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Fascism in the Church: Ex-Priest on “The Pope’s War,” Clergy Abuse and Quelling Liberation Theology

As Pope Benedict XVI steps down, we turn to a former Catholic priest who was silenced and expelled by the pope, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in the 1980s.

As Pope Benedict XVI steps down, we turn to a former Catholic priest who was silenced and expelled by the pope, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in the 1980s. Matthew Fox chronicles his story in the book “The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved.” Pope Benedict’s tenure was marked by several scandals, most notably his handling of the widening sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, including allegations that he ignored at least one case of abuse while serving as a cardinal. Documents show that in 1985 he delayed efforts to defrock a priest convicted of molesting children. “I’ll take the pope at his word here when he says he’s tired. I would be tired, too, if I left as much devastation in my wake as he has,” Fox says. “I think that the Catholic Church as we know it, the structure of the Vatican, is passé. We’re moving beyond it. And it’s become a viper’s nest. It’s really sick, what’s going on, obviously — the cover-up of the pedophile priests.”


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As Pope Benedict formally steps down today, speculation mounts over who will become the next pope. On Wednesday, Pope Benedict bid an emotional farewell at his last general audience, saying he understood the gravity of his decision to become the first pontiff to resign in nearly 600 years. The 85-year-old pope cited ill health as the reasons for his departure. Addressing an estimated 150,000 supporters in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict said he is resigning for the good of the church.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: [translated] In these past months, I have felt that my strength has decreased, and I have asked God, earnestly in prayer, to enlighten me and, with His light, make me take the right decision, not for my good, but for the good of the church. I have taken this step in full awareness of its gravity and also its rarity; however, with a profound serenity of spirit. Loving the church also means having the courage to take difficult and anguished choices, always having in mind the good of the church and not oneself.

[in English] I was deeply grateful for the understanding, support and prayers of so many of you, not only here in Rome, but also around the world. The decision I have made, after much prayer, is the fruit of a serene trust in God’s will and a deep love of Christ’s church. I will continue to accompany the church with my prayers, and I ask each of you to pray for me and for the new pope.

AMY GOODMAN: Pope Benedict’s tenure was marked by several scandals, perhaps most notably his handling of sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, including allegations he ignored at least one case of abuse while serving as a cardinal. Documents show in 1985, when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, he delayed efforts to defrock a priest convicted of molesting children. Meanwhile, last year he oversaw an assessment from the Vatican that found the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States had, quote, “serious doctrinal problems” because it had challenged the church’s teachings on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, among other things. More recently, Italian news sources say an investigation by three cardinals into leaked Vatican documents show rampant corruption in the Vatican ranks.

For more, we go to San Francisco, where we’re joined by Matthew Fox. He’s the author of over two dozen books, most recently, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved. He’s a former Catholic priest, who was first stopped from teaching liberation theology and creation spirituality by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. Fox was then expelled from the Dominican Order, to which he had belonged for 34 years. He currently serves as an Episcopal priest.

Matthew Fox, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you first respond to the pope stepping down, and the significance?

MATTHEW FOX: Well, thank you, Amy and Juan. I really appreciate your journalism. It means a lot to a lot of us.

Yeah, I think I’ll take the pope at his word here when he says he’s tired. I would be tired, too, if I left as much devastation in my wake as he has, first as inquisitor general under the previous pope. He brought the Inquisition back. And it’s true I was one of the theologians expelled by him, but I list 104 others in my book, and it keeps growing, the list keeps growing. So, that’s how history will remember this man, as bringing the Inquisition back, which is completely contrary to the spirit and the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which was never to reform the church. So I think he’s stepping down because he can’t take it anymore.

It’s become a viper’s nest there, obviously—the Vatican is. I really think that, as a theologian, I see the Holy Spirit at work in all this. I think that the Catholic Church as we know it, the structure of the Vatican, is passé. We’re moving beyond it. And it’s become a viper’s nest. It’s really sick, what’s going on, obviously—the cover-up of the pedophile priests. And you can see it everywhere: Cardinal Mahony in Los Angeles; this cardinal in Scotland; Cardinal Law, who was elevated after he left Boston, given a promotion, running a fourth century basilica in Rome; and this pope himself, the recent documentary that came out a year—a week or two ago from HBO about how the buck stopped with him. We’re hearing these horrible things that went on at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, where over 200 boys, deaf boys, were abused by a priest, and Ratzinger knew it. There’s Father Maciel, who was so close to the previous pope that he took him on plane rides with him, abused 20 seminarians, and he had two wives on the side and abused four of his own children, and Ratzinger knew about this man for 10 years. That document was on his desk, and he did nothing until the year 2005.

