Who Am I to ‘Pope’?

COMMENTARY: The Vatican has the power, if ordered by Pope Francis, to lift any veils of secrecy that do not permit the press to view these materials alluded to in Archbishop Viganò’s testimony.

(photo: Courtesy of Francis J. Beckwith)

Months after Pope Francis’ election, I had the privilege of meeting the Holy Father. When I approached him, I presented a copy of my book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. In my left hand, I was clutching rosary beads, purchased in Rome by my parents in 2000 and blessed by Pope John Paul II. The rosary had been my parents’ gift for my Italian grandmother, Frances Guido (1913-2002), and later became for me a treasure of my Catholic heritage. She did not live long enough to see me return to the Church in 2007, but, as I later learned, she had sought counsel about my ecclesial estrangement from a former professor of mine at Fordham (Dominic Balestra). As Dom conveyed to me in 2009, “I told her that I found you to be a true Christian and that in time grace will bring you back to our Church.”

Indeed it did, though these days I am sometimes not so sure about how Christian my countenance is. The seemingly endless stories of clerical evil revealed over the past several months — including the McCarrick scandals, the Archbishop Viganò testimony and the Pennsylvania grand jury report — do not incline the heart to charity toward the Church and those who are the successors of the apostles.

I confess that my general impression of bishops, archbishops and cardinals, with some notable exceptions of course, is that they are company men, who prize loyalty, reputation and power over faith, hope and charity. I know that is unfair. But it’s very difficult to know who to trust anymore.

My reflex, which I am sure others share, is to err on the side of self-protection than to risk a broken heart. And yet, I know that is not what it means to be a Christian or what the Gospel demands.

As St. Paul tells us, in words that many of us have read scores of times, “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). But in order to ensure that the endurance does not outpace the charity and the hope, when I read those words now, what comes to mind is not the Pope, the cardinals or the bishops, but the image of my sainted grandmother praying for her prodigal grandson’s return to Rome on the very rosary beads that were brought back to Rome by that grandson.

The Holy Father surely knows that there are millions of Catholics around the world who harbor similar thoughts. They have heard about all the salacious revelations and have seen the different factions within the Church digging in their heels, impugning the others’ motives and suggesting that political affiliation or theological predilection is an adequate proxy for discovering the truth.

Although they do not know who in the hierarchy to trust, they have, like many of us, witnessed in their lives exemplars of true Catholic piety and have been drawn back to Christ’s Church by it. So they continue to plumb from those pockets of grace what they can summon from memory, encounter in the present or uncover through the Church’s literary reservoir.

But when given the opportunity to stem the tide of confusion — to offer a word of solace, comfort and hope to the long-suffering Catholics he is obligated by his office to shepherd — Pope Francis announced, in response to a question from the press, that he had taken a vow of silence on these matters, though nevertheless encouraging the press to investigate for themselves and to make up their own minds. Because I have never been a bishop, let alone a pope, I have no idea whether this sort of answer is wise or foolish. But from the vantage point of a layman who has only been back in the Church for a mere 11 years, the Holy Father’s answer seemed tantamount to saying, “Who am I to ‘pope’?”

Yet, after some reflection, I am willing to give the Holy Father the benefit of the doubt that he isn’t abdicating his fatherly role to lead the flock through this challenging time. For in order for members of the press to do their jobs and investigate these matters — to confirm or disconfirm the claims in Archbishop Viganò’s testimony — they must have complete and total access to the evidence mentioned in the letter’s lone footnote: “All the memos, letters and other documentation mentioned here are available at the Secretariat of State of the Holy See or at the apostolic nunciature in Washington, D.C.” As we know from the Pennsylvania attorney general’s report as well as the McCarrick scandals, the Vatican has the power, if ordered by the Pope, to lift any veils of secrecy that do not permit the press to view these materials.

Consequently, if the media make the request to examine the documents and memos cited in Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, the Holy Father cannot refuse without undermining his credibility and by default his papacy. Even the Pope knows that a “Who am I to ‘pope’?” answer will not suffice when the hope and faith of millions hangs in the balance. The Frances Guidos of the world would expect nothing less.

Francis J. Beckwith, is the professor of philosophy and Church-state studies and

associate director of the graduate program

in philosophy at Baylor University. He is the author of

Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos, 2009).