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On His First Anniversary, The New Pope Has An Old Problem

Rich Barlow: Since he was elected to the papacy one year ago, Francis has had to face an ongoing crisis -- the sexual abuse of children and victims’ demands for accountability. In this picture, provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with Roman priests at the Vatican, Thursday, March 6, 2014. (AP)
Rich Barlow: Since he was elected to the papacy one year ago, Francis has had to face an ongoing crisis -- the sexual abuse of children and victims’ demands for accountability. In this picture, provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with Roman priests at the Vatican, Thursday, March 6, 2014. (AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Pope Francis is a godsend, rejecting Catholicism’s scalding scolding for the soothing tones of a gentle pastor, his admirers insist. Words are cheap, and Francis is a figurehead coasting on rhetoric without changing the church’s antediluvian social stances, critics scoff.

This he’s-floor wax-no-he’s-dessert-topping debate defines the reaction to the 266th pope as he marks his one-year anniversary today. (I purposefully ignore a third, kooky cranny of thought, the braying that Francis’s compassionate statements brand him as too lefty, even Marxist.) As a practicing Catholic, let me suggest a metric for judging this pope on which we all can agree: how will he handle the sexual abuse of children by priests and its cover-up by bishops? His compassion aside, early signs are worrisome.

Just last month, a United Nations panel flayed the Vatican’s handling of abuse cases. The Holy See continues to fight extending statutes of limitations for abuse, while demanding vows of silence from victims before compensating them, said the U.N. investigators, who reported tens of thousands of victims worldwide.

Even before Francis’s ascension, the traditionalist Catholic George Weigel, justifiably disgruntled over abuse-hiding bishops, hoped that the new pope would man up where his two predecessors didn’t and be “more severe” with pedophiles’ mitered confederates. And while a spokeswoman for the American bishops said run-amok abuse levels were in the past, the financial fallout continues to drain the collection basket. Last month, the financially and morally bankrupt Archdiocese of Milwaukee offered $4 million to abuse victims.

As a practicing Catholic, let me suggest a metric for judging this pope on which we all can agree: how will he handle the sexual abuse of children by priests and its cover-up by bishops?

The U.N. panel bungled by taking potshots at the church’s conservative gender and sexual teachings, thereby mixing debatable issues with inarguable crimes. That’s why any judgment of Francis should be weighted toward how he handles the abuse cancer. There’s no debate between liberals and conservatives on this one: sin is sin, period. Facing this particular sin, the pope created an advisory commission on abuse, but exactly what it will do remains a will ‘o the wisp for the moment. Distressingly, Francis’s Vatican dismissed the U.N. allegations as dated (though the panel reported many predatory priests continue mingling with children), and its representatives ducked responsibility by saying their legal power to enforce child protection encompasses only Vatican City, not parishes globally. Given their canonical and moral authority in this famously hierarchical institution, it sounded as if the pope’s men had lawyered up.

Progressives should watch what Francis does to hold wrongdoers accountable on abuse and forget about a repeat of the doctrine-reforming Second Vatican Council. Many pin their hopes on a papal-summoned bishops synod on family issues later this year; in advance, the Vatican has asked parishes to poll the laity on hot-button social teachings, suggesting change might be discussed. That would be great. But Damon Linker persuasively argues that if Vatican III is to be the measure of Francis, he’s doomed to fail, for two reasons.

First, the pope himself, either before or during his papacy, has ruled out most of the progressives’ dream reforms, from same-sex marriage to women’s ordination. (One possible exception is priestly celibacy, modification of which the pope hasn’t taken off the table.) Remember, the Argentinian Francis hails from the developing world, and Catholics there are a conservative bunch.

Second, even if Francis supported change, he’d need the support of the Vatican bureaucracy, staffed by cardinals and archbishops. Most of them are reform-allergic conservatives appointed by the doctrinaire Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

“Imagine a newly elected Democratic president,” Linker writes, “attempting to move the country in a more progressive direction while being required to pick his Cabinet and advisers entirely from the ranks of the Republican Party, and you start to get a sense of the constraints under which [Francis] is operating.” American Catholics, who dissent in droves from many church social teachings, might get this. While the pope’s popularity has boosted Mass attendance in other countries, it hasn’t here.

skeptics are right to insist that rhetoric alone is insufficient.

I do believe those who dismiss Francis as mere talk miss the boat. The church’s condemnation of, say, homosexual acts may not have changed, but does anyone doubt that the pope’s comment about gay priests — “Who am I to judge?” — won him the respectful ear of those who disagree with the church? Just look at the worshipful coverage the man is getting, the perfect metaphor for which is the life-sized chocolate statue of himself that Francis got as a gift — iconography as sugary has his press clippings.

Still, skeptics are right to insist that rhetoric alone is insufficient. Advocates for the sexually abused want Francis to order publication of the names of credibly accused priests and to discipline their enabling bishops. Conservatives and liberals will always fight over theology, but as one of my parish priests once preached, we don’t come to church to worship theology. We worship a carpenter’s son who taught the compassion that Francis clearly lives. Turning that compassion toward justice for abuse victims shouldn’t break a sweat in a pope who has built some amazing bridges we never foresaw. As Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley told the Boston Globe, “We expect Catholics to love the Holy Father, but not Rolling Stone.”


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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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