My grandmother was a Roman Catholic so devout that years after her marriage fell apart, she refused to go out on a date with a man. He loved her and she loved him and it was all like a Graham Greene novel, except there was no drama. For my grandmother, the church had rules and her faith was absolute.
And then she found out that the institution that called divorce a sin was protecting child rapists in every corner of the world. Something broke inside my grandmother, and it never healed. I suspect stories like hers have something to do with the church’s math problem: Mormons and evangelicals are pilfering the pews and recruiting in record numbers.
The house St. Peter built is in crisis, and, in 2005, when the cardinals chose a former member of the Hitler Youth to sit on the other end of the phone to God, it seemed an odd turn of events. Joseph Alois Ratzinger had been, among other things, determined to keep the church mired in the Middle Ages, and he was also in charge of cleaning up the “filth” of the global sex scandal. He was astonishingly bad at that job.
Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to retire comes as a relief to those of us with a vagina, a same-sex relationship or anyone concerned with the spread of HIV/AIDS. Over the millennia, much evil has been done in the name of God, but the Catholic Church has also been an instrument of good and it can be again. With the right pope leading the way, the Vatican could be the world’s biggest aid organization.
First, the church has to address the abuse scandal that has been devouring the institution from the inside. Step one is to release every document, no matter how embarrassing or costly, relating to child abuse and the protection of criminal priests. The Vatican has to throw open its doors and establish an independent, secular organization charged with rooting out victimizers and reconciling, as best as possible, with victims. In addition, the church should end the absurd ban on marriage within the clergy and welcome women to the priesthood. Of course, this is asking a lot of an institution that recently concluded the sexed-up culture of the 1960s was to blame for priests raping children.
Second, the new pope should declare that the Vatican is refocusing on God’s command to do good works. This has always been the most attractive feature of Catholicism and this is a world that desperately needs generous souls to work on behalf of the poor, the sick and the hungry. The pope should sell his scepter and pay for some young, out-of-work idealists to wash, feed and clothe the poor, just as Jesus is said to have commanded, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
Third, the pope should use his pulpit not to preserve the ancient superstitions of a repressive religion, but to preach about the concerns of the modern world. What a blessing it would be if Ratzinger’s successor would look past condoms and pornography for the root causes of our suffering. By my estimation, murder and usury do more harm than the alleged sin of homosexuality. What is the church’s position on drone strikes? What does the Vatican have to say to the people who run Visa and JPMorgan Chase? Sex slaves and factory workers in Vietnam need a champion. It’s not going to be General Electric, and it’s not going to be the United States.
I don’t expect the Vatican to take my advice, which is only fair since I’ve been ignoring theirs my whole life. But the world needs great men and women right now. Let’s hope the cardinals can find one.
Pope Benedict XVI delivers a speech at sunset near Freiburg, Germany, during a visit to his homeland.