Notes on a Scandal (and on a Pope)

I had a nightmare once that woke me from my sleep in a sweat. In the dream, I am some sort of high-ranking member of the curia of the Roman Catholic Church, preaching on a fictitious Gospel text in St. Peter’s Basilica. In this text, the disciples ask Jesus a question that has long vexed me: “Master, how can we know that what you are saying about yourself is true?” As I deliver my homily, I look out and see that the congregation is dispersing, with a lot of incredulous muttering and disappointed head-shaking. Retiring from the lectern, in my dream-state I become aware that that very morning, the Pope himself has declared to all the world that all of Christianity is a hoax, a fraud, a lie, that he will be retiring and that the global Church will be shuttering its doors forever. Following this announcement, scores of bishops and cardinals worldwide have committed suicide. As for me, I find myself suddenly in a small garden behind one of the Vatican’s palaces. The garden is overgrown with rosebushes. Ahead of me there is a bent, elderly figure pausing for a moment to take in a bubbling fountain. He is wearing a layman’s clothes. When he notices me, he makes as if to go, but I catch up to him, grab his arm, and look him in the face. It is Benedict XVI. His expression is weary and resigned. When I ask him, “Holy Father — why?”, his only response is to pull himself free and amble slowly down the garden path.

It may sound ridiculous, but the nightmare filled me with real anxiety. Even those believers whose recourse to organized religion is not essentially neurotic — is not at its core a desperate attempt to impose an artificial order on a chaotic existence, but is rather the natural result of honest searching which has arrived at a genuine acceptance of the veracity of the claims of faith — do nonetheless put enough trust in the institution of their choice that its structures often begin to seem synonymous with the very structure of reality. This, in my opinion, is both inevitable and blameless, so long as this trust does not remain uncritical for long. At any rate, the phenomenon explains why the latest scandal to unfold in the Catholic Church is the closest I’ve come to seeing my old nightmare come true. Seeing, in particular, how close the scandal has come to the Pope himself — a man whom I respect more than any other alive, whom I would indeed identify as my “hero” (if I had to identify anyone as such) — has been upsetting and truly surreal; every new and damning headline seems like something from a Dan Brown novel, and more than one commentator has suggested that this is the defining moment for Benedict’s papacy and, indeed, for the modern Church.

Were I really a high-ranking prelate in the Roman curia, my first official response would be an apology to all those whom the Church has betrayed in any way. Indeed, when last Sunday’s reading featured the story of the raising of Lazarus, the detail that most caught my attention was that in that tale the corpse of Jesus’ beloved friend has begun to stink; and it seemed like a massive missed opportunity when our priest in San Antonio gave a homily that didn’t reflect, in light of current events, on this key detail. Lazarus did not possess that legendary quality of saints: their corpses’ immunity to decay. In fact (and this our priest did mention, albeit without reference to pedophilia), St. Augustine proposed that this resurrection story is dramatically different from the resurrections of Jairus’ daughter and of the son of the widow of Nain in that those figures strike us as holy innocents, while Lazarus is a man whose body has been festering for days. Augustine viewed this rot as symbolic of the lingering corruption of sin.

However, I am not a prelate; I don’t think, frankly, that I personally have much to apologize for; and it would be disingenuous to pretend that I could speak for the whole Church which does. More to the point, every day’s reading of the New York Times makes me feel as though it is actually incumbent on me to respond as rationally I know that no one should: defensively. While media reportage of the Church’s problems is a moral obligation — and I can’t overemphasize that fact — figures like Rachel Donadio, Laurie Goodstein, and Nicholas Kulish have crossed a line. (Maureen Dowd qualifies, too, but her screeds against the Catholic Church are so routinely uninformed that it’s difficult to take her very seriously.) They have turned to scurrilous character assassination, manipulation of facts, shabby reportage, and demagogic generalizations that are unseemly for such professional journalists, and which deserve to be addressed head-on.

I can’t help but rue New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s knee-jerk blog post a few months back accusing the Times of anti-Catholic prejudice. The post was justified yet tactless, not terribly well argued, and incredibly poorly timed; no doubt it enraged the paper’s staff enough that now that it has an actual case to make against the episcopacy, it’s pulling out all the stops. But at heart, I agree with Archbishop Dolan that these columnists are pretty clearly biased, and their coverage of the latest scandal has reached a truly despicable low. Therefore I’d like to offer just a few reflections on a few important points.

