The word “conclave” turns on the Latin word for “key,” and that is surely what the Catholic cardinals hope to find this week: a quick way out of the shuttered Sistine Chapel where they must elect a new pope. Yet because of their malfeasance, and that of their predecessors, the church itself is now locked up — not in the opulent chamber where the papal balloting unfolds, but in a dungeon of deceit, hypocrisy, and corruption.
It wasn't the resignation of Benedict XVI that threw the church into its present institutional turmoil. But the pope's surprising decision laid bare the depth of the problem. Consider two recent controversies: the disgrace of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the British prelate accused by priests of improper homosexual advances; and the shadow over Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who epitomizes the far broader cover-up of priestly sex abuse of minors. By focusing global attention on the men who will choose the next pope, Benedict's resignation is revealing the extent of a catastrophic moral collapse. The question is whether the cardinals gathered in the locked room have it in them to see what really imprisons the church.
Start with Cardinal O'Brien. Here is a church leader who, like so many other prelates, has been vociferous in opposing civil rights for gays, yet he himself is said to be locked in the closet of secret homosexual impulses. If so, such hypocrisy captures a larger contradiction. In the hierarchy's panicked attempt to deflect attention away from its own responsibility for the massive sex abuse crisis, homosexual priests were scapegoated as if they were the source of the abuse. In 2005, for example, an order produced by the current pope prohibited men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from being ordained — an act that pretended to close the book on a centuries-long tradition in which homosexuals were quietly welcomed, as celibates, into rectories and monasteries.
Yet as the broader society increasingly came to see anti-gay discrimination as an injustice, the church moved in the other direction — intensifying the pressure on those clerics who found themselves living double lives. This is not an uncommon problem. Yet the church's inability to openly discuss this dynamic threw shadows in which a different group of clerics — child-abusing priests — could efficiently hide. The need to avoid anything that might lift a corner on a deeply troubled clerical culture meant that cover-up became an all-encompassing necessity.
The moral dissonance isn't only among the clergy, for the Catholic laity has been yoked to hypocrisy — revolving around contraception.
Beginning with Margaret Sanger, the rise of feminism has centrally involved the demand for safe, reliable, and accessible contraception. The right of women to take control of their own reproductive lives is a pillar of gender equality. Catholic opposition to birth control, as a matter of doctrine, only dates to about the time, early in the 20th century, when Sanger founded what became the Planned Parenthood Federation. The Vatican's campaign against birth control since then has been built on theological rhetoric about natural law and the God-given purpose of sexuality. Yet the hierarchy's true motives seem to lie more in male supremacy than in God's law; surely any realistic opposition to the deeper moral problem of abortion requires the advocacy of contraception, not the forbidding of it. The laity understands this and responds by ignoring Vatican teaching on birth control.
In contrast, the cardinals meeting in conclave are handcuffed by these self-inflicted contradictions. The use of doctrines purporting to promote sexual morality as a mode of maintaining authoritarian control — over priests and laity both — has been exposed as a sham. Plainly dishonest, it was bound to fail, but who could have imagined how traumatic the failure would be? Cardinal O'Brien and Cardinal Mahony are only the faces of a systematic corruption, and now they, too, can be expected to be scapegoated by their fellow cardinals. But every man in the Sistine Chapel bears some responsibility.
The next pope will preside over an urgent attempt to recover from these scandals, but keeping the issues locked up will no longer work. Church teachings on sex (the end of mandatory celibacy), and gender equality (not only contraception, but the ordination of women) must be up for discussion. The day of reckoning is at hand.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.