Pope Francis has written another letter in the wake of the revelations regarding clerical sex abuse in Pennsylvania. From start to finish, his latest “Letter to the People of God” is full of language we have seen before, or minor variations on themes that have become clichés – little more than what folks in the trade call “boilerplate”.
It is devoid of practical considerations regarding the reform of clerical leadership worldwide, which many within and without the Church now universally recognise as necessary and urgent.
The letter is, in a word, inadequate: like the statement from USCCB president Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, an exercise in misdirection, blame-shifting, and obfuscation.
The letter is riddled with cliché.
Its incipit takes a quote from the First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians (12:12-26) and misapplies it — for though the Church is indeed one Body, her sickness is in the head. His next sentence is self-serving, as it attempts, with all the subtlety of a mallet strike, to remind the reader of all the times the Popes and other Church leaders have given us high-sounding words of execration for the evils that were the run of the mill on their watch.
“These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons,” Pope Francis writes.
A “significant number,” indeed, and telling that he does not say, “bishops,” — an omission to which the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Greg Burke, called attention when he attempted to rectify it. Burke offered, “Pope Francis says that greater accountability is needed, not only for those who committed these crimes but those who covered them up, which in many cases means bishops.” That is what Burke said.
Pope Francis says that he ‘makes his own’ the words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger:
How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us! (cf. Mt 8:25)
That was 2005, this is now. Thirteen years have passed since we first heard that cri de coeur, and still the People of God await the cleansing of the house. Meanwhile, we are fed on what may charitably be called euphemism: “We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary,” Pope Francis writes, “yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.” Such words as these, given in this moment, are a grotesque parody of John the Seer:
[The angel] said to me, ‘Take the book, and eat it up: and it shall make thy belly bitter, but in thy mouth it shall be sweet as honey.’ And I took the book from the hand of the angel, and ate it up: and it was in my mouth, sweet as honey: and when I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.’
The hierarchical leadership of the Church have “delayed” taking actions that the faithful have demanded, and which they themselves have promised. The hierarchical leaders have delayed so long – and without any reasonable justification – that the faithful now want to know the reason for the bishops’ delay. The bishops seem unwilling to act against their own interests — interests many and varied, but all converging on an insane culture of clerical power, privilege, and insulation from consequence.
“With shame and repentance,” writes Pope Francis, “we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.” If Pope Francis is reticent to share the power of governance necessary to address the crisis and repair the Church — as he appears to be, given his unwillingness thus far even to disclose his mind in these regards beyond platitudinous generalities — he is nevertheless quite willing to share the blame with the whole body of the faithful.
“The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet or silenced,” Pope Francis writes. “But their outcry was more powerful than all the measures meant to silence it, or sought even to resolve it by decisions that increased its gravity by falling into complicity.”
The first sentence of that passage is bromide: mere rehearsal of fact, without even an attempt to warm over the stale descriptors.
The second is an exercise in linguistic gymnastics that would make the Ministry of Truth blush. The clerics, who counselled and made the decisions that “tried to resolve it” by means of cover-up were not trying to resolve the abuse crisis at all. They were trying to eliminate a threat to their position — hence to their power, their prestige, and their place. Such clerics did not “fall” into complicity: they dived in, head first. To keep the evil under wraps, they employed means as despicable as the acts they meant to cover up: bribery, intimidation, threats, and character assassination. Others acquiesced to the programme.
The letter is devoid of practical considerations regarding reform
Pope Francis has had ample opportunity to acknowledge the bishops’ role in the perpetuation of a system, which to this day not only permits but fosters the insane moral culture of the whole body of the clergy, high and low. So far, he has not so much as named it. While we hope only a very few bishops are guilty of the worst crimes and sins, they remain as a body committed to the maintenance of the culture that has allowed the wicked to flourish. The Pope’s general condemnations of “clericalism” and calls for “repentance” are, therefore, likewise unsatisfactory:
It is essential that we, as a Church, be able to acknowledge and condemn, with sorrow and shame, the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons, clerics, and all those entrusted with the mission of watching over and caring for those most vulnerable. Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others. An awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.
All the faithful have a duty to do penance for their own sins and for the sins of the world, as they have a duty in charity to solicitude for the salvation of the souls of their bishops. More public penance is necessary. It is not sufficient. There is a cancer in the head, which we must remove. This means we must be willing to risk the operation, even if the body is sick and weak. We need the advice of an expert surgeon. Pope Francis’s prescriptions are indistinguishable from any spinster aunt’s homespun cure for the common cold.
The letter is inadequate.
As was the case when he decided to write to the faithful of Chile, there was likely no letter the Pope could have written which would have been adequate to address the crisis. It is certain that no letter on the same broad subject addressed to the whole people of God could have any hope of doing any real good on its own. The best any such letter could have done — what it needed to do — was name the crisis plainly, frankly recognise the specific kind of failure in leadership that plagues the Church, and offer at least some broad view of the practical steps he is considering in the way of reform. The letter we have from Pope Francis does not do a single one of those things.
“The only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives,” Pope Francis writes, “is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God.” He needs to start acting as though he believes it. If he does have even the rudiments of a plan, he has not brought the People of God — especially the laity — so far into his confidence as to share it, or any part of it. If he is at a loss for practical remedies, he has given no sign of interest in hearing suggestions.
The Holy Father’s latest letter is an even more egregious failure than his letter to the faithful of Chile. If Pope Francis has not squandered this latest chance to treat the faithful as though they are a responsible part of the Church, instead of saying that they are and acting as though they are not, he must be close to squandering it.
The faithful have every reason to doubt that the bishops are on their side in this. In late April of this year, the Pope apparently told victims he had repeatedly accused of calumny only a few months earlier, “I was part of the problem.” This letter suggests he still is. If Pope Francis would have us believe that he — a bishop — is on our side, then he must prove it. This letter rather tends to confirm the status quo. That is unacceptable.
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