The Murphy Case

Let’s take, first, the article which broke a week ago concerning the case of Father Lawrence Murphy. Murphy was a priest in the Diocese of Milwaukee who abused as many as 200 deaf schoolchildren in the 1970s; through an ingenious and disingenuous manipulation of the real timeline of the case, the NYT’s charge is that the Church failed to discipline Murphy for twenty years, until finally Archbishop Rembert Weakland reopened it in the 1990s. When Archbishop Weakland recommended to the Vatican that Murphy be punished, however, then-Cardinal Ratzinger — the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) — supposedly paid more heed to Murphy’s pathetic plea that he was too old to face the indignity of demotion, and the case was summarily dismissed.

The original article sounds more damning, even, than that, which to anyone honest enough to look at the actual facts is shockingly unfair. First of all, the accusation is always heard that the Church failed to punish criminal priests, as though the Church enjoyed the power to dole out legal penalties. It does not. In this case, Murphy was tried in a civil court within a few years of committing his crimes — but the charges were, for some completely unidentified reason, dropped. Note that the newspaper’s headlines frame the story as: “Warned, the Vatican fails to respond.” Cardinal Ratzinger’s name is dragged through the mud because it appears in the letterhead of a single document twenty years later; but what was the name of the judge, district attorney, or prosecutor who failed the call of justice in that civil court? Why doesn’t the legal system at large stand accused of fostering a culture of silence, irresponsibility, and disbelief of innocent victims? In fact, after the civil justice system failed to prosecute Murphy in the mid-70s, the Catholic Church was the only entity which disciplined Murphy at all, and swiftly, sending him into exile at his family home in the northern Diocese of Superior.

The biggest question is why, at this point, the priest was not defrocked. We again need to interrogate the system at large. The 1970s was a time when psychoanalysis was taking its place as a major medical science with claims to holding the key to the secrets of the human mind. Additionally, the sexual revolution and development of Kinseyian sexology had the effect of relativizing sexual deviance. The result seems to have been that secular, clinical psychiatrists believed pedophiles could be treated, cured, and reassigned. This was not the invention of Catholic bishops, although it did play into their at times naive belief that any human being can be redeemed, and it did take advantage of their ignorance regarding the true scale of the pedophilia crisis (which didn’t become evident until approximately the year 2001). The bishops simply followed the best available advice, and must have felt quite open-minded and modern in doing so.

Flash forward, then, a few decades (in which no new complaints about Father Murphy ever surfaced). In 1993 Archbishop Weakland hears from some of Murphy’s victims, who are understandably and justifiably angry at the Church. He investigates the Murphy case and although the ecclesiastical statute of limitations has passed, decides to attempt to prosecute the priest, anyway. At that time, child abuse was not under the jurisdiction of the high authority of the CDF (this would change as soon as the extent of the pedophilia problem became known), but soliciting sex of any kind under the seal of the Sacrament of Confession was. Since this was one of the things Murphy stood accused of, Weakland wrote to the CDF asking whether the statute of limitations could be waived in this particular case. The CDF, through its Secretary, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, responded affirmatively. (And what else could one have hoped from the Vatican?) Weakland continued with the prosecution.

Here is where the Times’s version of the story strays most drastically from the truth. The Times claims that Murphy wrote to Ratzinger begging for mercy, and Ratzinger dropped the case. In fact, Murphy wrote to Ratzinger, who never responded. Bertone did respond (because it was his responsibility, not Ratzinger’s), following protocol by suggesting that Weakland and the Bishop of the Diocese of Superior, Raphael Fliss, take Murphy’s request into account before proceeding. Fliss responds that the trial will proceed (in a document which the Times melodramatically entitles “Bishop of Superior Rejects Vatican Guidance” in its electronic dossier). After a meeting in Rome among Fliss, Weakland, and Bertone, whose minutes demonstrate what is to my mind an impressive canniness on the part of the bishops, it is decided that a trial will be abated and Murphy will be declared, directly, “irregular for ministry.”

If anyone anywhere — in Guantanamo or elsewhere — were to be so summarily punished without a trial, I think that most of the people who are protesting that the priest was given the easy way out would be complaining that the civil rights of the accused had been violated. Yet the Times ignores the fact that the bishops’ decision ensured that Murphy would be stripped of his priestly faculties in all but name, or that further measures were then laid out so that the priest could be evaluated by psychiatrists (one of the reasons a trial was foregone was that damning evidence would have been hard to come by after twenty years!) before deciding whether to prosecute further — a decision which could easily have resulted in his being defrocked. Certainly through no fault of the bishops’ own, though, Murphy died less than a month later, before the trial could ever reach that stage.

