Wineke: Do we really need a war on the pope?

When I began my career in journalism a half-century ago, I decided to focus not on electoral politics but on religion.

That’s not because I was so personally religious. I wasn’t. I just realized that the politics of religion is far more interesting than the ongoing battles between Democrats and Republicans.

That was then and this is now, and nothing much has changed except an ever-growing number of people have chosen to turn their backs on all religion.

The current religious war – one that I never expected to witness – is a battle to topple the pope.

That war involves Cardinal Raymond Burke, a Richland Center native who served as Bishop of LaCrosse from 1995 to 2004 and who rose very high in the Vatican hierarchy under Pope Benedict before being demoted by Pope Francis.

Burke represents a strain of the church that is conservative both in theology and in politics. I think it’s fair to say Burke and those who coalesce around him want to see the church return to its pre-Vatican Council roots of rigid doctrine and clerical authority.

Pope Francis, a Jesuit priest, represents pretty much the opposite. He rails against a clerical culture, refuses to live in the splendid Vatican apartment assigned him and calls on his church to be far less judgmental to gay and lesbian Catholics and to divorced and remarried Catholics.

Francis is hardly a flaming “liberal.” Wednesday, at a meeting of bishops, he compared abortion to hiring a “hit man” to take out an unwanted foe.

But he does want to see a church that is less imperious and more charitable.

What has really joined the battle recently, however, is the revelation that priestly sexual abuse rises to the very top levels of the church, most notably in the form of retired Washington Archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been pretty credibly accused of using his power to force seminarians to provide him sexual services.

Under any circumstances, one might think this would cause soul-searching in the church.

Instead, the pope sees the scandal as one more negative result of clericalism. Priests get away with scandal because they take on the fake mantle of God.

The Burke wing, on the other hand, argues that the problem is due not to internal failings of the church but to a homosexual culture within the priesthood. Weed out gay priests and a pure church will result.

Before I continue with this, I want to pre-apologize to gay readers for stereotyping them.

But it does seem a bit rich to me to see prelates who love to be seen in scarlet gowns adorned with lace and trailing fabrics long enough to make a royal bride blush talking about the dangers of homosexual priests.

And I don’t think the church is going to solve its problems by making scapegoats of gay priests. A gay priest is under the same vows of celibacy that a heterosexual priest proclaims.

If all the church can do in light of the crisis is to point fingers, then I doubt the crisis will be solved.