After years of scandalous publicity and tasteless priest jokes, the Catholic Church is settling out of court for a record $650 million in disbursements to victims of sexual abuse that occurred as far back as the 1940’s. Hoping to launch a new beginning in Los Angeles, the American Cardinal Roger Mahoney apologized to the plaintiffs, and regretted he could not turn back the clocks of time and repair their childhood.
In other words, the Church had sinned, and was seeking forgiveness. This is certainly not the gravest crisis within the Catholic Church, but the connection of bail out money, homosexuality and a costly apology is reminiscent of a darker period of the Church’s history when money was the root of a religious scandal that eventually brought about the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
In the Middle Ages, the Popes were, ultimately, businessmen- the administration of Church property and the distant geographies of Europe’s Catholics meant that a great deal of power and money changed hands quickly. It is ironic that the French Pope Clement V moved the entire seat of the Catholic Church to the French city of Avignon in 1307 as a direct result of the French king Philip’s oppression of the Knights Templars, who were suspected of homosexual activity. Ostensibly, the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papal office in Avignon for 70 years was aimed at cleansing the Church of its avarice- witness the suppression of the Templars- but it achieved little along these lines.
It was during these dark times in the Church’s history that corruption replaced the proper hierarchy and salvation became a blessing up for sale. In order to raise money for the new leaders of the Church, it became possible to pay the church in order to secure a lucrative position in the bureaucracy (simony), or to make sure that a favorite nephew got a job for life (nepotism- from the Greek nepos for nephew). But the most ingenious marketing campaign was directed at the Church’s sinners- of which there were many. A spurious argument was advanced that over the past 1,000 years the good deeds of the numerous saints were an asset of the Church that could be sold in order to achieve salvation and entrance into heaven. They were called “indulgences”, and when a guilty relative of a recently-deceased loved one made a contribution to the Church, the seller of the indulgences would draw on this moral bank account of the saints and withdraw an all coveted “get out of purgatory free” card for the sinner.
In 1377, the Papacy finally returned to Rome at the trusty hands of Pope Gregory, who immediately upon taking up residence there died. Another Pope was elected, but he was Italian, and this served to irk the French king so much that they decided to keep their own Pope in Avignon- resulting in two competing Popes. Naturally this meant double the corruption, which weakened the Church and shook the faith of the believers considerably. It was only in 1409 that the Church elders called a council to resolve the dreadful situation, and they finally agreed on one single Pope- who was elected that same year.
But neither the Pope in Avignon nor the Pope in Rome wanted to give up their jobs, so they boycotted the new Pope, resulting in 3 Popes. Finally in 1417 another Church council was able to push its will through by electing one, universal Pope- Martin V- but the institution’s reputation was irretrievable damaged by the past 120 years of scandal and corruption.
It would take exactly another 100 years before Martin Luther- a lawyer by education- would read in Romans 23 that salvation could be found exclusively through the righteousness of God. Without invoking yet another Church council to decipher what this meant, Luther interpreted it to mean that salvation could be attained by simply reading the word of God- the Bible. The simplicity of the notion, together with the countless princes, kings and noblemen who longed to be free of the confines of Rome, created a movement that would result in devastating European wars until the Peace of Augsburg granted religious freedom- but to the nobility only.
The Catholic Church will ultimately survive this sex scandal and put it behind the alter, but without external or even internal control of a patriarchal system based on loyalty and theology only, there is room for more abuse of power in the minds of people who believe in the sanctity of the Church and its spiritual leaders.
by Tracy Dove, editor of The Russia News Service, is a Professor of History and the Department Chair of International Relations at the University of New York in Prague, in US Politics Today