What if Pope Benedict XVI is right and doesn't have the courage to admit it publicly? The thought occurred to me the other day. By day, I counseled clients on the front line of the United States' war on sex. By night, I was tongue-clucking over a church too hard-headed and hard-hearted to do the right thing.
And then it occurred to me: The church may be right.
It is by now obvious that there are abusive priests in the church. And there are abusive fathers in our homes. There are abusive aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches. Why the world is filled with sexual abusers. It's enough to throw us into a panic, and so we do panic and fret.
Lawmakers belt out one harsh and over-broad law after another. Romeo's lovemaking nets him the scorn of a serial killer. We make those who are a risk of violent offense register and seek treatment with those who were merely curious in the wrong way and at the wrong time in their lives and in our nation's history. We want to lock people up and throw away the key. We call these offenders sick, deviant, beyong redemption, and so we punish them.
We are the sick and twisted ones. Our society is steeped in cheap and easy sensuality. Yet step out of line for a moment and you are labeled a deviant. Then comes scorn. What sane and humane society seeks to punish the ill? And why can't we as a society take broader responsibility for trapping a generation or more of young Americans in the vice of lust, one of the deadly sins?
The church is criticized for not doing enough with errant priests. Yet increasingly I read that the men, and they are almost all men, are isolated and sent for treatment and care away from press of daily life. That's not enough for the hypocritical Puritans in our midst: They want the priests in prison, and they want money damages for those abused. It is a sick and twisted cycle.
Perhaps, I say, the Pope is right.
Lust is a sin. Pedophilia is an illness. Prison is not confession; it expiates no sin, and rights nothing. Imprisoning the sick is what a sick society does. And justice does not require the ill to pay fines to those they harm.
Anger grows over a church perceived to be refusing to be held accountable. But I wonder whether that rage is misplaced, really. Did we really think we could make a profit stoking desire and that the demons of lust, once set free, would obey the rules. When do we take responsibility for what we have wrought?
I've seen good men destroyed by baseless allegations of sexual misconduct. I've seen purported victims, still children, coddled, and made into veritable rock stars by the court. Prosecutors strut and preen about accountability. Yet once the prison door slams, nothing has changed. The angry victim can now enjoy the cheap and easy drug of revenge, but this pill, once swallowed, poisons the soul.
I'm starting to admire the Pope. He doesn't owe the world an explanation for the sin in his church, any more than we owe him an explanation for the excess we court in the name of profit and free expression. When one of the pope's own errs, the church takes him in and offers to treat the wounded, even as it offers counsel to victims. How much better the pope and the church than we. When a citizen fails, we brand him for life and call him a monster. We seek to ruin him. And we call it justice.
There are, Augustine wrote long ago, two cities: the city of man and the city of God. I am a pagan, and do not know God. But I know that I respect the pope far more than those critics that think call for the church to shed compassion in the name of revenge.