So, history and cheerleading of popes, what I call papolatry, will not cover up the facts. This has been the most sordid 42 years of Catholic history since the Borgias. And as I say, I think it’s really about ending that church as we know it. I think Protestantism, too, needs a reboot. I think all of Christianity can get back more to the teachings of Jesus, a revolutionary around love and justice. That’s what it’s about. And that’s why there’s been such fierce resistance all along from the right wing. The CIA has been involved in, especially with Pope John Paul II, the decimation of liberation theology all over South America, the replacing of these heroic leaders, including bishops and cardinals, with Opus Dei cardinals and bishops, who are—well, frankly, it’s a fascist organization, Opus Dei is. It’s all about obedience. It’s not about ideas or theology. They haven’t produced one theologian in 40 years. They produce canon lawyers and people who infiltrate where the power is, whether it’s the media, the Supreme Court or the FBI, the CIA, and finance, especially in Europe.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you for—

MATTHEW FOX: So, it’s been a very sordid mess that’s been going on.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In some of your writings, you have raised the point of view that both Pope Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul, were actually leading the schism and that, in fact, that they were attempting to overthrow the decisions of the Second Vatican Council. But for many Americans who are no longer familiar, because they’re young, they don’t know about the impact of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John XXIII, could you give us the broader historical movement that’s occurred here?

MATTHEW FOX: Yes. Pope John XXIII called the council in the early ’60s, and it brought together all the bishops of the world and all the theologians, many of whom had been under fire under the previous papacy, Pope Pius XII. And it definitely was a reform movement, and it gave inspiration to the poor, especially in South America. And after the council, the movement of liberation theology, which had a principle of preferential option for the poor, this really took off, and it created base communities, which was a new way of doing church where everyone had a voice, not just the person at the altar.

And this non-hierarchical, this far more horizontal and circular approach to Christianity and to worship was a big threat, of course, to certain people in Rome, but it was even a bigger threat to the CIA. When Reagan was elected, two months later there was a meeting of his National Security Council in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to discuss one thing: How can we destroy liberation theology in Latin America? And they concluded: We can’t destroy it, but we can divide the church. And so they went after the pope. They gave him lots and lots of cash for solidarity in Poland. And in exchange, they got the permission, if you will, the commitment on the part of the papacy, to destroy liberation theology.

And this is very much documented. It’s actually documented by Carl Bernstein, of all people, in a cover story in Time magazine, where he kind of creates a hagiography of Reagan and the pope together creating so much good. But Bernstein, I think, was very naive about what was really going on in terms of the church itself, because the reform of the church, part of the council was to declare freedom of conscience, and it said every Christian has a right to freedom of conscience. But all that was destroyed by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger.

So, the reforms of the Vatican Council were stuffed. And the reason this is a schism, therefore, is that in the Catholic tradition a council trumps a pope. Popes do not trump councils. For the last 42 years, these two papacies have been undoing all the values that the council stood for. And this is what the sisters are now undergoing. Just as they attacked the 105 theologians, now they’re accusing the sisters of, what should I say, not participating in the Inquisition. And God bless these sisters, who—the Nuns on the Bus. And so many of us know them because they have been on the front lines carrying out the values of Vatican II, especially values of justice and peace work and working with the marginalized.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Fox, why were you defrocked? Why were you forced out of the Catholic Church? You say it’s because of liberation theology. Explain.

MATTHEW FOX: Well, I was—first, I was silenced for 14 months by Ratzinger, and then I was allowed to speak again, and then, three years later, I was expelled. But he drew up a list of complaints.

Number one was that I was a feminist theologian, he said. I didn’t know that was a heresy.

Number two, I called God “Mother.” Well, I proved that all kinds of medieval mystics called God “Mother,” and so does the Bible, although not often enough.

Number three, I prefer “original blessing” to “original sin.” I wrote a book called Original Blessing, in which I prove that original sin—Jesus never heard of it; no Jews ever heard of it. How can you build a church in the name of Jesus on a concept which is fourth century A.D.—that is, orginal sin? You know what else happened in the fourth century besides original sin ideas is the church inheriting the empire. If you’re going to run an empire, original sin is a real fine dogma to promote, because it makes everyone confused about why they’re here, and so they get in line much more efficiently.

And they accused me of not condemning homosexuals, which of course I do not. Obviously, God intends homosexuals, or there wouldn’t be 8 to 10 percent of our population all over the world with this special grace.

They said I work too closely with Native Americans. Well, I do work closely with Native Americans. I’ve learned so much from Native American teachers and rituals, such as sweat lodges, sun dances, vision quests. I don’t know that that’s a heresy to—I don’t know what working too closely means.

