THE BLOG

A Catholic Spring?

03/11/2013 11:17 am ET | Updated May 11, 2013

Like the victims of authoritarian states who remain devoted to their countrymen, many Catholics who were sexually abused as children by priests remain fiercely loyal to their faith and their fellow believers, who actually constitute the church. For them, Pope Benedict's resignation and the conclave that will convene to name his successor, spark hope for a Catholic Spring that might bring the Vatican into the modern world.

To understand this hope, it helps to consider the recent report on American Catholics by the New York Times, which showed a steep increase in dissatisfaction with the way the church has handled the sweeping sexual abuse scandal that began 30 years ago. Three-quarters approved of Benedict's resignation and a solid majority prays for the next pope to be more liberal on issues like birth control, the ordination of women, and marriage for priests. Sixty-two percent favored gay marriage, which is truly anathema for institutional Catholicism.

Beyond the opinions of lay people, the hope for a Catholic Spring is inspired by the same powerful forces -- social media and the spread of democratic ideals -- that have supported various Arab Spring movements and continually fuel the transformation of Chinese society. Here the media, both the conventional press and new web-based social tools, are speeding the pace of change by distributing information worldwide in real time and enabling the mobilization of great masses of people who never before possessed the means to organize in this way.

In Rome, where people are of fond of saying that the Vatican measures moments of time by the calendar, church authorities had long benefited from exclusive access to an unmatched global network of informants and operatives. Indeed, until the rise of the modern American security state, the pope was the only man in the world who enjoyed such access to reliable sources in so many different places. If information is power, then all power flowed to Rome and popes used it to reinforce their own authority through the appointment of bishops and applying discipline to dissenters. The Vatican also used this power to shape reality, as it did in the case of the forged Donation of Constantine, which created and expanded the pope's wealth for many centuries until it was revealed to be a fraud.

Today the Vatican finds itself in a world where it may attempt to dictate truth -- clergy abuse is rooted outside the church, said John Paul II -- but does so in the face of competing narratives. Thanks to the Internet, even isolated victims of clergy pedophiles can both access and disseminate information on an equal footing. The legal crusade against both abusers and their enablers in the hierarchy, which began in America in the 1980s, has been organized around Internet-based groups that catalog cases, distribute news, organize activists and educate attorneys on the best legal strategies. At the center of all this activity are lawyers like Jeffrey Anderson, who has become the adversary most feared by the Vatican from an outpost in Minnesota and groups like BishopAccountability.org, where anyone can access millions of pages of documents on thousands of priest offenders that reveal the breadth and depth of the clergy abuse calamity.

In this new information environment, no one enjoys the luxury of measuring time by the calendar and millions of people can be rallied to offer support to a grassroots cause. The power of this dynamic has already yielded victories for abuse victims that could not have been imagined just a generation in the past. Early this year, the current Cardinal Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez publicly expressed his disgust over the "evil" revealed in documents related to abuse cases and then stripped his predecessor Roger Mahony of his remaining administrative duties. More recently, Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland excused himself from the conclave over charges of sexual improprieties with young priests, which he then admitted.

With O'Brien's withdrawal in mind, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, which includes many still-loyal Catholics, has issued a call to exclude a "dirty dozen" cardinals from the conclave because they have protected clergy abusers and in some cases helped them avoid arrest. Despite their insistence that they are unaffected by SNAP and other pressure groups, Mahony's presence and O'Brien's absence will remind the cardinals of the power of public opinion even after the doors of the Sistine Chapel are shut and their secret deliberations begin.

Is it possible that a majority of cardinals will consider the turmoil in the church a sign of a Catholic Spring and choose a pope who whom they expect to move toward the modern world? Not even the most optimistic among the victims I know expect it will happen. Instead they hope for a man who is transformed by the moment and chooses for his model, the one pope who might be considered an example of humble, Christ-like concern for the people of the church. A real mensch of a pope, Gregory the Great was a former monk who turned aside most of the trappings of office and considered the wealth of the church a charitable fund for the poor. Practical and plainspoken, he dined every day with paupers welcomed off the streets.

If the next pope forgoes the gold ring and the red shoes made by Prada, and takes the name Gregory, he may be signaling that a Catholic Spring is at hand. A modern Gregory could consider all the married priests and female deacons in all the distant rites now affiliated with the Vatican and bring the same possibilities to the lives of men and women who are Roman Catholics. He might slash the bloated church bureaucracy, cash-in a few pieces of art, and dedicate the church patrimony to eliminating world hunger. He might even recapture the moral authority once held by the papacy, by truly reforming the Vatican bank and allowing for contraception. Should this occur, victims of abuse and everyday Catholics alike will see their hopes realized. And a faith that allows for miracles, says that such an event is possible.