This morning’s NYTimes brings us the shocking news that as Archbishop of Munich, Joseph Ratzinger was preoccupied with theological matters. Clutch the pearls! Here’s the story. Excerpt:

When Pope Benedict XVI was archbishop of Munich and Freising, he was broadly described as a theologian more concerned with doctrinal debates than personnel matters. That, say his defenders, helps explain why he did not keep close tabs on a pedophile priest sent to his archdiocese in 1980 and allowed to work in a parish.
Yet in 1979, the year before Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, approved the Rev. Peter Hullermann’s move to Munich, the cardinal blocked the assignment to the local university of a prominent theology professor recommended by the university senate. And in 1981, he punished a priest for holding a Mass at a peace demonstration, leading the man to ultimately leave the priesthood.

The construal of these facts advances the line put forward by some liberal Catholics, namely that while Benedict focused on punishing theological deviants within the Church, he left the field open to sexual deviants. The conclusion one is meant to draw is that Ratzinger focused on the unimportant things to the exclusion of important things.
This is a specious argument. Should Ratzinger have paid more attention to personnel matters? In retrospect, absolutely, as I suspect he’d be the first to admit. But there are more than a few Catholics who would be thrilled to have an archbishop who cared as much about theology — versus being a CEO — as Joseph Ratzinger did, and does. It’s simply not true that one can either have dissident priests or pervert priests; you shouldn’t have either. I am certain that if he had spent that time going after Lefebvrites and various right-wing dissenters, there wouldn’t be the slightest peep out of the Times, or anybody else. The fact is, the reason many orthodox Catholics rejoiced when Cardinal Ratzinger was made Pope is precisely because he is, or at least is seen, as a man who takes Catholic teaching seriously, and who understands how badly the breakdown in doctrinal and liturgical discipline since the Council has damaged the Church. Those who have always hated him are no doubt using his administrative failures re: clerical sex abuse as payback for his exercise of theological discipline.
To its credit, the Times publishes a clear, concise op-ed by the well-informed journalist John Allen, explaining how Benedict woke up to the magnitude of the sex abuse problem, and why he’s being portrayed somewhat unfairly in the media. Allen concludes:

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church’s decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.
Be that as it may, Benedict now faces a difficult situation inside the church. From the beginning, the sexual abuse crisis has been composed of two interlocking but distinct scandals: the priests who abused, and the bishops who failed to clean it up. The impact of Benedict’s post-2001 conversion has been felt mostly at that first level, and he hasn’t done nearly as much to enforce new accountability measures for bishops.
That, in turn, is what makes revelations about his past so potentially explosive. Can Benedict credibly ride herd on other bishops if his own record, at least before 2001, is no better? The church’s legitimacy rests in large part on that question.
Yet to paint Benedict XVI as uniquely villainous doesn’t do justice to his record. The pope may still have much ground to cover, but he deserves credit for how far he’s come.

As so often in this scandal, different factions in the Church are using it to support their own view of the world, leaving aside facts that prove inconvenient to the narrative they prefer. There’s something about us that demands clear villains and clear heroes. So many orthodox/conservative Catholics raged against criticism of John Paul’s inaction in the scandal because they could not cope with the idea that JP2 was a flawed human, and indeed a tragic figure. Now that he’s been gone a few years, and Pope Benedict’s moves against the corrupt Father Maciel have made it very difficult to deny that John Paul protected the snake, you’ll hear orthodox Catholics admit that yes, as brilliant a pastor as John Paul was, he was deficient as the supreme governor of the church, at a time when the church desperately needed someone to take effective charge. This is his tragedy. The more I examine church leadership — not just Catholic Church leadership — the more I see that the skills that make a good pastor often exist in inverse proportion to the skills that make a good administrator.
Anyway, Allen’s take strikes me as balanced. This passage from the NYT piece also strikes me as key to understanding what this current round of stories means:

The case [of Abp Ratzinger reassigning a pederast priest] is alarming, wrote the German newspaper Die Zeit last week, not “because Ratzinger was guilty of an exceptional offense.”
“It is the other way around: It is significant because the archbishop acted as probably most other dignitaries in those years,” it wrote. “In 1980 Joseph Ratzinger was part of the problem that preoccupies him today.”

I spoke over the weekend to some Catholic friends who are deeply involved with the institutional church, and devoted to it. They’re troubled over all this, of course, and what it means for the future of their church, and indeed of our culture. I shared with A. my thought that the fate of the West hinges on the fate of the Roman church, and that no one who cares about our civilization can be anything but profoundly concerned about this mess. He agreed. I said to both my friends that I expected that Benedict would come out of this fine by doing what the American bishops did, and muddle through. They disagreed strongly.
“The scandal is not over here,” said B. “It’s no longer in the papers, but it’s still with us. It’s nowhere near over.”
I was surprised to hear that. I mentioned that few if any of the bishops had gone, and there was no sense of crisis left in this country. I left the Church, of course, and am now on the outside, but it was my sense that most Catholics had put the scandal behind them, for better or worse. My friends disagreed.
“I think we’re quietly losing a lot of people,” A. said. “They’re just fading away.”

