VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican issued an unprecedented public rebuke Monday of a leading cardinal who had questioned the church’s policy of celibacy and openly criticized the retired Vatican No. 2 for his handling of clerical sex abuse cases.
In a statement, the Vatican said only the pope can make such accusations against a cardinal, not another so-called prince of the church.
In April, Vienna’s archbishop, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, accused the former Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, of blocking a probe into a sex abuse scandal that rocked Austria’s church 15 years ago.
Schoenborn also accused Sodano of causing ”massive harm” to victims when he dismissed claims of clerical abuse as ”petty gossip” on Easter Sunday.
Schoenborn has been a leading figure in the abuse crisis, forcefully denouncing abuse, presiding over service of reparations for victims and openly calling for an honest examination of issues like celibacy.
Infuriating! Cdl. Schoenborn is theologically orthodox, and has been a source of hope for many because of his truth-telling about the sex abuse scandal — including his (private) campaign to compel Pope John Paul II to deal with the fact, later acknowledged, that a retired Vienna Cardinal was a serial sex abuser. It is disappointing, to put it mildly, that Pope Benedict has chosen to humiliate a good cardinal who is naturally one of his allies, for publicly criticizing the public actions of the snakey Cardinal Sodano. Is Benedict blind? Does he really think that the position of the Church is strengthened by denouncing cardinals who dare to criticize each other? This action by the pope is not a sign of strength, but its opposite.
As a public relations matter, this is a big mistake. Yesterday, the Pope publicly sided with the Belgian church, which is in a world of trouble over having covered up child sex abuse by clerics for years. Today the Pope publicly reprimanded a cardinal for daring to criticize another cardinal (note well: the Pope didn’t pronounce on the accuracy or justice of Cdl. Schoenborn’s remarks, only that he was out of line for criticizing at all). What both actions have in common is the Pope’s belief in supporting the image of hierarchical solidarity, above all things. It’s simply bizarre that cardinals like Danneels can get away with doing crazy things that undermine the Church and its teachings, but what draws a public papal rebuke is Schoenborn’s criticism of Cdl. Sodano for allegedly blocking a sex abuse probe in Austria, and for belittling sex abuse victims.
Romanitas uber alles? Depressingly, it seems so. That’s the culture of the Curia. The tragedy here is that Pope Benedict, a man I believe to be good and holy, seems to think this kind of judgment — standing with Sodano over Schoenborn — strengthens the position of the Church. It has been said before that Benedict, as a brilliant but somewhat sheltered academic theologian, has a poor sense of how his statements and actions play out in the real world. The Schoenborn humiliation strikes me as an example of this. If Benedict felt compelled to reprimand Schoenborn, could he not have done it privately? He has likely alienated a brilliant and faithful cardinal who ought to be among his closest allies — all because that cardinal said what many Catholics believe to be a statement of fact, and not only true, but important to say.
UPDATE: If I were a cynic, I would say: what kind of secrets does Cardinal Sodano, the veteran defender of Maciel and curial antagonist to Cdl. Ratzinger during the Woytyla papacy, know to be able to get this kind of response out of the Pope?
UPDATE.2: Reader Mere Catholic notes in the comboxes that Schoenborn’s original comments about Sodano were made in the context of his defending Benedict XVI against charges that he (Benedict) had been lax in attacking the sex abuse scandal. Schoenborn told Austrian journalists that Cdl. Ratzinger had wanted to go after the molester Cdl. Groer, but that Sodano, then the No. 2 in the Vatican hierarchy, wouldn’t let him. As Mere Catholic notes correctly, “No good deed goes unpunished.”