December 16, 2011 | 8 comments
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December 14, 2011 | 39 comments
December 14, 2011 | 4 comments
Today the New York Times dutifully rolled out another front page story suggesting that Pope Benedict XVI was personally responsible for allowing sexual abuse of children in the Church. Among the 4,000 or so words of misleading assertions, unclear references, and dubious timelines about the abuse crisis, the Times’s actual argument that Benedict “failed to act on abuse scandal” is a little hard to discern — and in fact at times it seems that the piece makes a strong case for the opposite view. But nonetheless, this is the conclusion:
But the future pope, it is now clear, was also part of a culture of nonresponsibility, denial, legalistic foot-dragging and outright obstruction. More than any top Vatican official other than John Paul, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who might have taken decisive action in the 1990s to prevent the scandal from metastasizing in country after country, growing to such proportions that it now threatens to consume his own papacy.
The problems with the premises leading to this conclusion are ably illuminated by the liberal Catholic journalist Michael Sean Winters, M.Z. Hemingway at Get Religion, and Phil Lawler (my dad) here. It’s worth highlighting just one out-of-place passage in the Times piece.
The reporters, Laurie Goodstein and David M. Halbfinger, cook up a surprisingly tendentious explanation for why, in their view, Benedict was negligent on the sex abuse problem.
During this period [the period that Benedict was ignoring the abuse scandal, according to the article], the three dozen staff members working for Cardinal Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were busy pursuing other problems….
The heart of the office, though, was its doctrinal section. Cardinal Ratzinger, a German theologian appointed prefect of the congregation in 1981, aimed his renowned intellectual firepower at what he saw as “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church” - the liberation theology movement sweeping across Latin America.
As Father Gauthé was being prosecuted in Louisiana, Cardinal Ratzinger was publicly disciplining priests in Brazil and Peru for preaching that the church should work to empower the poor and oppressed, which the cardinal saw as a Marxist-inspired distortion of church doctrine.
It’s the reporter’s responsibility to accurately describe unfamiliar terms for a broad audience. “Liberation Theology” definitely falls into that category, because the vast majority of people aren’t sure what Liberation Theology is or why Benedict would aim his renowned intellectual fire power at it. But instead of trying to explain the situation, the authors use the description of Ratzinger’s run-in with Liberation Theology as a chance to demonize him.
Do they really believe that Ratzinger disciplined priests for “preaching that the church should work to power the poor and oppressed”?
You wouldn’t know, from Goodstein and Halbfinger’s description, that there are liberation theologists in good standing with the Church and the pope today. Ratzinger cracked down on certain Latin American liberation theologians because they were Marxists, at a time when Marxists were causing a lot of trouble in that part of the world — and by the way they also were heretics by the Church’s standards. He didn’t and doesn’t have a problem with anyone preaching that the church should empower the poor.
Such a biased account could only have crept into the story for one of two reasons: first, the reporters simply might not understand the concepts at play. This is hard to believe, because they are not complicated. Ten minutes on Wikipedia’s Liberation Theology page would do the trick. That leads to the second possibility, which is that they thought they could slip in an unfair characterization of Ratzinger without most people noticing. Unfortunately, if they thought that, they were right.
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