My own conclusion is one I hold firmly: if the Times authors did not blatantly lie, they are guilty of one of the sleaziest and most dishonest bits of reporting that I’ve ever noted in its pages.

Pope Benedict XVI

I want to be clear that I am not applauding the institutional Church’s general response to the odious problem of child abuse. Far more should have been done, and far sooner, and there have undoubtedly been hierarchs blatantly guilty of looking the other way so as to shield the Church’s reputation. To pretend otherwise would be useless because such short-sightedness and selfishness is intrinsic to human nature, and it would be counterproductive precisely because the notion that any church could be so constituted that some of its leaders would not sometimes betray its founding principles of love and charity would be nothing more than a fantasy. I love this lesson from John Paul I, the hapless pope who reigned for barely a month before dying suddenly in his sleep:

The more frequent objections you will hear will go straight against the Church. Perhaps an anecdote told by Pitigrilli will be able to help you. In London, at Hyde Park, a preacher is speaking outdoors. He is interrupted by a ruffled and dirty individual. ‘The Church has existed for two thousand years,’ says this individual. ‘And the world is full of thieves, adulterers, killers.’ ‘You are right,’ the preacher replies. ‘But water has existed for two million centuries, and look how filthy your neck is.’

In other words: there have been bad Popes, bad Priests, bad Catholics. But what does that mean? That the Gospel has been applied? No, just the opposite. In those cases, the Gospel has not been applied.

Yet two questions remain once we have acknowledged that certain individuals, even religious ones, will inevitably act sinfully: is Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, one such individual? And what are the systemic deficiencies inherent in the institutional Church, above and beyond any individual’s errors, which prolonged or aggravated the crisis?

At the risk of pedantry, I’d like to meditate at length on the figure of Joseph Ratzinger. As the media has begun to focus its attention on his brief tenure as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, it’s been said by both his supporters and his detractors that he is first and foremost an intellectual, a philosopher, not a manager. I fundamentally agree, and I think that Ratzinger does, too. It’s as a philosopher that he first entered my life and it’s as such that I’ll first consider him here.

A few years ago, difficult circumstances in my life left me mired in a sense of hopelessness and, frequently, despair. Underpinning these specific circumstances, though, was a generalized feeling familiar to me since childhood that my frame of reference in dealing with reality has always been a bit different from most people’s. At some point it occurred to me that the Roman Catholic framework fit me well, but doubts about the historical Jesus would frequently revisit me and cripple me with anxiety about the ultimate meaningfulness and reliability of Christianity. Moreover, while I’d met many people who understood my predicament, I had encountered only a handful of minds whose own predicament, I felt, it also was (a kind of self-recognition in the being of an Other which is often, though not always, experienced as falling in love). At the time I was in France I was either very distant or a little alienated from people I’d gotten along with so well, which only complicated my feeling of loneliness in the world, my feeling — which very many people have about themselves — that I did not belong to the common reality of our race.

Just as it is difficult to describe adequately what it is about a person that makes one fall in love, I am finding it difficult to evoke what it is about Joseph Ratzinger that attracts me so much. Simply, when I encountered his writing, I fell in love with it — and in a way, with him. Reading his work, I have the sense that we speak the same language (though he speaks it far better than I do!) — that in this world there is another human being which resonates on the same “wavelength,” and with whom I feel a preternatural kinship.

What are some of the characteristics of this language? I’ll describe it obliquely. One articulation of it is Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth, which I first read while on sabbatical in Taize. One “background” quality is its humility before the truth. One whole chapter of the book is devoted to an excited academic discussion of some claims by Rabbi Joseph Neusner, whom the Pope credits with teaching him things he’d never realized about Jesus. The foregoing paragraphs will give some indication of why I am so moved by Neusner’s response to the book’s publication: Neusner remarked that Benedict’s treatment of his ideas was so reverential that it was as though the pope had written him “a love letter.”

