A rather strange story was reported last week, though it was drowned out by renewed, and intensified, sexual scandal.
On Wednesday, March 17, the Vatican announced its intention to conduct a formal enquiry into the Marian apparitions that began in June of 1981 outside the small Bosnian town of Medjugorje. One of John Paul II’s favored advisors, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, has been appointed to lead the investigation.
Six visionaries reported seeing a white-clad Virgin holding an infant in her arms, countless times and over a period spanning several decades. In the past thirty years, the site has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Eastern Europe, attracting an estimated 30 million pilgrims. The Roman Church has never committed itself one way or the other on the authenticity of the apparitions up to now.
Yet the authenticity of the site and its sanctity took a significant blow when Father Tomislav Vlasic, the self-appointed spiritual advisor to the six recipients of these visions, was de-frocked last year and forbidden to speak about these, or any other matters, under threat of excommunication. The charges were predictable enough, if sad-making. On the one hand, he is accused of exaggerating the nature and extent of these apparitions. And on the other hand, he is accused of—what else?—sexual impropriety, involving an alleged sexual liaison with a nun.
This is a large site, a large affair, and potentially a very large story.
But it has dwindled to insignificance in the face of what appears to be an ever-expanding cycle of sexual scandal and sexual abuse, enabled by (if not actually justified under) the aegis of priestly authority. Accusations of such abuse are now becoming global in scope—from Boston, to Bavaria, to Ireland—and the moral challenge created by these matters is compounded by the apparent collusion of church officialdom in several overlapping cover-ups.
While it is tempting to go for the papal jugular in the face of such scandals—especially among those who are most adamantly opposed, not just to these two anti-modern papacies, but to the entire architecture of this masculinist and gender-segregated institution—it may be well for the Church’s critics to pause and reflect on the strange symbolics embedded in these curiously intertwined tales.
An anti-modern papacy engages in the apparently pre-modern endeavor of looking for new saints.
An enormous modern bureaucracy defends itself by covering up that most perennial of all sins, Christian or otherwise, the abuse of power at the expense of those most vulnerable members of the community, abuse which expresses itself in a sexual way.
That same bureaucracy now goes looking for, not just sanctity, but a uniquely Catholic apparition of such purity: a timeless virgin, who is also a mother.
Then that quest is sullied once again by sexuality, ironically among the most enthusiastic proponents of the Virgin, and signatories to her Church’s policies on abstinence.
The question has been posed: whether this vast ecclesiastical edifice, one that is built on these very vows of celibacy, doesn’t actually create the possibility of just these kinds of hypocrisies. This is not a silly question, though too often it is posed in a way as if to suggest that a simple solution were available to Rome: a non-celibate and marriageable priesthood.
Whether such a thing would really fix these sorts of problems is debatable, at best. For the real issue before this Church is the failure of churches and their custodians to care for their most vulnerable members: their children. Sexual abuse of children is not a strictly (nor even primarily) sexual problem; it is an exercise of power that is abusive precisely because of the power imbalance between the parties involved.
I do not wish to mute the entirely justified expression of outrage voiced by my colleague Anthea Butler; not at all. I simply wish to remind the Church and her critics that the issue here is a far more significant one than sex. Reducing this to a case of celibacy and sexuality does little more than play into the sexual obsessions of modern culture and the modern media. This problem is about power and its abuse, pure and not-so-simple.
And here we can see a subtler connection between the Bosnian case and this Church’s enormous appetite for new saints. The desire for sanctity, the desire for the Virgin, is about much more than sublimated sexual desire (to be sure, it can be that, too). It is also the desire for access to a different kind of power, a different way to imagine power, a different way to inhabit and exercise that power.
But the attempt to celebrate the possibility of a different kind of power, and a different way to exercise temporal power, always runs up against the old, Pauline problem: that the Church’s treasures are held in clay vessels. This all-too-human institution now confronts the challenge of how best to gesture toward a different, an agapeic, way of dealing with its own failings. Striking the balance between judgment and forgiveness is always a tenuous enterprise. Of late, this Church seems to be trying to leapfrog the judgment and get straight to self-forgiveness.
Thus the Pope’s decision on Sunday to use John’s famous story about the woman caught in an adulterous liaison—and more specifically, Jesus’ cautionary word about “he who is without sin casting the first stone at her”—seems little more than a calculated way to use the sacred scriptures to manage a very profane affair.
There seems little saintly or supernatural about any of this. Perhaps that is why the Church and her pilgrims continue to go looking for it, in the slightly more rarified air of the Bosnian hills.