CONSERVATIVE Catholics rejoiced at the election of Pope Benedict XVI because, as a cardinal, he had famously decried "moral relativism."
Now, however, the pope appears to be backtracking and, worse yet, he is tolerating a scandalous moral relativism by the Vatican secretary of state.
In 1986, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sent a global letter to bishops denouncing homosexuality as a "moral disorder." The language was harsh, much to the delight of conservatives.
But now that Ratzinger is pope, the church says that homosexual seminarians are to be treated with "respect and delicacy" if they are chaste, according to the newspaper Il Giornale, quoting from a leaked copy of a recently completed Vatican document on homosexuals in the seminary. That's a reasonable position, albeit a retreat from Ratzinger's denouncement of gays in 1986.
Perhaps more troubling for conservatives should be the pope's tolerance of the behavior of the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Six years ago, Sodano persuaded Ratzinger to halt a canon law case seeking the excommunication of a friend of his, an alleged pedophile, Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ order in Mexico.
After Ratzinger became pope last spring, Sodano injected himself into a Vatican investigation of Maciel. Sodano also invited his old friend to a prestigious religious conference in Lucca, Italy. No president or elected prime minster would tolerate his chief diplomat championing a priest with 20 accusations of pedophilia.
Sodano and Maciel became friends in the 1970s, while Sodano served as papal nuncio in Chile and Maciel was cultivating supporters of corrupt Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The allegations against Maciel date from 1976, when two former Legion priests sent the Vatican formal accusations, with names of other young victims from seminaries in Rome and Spain.
The Vatican ignored the charges, even as the number of alleged victims grew. The Legion's response has always been to attack the accusers, portraying Maciel as the victim of a conspiracy by men jealous of his success.
In late 2004, with Pope John Paul II dying, Ratzinger realized that he might become pope and launched an investigation of Maciel. At the time, Ratzinger's office had a backlog of 700 cases of priests whose bishops wanted them defrocked. He knew that the media would seize on the Maciel case as a coverup. As the investigation began, Maciel stepped down from the helm of the Legion, citing his age, 85.
Ratzinger sent Msgr. Charles Scicluna, a canon lawyer on his staff, to question witnesses in the United States and Mexico. In April, Scicluna heard testimony from 30 people, 20 of whom directly accused Maciel of abusing them. Scicluna has taken a papal vow not to comment on investigations. But witnesses spoke to journalists, praising Scicluna's moral probity.
In mid-May, as the investigation continued, Sodano's office inexplicably notified the Legion that there would be no canonical process against Maciel. Reporters responded to the statement by contacting the Vatican press office, which denied that the church was investigating Maciel. The Legion then crowed that Maciel was exonerated, a claim the press office never made.
After the announcement, however, two more witnesses gave testimony to Scicluna in Rome.
So who is in charge of the case, Sodano or the pope? Did Benedict abort the investigation with Scicluna still gathering information? Did Sodano force deception on the papal spokesman, who under church rules is not allowed to confirm a "secret" probe?
The Maciel case makes a mockery of canon law, and it is symptomatic of something deeper. As a 2004 Dallas Morning News investigation found, Catholic religious orders for years have sent allegedly abusive priests to other countries to avoid prosecution.
The Holy See is a signatory to a U.N. covenant on the rights of children. The Vatican cannot presume to remain above the law if it persists in shielding child molesters.
On Nov. 12, Pope Benedict spoke about "universal moral law," saying that "the rich patrimony of values and principles embodied in that law is essential to the building of a world which acknowledges and promotes the dignity, life and freedom of each human person." Sodano's highhanded tactics betray Benedict's remarks. The Maciel investigation is now a year old. Did Benedict cave in to Sodano's pressure, as he did in 1999, and abort the cause of justice?
With Cardinal Roger Mahony trying to seal away clergy files in California cases, the pattern from Rome to Dublin to Los Angeles is glaring.
Benedict XVI cannot credibly lecture us on moral law when his secretary of state reeks of hypocrisy. The pope should stand for justice by firing Sodano and putting Maciel where he belongs -- out of the priesthood.