Benedict’s book did address a great many of my concerns about the veracity of the historical Jesus’ claims. That is neither here nor there. To learn how the Pope’s “humility,” as I perceive it — his ability to take very seriously the competing claims of someone outside of his philosophical paradigm (indeed, his frequent and not unappreciative references to people like Adorno and Marx are fascinating to me) — might incarnate an even bolder spirit, we might turn to the encyclicals. They are stark contrasts to those of his predecessor John Paul II. John Paul always began with a passage from the Gospel or with some salient aspect of Jesus’ life or ministry, and proceeded to ask what this wisdom might tell us about some modern social or ethical question. Benedict’s approach is the reverse, and Spe Salvi, which I have quoted many times on this blog, is the typical example. Here as in many of his writings as Joseph Ratzinger, we see him beginning with a question of modern humanity, and elaborating all manner of possible responses to this question. It is only eventually that he arrives at Christianity, which, he proposes, offers something unique which other ideologies cannot approximate.

This approach seems to me far more honest and less beholden to preconceived notions of the truth; conveniently, it also parallels my own intellectual journey into the Church, a journey which began with a totally uncommitted faith and proceeded, almost despite itself, by way of repeated questioning of what has seemed to me to be the truth. While Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) was a parish priest at heart, raised in a fanatically devout underground church (that of the mystical and credulous land of Poland), Ratzinger was a theologian who worked in a country, Germany, beset by post-Enlightenment and post-Holocaust skepticism (and the inexorable emptying out of the Christian faith of Europe remains a topic of deep concern to Ratzinger to this day). He is the first pope whose encyclical letters seem written as much for the doubting spirit as for the committedly Christian spirit. Accusations that Ratzinger is a doctrinaire conservative who cares about nothing but dogma evidence an extraordinary ignorance of the truth of his life, from his early days as a philosopher to his current tenure as pope.

In the 60s, Ratzinger — along with “liberal” names like de Lubac, Rahner, and von Balthasar — was a leading proponent of the so-called nouvelle théologie, an ingenious movement which rediscovered in the ancient, pre-Scholastic Christian experience a subjective mystical encounter with the novelty of Christianity, the experience of which understands,without refuting, the agnostic situation of modern humanity. When the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council was convened, Karol Wojtyla literally took a back seat, never participating from his position at the rear of St. Peter’s Basilica. Ratzinger, on the other hand, was a theological expert deeply involved in some of the Council’s most pressing questions. This is not an essay on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, so I won’t go to any lengths to defend my idea that his academic and philosophical work still fits squarely within this “new theological” framework, but it is doubtless fair to say — returning to the subject of the encyclical — that John Paul II would never have written, as Benedict did with Caritas in Veritate, a 100+ -page encyclical, the most important literary form of papal teaching, analyzing the state of contemporary economics and the relationship of love and truth including less than a dozen direct references to Jesus Christ. It is also unlikely that John Paul would have written as heartbreaking a meditation on the apparent desirability of death, nor as Eastern a vision of a Heaven that sounds more like Nirvana than Dante’s Paradise, as bookend Paragraphs 10-12 of Benedict’s Spe Salvi.

One of the main themes of Benedict’s thought — and this idea finds expression in Caritas in Veritate — is that metaphysical ideas are neither irrelevant to a person’s daily, lived existence nor interchangeable with each other. Love, as the title of the encyclical insists, must be practiced in light of the truth; it is not enough to throw philosophy to the wind and “simply love.” If we have bad ideas about the nature of reality, sooner or later our concrete ethical existence will suffer. The encyclical is a magisterial case study of the ways in which the ideology of capitalism vis-a-vis the free market has led to the current economic and moral crisis the world has faced in the last few years; but although the subject of the letter is a current event, its formulation remains philosophical. In a way, the ultimate test of the validity of the pope’s ideas will be the way this academic, now a pastor responsible for the tasks of governance which as an archbishop he could delegate to others, will respond to an utterly material problem: the sex abuse crisis.

And this is why the headlines that have recently emerged have seemed so surreal to me. It is much safer to argue in favor of the pope’s ideas against others whose only ammunition is ideological in nature. Far more difficult is to imagine that the pope was in fact an administrator and that his critics could point to administrative blunders to back up their case. Is it possible that this brilliant and beautiful thinker — whose ideas literally gave me a new and hopeful lease on life — allowed a proven pedophile to continue abusing young boys? Certainly the recently exposed case of Father Peter Hullermann in Ratzinger’s Archdiocese of Munich does not bode well for a defense of Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger in Munich and in Rome

Benedict’s defenders will take the Reverend Gerhard Gruber, then-Archbishop Ratzinger’s vicar general, at his word. Gruber handled much of the day-to-day administrative business of the archdiocese and has claimed responsibility for the decision to reassign the pedophile priest. Again, it should be noted, without minimizing the extent of its error, that this was much the sort of action prescribed by secular psychiatrists in the 1970s; but wouldn’t Ratzinger have read the memo forwarded to his desk, and shouldn’t he admit responsibility for the decision? According to the minutes of the meeting at which the memo was discussed, and at which Ratzinger was present, the text did not elaborate the reasons for which Hullermann had been assigned to therapy; it only indicated that he’d had to take time off and that he was re-entering active ministry. So yes, it probably would have been prudent for Ratzinger to have made a more in-depth inquiry; the fact that he didn’t proves nothing but that he is human and capable of making human mistakes. I don’t think this mistake merits the kind of hyperbolic criticism this incident has garnered him. But honestly, no one seems to have enough information about that particular event to be able to make a clear judgment either way.

