Rome – For the past several days in the Eternal City, I’ve watched as people with varying degrees of interest and devotion stream in and out of St. Peter’s Square. The pope fascinates them by joy, by beauty. Whether or not all realize that Christ and Church teaching are the joy and the beauty behind he who their iPhones are snapping photos of is unclear, but their desire and the fact that there is something fulfilling here is quite obvious.
As at the Thanksgiving Mass celebrating a God who would give us holy men like the newly declared saints John Paul II and John XXIII, people of all ages applauded mentions of the family and the need to renew and preserve it. This seems a world away from most of ours — where often a lack of common vocabulary and experience brings us deeper into a chaos that divides and confuses.
These past few days here have been about unity and renewal. The “doubleheader” canonization here this weekend was a message in continuity — he who opened the Second Vatican Council and he who brought the Church into the modern world as he witnessed to bold, radical, courageous love. At the same time, it was about reform and renewal. Both sainted popes worked toward changes in the Church and the world — not to adapt the Church to the world but to be better missionaries in the world. The models of their saintly lives are examples and challenges: real people can live lives of heroic virtue — that is, in fact, what Christians are called to.
This all seems a world away from Geneva, where the United Nations Committee Against Torture will soon be hearing testimony from and about the Holy See. The Holy See will testify voluntarily, along with other countries, having signed the Convention Against Torture. And the U.N. Committee best keep in mind that the world is watching.
That is: We know that the U.N. has been letting itself be used by those hostile to the Holy See and what the Catholic Church teaches. It was only earlier this year that the U.N.’s Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a broadside against Catholic teaching on sexual ethics (the best responses were written by my friend Austen Ivereigh from Catholic Voices in England). The Holy See goes into these hearings knowing the committee head shares the ideological values that led to the earlier report condemning the Church for its proposals about the good life.
But this month the U.N. treads onto gravely dangerous ground. If it were to even imply that the Church was guilty of torture, as it appears it may, imagine the danger to Christians around the world already living with a target on their backs because of their commitment to Jesus Christ. Will the United Nations tolerate this ideological misuse of a committee?
It has been suggested that the chairperson of the committee, Claudio Grossman, consider recusing himself from the hearings, with conflicts with the Church on abortion and same-sex marriage that certainly look like bias. Likewise vice chairwoman Felice D. Gaer has described herself as “fiercely pro-choice” and represented the U.S. during its abortion push at the U.N. conference on women in Beijing in 1994. At the very least, heir better angels would have them put these considerations aside as groups pressure them to abuse their power against a leading protector of human dignity, including of the most endangered, innocent unborn life and our elderly.
Any argument that the Catholic Church has violated the treaty on torture ignores both the reforms of the last dozen years that should be welcome as a model for other organizations — including the United Nations, which has had its own sexual-assault problems and accusations, including involving children, to contend with. It also ignores the fact that the Holy See itself is not torturing anyone. No one is concerned otherwise. And it is not Catholic teaching that leads to abuse. Priests who abused children were not following Church teaching. They were violating their vows and rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Scandals make headlines. But scandals — and most certainly the abhorrent abuse of children — are not Catholicism. Catholicism is countercultural. Catholicism is self-sacrificial. Catholicism is living sacramental lives conformed to the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s not torture; it’s freedom, an ascent of the will to a truth about women and men and what we’re made for. It’s about something beautiful. It’s why so many were on their knees in prayer in the St. Joseph chapel and by the tomb of Saint John Paul II tonight at St. Peter’s. The U.N. best not make something ugly of these hearings — to do so would only mar the credibility of the U.N. and revictimize the innocent who were hurt by men who did evil – perverting a most sacred trust. It would also put Catholics who proclaim His name in parts of the world violently hostile to the preaching — and living out — the Gospel of Christ — in danger.
Christians being Christian work to prevent misery and suffering, Pope Francis reminded those gathered for his private morning Mass Monday. They certainly aren’t acting out of Christian love when they abuse a child. “The devil always tries to divide us. He is the father of division,” he also said. To treat the Holy See as a state in any way associated with torture would be to hand him a victory in a world — and elite culture — overrun with sexual abuse. The U.N. and others would work toward the common good to learn lessons from the new culture of transparency and child protection in the Catholic Church today, working with the premiere advocate for human dignity and flourishing in the world.