The Catholic Church is, once again, making headlines for child sex abuse and its efforts to cover up the sins of pedophile priests. According to a grand jury report, more than 1,000 children are believed to have been molested by over 300 clergy within six dioceses of Pennsylvania. The Catholic has, of course, had a long history of child sex abuse scandals. Although the findings of the report are extremely graphic and very disturbing, the unfortunate truth is that they likely represent only a fraction of cases to be found around the world. Although one pedophile ring within the Church was so well-organized and coordinated its members were able to mark victims they had groomed with little golden crosses, the Church’s historic response was to frame the premeditated rape and sexual assault of children as a test of faith for those pedophiles allegedly struggling with their urges. The victims, in turn, were cast aside, essentially blamed for tempting wayward priests.
Despite his attempts to rebuild the Catholic Church as a place of healing and salvation instead of a place of condemnation, Pope Francis, like his immediate predecessors, is clearly struggling to address child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Quite frankly, the child sexual abuse scandals originally came into existence, because the clergy feared public acknowledgement of sexual abuse would damage the Church’s image and cost the Church the human resources it needed. Catholic leaders decided to protect their own associates and the institution of the Church instead of protecting the victims of predators. In other words, they decided to act politically when they needed to act morally and protect the children of their community. It is the perversion of the religious institution with political thinking that resulted in the cover up of these heinous crimes and thorough violations of Catholic teachings.
It is, of course, important to recognize the handling of the child sexual abuse scandal is not the first time the Catholic Church has been corrupted by an unholy blending of doctrines. The world fell into the Dark Ages, because the Church consolidated its religious authority with the power of government and all other forms of social influence. The Church’s monopoly on power allowed religious leaders to go unchecked in their abuses of others. During World War II, the inability to intellectually resolve conflicting conclusions from objective scientific teachings, Catholicism, socialism, Nihilism, existentialism, and other incompatible philosophies lead to a convoluted worldview where people no longer concerned themselves with the consequences of their actions. The Nazis used the resulting Frankenstein philosophy to rationalize and legitimize their efforts to dehumanize the Jews and other non-Arian races. All the moral and ethical conclusions that deemed genocide unacceptable were stripped away when various teachings were used to discount their value.
Going forward, the Catholic Church must find a means of transcending the political culture it has long embraced, so it can overcome its demons and act as a righteous institution; otherwise, the world will be haunted by its politically motivated sins for decades and centuries to come. If Pope Francis is to eventually rebuild the Catholic Church, he must break free of political influence. The same is, of course, true for all religious leader. Politics tends to be a corrupting force. Those in politics, after all, seek power and the quest for power tends to corrupt. The only concrete means of combating the corrupting nature of politics is civic engagement, which requires the public to constantly question the thinking and decisions of policymaker. Religion, on the other hand, requires commitment and faith in religious doctrine, which by extension requires commitment and faith in religious leaders. When religious leaders are politicized, which is boldly exemplified by the Catholic Church child abuse scandals, religion is opened to the power of corruption, because public scrutiny is neutralized.
The potential political benefit of religious beliefs is the ability of religious beliefs to act as standards for how all people are to be treated, which is helpful when building a healthier society free of antisocial behavior like crime, discrimination, and egocentric attitudes. The downside of religion is that it can alienate individuals with alternative beliefs and dissenting views. The responsibility of political leaders is to help govern by representing their constituents. The role of religious leaders is to offer followers moral support and guidance on how to live their lives. Like politicians, it is the role of clergy to organize and strengthen their communities. It is not, however, the role of religious leaders to write laws, enforce regulations, tax, or take punitive measures nor it is their role to influence public policy matters. When political leaders evoke religion in their quest for power, whether or not they intend to abuse the faith of the Faithful, they use God to promote their public policy positions and immunize themselves against necessary scrutiny. There is, therefore, a twofold need for the separation of Church and State.
In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees the religious freedom of all citizens. For many religious individuals, the separation of church and state is an attempt by atheists to suppress religion. For the religious, who support the separation of church and state, this means the government cannot infringe upon one’s worship of God and must protect citizens from religious persecution. For them, separation of church and state is a necessity easily fulfilled by government providing equal support for all religions. For the nonreligious, it means the government must protect one’s right to abstain from religion. Many nonreligious individuals believe separation of church and state can only be achieved by rooting out all religious messages from government. Proper balance is actually needed to achieve an effective separation of church and state that both protects the religious and the areligious. Within a religious institution, however, there is no room for politics.
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