What is clear is how much Ratzinger has done to address the problem of sex abuse, without any of its being reported openly or accurately by the mainstream media. For instance, it is often reported that in 2001 Ratzinger issued an executive order demanding that people with knowledge of the priestly abuse of minors conceal it from the civil authorities. Nothing could be further from the truth. The letter De delictis gravioribus in fact updates a 1962 instruction called Crimen sollicitationis which forwarded certain abuses of the Sacraments to the CDF, the Church’s highest court capable of defrocking a priest. Think back to the Murphy case. It was so difficult to defrock Murphy because in the 1990s, only abuse of Confession, and not child abuse in and of itself, could officially be referred to the CDF. De delictis gravioribus was written after the 2001 abuse crisis broke and Ratzinger realized that the scale of the problem was a matter of the utmost importance. If there were accusations that the new text counseled silence towards civil authorities, it was because Crimen sollicitationis was written with a mind to protecting priests’ reputation before they were proven guilty (and those incidents under its purview, such as desecrating the Eucharist or coming onto someone in the Confessional, couldn’t be prosecuted under the law, anyway). De delictis gravioribus makes no mention of civil law, as such is not within the scope of its dogmatic power, and in no way demands that churchmen keep things hidden from civil authorities.

John Allen is a veteran, and admirably independent, papal reporter with a clear view of what Vatican insiders have been saying for a decade: Ratzinger, perhaps more than anyone else in the high-level curia, understood what was going on and worked ferociously to address the crisis. Allen, who describes Ratzinger as a “Catholic Elliot Ness” regarding sex abuse, deserves to be quoted at length. In the National Catholic Reporter, he writes of De delictis gravioribus:

Far from being seen as part of the problem, at the time it was widely hailed as a watershed moment towards a solution. It marked recognition in Rome, really for the first time, of how serious the problem of sex abuse really is, and it committed the Vatican to getting directly involved. Prior to that 2001 motu proprio and Ratzinger’s letter, it wasn’t clear that anyone in Rome acknowledged responsibility for managing the crisis; from that moment forward, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would play the lead role.

Beginning in 2001, Ratzinger was forced to review all the files on every priest credibly accused of sexual abuse anywhere in the world, giving him a sense of the contours of the problem that virtually no one else in the Catholic church can claim. In a recent article (NOTE: it’s highly worth a read!), I outlined the “conversion experience” Ratzinger and his staff went through after 2001. Beforehand, he came off as just another Roman cardinal in denial; after his experience of reviewing the files, he began to talk openly about the “filth” in the church, and his staff became far more energetic about prosecuting abusers.

For those who have followed the church’s response to the crisis, Ratzinger’s 2001 letter is therefore seen as a long overdue assumption of responsibility by the Vatican, and the beginning of a far more aggressive response.

Allen continues:

Ratzinger’s top deputy at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on sex abuse cases, Maltese Monsignor Charles Scicluna, recently gave an interview to an Italian Catholic paper in which he said that of the more than 3,000 cases eventually referred to Rome, only 20 percent were subjected to a full canonical trial. In some reporting, including the Thursday piece in The New York Times, this figure has been cited as evidence of Vatican “inaction.”

Once again, however, those who have followed the story closely have almost exactly the opposite impression.

Back in June 2002, when the American bishops first proposed a set of new canonical norms to Rome, the heart of which was the “one strike and you’re out” policy, they initially wanted to avoid canonical trials altogether. Instead, they wanted to rely on a bishop’s administrative power to permanently remove a priest from ministry. That’s because their experience of Roman tribunals over the years was that they were often slow, cumbersome, and the outcome was rarely certain.

