The Pope, the Catholic Church, and the Sexual Abuse Controversy in Historical and Political Perspective

Posted April 1, 2010

News reports have revealed that Pope Benedict XVI appears to have been directly involved in the cover up of priests’ sexual abuse of children. What should be clear is that the Pope’s action is entirely consistent with the religious and political philosophy that he has promoted for decades within the Church. The Pope believes that he and the Roman Catholic hierarchy stand not only above the Church and its members, but also above the world’s governments and their laws.

For hundreds of years—that is, throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods of European history—the Catholic Church existed as a state within the state. The Catholic prelates and priests were not subject to the laws of the Christian kings, but rather the Church had its own laws and its own courts. Even after the French Revolution, wherever it could the Church continued to refuse to recognize secular government and to be a law unto itself.

The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, as head of the Doctrine of the Faith, did everything he could to protect the Church from modernizing tendencies and to turn the clock backwards. He fought the democratizing movements in the church, as well as movements that would have elevated women or expressed greater acceptance of homosexuals. And he protects priests who abused children.

We should at this moment as the Church faces one of the greatest crises in its modern history, as a result of the sexual abuse scandal, see the current scandal in the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s reactionary politics. Please find below, then, an article I wrote in April 2005 shortly after the Pope’s election.

Article from Mexican Labor News & Analysis
published by UE International

Date published: April, 2005

Web version:

Pope Benedict and the Future of the Church in Latin America

by Dan La Botz

The election of 78-year old Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI raises important issues and challenges for the Catholic Church and for Latin America. Former Archbishop of Munich, Germany, for many years Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Dean of the College of Cardinals since 2002, Ratzinger served as the closest advisor to John Paul II. Together Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger centralized the Church’s power in Rome, fought for an ultra-conservative theological orthodoxy, and waged a relentless struggle against the Theology of Liberation in Latin America.

For 25 years the church moved in a more conservative direction under their leadership, and Ratzinger’s election indicates that there will be more of the same and that will not be good for Latin America. To best understand what Ratzinger’s election is likely to mean for the Church and for Latin America, we must see his career in relationship to that of John Paul II.

A Conservative Theology

When John Paul II became Pope, many Catholics around the world hoped that John Paul II would continue to modernize and liberalize the Church as John XXII had done, but they were to be sorely disappointed. John Paul II, working closely with Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also known as the Holy Office – the successor to the Inquisition – imposed a conservative theology on the Catholic Church around the world. At the center of this theology was a repudiation of the notion that Christians create the Catholic Church, and an affirmation that on the contrary it is the Church that creates Christians. In the view of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, there was no room in the Church for democratic decision making of any sort. Power would be centered in Rome and doctrine would come down from on high. Using the nineteenth century doctrine of Papal Infallibility they would impose order on a restless and sometimes rebellious Church.

Despite calls for liberalization on matters of doctrine, John Paul II, strongly supported by Ratzinger, reaffirmed the Church’s opposition to the ordination of women and to the marriage of priests. He opposed homosexuality and gay marriage, and strengthened the Church’s opposition to contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. Even within marriage, sex was only acceptable when it aimed at procreation, and not as an expression of love or mutual pleasure. He would not authorize the use of condoms to prevent the spread of the AIDS virus in Africa. Nor did he did issue a strong condemnation of the priests involved in sexual child abuse in the United States. But John Paul II was not only a social conservative, but also a political and economic conservative as became clear in the fight against Liberation Theology.

Liberation Theology in Latin America

If John Paul’s papacy had one central thrust, it was the struggle against the Theology of Liberation in Latin America and other parts of the developing world. Cardinal Ratzinger was the principal leader of the campaign, writing the key documents, attacking theologians and religious leaders, and reshaping the Latin American Church in the process.

