The week-long Lenten retreat for the Roman Curia has just begun. Listening to the meditations by Fr. Ermes Ronchi, Pope Francis will have to think carefully about one topic in particular: Is the Church he leads really defended by the entire world’s media thanks to his personality, a widely acknowledged moral force? Or does the Church still have to watch out for enemies? Enemies, in fact, can come from inside the institution.
Some people are enemies because they are on the other side, but some are enemies without being aware of it. In both cases it is important to understand the source of the attacks come in order to defend the Church more effectively.
That the Church is under attack is obvious, first of all, from the way the Royal Commission of Australia conducted its hearings with Cardinal George Pell, currently Vatican Prefect for the Economy, who allegedly covered up sexual abuse of minors by priests during his tenure as a bishop in Australia – and even before. Let’s make this clear: even one abuse committed by a priest is a crime. It cannot be justified. And it is true that in some cases more should have been done.
However, it is worthwhile analyzing Cardinal Pell’s interrogation. The first questions addressed to him were aimed at understanding his current responsibilities in the Vatican, and whether and how he managed money – matters, in fact, that have nothing to do with the issues surrounding the hearings. In more general terms, questions were then posed with the intention of catching the Cardinal in self-contradiction. He was asked for details of things that happened even 40 years ago, events that happened in another era, and within a different perspective.
A perfect key to understanding those times, and, consequently, the reason why abuse was often underestimated in the Church, can be found in the pastoral letter that Pope Benedict XVI sent to Irish Catholics in 2010. The letter announced an apostolic visit to the disgraced Ireland where multiple abuses took place.
Benedict XVI wrote, addressing 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.” But then the Pope also noted that “The programme of renewal proposed by the Second Vatican Council was sometimes misinterpreted and indeed, in the light of the profound social changes that were taking place, it was far from easy to know how best to implement it.”
And he added: “In particular, there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations. It is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse, which has contributed in no small measure to the weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings.”
Pope Benedict referred to the long period of discussions following the Second Vatican Council. At this time, a wide discussion was focused on de-centralization, on the need to face problems from a more pastoral point of view. Some even maintained that the kind of trial envisioned by canon law at the time was “anachronistic”.
This analysis does not justify mistakes (there have been many, and grave ones). But it explains the deep roots to a wrong approach. Later in the course of the years, the Church vigorously corrected this approach, especially thanks to Pope Benedict XVI’s effort. In 1988, as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger lamented the difficulties in conducting trials under canon law. In 2002, he asked for and obtained new (and stricter) norms concerning delicta graviora – the most grave sins, reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In 2010, he toughened the norms to punish abuse, and in 2012 he asked all bishops’ conferences in the world to provide guidelines in order to tackle the issue of sexual abuse of minors. Pope Benedict’s approach was characterized by mercy and justice. Justice was entrusted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Mercy (and the healing of victims) was entrusted to a formation center managed by the Jesuit-run facility “Toward Healing and Renewal,” born after a symposium organized by the Pontifical Gregorian University.
Because of these measures, Catholic institutions are “the safest ones for minors,” according to the book “Pedophilia. A battle the Church is winning” by Massimo Introvigne and Roberto Marchesini (the book is based on data by the John Jay College and City University of New York) This is the success of justice and mercy. Justice was applied: according to data from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, more than 400 priests were laicized by Pope Benedict XVI between 2011 and 2012, thanks to the application of new norms. Mercy was also applied: Pope Benedict XVI met five times with victims (in the US; in the UK; in Australia; in Malta, in Germany).
All that Pope Francis had to do was to follow this same path, as the Church’s response was already strong. Yet, this response is not acknowledged. All media reports aim at alleging that there continues to be a widespread practice of covering up abuses and violence within the Catholic Church. This rationale also lay behind the damaging accusations addressed to the Holy See by the UN Committee for the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
This rationale still holds sway during Pope Francis’ pontificate, despite his strong popularity with the secular media. In the end, the real intention behind suing the Church for abuse seems to be financial compensation. And this despite the fact that the victims are asking for truth, understanding and healing, rather than for compensation.
Not by chance, these highly spectacular, media spot lit trials over sex abuse by clergy have mostly taken place in an Anglo-Saxon judicial environment. There, lawyers gain high percentages from the cash settlements. Rather than establishing the truth, the depositions and hearings are intended to catch witnesses in contradictions, in order to convince the jury or the judge to favor the plaintiff’s side.
It goes without saying that attacking the Church is also a business. Obviously, lawyers insist that they are not in this for money. But it is also obvious that the amount of money that lawyers have gained as their share of the estimated 2.5 billion-dollar settlements which the US Church has paid to victims is very high. And there are many lawyers who took these cases as an occasion for good business.
This data must be taken into consideration, though it must be also be assumed that many lawyers have acted in good faith. However, the data is nevertheless meaningful. And it is linked to another issue: why are international media always so ready to attack the Church? Why don’t they ever tell the other side of the story, that is, the Church’s strong commitment in tackling the issue of abuse?
Perhaps it is not out of place to think that there are powerful groups that want to attack the Church’s moral authority. Since they cannot directly attack the Church’s moral teaching, they emphasize instead the faults of its members. Public opinion is also influenced by the claims that the Church has to pay for damages, in particular, when the amount of the settlements is high. Moreover, an impoverished Church cannot carry out charitable works. And a Church that cannot perform good works makes less of an impact on society.