Most famously, bishops and experts would point to the case of Fr. Anthony Cipolla in Pittsburgh, during the time that Donald Wuerl, now the Archbishop of Washington, was the local bishop. Wuerl had removed Cipolla from ministry in 1988 following allegations of sexual abuse. Cipolla appealed to Rome, where the Apostolic Signatura, in effect the Vatican’s supreme court, ordered him reinstated. Wuerl then took the case to Rome himself, and eventually prevailed. The experience left many American bishops, however, with the impression that lengthy canonical trials were not the way to handle these cases.

When the new American norms reached Rome, they ran into opposition precisely on the grounds that everyone deserves their day in court — another instance, in the eyes of critics, of the Vatican being more concerned about the rights of abuser priests than victims. A special commission of American bishops and senior Vatican officials brokered a compromise, in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would sort through the cases one-by-one and decide which ones would be sent back for full trials.

The fear at the time was that the congregation would insist on trials in almost every case, thereby dragging out the administration of justice, and closure for the victims, almost indefinitely. In the end, however, only 20 percent were sent back for trials, while for the bulk of the cases, 60 percent, bishops were authorized to take immediate administrative action, because the proof was held to be overwhelming.

The fact that only 20 percent of the cases were subjected to full canonical trial has been hailed as a belated grasp in Rome of the need for swift and sure justice, and a victory for the more aggressive American approach to the crisis. It should be noted, too, that bypassing trials has been roundly criticized by some canon lawyers and Vatican officials as a betrayal of the due process safeguards in church law.

Hence to describe that 20 percent figure as a sign of “inaction” cannot help but seem, to anyone who’s been paying attention, rather ironic. In truth, handling 60 percent of the cases through the stroke of a bishop’s pen has, up to now, more often been cited as evidence of exaggerated and draconian action by Ratzinger and his deputies.

Benedict believes that only the truth can set us free. This is his truth, and I buy it: that a prelate can be tough on crime within his church, and pour out all his love upon the church’s victims, without making the Times‘s absurd leap to the conclusion that the entire church is flawed and stained by sin and needs to be taken down and rebuilt from the bottom, up.

Ireland and the U.S.

Where has all this left us? The disgraceful situation in Ireland, in which an epidemic of physical and sexual abuse of schoolchildren was perpetuated by clergy and ignored by law enforcement, sparked an uproar about a year ago, during which time the world has waited for Benedict’s response. Just as one of the first major acts of his pontificate was removing the powerful founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Degollado, for having lived a double life rife with sexual misconduct, and soon thereafter ordering an Apostolic Visitation of the Legionaries, Benedict has recently chastised the Church in Ireland with a strongly worded pastoral letter which promised a forthcoming Apostolic Visitation of certain troubled dioceses in that country. Naturally, the Times and other media outlets characterized the letter as a failure, big on words and scant on punishment…completely oblivious to how big a deal an Apostolic Visitation is and — absolutely mind-bogglingly — completely omitting the merest mention of it (though where it suits their purposes they will antagonistically brand such Visitations “doctrinal inquisitions,” such as where it concerns Rome’s investigation of American women’s religious orders suspected of diverging too far to the left of Catholic dogma).

Despite the reports of abuse which ran rampant in Ireland decades ago, the Church has been hell-bent on a self-improvement campaign which has already shown astonishing results. Despite the decline of a culture of secrecy and timidity around clergy — indeed, the media, if not the Catholic faithful, seem to be involved in a clerical witch-hunt — only six allegations of child abuse by priests were reported in the United States in 2009. Given the length of time it takes for victims to find the courage and support necessary to speak out against their abusers, it’s obviously far too early to give this statistic much credence; but other elements of an independent audit whose results were released a week ago (to the deafening silence of the New York Times) are impressive for what they say about the Church’s internal reforms. Anecdotally, I can say that in only seven months as an employee of the Catholic Church, I’ve been through extensive training on the avoidance and reporting of sexual harassment and sexual abuse not once but twice ; these sessions were required for the entire staff, and not just for new hires. Not two weeks ago, a safe environment accreditation seminar which all Jesuits of the New Orleans Province must follow rolled through our parish for the ten Jesuits in the San Antonio-Austin area.

