Gregory VII, reforming pope, 1073-1085.
A professor I teach for who is an expert on the medieval papacy remarked to me that what is happening in the Vatican right now can very easily be understood from an eleventh-century perspective. I had already been thinking this, and a bit of history can be a helpful tool in understanding a deep-seated way of thinking that can still be found in the papal curia.
The tenth-century Church was in a state of crisis. The papacy had become a tool of ambitious Roman families, and the weak and irreligious men they installed on the papal throne brought the institution to its nadir in prestige and influence. Elsewhere in Europe, the fractioning of political power after the dismemberment of the Carolingian Empire was mirrored with a fractioning of ecclesiastical power, with many churches and monasteries falling into the hands of local nobles. A spirit of reform, however, began to grow; first in monasteries like Cluny or Gorze, then brought to Rome by Emperor Henry III and his ecclesiastical advisors, and finally imposed on the Church as a whole by reforming popes such as Leo IX, Gregory VII, and Urban II.
The reformers were concerned mainly with two great problems: simony (the selling of ecclesiastical offices) and clerical celibacy. One great goal was libertas ecclesiae, the independence of the Church from secular influence. A great many discussions of clerical celibacy that I come across in the press mention that its origins are to be found in the desire to keep sons of priests from inheriting church property. Indeed this is a factor from the point of view of libertas ecclesiae, but there was another goal that was more deeply psychological, which is puritas ecclesiae, or purity of the Church. This was as much a liturgical concern as any, and had much to do with the worry that impure hands would handle the precious body and blood of Christ. It went hand in hand with libertas ecclesiae, since Churchmen wished their ministers to be cleanly differentiated and independent of the laity, many of whom were regularly involved in bloodshed and sexual impropriety. One writer complained that it would be unacceptable for a priest or bishop to swear fealty to a lay lord, invoking the image of the hands that handled the sacrament enclosed in the blood-stained hands of a bellicose noble.
The reform strengthened the Church and created the conditions for all the glories (and excesses) of high medieval Christianity. At the same time, the concern for purity made the clergy entirely a class apart, more deserving, it would seem, than the laity of the title of holiness. This separation could be seen sacramentally. Only a priest could take communion in both forms, wine and bread, while the laity was restricted to the bread (how this began is unclear, according to one story the clergy was worried about drops of the blood of Christ sticking in the laymen's thick beards). Priests would take communion at every Mass, whereas the laity would take it very rarely, and often their Eucharistic experience revolved around seeing the host elevated over the screen that separated them from the priest. The screen was symbolic of the different expectations of purity for the clergy and the laity.
Of course, many things have changed, especially after the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reforms that followed it. Now lay Eucharistic ministers like myself can stand next to the priest on the altar and offer the consecrated wine to the faithful. The screens and rails are down and the liturgy recognizes that "the Church" is the whole body of the faithful. Still, the shock of such radical changes is not easy to absorb, and we can see this in the defensiveness about clerical privileges in this and the previous papacy. At a time of uncertainty about what clerical status means, the sex abuse scandal was overwhelming. This scandal is not essentially about the actions of individual priests, but of an institution that seemed to be more concerned with hiding the crimes of members of its own caste than with protecting its flock. Devout lay Catholics respond by demanding more input in the administration of the Church and more accountability from the hierarchy.
I have no doubts about the sincerity of Benedict and much of the hierarchy in addressing the issue and finding a way to keep more children from being abused. What is interesting is how much of their reaction is motivated by a concern for purity instead of accountability -- for puritas ecclesiae. Since married clergy is not so much a problem, it seems that the only possible response was to cruelly and unjustly scapegoat gay priests. There has been a great deal of discussion of the Vatican document about homosexuality and the priesthood. I have read the document and I can't see what "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" could mean except that the person in question is gay. The fact that many people in the hierarchy -- bishops and leaders of religious orders -- can interpret it in different ways is a hopeful sign that it will not be imposed in a draconian fashion, but I think the intention is clear enough. For whatever reason, there is a concern that homosexuality among the clergy is a stain on its purity.
What the hierarchy needs to do is to learn to relinquish this idea of purity. It was useful in the eleventh century; it is harmful now. We the laity are not illiterate brutes with our hands dripping in blood (any more than they are: they vote too). We have our place at the altar, let us in. Let in gay men, married men, women. Let us all work to heal our Church.