Zeal for Thy House by Leon J. Podles

Zeal for Thy House

Some Reforms Require the Ultimate Sacrifice

One alone is holy. Even good, well-intentioned men, even saints, fail. One failure, almost bound up with their goodness, is the failure of good men to comprehend evil. Eugenio Pacelli knew Hitler was evil, even before he became Pope Pius XII in 1939. But even he could not comprehend the scale of evil that Hitler was bringing upon Europe. The German clergy were no Nazis, but most of them thought that Hitler was an ordinary nationalist on the rise.

Joseph Ratzinger was a scholar and could not begin to comprehend the duplicity and evil intentions of the sexual abusers he had to deal with, first as archbishop of Munich and then as a cardinal in Rome. It took years for Ratzinger to comprehend how deeply evil and corrupt these priests were, how full of lies, how they manipulated the weaknesses of everyone they came into contact with: children, parents, bishops, cardinals, popes, none of whom could believe how evil these abusers really were. Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light, and these abusers imitated their father in hell.

Benedict XVI has tried to reform the church, but he has not yet exercised the necessary severity. The last pope to take effective action against abusers was Pius V (d. 1572), who decreed that any cleric or religious guilty of abuse should be immediately removed from the clerical state and turned over to the secular arm, to be condemned to death or life in the galleys. Pius V also acted against lax bishops, something Benedict has not yet done. Benedict hopes that his reforms and his example and public pressure will be enough to encourage bishops to do the right thing; I am less hopeful.

Benedict is fully conscious of his vocation and responsibilities in the church. I do not think he can imagine the degree of careerism and infidelity even among bishops. If even the proclamation of sound doctrine by Benedict XVI provokes hatred, how much more would be provoked by any attempt to truly reform the church, to truly enforce a high level of discipline and austerity? Abusers dare complain that they are no longer allowed to say Mass as a punishment for crimes that in more vigorously Christian centuries would have gotten them burned at the stake.

Some of the Touchstone senior editors are, of course, not Roman Catholics and thus not as close, personally and ecclesially, to the situation in the Roman church. There is, however, sin and cover-up in every communion. The current situation in Rome reminds us what the stakes are for all of us.

Any reformer must expect to be a martyr, whether by shedding his blood or by losing all his friends and his reputation. But those who prefer the good opinion of the world forget that there is only one opinion that ultimately matters, and that that Judge sees with infinitely clear and holy eyes.

— Leon J. Podles, for the editors

Leon J. Podles holds a Ph.D. in Old English and Old Icelandic from the University of Virginia and is a senior editor of Touchstone. His latest book is Losing the Good Portion: Why Men Are Alienated from Christianity (St. Augustine's Press, 2020). He and his wife Mary (author of the Touchstone column "A Thousand Words") are the parents of six children. He resides in Baltimore, Maryland.

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