This post has been heavy on apologetics. Put simply, there is much I had to get out of my system; it’s also true that there is always another side to every story, and the Times has cleaved to a Darth Vader view of the Church which denies this simple truth. To reiterate once more, however, I don’t believe that the truth can be found in arrogance, pride, and excuses. Empathy with the victims is what is needed most, and the pope, after all, is a “tough bird” (as this very good analysis shows). We do need more people like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, a veritable hero of the Irish Church who has time after time called for episcopal accountability and issued countless mea culpas. Also gratifying are a wave of resignations on the Emerald Isle: to date, Bishops Donal Murray of Limerick, James Moriarty of Kildare, Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field of Dublin, and John Magee of Cloyne, a huge number unprecedented in modern Church history…and the Apostolic Visitation hasn’t even commenced yet! (We will see what happens to Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, the highest-ranking prelate accused of mismanagement.) May their willingness to admit to sins committed be an example to all Catholic Christians.

Four Images of Pope Benedict XVI

And Pope Benedict? Should he resign, as many have suggested? It’s been about six hundred years since a pope has done so, and in an odd way, I imagine it may be tempting to Benedict: the papacy is a job he never asked for, and since his appointments to the Archbishopric of Munich and Freising and to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, he’s wanted nothing more than to retire to his library and work on some books he’s been longing to write since his days in the University but has never been given the chance. Made pope at seventy-eight, having his retirement whisked away from under his nose, and given one of the highest-profile jobs in the world, he is, in my eyes, a sympathetic case study of frustrated ambitionlessness.

I don’t believe he should resign because I don’t believe he’s done anything wrong, and I don’t believe he will resign because what growing up in the Nazi regime taught him (his anti-Nazi father was censored and intimidated by them, his disabled cousin was killed by them, and some of his earliest memories are of seeing priests beaten up by SS troopers) is that shirking one’s allegiance to the truth because it constitutes the easiest way out of the tyranny of public opinion is one of the most despicable compromises with evil. I think it’s a measure of courage that this revolutionary theologian, as a young man, turned to a measured conservatism not out of any innate tendency towards dogmatism but as the result of an experience lecturing at the University in the 60s when a group of anarchists interrupted his class and he realized that popular opinion doesn’t need to be fascist to be violent. His hurt reaction, which he describes at length in his autobiographical writings, is fully in keeping with two absolutely fascinating indignant gestures he’s made during his papacy.

The first is when, after opening a dialogue with the arch-conservative Society of St. Pius X in the hopes of getting them to renounce their anti-Semitism and anti-modernism, the media pounced on him and even many Catholics accused him precisely, and paradoxically, of compromising with, or even endorsing, anti-Semitism and anti-modernism. In response, Benedict released a shrewdly observant yet humanly heartbreaking letter at once apologizing for any confusion he had caused and upbraiding the faithful for treating their own pope as just another political dummy whose good intentions it seems to be beyond the cynical, postmodern public ever to assume.

The second gesture I’m referring to is a homily given just this week, at the Palm Sunday Mass, in which he stated that Jesus gives us “courage that does not let itself be intimidated by the gossip of dominant opinions.” Just as John Paul’s refusal to resign the papacy in the face of his debilitating Parkinson’s suggested that the role of the pope is not simply to govern but to teach — in his case, to teach us how to die with dignity — Benedict’s refusal to resign teaches us something not about stubbornness or a refusal to admit that one is wrong, but about the courage necessary to stand up for what one believes to be the truth even in the face of withering sarcasm and vicious public pressure.

Up to the very last days, the media could never criticize John Paul II, more conservative than Benedict but also more photogenic, more fabled, and hence more popular. Now it has a superficially easy target in Benedict — and the media’s transparent cynicism is disgusting to me. This is not to say that Benedict is not flawed. But I recognize in his struggles something beautiful which popular hagiographies of the Dalai Lama, for instance, do not always do us a favor in ignoring. Benedict himself has written about how unattractive so many of the Bible’s vulgar protagonists are compared to the saintly (and shallow, and un-life-like) Buddha and Confucius. The genius of Christianity is in its lucid recognition of the sinful state of humankind and its compassionate conviction in humankind’s redemption; religions incapable of seizing on these two halves of the human condition are useless. In closing, I’d simply like to offer four images of Benedict which endear him to me as a human being.

1. The first is improbable. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger was on vacation in 2002, visiting his brother, when an American reporter cornered him and asked him about the Church’s response to the first major sex abuse crisis of the decade. The Cardinal became agitated and, in an infamous moment captured on video, was perceived as slapping the reporter’s hand. It is not a proud moment. It does not depict the Cardinal at his saintliest. Yet to see one’s hero at his lowest point tugs at one’s heartstrings. It would be useless for me not to link to it here, if I am to anticipate counter-arguments which claim the man is wholly neurotic or mean-spirited.

