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The basilica of denial

LAST WEEK'S Vatican ''instruction" restricting admission to the priesthood to heterosexuals was an exploitation of prejudice about homosexuality aimed at drawing attention away from the real crisis facing the Catholic Church.

If any one group ''caused" the priest sex-abuse scandal, it was not gays, but rather the bishops themselves, who now scapegoat gays. The truly scandalous fact remains that, while a small percentage of priests abused children, the overwhelming majority of bishops knowingly protected the abusers instead of the abused. And as periodic news reports demonstrate, this pattern continues, with the uncovered secrets of deal-making, plea-bargaining, asset-protection -- and the vengeful punishing of priests who dared to challenge bishops on the issue.

What the scandal reveals is the moral bankruptcy of the entire Catholic clerical culture, but in order to deal with that, basic questions about celibacy, women's ordination, the role of the laity, and repressive authority would have to be asked. Obviously, those are questions the Vatican is desperate to deflect, and that is the purpose of this new ruling.

The instruction is the second large signal that the Vatican has no real interest in reckoning with the priest-abuse catastrophe. The first signal was in the Vatican's own reiteration of the preference of abuser over abused when it appointed Cardinal Bernard Law to the prestigious position of archpriest of Rome's Basilica of St. Mary Major. Cardinal Law, recall, not only sponsored some of the most lecherous abusers, repeatedly sending them out among the defenseless young, but he betrayed the church's own most sacred traditions when, for example, he tried to use the seal of confession as a way of protecting the secret of abuse.

Cardinal Law is guilty of crimes and should have been punished. Instead he was honored. In doing that, the Vatican was not so much standing by a favored prelate as it was defending the authority structure over which it presides.

Some church figures were embarrassed by Law's appointment as archpriest of St. Mary Major and have described his sinecure there as not really important, yet the basilica is one of the greatest churches in the world (Bernini not only contributed to its decoration, but is buried there), and its palace was once home to the popes. With Law ensconced there, it seems especially significant that St. Mary Major is not only an emblem of church triumphalism, but, from its earliest days, was an instrument of it.

Although renovated repeatedly over the centuries, the basilica dates to the year 438. Its stunning fifth-century mosaics enshrine the aesthetic marvel that occurred when faith was joined to beauty, but those same artworks served a darker purpose. In dozens of panels, scenes from the Hebrew scriptures (Abraham, Isaac, Moses) are counterpoised to scenes from the life of Jesus (Annunciation, nativity, flight into Egypt), a deliberate contrasting to show that Christian revelation has fulfilled -- and therefore replaced -- Jewish religion.

As I learned from the scholar Margaret Miles, the mosaics are the first visual representation of the supersessionist theology that took hold once Christians could use the power of the state against their religious rivals. ''The Jew carries the book from which the Christian takes his faith," St. Augustine preached. ''They have become our librarians, like slaves who carry books behind their masters."

Miles makes the point: Exactly as St. Mary Major was being completed, the Christian emperor Theodosius II issued an edict forbidding Jews to hold office and making proselytizing by Jews a capital crime. Bishops now justified the burning of synagogues, and history's first pogroms occurred. The Basilica of St. Mary Major both signified and advanced this violent triumphalism.

It took the Holocaust to lay bare the terrible corruption of Christianity's contempt for Jews and Judaism. In the last 60 years, Christians, in dialogue with Jewish partners, have begun to dismantle the structures of anti-Semitism, including the replacement theology that reduced Judaism to a Christian library. For the Catholic Church, Cardinal Law was one of the leaders of that reckoning, which makes his new role all the more tragic.

One need not equate the Holocaust to the priest sex-abuse scandal to see that an analogous laying bare of a deep corruption has occurred again. As St. Mary Major was being built, the church was choosing power over love, and that choice, as last week's ''instruction" shows, remains the pillar of the clerical establishment.

The Basilica of St. Mary Major is a symbol of one church disaster, which is being reckoned with. Its archpriest is the symbol of another, which is still being denied.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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