The Roman Catholic Church has taken it on the chin lately in nations across the globe. Some of its been richly deserved, as in Australia, Chile, Honduras and the United States, where high-level priestly sex-scandals, and cover-ups, have generated a flood of sadly similar stories.
Yesterday’s post by my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin is a great place to catch up with the latest surrounding ex-Washington archbishop, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the latest high-level American Catholic leader (or former leader) to be outed as a sexual predator. Julia also listed some steps that journalists can take to uncover more of this sordid tale.
Editors, and media consumers, love a juicy sex scandal regardless of who the culprit may be, so I’m sure some reporters -- my bets are on New York Times and Washington Post religion-desk staffers -- are doing just that.
Even the late Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionaries of Charity, has prompted some bad press in India. It's not because of a sex scandal but the story is equally bad -- a sister and a staffer secretly selling babies born to women housed at one of the order’s shelters.
It all seems so horrific and terribly bad for the church, from the parish level up to the Vatican, that one wonders whether the church has truly poisoned its well. Where will this end?
But do not despair, Catholic believers. You may think this an ironic turn on my part, but I’m actually here to praise the church, not bury it, so to speak — and if you’ll allow me to invert the Bard of Avon.
That’s because some of the stories critical of the church are government issue, and they’re of an entirely different sort. The church may be getting slammed in these stories, too. But it's not because of self-generated scandal bubbling up from within; it's for trying to do right.
I’m thinking of the Philippines and Nicaragua in particular. In both nations, the church is locked in fierce opposition to despotic rulers that are not shy about jailing or even physically eliminating their opponents. So it's dangerous for church leaders to be doing what they are.
I’ll say more on the situations in both those nations in a bit.
But first, what’s the journalistic lesson here?
Perhaps it’s to remember that the Catholic Church is, structurally speaking, fully human. If you're Christian, your response to my previous sentence might be a dismissive "yeah, so?" -- as in, well that’s just another manifestation of humanity's “original sin.”
Not being Catholic or any other kind of Christian myself, that’s not a term I’d use. But I think I make the same general point when I say my belief is that we’re all, in some way, damaged goods.
It’s simply the human condition, regardless of one’s theology, as it is the condition of all institutions staffed by those same damaged humans. There are theological as well as psychological explanations for this state of affairs; they point to the same outcome.
Bottom line: Human institutions as large and complex as the Roman Catholic Church -- and there are few on the planet that truly compare in its scope -- should not be judged only by the worst failings of its current leaders, or even the accumulation of its historical demerits.
Corruption may flourish in one corner of the realm, while attempts to do good, even ones doomed to failure, may flourish in another. They may even exist side by side.
Which brings me to the Philippines and Nicaragua.
Even casual followers of the world’s ups and downs are likely aware of what’s happening in the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s scorched-earth approach toward leadership -- particularly in his murderous policy toward squelching widespread narcotics usage -- has brought him in conflict with his nation’s Catholic hierarchy.
This New York Times piece, in which Duterte is quoted calling God “stupid,” explains this part of the Duterte saga. It includes an update on the largely overlooked role that evangelical Protestants are playing in the Philippines. And this piece, from Foreign Policy, offers a more detailed overview of the situation -- including Duterte’s claim that he was personally sexually molested by a Catholic priest, to which much of his personal animosity toward the church is attributed.
The authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega and its battle with the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has received less international coverage. The situation started in April when the Ortega administration did not follow through with a promised social benefits reform. That precipitated mass protests, hundreds of civilian deaths at government hands, and attacks against clerics and church offices.
Ortega and the Sandinista militants rose to power [in the late 1970s] on the back of strong Catholic support, especially from left-leaning priests who adhered to the Marxist-inspired wings of Latin America’s Liberation Theology.
Though some key figures remained faithful to the Sandinista regime, by the time John Paul II visited [in 1983] the national bishops’ conference was already opposing Ortega and urging Catholic priests to do so as well. Hence, when he arrived at Managua’s airport, the pontiff was seen publicly scolding Father Ernesto Cardenal, the government’s Culture Minister at the time.
During the pope’s homily later that day, personnel of Vatican Radio were held at gunpoint and forced to lower the volume of the pope’s microphone, so that pro-Sandinista chants could be heard: “One Church on the side of the poor!” and “We want peace!”
According to reports from the time, the pope was forced to stop his homily and order: “Silence!”
Thirty years later, it would seem, another Ortega administration is no more receptive to appeals from Church authorities than when John Paul was in town.
As I noted, the Catholic Church is as large a human institution as there is, religious or otherwise. It's complex and contradictory and it's not just about scandal, though that shouldn't be under reported.
Just remember to pay attention as well to the stories in which the church hierarchy is trying to do some good for its flock and for the world as a whole.