In his remarkable apology to Irish Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI explained why he thought sinful priests have been tempted to commit sexual acts with children. There have been "new and serious challenges to the faith arising from the rapid transformation and secularization of Irish society. Fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people's traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values."
As we know, the abuse of children by Catholic priests did not just occur in Ireland but in many other countries, too, which the Pope preferred not to dwell on. And Ireland is not the only place where social transformation and secularization have challenged religious values. When the Pope blamed the sexual transgressions on these challenges, he may have been at least partly right, but not for the reasons he believes.
Not so very long ago, when God reigned supreme and most people still turned to their priests (or ministers, rabbis etc.) for moral guidance, sexual behaviour was often dictated by power. Christians may have believed in sin, and the values espoused by the church were paid their due deference. But hypocrisy gave privileged people, including priests, a certain leeway. Wealthy men had mistresses, professors had affairs with students and even the lowly village priest, a man of social and spiritual power, often enjoyed the sexual favours of a woman conveniently at hand to take care of his domestic needs.
Such practices were accepted as facts of life, as they still are in many poor and southern countries - which might explain why the exposure of priestly abuse has taken place mostly in the north, where social change has been more rapid. This made bearable the notion of celibacy, a perhaps noble ideal that for most people is impossible. After all, in Renaissance Italy, even the popes had children.
The life of women under such traditional arrangements tended to be tightly circumscribed. Except in small, libertine aristocratic circles, where women, too, were able to take on extramarital lovers, their role was that of mother and domestic caretaker. And the rights of children in most traditional societies, before the changes the Pope deplores came about, barely existed. Adults ruled supreme.
To Benedict and other conservatives, the social and sexual revolutions of the mid-20th century may look like an orgy of libertinism. And to some, it was: the hedonism of gay life in Amsterdam or San Francisco, the sexual habits in some hippie communes, the almost feudal erotic privileges of rock stars. But this was hardly for everyone. The real changes, in such countries as Ireland, Germany and the United States, concerned the status of women and children.
It was no longer all right for men to have mistresses, teachers to have affairs with students or priests to enjoy the favours of their chambermaids. People became less tolerant of hypocrisy. In a way, the social transformations of the 1960s and 1970s brought about a new form of puritanism. Especially in the United States, a man can lose his job for making an "inappropriate" sexual remark, marriages collapse because of one-night stands and any form of sex with children is an absolute taboo.
Perhaps because so many other taboos have fallen, the taboo on sex with children is guarded with almost fanatical zeal. Even fantasizing about it, in the form of pornographic cartoons, is illegal in certain countries. To be sure, the exploitation of children, whether sexual or otherwise, is deplorable, if only because children rarely have the power to resist.
Even the Pope would agree that the emancipation of women and the protection of children are good things. Indeed, as a cardinal, it was part of his job to stop priests from abusing minors. He does not appear to have been very successful. This may be because protecting the church from scandal was held to be the more important task.
Catholics have tended to be more tolerant of hypocrisy than Protestants. The rise of Protestantism was in part a protest against this. Strict Protestants make a virtue out of brutal frankness, because they believe they have a direct pipeline to God. Catholics confess to their priests, not to God himself. Sins can be dealt with, as long as proper ceremony is observed. This explains why the Vatican chooses to describe the pedophiliac transgression of its clergy as sins rather than crimes.
That this will no longer do in a more emancipated world is not because secularization has destroyed people's sense of morality. After all, secularism never implies that abusing children is good. No, the problem for sinning priests is that power in democratic societies is no longer as privileged as it once was, and people are less willing to tolerate hypocrisy. As a result, the vow of celibacy has become an unworkable anachronism.
There is a solution to this problem. Or if not a solution, an amelioration: The church could allow priests to marry, or form homosexual relationships with consenting adults. The Pope, a strict conservative in doctrinal matters, is highly unlikely to countenance such an idea. Instead, he will continue to preach against the evils of secular society and the dangerous temptations of liberalism. But this will not be of much help, because the flesh is weak and will find a way to satisfy its needs. If this cannot be done legally, crimes will continue to be committed against people who are least able to defend themselves.
Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. His latest book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.