The big news with Catholicism this week is that the pope has chosen to retire. I should note that I am not Catholic. My family has been moving in and out of the Church for a few generations now, but my feet are still planted firmly on the South side of the Tiber. Therefore, I can understand why retiring is a perfectly sensible move for a guy who is 85-years-old given the contentious issues that the Church had to deal with in recent years weighing down on his shoulder.
The ambivalence with which some Catholics are greeting his abdication is understandable. After all, the pope is supposed to be the successor of St. Peter. That is not a job that people walk away from in the way that they walk away from being, say, the bean counter for Bethlehem Steel. As New York Times' Ross Douthat points out, if God wanted a new ambassador on earth, He probably would have said so.
That being said, one should keep in mind the other recent major story regarding the Roman Catholic Church. This one was a story from North America that followed from the publication of documents suggesting that Cardinal Mahoney (formerly Archbishop of Los Angeles) participated in the cover up of serious cases of sexual abuse during his tenure.
Most of the journalism that covers the sexual abuse scandal, particularly from people who are not otherwise interested in the Church, misses the point. There is no real evidence linking celibacy or other characteristics of the priestly lifestyle to a proclivity for pedophilia. The average priest is probably less prone to sexually abuse an altar boy than a public school teacher is a student. There is absolutely no compelling evidence that the Catholic clergy has more perverts than any other religious or secular organization.
But, if the Roman Catholic Church is no worse, why is the sexual abuse scandal such an important scandal? Mainly because of the way that the Catholic Church presents itself. Because the Roman Catholic Church claims to be the one truth, the actual embodiment of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The problem is not that it demonstrates they fall short of this measure; it is that the desire of the senior leadership — like Cardinal Mahoney — to sustain the integrity of this image makes them blind to the serious lapses from which the Church continues to suffer.
I don't mean to dictate how the Church's leadership might frame their presence in the world. I am not a Catholic; part of the cost of not being willing to accept the institution's authority is not to have a voice to shape it. It is also hard to say that the Roman Catholic Church would be better off if Catholics took these scandals the way that mainline Protestants and evangelicals do — shocking, but hardly surprising in a fallen world in which denominational churches are also imperfect institutions.
But as long as the Catholic Church sees itself as holding the exclusive keys to the Kingdom and the sole guardian of sacraments and rites, it is not surprising that these scandals will continue. The problem is not that the Church is the same as every other institution; the problem is that they compromise themselves so much in trying to prove that they are different.