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Catholics Want To Hear Church's Confession

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Catholics Want To Hear Church's Confession


Catholics Want To Hear Church's Confession

Catholics Want To Hear Church's Confession

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Speaking in St. Peter's Square Wednesday, Pope Benedict said the church would take action to confront the priest sex abuse scandal. E.J. Dionne, of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, talks to Steve Inskeep about how Catholics stay committed to their faith when they question the institution.


This week on MORNING EDITION, we've been talking about the impact of sex abuse scandals on the Catholic Church. We've heard about how the scandals may shape Pope Benedict's legacy. We've heard the story of how Benedict punished a powerful priest when nobody else would.

Today, speaking in St. Peter's Square, the pope said the church would take action to confront the scandal. Now, the church's response to all this is of intense interest to E.J. Dionne. He's a columnist for the Washington Post, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, regular guest on our program ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and he's Catholic.

Now, I want to start on a kind of a personal note, if I might. What has it been like in your church the last few weeks?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Well, our pastor gave a very powerful sermon on Easter, about the scandal. And he said a lot of things that needed to be said, not only about individual culpability, but also about institutional culpability. And I think the church is...

INSKEEP: Did he say, we, the church, are guilty here?

Mr. DIONNE: Yes, he did. But he also was, at the end, a little bit defensive, talking about enemies of the church. And he sort of defended Pope Benedict. And I happen to love our pastor; he's a wonderful man. My sense is he would've been more effective just short of saying the mea culpa.

You know, I think that - the nuns used to tell us that there's nothing like a good confession. And I think that the church's problem here is that they haven't found it easy - to put it charitably - to talk about the institutional problem, to say that, yes, there were moments when we put the institutional interest above other interests.

INSKEEP: Pope Benedict, himself, has actually addressed this crisis, and he has an interesting way of phrasing it here. He says - and this is a quote: Now, under attack from the world, which talks to us of our sins, we can see that being able to do penance is a grace, and we see how necessary it is to do penance and thus, recognize what is wrong in our lives.

Even there, you have an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a discussion of penance, but also describing himself as under attack.

Mr. DIONNE: I suppose if I had been an editor, I would have asked him, can you drop the first half? Because I think that part of the problem is that attacking the world first for bringing this to the church's attention undercuts the contrition in the second half. That is a very good statement that the church should make, and needs to make, I think, more strongly about itself as an institution.

But I think this is a case where the church could actually learn something from the modern world, in terms of accepting that the rage out there doesn't just come from enemies of the church. I think it doesn't even come, primarily, from enemies of the church. There are a lot of us out there who have lived our lives feeling great gratitude to the church. I feel great gratitude to nuns and priests who have been very important in my life.

And the sense of disappointment and anger among people who are part of the church, who are in the church, who are not enemies of the church, who don't carry around resentments of the church; those are the folks they need to talk to. And I think that when they talk about outside enemies, they're not talking to those people in the pews.

INSKEEP: Is rage a fair word for what you've felt from time to time?

Mr. DIONNE: Yeah, I have gone back and forth. I found it a very difficult period. Because as I say, you know, I feel gratitude towards the church. Early in the scandal, I wrote a column that began with the words: Some of my best friends are priests. And I wrote it because it was true; and I wrote it because, you know, the church, and a lot of individuals in it, have been very important to me, to the way I think, to the way I approach the world - the whole idea of God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.

That's a really hopeful orientation toward life and it's affected, you know, a lot of things deep inside me that I'm not even aware of. And yet when you saw this, when you saw not only that people could do this to children, but also the tendency of the church to kind of push it aside, cover it up in those years - you know, back in the '80s and before - it was, at best, disappointing. And at worst, you asked, how could they do this?

INSKEEP: I wonder if it's especially hard for Catholics as opposed to people in other religions or other denominations of Christianity. If you are a Muslim, the imam is important, but he's not your conduit to God, necessarily. And if you're in certain branches of Christianity, the pastor has different levels of importance. But with Catholicism, the pope takes a paramount position.

Mr. DIONNE: The paradoxical thing about the Catholic Church is that it is structurally extremely centralized, but in actual practice, it's very decentralized. And I think lots of people stay with the church because they are part of the larger community and a larger tradition, but they are also part of smaller communities - particular parishes, particular priests and nuns, particular prayer groups.

And so I think a lot of times when the institutional structure of the church fails them, or they believe it has failed them, they turn back on this group of people who grew out of the tradition and say, this is what the tradition is about.

I have a very dear mother-in-law who is a very, very serious, wonderful Catholic, and who is as frustrated as anyone with these things. But she sort of can turn back to her inner faith as a personal matter, and to the community of people she has been part of for a very long time and say, that's what the church is really about.

INSKEEP: So, you have to separate your faith from the guys in the robes, basically.

Mr. DIONNE: Right. And I think that's good Catholic doctrine. I mean, the structure of the church is a human creation. The church teaches it's divinely inspired - you know, thou art Peter and upon this rock, I will build my church. But history tells us that there has been corruption in the church at various moments in history.

Indeed, the celibate priesthood - priests weren't always celibate. It was instituted as a barrier against corruption, passing on property to kids. So, the church has dealt with corruption for a long time.

Someone told me a story, recently, of a bishop or archbishop confronting a dictator who is persecuting the church. And according to the story, he looks at the dictator and said, look, we have done our best to destroy the church and we have failed. What makes you think you will succeed?

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, maybe that leads to the final question, then: Do you think that this is just one more scandal and any institution will have scandals, or that all these years of scandals add up to an earthquake that is in some way going to change the Catholic Church?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I hope it does change the Catholic Church. You know, I would like the church to revisit the issue of an all-male, celibate priesthood. I don't expect that to happen soon and it won't be a cure-all for this, but I'd like at least to see an open debate about that. But more to the point, I think a lot of the solutions to this lie in the church's own preaching.

I think when they did the wrong thing, they were really operating on the imperatives of this world, listening to lawyers, listening to PR specialists, acting like...

INSKEEP: Deny, deny, deny.

Mr. DIONNE: ...any institution. Whereas, behaving like Christians says yes, we failed; yes, failure is something that happens to humans a lot. And we are genuinely committed to - as the church likes to say - a firm purpose of amendment. And so I hope that that can happen. And I think somehow it will, but sometimes, things take a long time in the Roman Catholic Church.

INSKEEP: E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post, and a regular guest with David Brooks on our own ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Good to see you.

Mr. DIONNE: It's good to see you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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