There are many groups that would be happy with a Church without any relevance in the world. This fact can be gleaned from the huge exposure given to campaigns against the Holy See as a sovereign entity. It can be gleaned also by the way this Pope is more and more considered to be a head of state like any other head of state, that is, without acknowledging his authority as the head of the Catholic Church.
The Pope is a head of state because of his apostolic role. The existence of Vatican City State is necessary for the mission of the Holy See, for in this way, the Pope is not bound to any secular power, and is independent from the influence of nations.
The discussion of this issue is difficult even within the sacred halls of the Vatican. In the midst of the discussion, some members of the Church can turn unaware into enemies. When they underestimate the importance of this issue, they risk stripping the Pope of any impact at an international level.
When Pope Francis went to Strasbourg, apparently no one from the Second Section of the Secretariat of State asked for a moment of prayer with Catholics at the European Parliament. This made Pope Francis seem to be only a head of state like any other, thus de facto supporting the thesis of European secularists who constantly complain that Catholic Members of Parliament always adhere to the advice of the Church. If the Pope is a head of state like any other one, his moral authority depends on his personal authority.
When Pope Francis met in Cuba with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow on February 12, the meeting took place in neutral territory and without the celebration of common prayer. For the occasion, even the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow displayed its own flag, as if it were in some way like the Holy See. The flag certified the Patriarchate’s political weight. The fact that the Patriarchate of Moscow is no State, and that the color of the flag is historically linked to the color of the vestments that Stalin had made for the occasion when he re-established the Patriarchate of Moscow is a signal that the Patriarchate of Moscow’s political weight is linked to the secular world. Didn’t anyone in the Vatican ask whether that kind of meeting, with the kind of declaration that would come out of it, would constitute a sort of concession from the Holy See to secular pressures? The ceremony in Cuba could be taken as a secular meeting with secular meanings and with no religious and ecumenical outcomes. Was this possible interpretation taken into consideration?
One further example. Recently, the protocol for a head of state in official visit to the Pope has changed. The first to benefit of this new protocol was Mauricio Macrì, President of Argentina, who came to visit the Pope on February 27 together with his third wife. Though he is Catholic, President Macrì is civilly divorced and remarried.
Before this visit, any Catholic head of state in an irregular marital situation could not be accompanied by the second spouse, who waited in another room where the Pope greeted him/her separately. Following this modification, Catholic heads of state who are civilly divorced and remarried will be able to be accompanied by their second spouse to meet the Pope, and this spouse will also be allowed to take part in the official photo of the event and in the exchange of gifts.
The old protocol only affected Catholic heads of state. Only they were required to take into consideration the regularity of their marriages according to canon law. This attention is necessary because the Pope is not merely a head of state, but he is also the guarantor of the Catholic Faith. This way, the visit to the Pope was also an “apostolic visit”.
In the elaboration of the new protocol, the Prefecture for the Pontifical Household was not asked for input, even though it has competence over the issue. The rationale is to consider the head of state as the equal of an ambassador accredited to the Holy See: if the ambassador needs the Holy See’s placet (and this is not necessarily about the marital situation), so, too, when a head of state is scheduled to visit the Pope, it must be assumed that a placet has been given.
The criterion was, even in this case, purely secular. Once more, the Pope has been considered as merely the equivalent to any other head of state. The fact that the Pope is a head of state because is the head of the Church was not given full consideration in this decision. But the two roles cannot be separated.
These topics are perhaps far from Pope Francis’ mind, given that he wants to bring the Church out to the peripheries and that he possesses the Jesuit sense of mission, that is, of being always ready to meet others, especially beyond Catholic boundaries.
However, these topics are understood very well by those who designed the new protocol and then proposed it to the Pope. The Pope was told that the new protocol represented a further step forward in the integration of the civilly divorced and remarried in the life of the Church. Pope Francis said during the press conference on the flight back from Mexico on February 18 that “integration” was one of his concerns for the civilly divorced and remarried. During the same press conference, and within the same reply to a reporter’s question, the Pope also said that the civilly divorced and remarried cannot receive sacramental Communion.
Pope Francis’ words were worrisome for those who are pushing that the soon-to-be published post-synodal apostolic exhortation (the Pope should sign it March 19, but it the exhortation will be released after Easter because of a delay in translations) should contain openings aimed at changing this doctrine. The media campaign focused on the issue of Communion for civilly divorced and remarried Catholics was aimed at changing the doctrine by changing how the doctrine is put into practice.
This change of protocol for heads of state represents, in the end, also a little “doctrinal vulnus” that the promoters of this agenda will use to interpret the upcoming post-synodal apostolic exhortation so that it can be interpreted as supporting their agenda.
The Pope’s enemies are also lurking in details such as these. His enemies constructed a narrative concerning his pontificate (the same one that that Pope Francis deconstructs at times), and they exploit this narrative in order to undermine the foundations of the Church. Their work joins itself to the work of those who attack the Church on ideological grounds, with the effect that the Church is heard less and less as a voice in the world. And their work also joins itself to those who attack the Church for mere personal gain.
Does the Church always have to be only a target? Is the Church really unable to propose a more accurate and clear narrative for itself? Can it formulate a coherent project for itself that goes beyond the need (and desire) to capitalize on this Pope’s popularity in order to reclaim some or other marginal Catholic?
These are open questions. Pope Francis will be called upon to respond to them.