Who's Afraid of an Authoritative Pope?

On July 31, the day Pope John Paul II traveled from Toronto to Guatemala, the newspaper published a seven-paragraph editorial TITLEd “The Words of the Pope.” The first two paragraphs were about the Holy Father's health, his frailty, a physical and spiritual “resolve so towering that it casts an image greater than the man himself.” The editorial speaks of his “moral authority.”

The next five paragraphs are devoted to the sex-abuse questions. One reads carefully when the Chronicle talks about “sex abuse.” The Holy Father is complimented for speaking out “against the sexual abuse that has been jarring to many of the faithful.” The Pope talks of “shame” and “sadness,” of the “indiscretions by as many as 300 priests” that have “harmed the Church.”

Since the Pope was speaking before devout and younger folks in Canada, the Chronicle editorial grants that the Pope did not want to employ stronger terms, even though “the disillusioned victims … longed for stronger condemnations and deeper assurances.”

What did the Chronicle think the Pope “should” have done? “The Pope could have apologized. Or chided his bishops for using legal tactics and callous denial to cover up abhorrent behavior.” There is a sense that the Pope waffled, that he “missed an opportunity.”

The editorial finally mentions a controversy in Mexico about a painting of Juan Diego that does not make him appear as an Indian. All of this background leads to the following conclusion: The Pope alone can “deliver the level of rectitude and calm that only he can offer to an increasingly restless flock.” Wilfred Ward, the great English advocate of papal infallibility in the 19th century, could not have put it better.

This editorial reminded me of the coverage of the Toronto papal visit in the Washington Post. Sex-abuse stories have been regular features in the press, of course. They should be, granted their truth. But it is interesting to see the context in which they have been appearing. On July 29, the Post had two long, front-page articles devoted to this issue. What the Pope actually said in Toronto was again overshadowed by what he “should” have said.

The first article was TITLEd: “In Address Pope Turns to Scandals.” This essay was about 24 column inches; it stretched out over two pages. Just below the papal headline on the same front page was a second, much longer essay (51 column inches on two pages), TITLEd, “How Deep the Scars of Abuse? Some Victims Crippled; Others Stay Resilient.” There are graphic photos in the latter essay, one of a priest who is said to have abused “at least 330 people.” The implication seems to be that this abuse is the main issue, not what the Pope had to say to hundreds of thousands of youth in Toronto.

The Post essay ended with the following passage about one of the 330 victims: “Bachmann said he remains a prisoner of the past. ‘I feel all this anger that he (the priest) was allowed to get away with it, that the church was allowed to get away with it,’ he said. ‘I can't forgive and I can't forget. The thing is, I still feel like I'm responsible for what happened.’” Lots of things to sort out there, no doubt.

Now, I cite these two accounts or views, one from San Francisco and one from Washington, because of what they imply. By this time, only a blind man cannot see the dimensions of the problem. I agree with the view that this particular issue is not somehow an unjust outside attack on the Church or a product of the culture. Rather it is an internal problem that was wholly in the hands of Church officials to do or not to do something about. It has to do with what the Church expects of its own about its own teachings and practices. The fact is, it took the press and the law to bring it to our attention in a way in which it is a common topic in the press.

Obviously, something is wrong at a deep level.

What the Chronicle editorial reveals, however, and this is my point here, is that the Church is expected, and not just by itself, to have authority — and to wield it. And if bishops won't use theirs, the Pope is expected to use his.

We can, of course, just hear the cries of “authoritarianism” and “anti-Romanism” if the Pope had in fact immediately sacked a good number of cardinals and bishops for a negligence that seems common knowledge. What we are hearing is the opposite. We are hearing that the Pope, frail though he be, ought to be tougher. No one impugns his own integrity, but many wonder why he is so reluctant to discipline these men, many of whom he himself appointed.

The unspoken agenda in all of this controversy has to do with what is the abuse “about”? It is in fact mainly about homosexual activities, which, as such, are considered “private rights” in the culture. It would be surprising, even edifying, if the San Francisco Chronicle were criticizing the Pope for failing to state that all homosexual activities, not just those against minors, not just those performed by aberrant clergy, are wrong. If we say that this turmoil is only about pedophilia, the abuse of small children, we focus attention away from the vast majority of the cases.

In any event, what is important about these editorials and columns is that they implicitly recognize that the Church does have authority and ought to use it. The Church is not criticized for claiming authority she does not have, but for having it and not using it. Authority must always be exercised in a prudent way, of course, and it is possible to make things worse. Almost everyone thinks that the bishops are so cautious or so implicated as to be paralyzed in this matter.

What is unexpectedly interesting, however, and why I think it worthy of attention, is that those who are often vocal critics of the Church and its authority are precisely those who are suddenly most astonished that the Church does not act as if it had authority in an obvious case where authority is needed.

The secular world seems to want not the “words of the Pope” — but more aggressive use of his own authority.

With no little amusement, we cannot help but see here a graphic, if indirect, acknowledgment of the rightness of the structure of the Church even in the secular order.

Jesuit Father James Schall teaches political science at Georgetown University.