Santa Maria Maggiore is unique among the Patriarchal Basilicas of Rome in that it retains its original structure, though it has been enhanced over the centuries. Its most recent enhancement is Cardinal Bernard Law, who was appointed its archpriest in 2004. This appointment elicited protest due to Law's role in the priest sexual abuse scandal when he was archbishop of Boston.
The scandal was in the news again last week due to the visit to America by Pope Benedict XVI, who used the occasion to speak of ''deep shame'' over the abuse and to meet with a few of its victims. The pope's remorseful sentiments, including those expressed in a meeting with bishops in Washington at another basilica dedicated to Mary, fell a bit flat considering that Law remains comfortably ensconced in the Holy City instead of facing justice.
According to the Vatican Web site's description of Santa Maria Maggiore, ''Special details within the church render it unique including the fifth century mosaics of the central nave, the triumphal arch dating back to the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) and the apsidal mosaic executed by the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti.... Every column, painting, sculpture and ornament of this basilica resonates with history and pious sentiment.''
One wonders what pious sentiment led to Law being allowed to remain a member of the Roman Curia, the Catholic Church's central governing body.
During his trip, His Holiness spoke with evident conviction on the subject of human rights, which led some to wonder whether in his meeting with President Bush he raised the subject of Bush's authorization of torture in the fight against terrorism. Alas, Rome has its own human-rights problem, stemming not only from bishops covering up and facilitating the sexual abuse of minors, but from the inherent conflict between the Church's authoritarianism and the individual's freedom of conscience.
For all the pope's complaints about American Catholics picking and choosing which Church teachings to obey, the Church fathers cannot enforce obedience. They cannot increase their flock without engaging people's honest questions, but if they do engage they are at a disadvantage because of their dated outlook, their doctrinal rigidity and their creaky organizational structure. During his American visit, Benedict essentially blamed the Church's sexual abuse crimes on the moral laxity of modern life, and called for a return to traditional values, which he illustrated by his choice of 15th and 16th century vestments.
Notwithstanding the despicable behavior by some of its priests, the Church holds itself above worldly matters, accountable only to God. This attitude has its secular enablers, as exemplified by the absence of Vatican City from the U.S. State Department's annual country reports on human-rights practices, an omission pointed out last week by gay blogger Michael Petrelis. The papal pomp obscured the fact that the Church's moral authority has become little more than an embroidered vestment. Its addiction to authoritarianism is reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands, who found himself stuck with the wrong tools. Even when it wants to caress us, all it can do is cut.
The Church is as cold as statuary in its refusal to recognize the simple grace of two people's love when they are of the same sex. Ironically, its brightest lights are the very members it finds most vexing - the laity and clergy who perform pastoral ministries regardless of their inconvenience to internal Church politics. Happily and not coincidentally, on the day Benedict celebrated Mass at Nationals Stadium, the Washington chapter of Dignity, the gay Catholic group, was honored by the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance.
Dignity members report that Benedict waved to them as the Popemobile drove past them on Rock Creek Parkway where they held a large banner identifying themselves. But gracious gestures do not erase Benedict's infamous pastoral letter of October 1986, when, as prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he called homosexuality ''an intrinsic moral evil'' and all but justified anti-gay violence.
Dignity's 35 years of pro-gay ministry are a salutary example of the flock taking up the shepherd's staff itself. Humans are not sheep even if they sometimes behave so, and untold Catholics have gotten into the habit of using their God-given brains to think for themselves. Without the rack and thumbscrew, Holy Mother Church is powerless against them. Someone should dedicate a basilica to that.