The new pope was scarcely installed, with a clear mandate to clean up whatever remains of the sex-abuse crisis, when the snipers who always surround the Holy See opened skirmishing on the subject of Pope Francis’s conduct 35 years ago when Argentina was governed by the heavy-handed military junta that evicted Juan Perón’s politically inept widow, a former nightclub dancer, in 1976. (The junta was sent packing by Margaret Thatcher when she evicted them from the Falkland Islands in 1979.) The sex-abuse crisis has been a horrible and shaming problem, but Catholicism’s enemies have amplified and exploited it to incite the inference that most of the Roman clergy are deviates compounding superstition with perversion. The most frequent and wishful version of these events is as a mighty coruscation before the great Christian scam expires in a Wagnerian inferno, an inadvertent Waco. It took the most antagonistic pundits, in their uncomprehending skepticism of the viability of what they regard as a medieval flimflam factory anyway, only one day to assimilate the election of a man none of them had mentioned, in their omniscience, as a contender, before pronouncing his papacy dead on arrival at the Sistine Chapel.
No one really has any idea what this new pope is going to do, but there seems no doubt that he has a mandate to impose a draconian screening and evaluation process to clear out sex offenders, prevent the admission of potential future offenders, and give everyone except the most rabid anti-papists a comfort level that this ghastly affair, which simmered and bubbled for centuries, has been finally lanced and ended and that the weaknesses that gave rise to it and tolerated it have been excised. Sensing that the Church may survive this wicked and psychotic conduct by 1 or 2 percent of its ordained personnel, the Church’s enemies have already moved on to Francis’s supposed lack of rebellious fervor toward the Argentinean military 35 years ago. It is reminiscent of the tempest in a thimble over Pope Benedict’s conscription as an “air-force child soldier” in an inactive German anti-aircraft battery in 1943. (He deserted at the first opportunity to do so without being executed.)
Nothing has come to light except a perceived absence, by those desperate not to find it, of Francis’s vocal outrage at the crimes of the junta, when he was a provincial Jesuit official. The official position of the Argentinean church was hostile to human-rights abuses, but noncommittal about the legitimacy of the government — following as it did the mad and violent carnival of Isabel Perón — and neutral in the Falklands War. Pope John Paul II, whose opposition to the Nazis and Communists in Poland had left him immunized against fault-finding for his courage and consistency in human-rights matters, hastily added a trip to Argentina after his long-scheduled visit to the United Kingdom, in the midst of the Falklands War. He left Buenos Aires shortly before the Royal Navy arrived in South Atlantic waters for the first time since it drove the German armored cruiser Graf Spee to scuttle itself in 1939. And it liberated Argentina from the blundering military regime that thought to shore up its popularity by scoring in an open goal in the Falklands against a faraway colonial power.
Of course, this pope does have a difficult mission, not just because it is always difficult to be the most prominent intermediary in the world between the terrestrial life we all know and the celestial realm in which many do not believe. He appears to have been elevated because of his pastoral success, universally conceded integrity, and irreproachably modest and outspoken advocacy of the poor, as the most ingenuous and unassailable possible messenger for the traditional Catholicism that is now, especially in its attitude toward contraception, not supported by more than a small and very doctrinaire section of the laity. The Church well knows that its views, restated by successive popes but largely dissented from even by the bishops, are a counsel of perfection. But this counsel is maintained in a way that invites scorn and incredulity as the prohibition commended as moral duty shows no recognition that sexual intercourse has, for billions of people, become a mere extension of the pleasures of heterosexual affection, because of the ease with which it can be assured not to be a procreative act. When almost any coupling with a woman of child-bearing age presented the potential for conception, the Church could plausibly counsel caution for moral as well as practical reasons. But for better or worse, the evolution of mores and the progress of paramedical science in the contraceptive age has routinized the sexual act.
The Roman Catholic Church’s desire to avoid trendiness and pandering is commendable, and distinguishes it from many other churches. The need to encourage the most principled and self-disciplined of the faithful is strong and admirable. I do not underestimate, and am not qualified to discuss, the theological arguments involved. But there are insurmountable problems with an enunciated principle of sexuality that everyone knows is largely ignored in practice and practically unnecessary, and that assists the Church’s numerous and influential enemies in discounting its moral influence as the principal ark of the Christian message. The Church’s official position on contraception enables its enemies to portray it as an archaic society for the propagation of chaste humbug by an esoteric fraternity of superannuated clergymen in antiquarian costumes.
There must be a dogmatically respectable way to execute a dignified climb-down and declare the sexual act a consequential moral commitment appropriate to and generally reserved to marriage, but sometimes unexceptionable when undertaken with contraceptive precautions, and reprehensible only if entered into wantonly. By clinging to the objection to contraception, even among married couples, the Church conveys the false impression of wishing to make sex risky and inaccessible, of opposing useful science, and of putting its hostility to safe sex ahead of its mortal opposition to abortion, a much more defensible and important cause that would be directly assisted by ending the failed war on contraception. The Roman Catholic Church, with all respect to the long traditions involved, should not be in the business of appearing to be the party of joyless behavioral philistinism, and should not needlessly subject itself to unjust imputations of hypocrisy. The secondary controversy over an all-male clergy can probably be dealt with by laicizing more activities with equal opportunities for women.
The Church’s most febrile critics seem not to grasp two important points. The first is that the retention of the opposition to contraception, and even the terrible public-relations and financial debacle of the sexual-abuse scandals, have not strangled Church attendance or clerical recruitment, which are in both cases, and in most places, steady or reviving. The take-away message is not the parlous condition of Catholicism but its indestructibility, provided reforms address the most sensible concerns and do not consist of groveling to the convenience of mere congregationalism. The correct balance between reform and conservation will regain upward momentum, as will Rome’s preeminence among religious institutions generally. The Church’s enemies are not so much other denominations now, but the fervent atheists, and they cannot grasp that human nature will always provide a majority of people who acknowledge the existence of spiritual forces and of some religious reality worthy of acknowledgment, and even of worship.
The second large point Catholicism’s enemies miss is the utility of a Church Militant to Western civilization, whether the skeptics believe any of it or not. It is disappointing to see the continued appeasement of aggressive Islam by most secular authorities and the absence of a suitably robust sectarian criticism of the intolerance and tendency to violence of radical Islam. Pope Benedict was almost the only prominent world leader who addressed this issue in suitably purposeful terms. A Church Militant, tolerant but strong, and not hobbled by absurd controversies over contraception, will be a mighty rampart against the outrageous gibe of Islam that the West is a completely profane and blasphemous society. Until it engages in just a couple of needful steps of modernization, the Roman Catholic Church will be denying Western civilization the ability to respond as decisively as it otherwise could and should to these charges, and denying itself the assumption of its rightful status as a contemporary, as well as timeless, moral force. The arch-secularists and the extreme rationalists, like the conquering scientists, have been exposed by events of having sold the world false prospectuses, as the zealots of religious panaceas were before them. The world, whether any of the skeptics realize it or not, and not just the fifth of it made up of Pope Francis’s co-religionists, is awaiting a measured and overdue adjustment of a couple of the Roman canons, from which believers and non-believers will benefit.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.