The Corner

Symbolism & The Church

I have nothing but sympathy for the victims in the Church sex abuse scandals. But following the coverage of the Pope’s meeting yesterday, mostly on TV and NPR, I do have one objection. Lots of the spokespeople for the victims groups derided the meeting as “symbolic.” One of the attendees, meanwhile, defended the meeting as not merely “symbolic.”

Now, I think complaints that the Church hasn’t done enough are certainly understandable (I don’t know the details enough to render specific opinions). But I find the objection to the Pope’s meeting as simply “symbolic” to be deeply flawed. To listen to the critics in the media, anything less than a meeting with every single self-described victim would be merely a symbolic gesture or a “p.r. move.” Again, my hunch is that the Church still needs to do more, but faulting the Pope for symbolic gestures strikes me as sort of weird. Look at how the guy dresses. Look at Catholic ceremony. I wrote and produced two documentaries largely on Catholic symbolism (one on Gargoyles the other on the history of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris), and let me just say that symbolism is what Catholics do (it’s not all they do of course). I don’t mean this in a condescending or dismissive way, but in a flattering way. The Catholic Church probably cares about and values symbolism more than any other institution I can think of. That’s part of the appeal and mission of the Catholic Church as far as I can tell. Of course, the meeting with these victims was symbolic. But that hardly means it was trivial. 

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