He talked about Catholic schools closing, and the widespread loss of a sense of Catholic identity — all, if I’m reading him correctly, stemming from the more basic loss of a sense that the Roman Catholic church is supposed to be for something. That there is something uniquely important about being Catholic, and that being Catholic requires a certain irreducible set of commitments to the Sacraments, to Church authority, and to its institutions.
My friend — who is not, I hasten to say, a conservative, and who tells me he’s more of a social justice Catholic — said that you hear at his parish people saying things like, “Why do we need the Church to tell us how to live our lives?” He responded (to me), “But I do need the Church to tell me how to live my life. I know how weak I am, and how likely I am not to live up to the responsibilities I have.” He went on to say that without the basic institutions of Catholic life — daily mass, vigorous Catholic schools, and a regular sacramental life — the very meaning of what it is to be Catholic is at risk. Catholicism becomes just another form of Protestantism, which is itself being fast assimilated into the consumerist, secular bourgeois culture of the West. The salt is losing its savor. Roger Scruton’s arch line about his Anglican Church in Britain — that it’s ceased seeing its mission as converting people and the culture, and has settled instead for seeing its mission as forgiving those who don’t believe in the Gospel — becomes ever more true for us all. Evangelicals are the great exception, at least in terms of mission, but what kind of formation follows the “decision for Christ”? But don’t get me going on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is wrecking both liberal and conservative iterations of American Christianity.
My friends don’t have an ideological axe to grind, and their gloomy words reminded me of many conversations I’ve had with a clear-eyed parish priest friend, who has said it’s impossible to look at the numbers and to be sanguine about the future of the Catholic Church in America. Of course the mission of the Church doesn’t have a lot to do with the mission of The New York Times, or any other secular institution. But the problem the Catholic Church faces — and that all committed Christians face regarding our institutions and their health — has little or nothing to do with The New York Times. And, if we’re honest, we should admit that even if Our Side (left or right) should triumph completely in our struggles within our churches or denominations, there would still be the fundamental problem: how does a religion/church maintain a strong sense of itself and its institutions in conditions of postmodernity and the radical atomism of our culture? Just as in the Catholic abuse scandal, you could not tell who the good guys and the bad guys were on the basis of their theological orientation within the Church, conventional left-right answers to the problems facing all Christian churches are wholly inadequate to the challenge.
This is why the liberal vs. conservative narrative applied to the drama playing out among Catholics right now is so frustrating. The idea that the problems of Pope Benedict and his institution are largely the fault of a hostile media is risibly wrong; Laurie Goodstein didn’t reassign pederast priests. The idea that if only the Catholic Church were rid of supposedly rigid conservatives like Benedict, the Church would usher in the New Jerusalem is pathetically untrue. Liberal Catholicism — which is the Catholicism prevalent at the parish level in the US — has proved that it can’t maintain what is distinctively Catholic over time. (“How did the Catholic Church get this reputation for being sex-obsessed?” said my friend, a lifelong massgoing Catholic. “I’ve never heard a homily about sex.” In my 13 years as a faithful Catholic, I never did either). As an outsider to Catholicism now, one who desperately wants Benedict to succeed, I find the predictable way the scandal is playing out in the hands of partisans of both sides depressing, because beside the point.
UPDATE: OK, here’s a fantastic example of my point, taken from the comboxes on another thread. Go below the jump for more:

A reader left this comment on the asceticism thread:

I’m teaching at a conservative, religiously-affiliated university. Most of the students are very conservative politically and in terms of their religious background. This semester, I’m teaching a class on media of religion. As one exercise, the students watched Chariots of Fire and I asked them to write about Eric Liddle’s approach to the Sabbath as depicted in the film. Most students found it “impractical” in today’s world. Everyone is just too busy, they said. Work wouldn’t get done, people wouldn’t have time to shop, stores would go out of business because they wouldn’t be open on Sunday. Modern people have too much important stuff today, they said. I presented some counter-examples (Chik-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby, European countries where stores are often closed for most of Sunday). but I was unsuccessful in changing their opinion. One student wrote that the 10 Commandments were historic laws that only apply to the Jewish people and, I’m slightly paraphrasing here: are not applicable to Christians. A small sample of today’s modern conservative Christian college student believe that shopping and eating at restaurants on Sundays is now such a necessity that the American economy would collapse if Christians stayed home and rested on Sunday.

Is “conservative” religion in America countering that attitude? Manifestly not. Would “liberal” religion stand against it? Don’t make me laugh.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the religion of America. Old-time social justice liberal Catholics (and other Christians) ought to be as disgusted with it as right-wing social-conservative Catholics/Christians. Before the consumerist individualist juggernaut, we are all showing ourselves impotent. If young Christians cannot even grasp why the Sabbath should interfere with their shopping habits and preferences, how on earth will the Gospel and the Church have the power to shape anything else in their lives? Discredit the authority of the Church, and embrace individualism, and you disarm the collective. Fail to deal with the scandal, and displace the blame on others, and you effectively disarm yourselves by discrediting the authority of the Church.

More from Beliefnet and our partners