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Letters & Op-Eds - 2005

catholics for a free choice

Uniting a Divided Church: Challenges for Pope Benedict XVI in the Next One Hundred Days

Elfriede Harth

19 April 2005

The election of Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, is a strong sign that dissension within the Roman Catholic church will continue. While the election of a new pope held out the promise of a new era for the church, the cardinal’s historic role as a disciplinarian means the church has maintained the tradition of the punitive father.

Regardless of the new pope’s inclinations, this election does signify a starting point for the essential work that must be done to make this church a home for all Catholics, particularly those divided from the church during the last quarter century. Today, Pope Benedict XVI has both an opportunity and a mandate to set a tone for the future of his papacy and to redress wrongs done in the name of the Vatican. He has a choice: he can seek to span the divide widened during the last papacy between clergy and laity, men and women, north and south, right and left, gay and straight; or he can do nothing. As Pope John Paul II exemplified the spirit of reconciliation and relationship when he sat face to face with the man who shot him, Pope Benedict XVI should extend the same courtesies, coupled with a genuine spirit of invitation, to those who have been most hurt by church policies over the last years.

The two most critical issues facing the church and this pope will require action during the next one hundred days: the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the most painful error of the 20th century within the church, and the church’s need to work with civil society to stem the tide of unnecessary deaths from HIV/AIDS.

During the first one hundred days, Pope Benedict XVI should immediately meet with survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy. While much publicity called the world’s attention to the exploitation of children by clerics of the Catholic church, fewer people have heard of the sexual abuse, including rape, of nuns by priests and bishops in more than 23 countries around the world. In March 2001, the National Catholic Reporter published findings of an investigation that found: "Some Catholic clergy exploit their financial and spiritual authority to gain sexual favors from religious women, many of whom, in developing countries, are culturally conditioned to be subservient to men." Yet no child, no adult survivor and no nun who faced this most profound betrayal of faith were ever able to secure a meeting with the late pontiff. If the church ever needed a truth and reconciliation process, it is over the scandal of sexual abuse. Pope Benedict XVI should sit down in a private meeting to hear the grief, the pain and the anger of those the church has most let down, including members of SNAP, nuns, young people and adult survivors who have all been abused by Catholic clergy. The Vatican telecommunications office, with the full cooperation of the Vatican Congregation of Bishops, should schedule a televised series of encounters between bishops and victims in which the bishops will have the opportunity to tell the truth about their complicity in this scandal and apologize to the victims. The victims would have the opportunity to forgive these men and move on.

During the first one hundred days, Pope Benedict XVI should form a commission to study the current church policy on condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS. Under the watch of Pope John Paul II, Vatican officials and bishops spread misinformation and even staged condom burnings in AIDS-ravaged Africa. As he assumes his new role, Pope Benedict XVI, a respected theologian himself, should immediately initiate an inquiry into the theological basis for permitting the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, including visits to regions particularly hard hit by the pandemic. However, people with and at risk of HIV/AIDS should not need to wait for the results of the commission to be able to protect themselves. Pope Benedict XVI should lift the ban on condoms immediately in order to err on the side of life.

During the first one hundred days, I would hope that Pope Benedict XVI would establish the Pontifical Academy on Women's Rights in the Church. I hope that he will initiate a dialogue on opening the priesthood to married men. It is time for a complete renunciation of capital punishment and a clear and binding opposition to the war in Iraq. Let us go one step further than the former pope and be clear that there is no possibility of a just war by a superpower.

None of these steps would change church teaching; all of them are consistent with current theological and disciplinary norms. None is radical.

The first one hundred days should culminate with a reconciliation mass in St. Peter’s Square. After undertaking the above activities and others, Pope Benedict XVI should warmly welcome back Catholics to the church, with special recognition of and an specific invitation to the women, the gays and lesbians, the theologians and bishops punished and marginalized, the sexually abused and others who have felt excluded.

At the end of the first one hundred days, Pope Benedict XVI should articulate a vision for the 21st century church that is inclusive, understanding, compassionate and just.

Elfriede Harth is the European Representative of Catholics for a Free Choice.