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Column: Catholic Church Is Mostly a Force for Good

Whenever the Catholic Church grabs her periodic moment in the spotlight, you can be assured to read a story about (a) the sex abuse scandal, (b) the evils of mandatory celibacy, (c) the refusal to ordain women as priests, (d) homophobia or (e) all of the above. It never fails and it never ends, as my mother noted after every newscast about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI included one of those angles.

Given the media’s track record we shouldn’t really be surprised. When ratings are your true god, the real one doesn’t stand a chance at fair and balanced coverage. It doesn’t even bother me that Saturday Night Live did its occasional “we’re more sophisticated than you are” attack on the church by portraying Jesus wielding an assault weapon on a recent episode. The most I can muster is a raised eyebrow and a yawn, which is the aggravated Christian’s version of a fatwah.

One of the reasons that I think people are preoccupied with issues like the “plight” of women and the role of a married priesthood is because sex and gender equality have become the contemporary criteria for measuring human rights. Leaving aside the sex abuse scandal, which deserves the attention it has gotten because of the universal implications for transparent governance and accountability, this near-obsession with demanding “Mrs. Priests” and pink-tinged clerical collars is a manifestation of our own Western preoccupation with things that don’t trouble people in the Third World. They have other problems to worry about, like genocide, oppressive regimes and hunger.

While the church might not measure up to Gloria Steinem’s idea of what’s important in society, it has a long tradition of speaking out for the disenfranchised. As Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput observes in his book Render Unto Caesar : “The world would be very different today if Catholics had ‘stayed out of politics’ in Poland under the Communists, or the Philippines under Marcos, or Malawi under Banda.”

Obviously, the United States is very different from authoritarian police states, but the point is this: at its best, the Catholic faith is a vital milieu in which expressions of civil society premised on human dignity and the common good can take shape.

This is something we need to remember as the cardinals get ready to choose another leader. And it might help those of us in the comfortable West to remember that the church may not be all that we want it to be, but it has often been the only thing standing between tyrants and the oppressed.

Here are some names we need to hear: Maximilian Kolbe, Aloysius Stepinac, Jozsef Mindszenty, Oscar Romero, Isaias Duarte Cancino. They span the decades from the darkest moments of Nazi Germany to drug-crazed days in South America.

∎  Maximilian Kolbe, a priest, was imprisoned at Auschwitz after having given shelter to more than 2,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. When another man, a husband and father, was chosen to be murdered, Kolbe offered to die in his place. He was canonized by John Paul II in 1982 and is the patron saint of political prisoners and families.

∎  Aloysius Stepinac was archbishop of Zagreb, Yugoslavia. An outspoken critic of the Communist overlords who had taken control of his native country, Stepinac was indicted for war crimes in a trumped-up show trial and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He never lived another free day between incarceration and house arrest. Given the choice of exile or continued imprisonment, he chose to stay in Yugoslavia as a living symbol of opposition to his atheist captors. Stepanic died, probably poisoned, at age 62.

∎  Jozsef Mindszenty was a Hungarian cardinal and, like Stepinac, a vocal critic of communism. Arrested in 1948, he was tortured, and confessed to crimes that he did not commit. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but released seven years later during the Hungarian Revolution. When the Soviets invaded, he sought political asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, where he lived for another 15 years without stepping outside the building, before being exiled from a beloved country he never saw again.

∎  Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, was an outspoken advocate for the poor in his war-torn nation. Threatened by the Salvadoran government and warned to remain silent, he stubbornly refused. Romero was famous for his homilies entreating the soldiers to stop waging a campaign of terror against their fellow Christians. On March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass, he was assassinated at the altar.

∎  Isaias Duarte Cancino, archbishop of Cali, was a harsh critic of Colombia’s guerrilla groups and the drug cartels. He excommunicated members of the National Liberation Army and wrote editorials attacking the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, as well as the government. On March 16, 2002, he was murdered on the steps of his church.

All of the men I mentioned were clerics. Americans are often inclined to attack the church as an institution while forgetting that the backbone of that institution, the people who devote their lives to it, are often quite heroic. That’s something to keep in mind as we await our next leader.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.