Blaming the Pope

Acrescendo of voices of concern from faithful, devout Catholics says Pope John Paul II, despite all his good points, has a style of governance that is deeply flawed. The argument most recently is being made about the scandal of sex-abuse cover-up by bishops. Why hasn't the Pope used his authority more forcefully against those who caused — or enabled — the scandals?

For one thing, the argument is based on a false premise. John Paul greatly toughed canon law's treatment of child abuse by priests, for example, and other strong measures have taken place behind the scenes.

But the argument could be put just as forcefully on any number of topics. Why hasn't the Pope moved more decisively against pro-abortion Catholics, for instance? Are his encyclicals and public statements enough? Why not excommunicate pro-abortion politicians?

What about the crisis of the sacrament of confession that he has mentioned so often? He's promulgated several documents (a motu proprio, recently), but why hasn't he disciplined dioceses that haven't backed these up?

What about catechesis? Certainly, again, he can boast of documents and, significantly, the Catechism, but there's no penalty to those dioceses who ignore them.

Before too long, these questions are no longer about how John Paul has handled this or that issue — they are a challenge to his papacy. Then, if you look at history, they become something more — a challenge to the very structure of the Church.

The truth is, the Church has never functioned in a pope-as-police-chief model — or even pope-as-CEO. Not in the times of the Christological heresies, when large sectors of the Church went to Mass and received the sacraments from bishops who didn't hold to the divinity of Christ. Not before the Reformation. Not after the Council of Trent, which corrected abuses from before the Reformation. Not in the days of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who described a Church rife with heresy and negligent bishops.

If John Paul has let us down, every pope has let us down. And that just means Christ's model of the Church has let us down.

But it isn't clear that the Church could have functioned on this disciplinarian model. Can the pope know best how to handle the situations of every diocese? And with whom would he replace negligent bishops? Saints? They are always in short supply. More to the point: Today, many people assume that the Pope ought to boot this or that bishop out, when they have a very limited knowledge of the facts of the matter. There are cases where the Pope asks for bishops' resignations — perhaps he knows something we don't about others.

It's instructive to consider another example of what was often called a great “failure” of John Paul: his interaction with communists in his native Poland. Why did he never denounce them? Why didn't he discipline Poles who were sympathetic to them?

The answer, of course, is that he was too smart. Denunciations and a heavy hand would only have drawn their ire — and slowed the progress of the Church. What he did instead was create “facts.” He made “parishes” in neighborhoods where no Churches were allowed, by gathering people for Mass in meadows. Once the parish was a “fact,” the people's demand for a Church had to be respected. Once he was Pope he created the “fact” of a Catholic Poland hungry for freedom by going to Poland and encouraging it.

It's the same in the instances listed above. In addition to disciplinary measures he has created and encouraged many “facts.” He has written a beautiful and thorough magisterium, he has encouraged the apostolic movements, he created the World Youth Day gatherings with their many fruits.

Pope John Paul is not a man incapable of error. One could point to several errors of his. But his leadership of the Church in our day is not one of them. If bishops — and lay Catholics — had done half of the things he asked us to, the world would be radically different, radically better.

As thinker Gerard Serafin put it, we shouldn't worry so much about whether the Pope has let us down. We should worry that we have let him down.