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. Every newscast about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI included one of those angles.
The most I can muster is a raised eyebrow and a yawn, which is the aggravated Christian's version of a fatwah.
Leaving aside the sex abuse scandal, which deserves the attention it has gotten, 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 Third World countries, who live with genocide, oppressive regimes and hunger.
The church has a long tradition of speaking out for the disenfranchised. The 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, Oscar Romero, Isaias Duarte Cancino.
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.
Stepinac was archbishop of Zagreb, Yugoslavia. An outspoken critic of the Communist overlords who had taken control of his country, Stepinac was indicted for war crimes in a trumped-up show trial and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He died, probably poisoned, at age 62.
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. On March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass, he was assassinated at the altar.
Cancino, archbishop of Cali, was a harsh critic of Colombia's guerilla groups and the drug cartels. He 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 were clerics.