Vatican II (1962-1965) had modernized certain elements of Church doctrine and practice: turning the priest from facing the altar to facing the congregation, ending the use of Latin and introducing modern languages in the mass, opening participation in services to the laity, including women. Some Catholic clergy and laity wanted to see the Church reach out even further, reach beyond the walls of the Church into the urban shantytowns and poverty-stricken rural villages not only to save souls but also to bring about social justice.

In Latin America, the Church had historically been aligned with large landowners, the military and the government, supporting conservative political parties that opposed democracy and social reform. In the 1960s voices began to be heard that suggested that the Church have a “preferential option for the poor.” Father Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Catholic theologian coined the term “Liberation Theology” and created a systematic theology that would put the Church on the side of social change in favor of the oppressed and the exploited, rather than on the side of the rich and powerful. Others, like Monsignor Dom Helder Camara of Brazil spoke out strongly for the principles of the Theology of Liberation, a religion for the poor.

The Theology of Liberation filled an ideological and programmatic vacuum in Latin America. Both the populism of the 1930s and 1940s and the developmentalism of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to have failed, leaving both the laboring classes and the middle classes without a vision of the future. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 stirred hopes of social change among many throughout Latin America, including among Catholics. Many in Latin America believed that the Church could and should play a role in ending the poverty and social inequalities. The Theology of Liberation brought the Christianity of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount together with a Marxist analysis of economic and political power in a project aimed at rebuilding both the Church and society. The Church in some areas was reorganized into “ecclesiastical base committees,” that is, grassroots lay organizations that would deal with everything from the liturgy to community organizing.

The Theology of Liberation grew and spread, finding advocates among Catholics in virtually every Latin American country. Conferences on Liberation theology were held in Havana, Bogotá and Cuernavaca, culminating in the Medellin conference of 1968, convoked by Pope Paul VI. Medellin pointed the Church in the direction not only of doctrinal change but also of social action. Catholics in many parts of Latin America found themselves fighting for social justice beside radical nationalists and revolutionaries inspired by Marxism or the Cuban Revolution. The rise of radicalism and revolution throughout Latin America led the United States to back counter-revolutionary military coups in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Inspired by their faith and Liberation Theology, some Catholics joined armed guerrilla movements to struggle against the military strongmen. In many Latin American countries left-of-center Catholic Bishops supported social change, while more often rightwing bishops backed the dictators. Meanwhile the Theology has spread to Catholics in Asia and Africa, raising the specter of religious radicalism contributing to the struggle against imperialism and neo-colonialism around the world.

John Paul, Ratzinger and the Catholic Counter-Revolution

Such was the state of affairs when John Paul II became Pope at the end of 1978. With Cardinal Ratzinger acting as his doctrinal enforcer, John Paul moved against Liberation Theology, arguing that at its best it was deviant and dangerous and at its worst it was Marxist and heretical. In 1984 Ratzinger announced that “the phenomenon of liberation theology reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.” The threat, he wrote, arose from its humanism, from its faith in science, from its emphasis on the power of the people, and above all from its coincidence with Marxism on too many issues. A “preferential option for the poor,” he said, was little more than the Marxist emphasis on the class struggle.

John Paul II and Ratzinger launched a systematic attack on the intellectuals who had developed Liberation Theology. In 1983 Ratzinger pressured the Peruvian bishops to repudiate Gutierrez and Liberation theology, though they refused to do so. Later that same year Ratzinger criticized Salvadorean Professor Jon Sobrino, an advisor to Monsignor Oscar Romero, who had been murdered by the military while saying mass in 1980. In 1984 Ratzinger attacked Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff for “doctrinal error” and forced him to stop teaching. In late 1984 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially condemned Liberation Theology in an “instruction” signed by John Paul II and Ratzinger.