So, those were some of the objections. And really, none of them hold water. They’re really Rorschach tests about what really freaks out the Vatican. And, of course, above all, it’s women and sex. And that is the agenda. Whenever there’s fundamentalism and fascism, it’s about control. That’s why the Vatican, the Taliban and Pat Robertson have this in common: They’re all freaked out by the possibility of bringing the divine feminine back, and with it, of course, the equal rights of women.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the current—the scandals that have been rocking the Vatican and the entire church—obviously the pedophile scandals in recent years, but also the corruption scandals within the Vatican itself—there’s this report that has been produced by a group of cardinals investigating some of the corruption, but they’re not going to release it until the new pope is named. Your sense of whether any of this had to do with the pope’s decision to resign?

MATTHEW FOX: I’m sure it did. I was actually told that when he received the report and looked at it, six hours later he announced he was resigning, and he put it in a safe and said the next pope can deal with this. So, I think it’s pretty clear that there is a connection. But again, it was building up. I mean, as you say, there’s been—and there’s a lot more going on there behind the scenes than the press has yet learned, I can assure you. There’s been so much cover-up.

And when Ratzinger made himself pope, I went to Wittenberg and pounded the 95 Theses the door. And a year-and-a-half ago, I was in Rome, so I translated them into Latin—I mean, Italian, and pounded them at Cardinal Law’s basilica on a Sunday morning. And it was so interesting. A 40-year-old Italian man came up to me, a Roman. He said to me—very simply, he said, “I used to call myself a Catholic. Now I just call myself a Christian.” I was very struck by that. Right under the pope’s nose there, Italians, too, are beginning to catch the truth of things, that we’re at a great historic moment. An 1,800-year-old institution in the West is melting before our eyes. And it’s painful. It’s ugly. On the other hand, it’s also a moment for breakthrough and for pushing the restart button on Christianity, returning to the really powerful message of Jesus and His followers throughout the centuries, the mystics and the prophets.

And just hearing your broadcast about Dr. King brings it all back, and this French fellow who stood up to fascism. You know, when my book was translated into German, I got a letter from the translator saying, “I cried many times translating your book,” she said, “because my generation” — she’s in her forties — “in Germany was promised, ‘Never again, no more fascism.’ But your book proves that fascism is back, it’s in the church, especially the German and Polish wing of the church.” She said, “Every German has to read this book, whether they’re religious or not.” And I think it’s true in America, too, that, like this fellow who died at 95 reminds us, fascism is worth fighting, and it’s worth acknowledging it’s there.

Susan Sontag defines “fascism” institutionalized violence. Catholics have been going through institutionalized violence for 42 years. Ask any of these theologians who have had their jobs ripped away from them. Some of them have died of heart attacks. Some have died of poverty in the streets because they couldn’t get work. But, of course, talk to these young people who were abused by priests, and then the cover-up was put into place by people like Ratzinger, who protected the institution at the expense of every one of these children.

And Jesus has something to say about that: Put a millstone around your neck, and throw yourself in the water. I think that’s what Cardinal Ratzinger’s confessor should tell him to do, in symbolic terms, before he meets his maker. I think he has some reparation to do, at least internally, before he leaves the scene.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Matthew Fox, in terms of the speculation as to who the—who will be the successor to Pope Benedict, obviously there’s a lot of talk about there may be for the first time a pope from the Global South. Do you see any—any possibility for real substantive change in church policy, no matter who the successor is?

MATTHEW FOX: Sadly to say, I do not, because every one of these voters was appointed by Ratzinger or the previous pope with Ratzinger’s approval, so they all think like them. You see, the dumbing down of the church has been what’s really brought about this pedophile crisis, because when you don’t have leaders who are intelligent and with conscience, but only yes men, which is what they’ve been appointing for 42 years, you know, you don’t have intelligent response to crises such as finding a pedophile in your midst. And there’s a North American bishop—I will not name him—archbishop, who 20 years ago wept in the presence of a friend of mine and said to him, “There’s not a single bishop they’ve appointed the last 20 years that I can respect.” Well, now we can say the last 42 years.

So, frankly, I think there are a few names that come up. There’s this fellow in Africa, who unfortunately, though, is a complete homophobe, who’s been endorsing all the homophobic violence in African laws lately. So—and he’s head of the peace and justice commission in the Vatican. One would hope it won’t go that far. There is an Austrian cardinal, who is a Dominican, who actually showed a little bit of independence once or twice. There’s this O’Malley from Boston, who’s a Franciscan, and therefore did not—does not want to be pope. And I think that might be a real good criterion, although I don’t know anyone in their mind, at this time in history, who would want to be pope.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthew Fox, we’re going to leave it there.

MATTHEW FOX: But I don’t think he has a chance, being—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, author of over two dozen books, most recently, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved. Matthew Fox is a former Catholic priest who was first stopped from teaching liberation theology and creation spirituality by Cardinal Ratzinger, then expelled from the Dominican Order to which had belonged for 34 years. He currently serves as an Episcopal priest, speaking to us from San Francisco.

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