't directly mention the clergy abuse scandal but he referred to what he called 'secondary scandals' that showed 'our own insufficiencies and sins.' PHOTO by Eric Vandeville/ABACAPRESS.COM Photo via Newscom

I'm not entirely certain how significant the new Vatican norms are for the treatment of crimes considered to be "most serious" within the Church. But I thought it worth looking at just one example of how the church and the secular media exist in two distinct universes.

I think that most of the updates were non-controversial, which makes a reporter's job more difficult if they're trying to drum up excitement for a story. I think most everyone agreed, for instance, that the statute of limitations for cases involving the sexual abuse of minors should have been increased from the 5 years it was previously.

But it is kind of curious to watch the apoplexy over the church's view that ordination of females is a serious wrong. Here's how the New York Times introduced the issue:

But what astonished many Catholics was the inclusion of the attempt to ordain women in a list of the "more grave delicts," or offenses, which included pedophilia, as well as heresy, apostasy and schism. The issue, some critics said, was less the ordination of women, which is not discussed seriously inside the church hierarchy, but the Vatican's suggestion that pedophilia is a comparable crime in a document billed a response to the sexual abuse crisis.

Even if a sizeable number of Catholics actually paid attention to the norm update, the characterization of "many" of them as astonished seems a bit odd.

I began writing this post a day ago, when the story included the following remarks:

The revision announced on Thursday codifies a 1997 ruling that made attempting to ordain women as priests a crime punishable with excommunication.

The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, an American priest with the Maryknoll religious order, said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent him an excommunication letter within two months after he participated in a ceremony ordaining women, but that the Congregation had taken years while it considered the requests of bishops to defrock pedophiles.

"What I did, supporting the ordination of women, they saw as a serious crime," Father Bourgeois said. "But priests who were abusing children, they did not see as a crime. What does that say?"

This has been completely removed from the updated story, which is wise. Not only has it been replaced with a nice back and forth discussion about female ordination and why the church considers it important, this was just an incendiary argument that added nothing to the story.

To compare the public repudiation of church teaching on ordination with the private sin of child abuse is just unhelpful. If child abuse were public, it would be easy to punish the perpetrators. But it's actually a very difficult crime to punish because it involves few witnesses who almost always are at odds. As anyone who has been abused or who has been close to someone who has been abused knows, it sometimes takes years to navigate through the painful emotional harm to the point that a victim can actually confide in a trusted friend or family member.

That's why the statute of limitations had to be increased, for instance.

In any case, the new or updated New York Times story is a wonderful improvement. It explains some of that context on the statute of limitations. It includes outrage from those affiliated with liberal Catholic reform movements as well as defenses from those within the church hierarchy. Their arguments are presented so that the reader can weigh the benefits and weaknesses of each. It provides a nice service to readers and sheds light on continued painful discussion points.

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