I must extend my humble congratulations to Pope Benedict XVI for doing what no other pope has done before him. If anybody did anything anywhere similar, it was after a much longer time. On his 6-day visit to the USA from 15th April 2008, Pope Benedict took all of 25 minutes off his busy schedule to meet with five sex abuse victims of the American Catholic clergy.
Those 25 minutes may not appear momentous, but that is only if you do not appreciate the intransigence with which the Catholic Church has sometimes, in the past, treated other similarly weighty issues. As an example, we may take the case of Galileo Galilei, the leading Italian scientist of the 17th century, who formulated the basic law of falling bodies.
Of course, Galileo was following in the steps of an equally illustrious scientist of the 16th century, the Polish Nicolaus Copernicus, whose published theories of the heliocentric system were confined to the Index of Forbidden Books in 1611, by the Catholic Church. As you may perhaps remember, the same fate did befall the 19th century English naturalist, Charles Robert Darwin, for daring to advance the theory that man came into being through evolution rather than creation.
For information, the heliocentric theory held that the earth, the moon and other ‘spheres’ revolved around the sun. This was in stark contrast to the Christian Ptolemaic theory which maintained that the earth was stationary, overseen by fixed stars and around which revolved the moon and the sun. The Index of Forbidden Books was a list of books and ideas that were considered immoral, impious or dangerous, by the pope and the Roman Catholic clergy. All Christians were commanded to shun them.
For re-enforcing the truth of Copernicus’ discovery, that the earth revolved on its axis and around the sun, Galileo Galilei was condemned by the powerful Roman Catholic Church as an ‘infidel’. He practically received a ‘fatwa’ for that, and was placed under house arrest and ridiculed at every opportunity, until his death in 1642. The battle against Galileo’s heresy was led by Pope Paul V (1605 – 1621) and, after him, Pope Urban VIII (1623 – 1644).
The Dominican Father Tomasso Caccini even assured his flock that “geometry is of the devil” and that “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies.” In clerical circles, it was held that Galileo’s findings “upset the whole basis of theology. If the earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it cannot be that any such great things have been done especially for it as the doctrine teaches,” it was asserted.
“If there are other planets,” continued the clerics, “since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah’s Ark? How can they be redeemed by the Saviour?” The pope, therefore, commanded that “if the denounced works were either taught or read, the violator may be punished in this world and further tormented in the next.”
It was not until 1998 that Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church admitted the mistake and apologised, which was after 365 years! Which is why the action by Pope Benedict XVIII should be lauded, coming, as it does, during these men’s lifetime. That Pope Benedict publicly apologised to the more than one thousand American men who were sexually abused by Catholic priests, when they were young, demonstrates courage.
He has directly met the victims of abuse by Catholic priests, and publicly apologised in a relatively short time, and he has described the acts as “intolerable and unacceptable”. The Catholic Church has so far paid more than US $ 2.5 billion, in recognition of the gravity of its sin. By these acts, the current occupant of the Holy See and overseer of over one billion Catholics has shown that he is capable of taking on the gargantuan task of healing and reconciling his global flock.
A flock which most of his clergy has torn, and continues to tear, apart.
The good pope knows all this, no doubt, because he has heard of the country to his south, in Africa, that is known as Rwanda. Pope Benedict also knows that Rwanda was blown to smithereens by the most devastating genocide in human history, going by its swift and horrific execution.
Most importantly, he knows that the horror of Rwanda was perpetuated by many members of the Catholic fraternity, who form more than three quarters of the Rwandan population. He knows that they were led, in their gruesome enterprise, by their shepherds in the clergy.
These clerical leaders schemed with government officials on how to involve children, women and men in the biggest and most macabre bloodletting to be visited on any country in the world, in recent history. In a country that is predominantly Catholic, these clerical leaders did not flinch one little bit when leading, or actually doing, the killing of innocent, fellow Catholics who had sought sanctuary in their houses of worship.
Catholics in Rwanda have desecrated life; they have desecrated the Catholic faith; they have desecrated houses of worship. They have shamed Rwanda; they have shamed the Catholic Church; they have shamed the world. In its concerted and miraculously successful effort at reconciliation and healing, today’s Rwandan society would have expected the pontiff’s eager participation in this worthy endeavour, even before he identified with the relatively ‘milder’ case of the Americans.
Still, Rwandans are a patient lot: they are waiting.