View From Lodi, CA: A Former Altar Boy Looks At The Roman Catholic Church
April 22, 2005, 05:00 AM
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I stopped believing in Roman Catholic Church's teachings forty years ago. I don't believe in God. And save for weddings and funerals, I never go to church.

Pope John Paul II's funeral struck me as more pagan than Christian.

But then I am a critic of the Pope. John Paul was hugely popular but, to be blunt, vastly overrated.

And the selection of John Paul's confidante, Pope Benedict XVI, is an exclamation point made by the College of Cardinals that nothing that mainstream Catholics might hope for—permitting birth control, ordaining women priests and allowing marriage for male priests—is even remotely possible.

The College of Cardinals sent a clear message with its choice of Benedict XVI, a 78-year old conservative hard liner: don't expect us to budge from where we have been since the time of St. Peter.

In death, Pope John Paul II has been nearly deified. But for me, once a devout Roman Catholic, I will never be able to come to terms with his polar opposite positions on three things I view as crucial for the Church.

  • FAMILY PLANNING. No one on earth has more influence than the Pope. I believe that John Paul could have done vast good for the poor, undereducated people of the world if he had taken a stand in favor of family planning that includes birth control. Approximately 15 million people die annually from hunger. Yet the Church remains unbending in its adherence to "natural family planning" while rejecting birth control.

  • ORDAINING WOMEN: I grew up admiring the talents and wisdom of women. My mother and my two grandmothers reared me. And I have three sisters. Long before women's liberation, I supported women in all their endeavors. That the Church will not even enter into an open and honest debate about women as priests is inexcusable. But John Paul II had a well-established pattern of stifling imaginative thinking and dissent in any form.

  • CELIBACY IN PRIESTS: John Paul II didn't give an inch regarding the possibility of priests marrying. Said the Pope, "The vow of celibacy is a matter of keeping one's word to Christ and the Church... a duty and a proof of the priest's inner maturity; it is the expression of his personal dignity." I see it differently. Thousands of fine young men turn away from the priesthood every year because few are willing to work for poverty wages while suppressing their normal human sexual needs.

And speaking of sex, can anyone understand—let alone forgive— the Pope's failure to punish pedophile priests during the abuse scandals of recent years?

In truth, the Vatican actively undercut the U.S. Bishops who had written s part of their 2002 "Charter for the protection of Children and Young People" that any diocese ''will report to the public authorities any allegation of sexual abuse of a person who is currently a minor.'' 

Commenting at the time on the Vatican's position, David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said: ''This is a huge backtracking. It's a huge and shameful retreat. It goes back to the longstanding practice of doing the absolute bare minimum.''

I followed the sex abuse scandal with enormous sadness…and a feeling of great relief.

For several years, I was an altar boy. Although I was never touched, many victims were also knights of the altar. I spent hours alone with priests in the sacristy watching in awe as the priests dressed in their sacred vestments. Part of the ritual included helping the priest help tie his rope belt around his waist.

To me, a young pre-teenage boy, the priests were God-like. I doubt if I would have had the resolve to resist any advances had they been made.

I'd like to think that priests who took advantage of vulnerable children would be punished. But they were instead sent to other parishes where they could continue their patterns of abuse.

Pope John Paul's participation in protecting the guilty is his legacy.

CLOSING NOTE: Clohessy said that his organization is withholding judgment on Benedict XVI for the time being while hoping that the new pontiff will be compassionate.

Benedict XVI has been involved in the abuse crisis since its earliest days. Originally, then-Cardinal Ratzinger upset victims by suggesting that widespread American media coverage of abusive clergy was "a planned campaign" that overstated the problem. Ratzinger said that "less than 1 percent" of U.S. priests were guilty.

But a U.S. bishops' study found that about 4 percent had been accused since 1950.

Last month, however, Ratzinger appeared to have softened his stance when he denounced "filth" in the church "even among those… in the priesthood."

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.