Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter is up on the Vatican web site this morning. Doubtless many others will have thorough commentary on it today and in the days ahead. I’d like to confine my initial remarks to a few issues of personal importance.
Throughout, the pope urges more prayer. And while many lay people, victims and their loved ones especially, may find this to be lacking in meaning, I think this is a good step.
Through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm, at the same time imploring the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission on the part of all bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.
There are a lot of us who could use a holy year, and in essence, this is what the Holy Father proposes. The pope urges Eucharistic adoration (14), but I think his program could use a bit more fleshing out. The Church’s quality of unity has been stretched to near the breaking point, and it would seem that celebrating that sacrament of ultimate unity would be in order. Special votive Masses for victims and loved ones, and an attempt to unify parishes and communities could enhance the good end foreseen in Eucharistic adoration.
Additionally, it might be helpful for a liturgy of penance to gather all the bishops, active and retired, to give example for the rest of the faithful. That element has been gravely lacking in the US, with the result that a restoration of credibility has been stunted.
Interesting that the largest section addressed to any group is addressed to the bishops:
It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.
Some may complain about the use of passive voice here, especially considering that the previous sections addressing victims, offenders, youth, family members, clergy and religious have little such use. How to interpret it? Is the pope angry? Or is it a tone of respect toward his “brother bishops?”
Some bishops broke Canon Law, but more seriously, they violated the Decalogue, professing innocence and giving false witness about themselves and the offenders they sheltered. While the pope satisfied to acknowledge a “complexity of the problem,” still, in moral matters, do people have a just expectation of demanding much of their bishops? Or do we turn elsewhere for moral witness?
An acknowledgment I found slightly startling, not for its truth, but for its source: “All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness.”
The rest of the section addressed to bishops, and this paragraph starts out in active voice and continues like something of a sermon:
Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal. The Irish people rightly expect you to be men of God, to be holy, to live simply, to pursue personal conversion daily. For them, in the words of Saint Augustine, you are a bishop; yet with them you are called to be a follower of Christ (cf. Sermon 340, 1). I therefore exhort you to renew your sense of accountability before God, to grow in solidarity with your people and to deepen your pastoral concern for all the members of your flock. In particular, I ask you to be attentive to the spiritual and moral lives of each one of your priests. Set them an example by your own lives, be close to them, listen to their concerns, offer them encouragement at this difficult time and stir up the flame of their love for Christ and their commitment to the service of their brothers and sisters.
Transparency is judged by the sight of those who watch and observe, not by the manufacturer of the window. I don’t envy these bishops. Those who have harmed others are certainly men of God enough that their consciences are pricked and they will hopefully rise above the inner struggle for denial. And others will be rightly resentful toward current or former bishops who have poisoned their effectiveness in ministry: healing from this scandal as well as other initiatives.
Did you catch the pope’s particular exhortation? I ask you to be attentive to the spiritual and moral lives of each one of your priests. Does this seem like bishops are now to be held accountable for their clergy? No more passing off excuses like the size of the diocese or delegating to chancery subordinates.
On this blog accurate diagnosis has been one of my soapboxes, and I have to confess my pleasant surprise at this
Only by examining carefully the many elements that gave rise to the present crisis can a clear-sighted diagnosis of its causes be undertaken and effective remedies be found.
In the weakest part of this letter, unfortunately, the Holy Father partly bumbles the diagnosis (no. 4) by attributing blame to “rapid transformation and secularization … (f)ast-paced social change” and the neglect of “adherence to Catholic teaching and values … sacramental and devotional practices.” Blame also for “priests and religious … thinking and assessing secular realities without sufficient reference to the Gospel … (Vatican II) misinterpreted,” plus a failure to apply “penal” aspects of canon law.
No hint of the timeless problem of sin. Just sin. And the tendency of many repeated practices involving substances (like alcohol) and behaviors (like forced sexual relations) to become addictions. If Pope Benedict were really interested in clear sight, he might consider more than recent history. Begging a wider diagnosis would be evidence like this:
- The serial sexual promiscuity of Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. Can we blame it on neglect of traditional piety or secularization or a misinterpreted Vatican II?
- The long and widely-accepted history of alcohol abuse by the clergy way before the upheaval of the 1960’s. The drunk priest stereotype was even more prevalent before the Council. Does that have some root in real experience?
- The culture of clericalism in the Church as a whole. Persecution of the innocent has sullied the Church’s credibility, particularly in the case of saints like Joan of Arc or Thomas More who were later vindicated for not obeying ecclesiastical authority.
Overall, I think we can note some progress. Bishops are on the hot seat, and the USCCB can thank another pope and another more innocent time (2002) that they have avoided these Irish prescriptions. The one possible future fruit I see on the vine would be an overhaul and renewal of the Catholic episcopacy in the light of widespread and repeated scandals of harboring offenders. But if it’s even there today, it’s a very small and very green fruit indeed.