The 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua represented a particularly important contest for the Church in its struggle against the Theology of Liberation. In Nicaragua several priests had taken leading roles in the revolutionary government, lending the Church’s authority to revolution, democratic transformation and social reform. John Paul II and Ratzinger allied themselves with Managua’s Archbishop Miguel de Obando y Bravo in the struggle against the base committees, which they declared to be heretical. The Vatican forbid Fathers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, Maryknoll Father Miguel D’Escoto, and Father Edgard Parrales, all high officials in the Sandinista government, from performing any religious duties. In 1985 the Vatican ordered all four priests to resign from the revolutionary government or be suspended from the priesthood. The four ignored the order from Rome. Nevertheless, John Paul II’s attack on the Catholic priests, combined with Ronald Reagan’s illegal support for the Contras, the counterrevolutionary army in Nicaragua, succeeded in debilitating the Sandinista government. In 1990 the Sandinistas held free elections and were voted out of office. (1)

During his reign, John Paul II succeeded in removing from positions of influence many of the teachers of the Theology of Liberation and diminishing the power of many of its advocates in the Church hierarchy. At the same time, he promoted his own conservative positions largely by being a very public Pope and a major media figure. He made 104 trips outside of Italy, traveling to countries all over the world, riding through cities in his pope-mobile, waving to the crowds. He canonized 482 new saints from countries around the globe creating a sense of inclusion for Catholics of many nationalities and ethnicities. Most important, he appointed 231 new cardinals, overwhelmingly men who shared his conservative views, thus shaping the Catholic Church for years to come. Those conservative Cardinals chose not to pick a Pope from Latin America, Africa or Asia, but rather another European Pope.

The Catholic Church in Latin America Today

The Catholic Church in Latin America today has been shaped by Cardinal Ratzinger’s unrelenting attack on Liberation Theology, having moved the church away from the poor and back toward the right-wing political parties, conservative landlords, big business, and the military. Nevertheless, several progressive Catholic bishops still hold office, and though condemned by the church, the Theology of Liberation continues to inspire many Catholics throughout Latin America. At the same time, the Catholic Church faces strong competition from the Protestant evangelical churches that are gaining ground throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Brazil. The Catholic Church’s failure to modernize has led many poor people in Latin America to seek comfort from the equally (or even more) conservative evangelical churches which offer charisma, community and personal salvation.

Meanwhile, a radical populism hostile to the church has returned in the form of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, and radical indigenist movements have arisen in Mexico, Bolivia, and Ecuador inspired not by the Christian theology of liberation, but rather by older indigenous peoples’ religions. The greatest threat to the Roman Catholic Church comes from the neoliberal economic revolution that has destroyed the stability of Latin American society, replacing the old combination of political repression, traditional communal values, and Catholic religion with a combination of capitalism, consumerism, and continuous economic and social crisis. John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger succeeded in building a centralized, theologically conservative church at the top, but many forces continue to erode the church’s authority at the base, leaving the option for Catholics to create new ways of fighting for personal liberty, democracy, and social progress in Latin America.


2 responses to “The Pope, the Catholic Church, and the Sexual Abuse Controversy in Historical and Political Perspective”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I believe that the Roman Catholic Church is directly responsible for most of the ills in the societies that they have touched especially Latin America which is still in political turmoil. Due to greed they supported the inhumane treatment of people and skewed the true teachings of Jesus Christ. Yet, though i do not believe in the Catholic Church anymore I have not abandon God, for why should he get the blame and pay the price for the actions of these ruthless men.

  2. georgefish Avatar

    Dan’s two articles above tell us exactly why Karl Marx was right when he described religion as a “phantasm,” a “phantasmagoria,” and said that religious relationships merely echoled the economic and social relationships of class society. All the more reason for us radicals to be firmly anti-religious, and uncompromising in asserting freethought as the proper antidote to religious belief–even that of the religious “left,” which is far, far too accomodationist to the Benedict XVIs of the world.

    I grew up Catholic, and became liberated when I left Catholicism and embraced atheism. Yes, we can, and should, worl with religious “leftists,” but in a firm, principled way that does not concede too much. After all, what good, really, is an ally blinded and befuddled by the “phantamagoria” of religious belief?