2. The second is almost comical. It is the painfully awkward raw footage of Benedict’s meeting with Barack Obama, in which the Pope stands and stares uncomfortably and silently while Obama, all smiles and idle chit-chat, shines. No, it is impossible to watch this footage and ever to think that Ratzinger wanted this job!

3. The third is beautiful. It is a rare clip of Ratzinger — who is also a concert pianist — playing the piano, his brow furrowed in a positively Kierkegaardian pose, intent on his music and frowning even more deeply when he makes a single mistake. (This is much, I think, how I look when I am playing the piano.) And then, at the end of the performance, the man stops playing, and looks off-camera with an expression so unguarded in its humility, so open-faced in its modesty, that one almost misses the simple joy which playing the piano has brought him and which reveals itself in the timid smile playing in his eyes’ sparkle and at the corners of his mouth.

4. The fourth is one of which I have no videographic or photographic evidence. I attended a Papal Mass in Paris at that time I mentioned when I felt a little lost and adrift in the universe, just as I felt lost and adrift in the crowd of pilgrims thronging the Pont Neuf waiting for Benedict to appear on the parvis in front of Notre Dame after vespers. When he finally emerged from the somber interior of the cathedral for a scheduled address to the youth of the city, his frail voice and surprisingly gentle demeanor magnified into an icon of benevolence on a series of massive television screens lining the quays of the Seine, his message was clear and pierced me to the heart: “Do not be afraid! I believe in you!”

Joseph Ratzinger is a Christian immersed in the mystical experience of God, and somehow, that for me gives credence to this statement. Doctrinaire conservative or aloof academic or whatever the case may be — nonetheless, at some point in his life, he’s attained the virtue necessary to say something like “I believe in you” and be able to mean it, with all his heart, of everyone, including people he’d never met. This is my firm conviction, and such people of whom one could say such a thing are rare. I know that he could look at me and say to me, “I believe in you,” and mean it, and mean it of me, without ever having met me: because his holiness comes from God. (Just as for God to say “I love you because you are one of my creations” is not the same thing as to say “I love you because you are Nicholas.” Both are true, yet they are different statements.)

I am a Catholic, and in this sense, an old-fashioned one: I love the Pope because he is the pope, because he represents an ideal of unity and of fatherhood and of the Good Shepherd. But I also love Benedict because he is Ratzinger — because his words give me life and hope, because I see my own failings and aspirations and weaknesses and sensitivity to beauty in his, because he has tried to be a good theologian yet tried even harder (I am convinced) to be a good pope in unfavorable circumstances out of a desire to do God’s will. Some will find this to be thin gruel; yet love is not about merit. It follows no logic but its own. I believe in Pope Benedict XVI with all my heart, and I hope that this improbable leader can bring healing to the Church — including, and especially, those people in the Church who are victims and sacrificial lambs.

“Yet the being of man is not, in fact, that of a closed monad. It is related to others by love or hate, and, in these ways, has its colonies within them. My own being is present in others as guilt or as grace. We are not just ourselves; or, more correctly, we are ourselves only as being in others, with others and through others. Whether others curse us or bless us, forgive us and turn our guilt into love – this is part of our own destiny…As Charles Péguy so beautifully put it, ‘J’espère en toi pour moi’: ‘I hope in you for me.’ It is when the ‘I’ is at stake that the ‘you’ is called upon in the form of hope.”

– Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Ratzinger), Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life

The root of man’s joy is the harmony he enjoys with himself. He lives in this affirmation. And only one who can accept himself can also accept the you, can accept the world. The reason why an individual cannot accept the you, cannot come to terms with him, is that he does not like his own I and, for that reason, cannot accept a you. Something strange happens here. We have seen that the inability to accept one’s I leads to the inability to accept a you. But how does one go about affirming, assenting to, one’s I? The answer may perhaps be unexpected: we cannot do so by our efforts alone. Of ourselves, we cannot come to terms with ourselves. Our I becomes acceptable to us only if it has first become acceptable to another I. We can love ourselves only if we have first been loved by someone else. The life a mother gives to her child is not just physical life; she gives total life when she takes the child’s tears and turns them into smiles. It is only when life has been accepted and is perceived as accepted that it becomes also acceptable. Man is that strange creature that needs not just physical birth but also appreciation if he is to subsist…If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” — must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love. For it is the way of love to will the other’s existence and, at the same time, to bring that existence forth again. The key to the I lives with the you; the way to the you leads through the I.

– Pope Benedict XVI, Homily for Gaudete Sunday, 2006


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