The headlines and dramatic photos rush by during a papal visit, framing the sound bites that journalists uncover in stacks of Vatican speech texts.
So Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House and proclaimed “God bless America!” Then he noted that, in this culture of radical individualism, “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility.”
The former theology professor, speaking to Catholic college leaders, enthusiastically embraced academic freedom. Then he stressed that traditional doctrine — as “upheld by the Church’s Magisterium” — should shape all aspects of a truly Catholic “institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom.”
The former prisoner of war, speaking at the United Nations, hailed the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then he dared to claim that the document’s defense of universal truths is built on “the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations.”
The pope spoke to a wide variety of audiences during this visit and he emphasized words of praise and encouragement, not judgment. After all, Benedict could speak to gatherings of U.S. politicians and global diplomats, but he knew that he had no real authority over them. Also, as strange as it sounds, the pope’s control over what happens on Catholic campuses is limited, at best.
Thus, the message that mattered the most came when Benedict faced the 350 American bishops in the crypt under the soaring Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In theory, the bishops answer directly to the pope when it comes time to explain what happens at their altars and in the pews.
The sound bite that dominated the news afterwards focused on the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy, with the pope agreeing with Chicago Cardinal Francis George’s verdict that the scandal was “sometimes very badly handled” by the church hierarchy.
“Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior,” said Benedict. “Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged. …
“Now that the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood, you have been able to adopt more focused remedial and disciplinary measures and to promote a safe environment that gives greater protection to young people. While it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work … it is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm.”
A leader of a support group for victims pressed on. The pope’s statement that the scandal was “somewhat mishandled” is inaccurate, because “this is a current crisis, not a past one,” said Barbara Doris of St. Louis, speaking for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “The phrase obscures the unassailable fact that hundreds of bishops willfully and repeatedly deceive parishioners, stonewall police and leave children at risk.”
But there was more to this speech than one big quotation. While the pope’s address challenged the bishops to keep wrestling with the sexual-abuse scandal, he also put these evil acts in a wider framework — an era of revolt against the church’s moral teachings. And who is in charge of defending these doctrines, while finding ways to strengthen marriages and families?
That would be the church’s bishops, said Benedict. Thus, he urged them to address the sin of abuse within the “wider context of sexual mores,” thus setting an example for society as a whole. This crisis, he said, calls “for a determined, collective response,” a response led by the bishops.
“Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships,” he said. “They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. … What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?
“We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike.”