Defending Benedict Against Theatricals

There is a plot afoot to arrest the Pope when he goes to England in September. As it seems Her Majesty, the Queen had apparently expressed an interest in putting Benedict up at Buckingham Palace, I am intrigued to imagine the Defender of the Faith and the head of the Church of England, giving sanctuary and protection to the Bishop of Rome.

But then Christ in the fullness of time will restore all things to himself!

The basis for the plot is a single document being lauded as a smoking gun damning Ratzinger, by those journalists who are willing to suspend their professionalism, ethics and credibility in order to collect a papal scalp.

Michael Sean Winters in America Magazine, spells out how “frustratingly poor” has been the press coverage regarding these stories:

This, we are led to believe, is the smoking gun. Raztinger signed the letter in 1985. That is HIS signature. Case closed. Here are the documents.

In talking to reporters, I raised the question: Why was this case in front of Ratzinger in the first place. It does not make sense. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was given jurisdiction over cases of the “graviora delicta” of sexual abuse only in 2001. Before that time, it is a bit unclear who had immediate jurisdiction in Rome, although one point – which I also made to reporters – went unmentioned then and in all the reporting about the future Pope’s role in handling sex abuse cases, namely, the local bishop has the authority to remove a priest from the clerical state. Recourse to Rome is necessary only to dispense a priest from his vow of celibacy, so that he can subsequently be married in the Church.

Perhaps, some of the confusion has to do with the translation from Latin that the original AP story procured from the chairman of the Classics Department at USC which translates “Hoc dicasterium” as “this court.” I do not question the Chairman of the Classics Department’s command of Latin, but a dicastery in the Vatican is not a court, but an agency or department. The CDF did not then and does not now serve as a canonical court.

But, then it hit me: I was asking about the dog that had not barked.

Read Winters’ analysis of the documents; it is too much to excerpt here, but he then tries to answer the question that lingers over Ratzinger’s stated concerns over “good of the universal Church.”

Since the prosecuted priest’s story had been widely reported, Winters rejects the press’ simplistic charge that Ratzinger was attempting to shield the church from bad publicity. He suggests that -as is typical in church matters- it is about something more nuanced:

When Cardinal Ratzinger replied that the “good of the universal Church” should be considered in adjudicating the case, he was evidently not trying to prevent adverse publicity. That publicity had already occurred. […]

What had Pope John Paul, and Cardinal Ratzinger, worried was that the sacramental character of priestly ordination was being obscured by the ease with which priests were being dispensed from their vows. Catholics do not see the priesthood as a career choice, to be set aside if something better comes along. When a man is ordained, the Church believes that God affects an ineffaceable and permanent change upon the ordinand, just as the Church believes that bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass. Even a priest who is laicized retains the power to say Mass and absolve from sins in confession, even though the Church strips him of the authority to do so.

Had the Oakland case been presented as an instance of “graviora delicta” I do not doubt that the laicization would have been faster. Had the bishop or other officials in Oakland made clear the heinous nature of the crimes, I do not doubt Cardinal Ratzinger would have responded differently. I also do not doubt that even the mention of the civil trial involving charges of molestation should have caused Cardinal Ratzinger to find out more about the case – oops, that is precisely what he did and for which he now stands accused of dragging his feet. I also suspect that this case, which stands astride the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983, may have been impeded because the canonical officials in Oakland and in Rome were still becoming acquainted with its provisions.

Finally, Winters addresses what seems to be a willful sloppiness on the part of journalists:

It is the job of religion reporters to not only report on information but to provide the context for interpreting that information. The documents in the Oakland case raise certain obvious questions that the press ignores or fails to perceive – I do not know which is worse. I do not “blame” the media for the sex abuse crisis and I do blame the Vatican for doing such a horrendous job of answering the current questions and for seeing themselves as the victim. Nonetheless, I believe the press corps is guilty of shoddy reporting. The documents in the Oakland case are no “smoking gun” but they are presented as such. The feeding frenzy among the press corps has taken hold and everybody wants to be Woodward and Bernstein. Shame on them.

I believe Winters has nailed the concerns of Ratzinger (and Pope John Paul II) as regards laicization and how that played out in this case. The problem of writing in the ghetto of Catholic media, of course, is that such a knowledgeable and credible response get much less exposure than the screaming headlines found in the secular press, the crazed resentments of Maureen Dowdists and the sneers of the cable-news talking heads. Necessary perspective and information is left out of the equation and so the public cannot help but think the worst.

A charge that the press is rewriting history, here:

So to review: This was not a case in which a bishop wanted to discipline his priest and the Vatican official demurred. This was not a case in which a priest remained active in ministry, and the Vatican did nothing to protect the children under his pastoral care. This was not a case in which the Vatican covered up evidence of a priest’s misconduct. This was a case in which a priest asked to be released from his vows, and the Vatican– which had been flooded by such requests throughout the 1970s — wanted to consider all such cases carefully. In short, if you’re looking for evidence of a sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, this case is irrelevant.

Competent reporters, when dealing with a story that involves special expertise, seek information from experts in that field. Capable journalists following this story should have sought out canon lawyers to explain the 1985 document– not merely relied on the highly biased testimony of civil lawyers who have lodged multiple suits against the Church. If they had understood the case, objective reporters would have recognized that they had no story. But in this case, reporters for the major media outlets are far from objective.

The public is being ill-served by the bias and sloppiness of the press, but a greater concern is whether the victims of priestly abuse, exposed to a steady diet of distortions which never seem to mention the vast protections, policies and procedures which the church has installed since 2002, and which have been very successful. I know that someone who has been abused wants -above anything else- to know he or she has been heard, and feel secure in the knowledge that others will not have to endure sufferings similar to their own. The press -who are presumably all about supporting the victims- has done a singularly poor job of disseminating that reassuring information, and without those balancing facts, I fear that some victims are nosediving into despair. They are in my prayers, and the prayers of so many, every day.

So is the pope.

I am hoping that Pope Benedict, this shy, beleaguered theologian who in fact seems to be a better, rather than a worse priest, bishop and pope than the press will portray, will find a way to go around the press filters, and talk about all of this plainly, to the world. Doing so will, I think, be the most difficult moment of his reign, and I am sure that at his age, shouldering this mess is the last thing he ever wanted to do.

But then, Jesus did tell Peter that he would be led where he did not wish to go.

Allahpundit links. Thank you.


Shea: The Get-Benedict Society
From OSV: a take which a friend calls a “spinny” (and I call “credible”) on the Oakland story.
From Briggs: a somewhat punk-response of same.
John Allen: a newsroom reveals some indication of stress
Mark Shea: Gloves Off
From CBS: Has Media Ignored Sex Abuse In School?
First Things: The Village Atheists
Lane Wallace: The Bias of Veteran Journalists
Damian Thompson: You can say that again
Fr. Lombardi: For the love of the truth
UN: What you’d expect
Vatican: lousy at communications
Fr. Brundage: admits to a faulty memory
Jimmy Akin: On the press
Catholic League: Scandal is not Widening
Catholic Culture: Boy, that Benedict is not with the program!

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