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The Courage To Apologize

Michael Sean Winters frequently writes for The New Republic on the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI, who is turning out to be a far cry from the draconian enforcer of orthodoxy that some had feared, drew an important distinction the other day when he was taking questions from reporters on his flight to the U.S. Asked about the sexual abuse crisis that erupted within the Catholic Church in 2002 and still simmers today, the pope said, "I would not speak in this moment about homosexuality, but pedophilia, [which] is another thing."

For most sensible adults, separating being gay from being a child abuser makes perfect sense. But it had to disappoint certain Catholic conservatives who have been trying these past six years to manipulate the sexual abuse crisis into an opportunity to attack gays.

After the reports of widespread abuse came to light, in 2002, conservative Catholic writer George Weigel penned an obnoxious tome entitled The Courage to be Catholic. Like most of Weigel's self-referential tomes, the book might have been more accurately entitled, The Courage to be Weigel. (After reading Weigel's massive biography of Pope John Paul II, a Vatican official said to me, "It left one with the question: Who is that man in white standing next to George Weigel?") The phrase "homosexual molestation" was the way Weigel described clergy sex abuse throughout the book. Still, trying to hijack the greatest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church to score points was a new low for Weigel.

Weigel is not alone. Yesterday, I was part of a panel on NPR's "To The Point." Also on the panel was Bill Donohue, the rightwing head of the Catholic League. When discussing the sexual abuse crisis, he completely ignored Pope Benedict's distinction between homosexuality and the abuse of minors. Donohue tried to conflate the two, arguing that most of the instances of abuse were with post-pubescent males and so not technically pedophilia at all but just another variety of homosexuality. It seems not to have dawned on him that priests have access to men's rooms and boys' locker rooms, where predators could scout the vulnerable, and that studies have shown that vulnerability attracts a sexual predator more than the gender of the prey. Plus, I do not see how it is much better for a 40-something priest to be molesting a 15 year-old rather than a 12 year-old. Donohue's rant may have been a qualified smear, but it was a smear nonetheless.

Conservatives must have also been disappointed by the Pope's speech to the American hierarchy. When discussing the important threats to marriage and the family, Benedict focused on infidelity and divorce. Unsurprisingly, he said that the Church believes marriage consists of a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. But, he did not engage in the kind of rightwing rant about gays being a threat to marriage. In fact, he did not mention homosexuality at all. He did, however, address the dangers of materialism, which has not been a principal concern of conservative Catholic apologists for capitalism.

The fundamental difference between Benedict and the Catholic neo-cons is one of disposition not belief. Indeed, I am sure that Weigel, Donohue, and I all agree about the central tenets of the Catholic faith. But the Catholic neo-cons want a culture war, and Benedict self-evidently does not. He is a pastor now, and it is his job to love his flock, especially those who stray. It will be curious to see how Weigel and Donohue parse the Pope's words this week, because while Weigel and other conservatives present themselves as authoritative interpreters of all things Catholic, so far, the pope has not been following the neo-cons' talking points. He has been preaching the Gospel.

--Michael Sean Winters