Please, Not This Pope: Defending the Faith when Leaders Err

Please, Not This Pope: Defending the Faith when Leaders Err January 23, 2018

Pope Francis has issued a public apology for comments made against sexual assault victims during his papal visit to Chile.  Former victims strongly assert that Chilean Bishop Juan Barros knew about sexual assault allegations against the infamous abuser Father Fernando Karadima and did nothing. Pope Francis originally called such accusations calumny, a spiritually charged term referring to the sin of spreading false and damning rumors.  He also said their accusations were without proof.

When I first read about the incident on Twitter, I felt the familiar, cold, pit in my stomach. Not again. I prayed. And, please not this pope. I, like many young Catholics, love Pope Francis.  I once waited nine hour for the opportunity to see him for thirteen seconds.  And it was worth it.  So you can imagine the crushing, sinking feeling when I read that the man who I’d pinned so many hopes on took such a massive step back on an essential, basic, moral issue.  (To be fair, Francis has been far from perfect on this issue in the past.  But this statement struck me as especially callous.)

Then, I read a headline that he had apologized.  Well, he sort of apologized.  He recognized that his wording was wrong.  Lack of “proof” was the excuse that Catholic bishops had given for decades for protecting serial abusers, despite the fact that proof is almost impossible to produce in cases such as this.  So Francis said that he shouldn’t have used proof, but rather evidence. Is that better? I’m not sure.  What did strike me as relevant was that he appeared sincere in his regret for hurting victims.  He regretted appearing to “slap them in the face.”  He knew he had erred and his sorrow seemed genuine. Nevertheless, he still believes Barros to be innocent.

This indicated two things to me.

1) Pope Francis is willing to listen and admit when he is wrong. 

This is the essential difference between the current pope and religious leaders of the past.  The willingness to apologize and the humility he has shown will set many Catholic hearts at ease.  No, he is not trying to silence victims.

2) He’s still wrong. 

These people have been proven honest once before when all of their accusations turned out to be accurate. There is no reason to believe they are mistaken now.  Pope Francis’ apology does little to change the reality for them: they are bringing their needs to the Church and the Church isn’t listening. It’s the whole disgusting cycle replaying over again.  Publicly declaring a “zero-tolerance policy” isn’t enough.  Acknowledging victims as trustworthy- no, as worthy at all– this is what is needed.  Such a simple step, but somehow so hard.

As a practicing Catholic in a largely secular community, I know what comes next: the gauntlet.  How can your religion let this happen? Again. Why can’t the just do the right thing? What else are they hiding?  I can normally dodge theses type of questions with the simple assertion that Church leaders are people too and I don’t have to answer for their choices.

But this only leads to the harder questions. If Church leaders are just people, why do you follow the Pope?  Is he special or isn’t he?  What’s even the point of being Catholic?

At their root, the questions all boil down to a single argument: If your religion were true, the people most practiced in it wouldn’t lack basic morality. They do lack basic morality, so your religion is false.

To be clear, in no way do I wish to imply that the worst effects of the pope’s actions are my discomfort. The true fallout is the added pain, suffering, and humiliation experienced by countless victims who only want to be acknowledged and treated justly by the Church. But I can’t imagine that I am the only Catholic who feels a sense of mounting frustration when Church leaders commit these sins.  Because I wouldn’t do something like that, and I’m no moral hero.  And now they’re doing something publicly immoral and I’m going to have to answer for it.  This is the stuff that has made many Catholics simply give up and leave the Church and frankly, I don’t blame them.  There’s nothing like genuinely good people confronting you with spiritual questions to which you have no answer to turn you off to your own faith.  And it’s especially trying when the leaders of our faith are the ones putting you in that position.

How can you believe someone is an infallible holy man if he does something so obviously wrong?  And if he’s not infallible, doesn’t that take down your entire religion?  Do you have to support blatantly corrupt behavior in order to justify your faith?  And if you do, how do you do it?  More importantly, why do you do it?

These questions often feel discriminatory and its easy to be defensive and lash out in response.  But the truth is, they bring up feelings of anger and resentment not because they are essentially wrong to ask (although not always asked in the kindest manner) but because they are good questions. And we do have to answer to them.

Here are a few things I say in response to common criticisms of Church hierarchy.

1) The pope is only infallible under very specific circumstances.

 The doctrine of infallibility is one of the worst understand of all Catholic doctrines, even amongst Catholics themselves.  The pope is only infallible when defining a doctrine concerning faith or morals, and then, only when he does so in a very specific way.  The last time a pope spoke with doctrinal infallibility was 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared that Mary was Assumed into Heaven.  In other words, Pope Francis can easily be wrong about his stance on Bishop Barros.  Popes can be wrong about most things, which is why the Church can and has reversed its teachings on several issues throughout history.

2) To be spiritually ordained and morally good are not the same thing. 

When a man becomes a priest, he undergoes the sacrament of Holy Orders, in which he is anointed by the Holy Spirit as a priest of the Church.  Christ then works through him to perform the sacraments that are the bedrock of our faith. Because it is Jesus who works these miracles, not the man, the moral state of the man has no bearing on their effectiveness.  This means that if I receive communion from a priest who protected a sexual abuser, or from an abuser himself, I am still receiving my sacrament. (Although his own spiritual state is in no way redeemed by this.)

This is the power of ritual.  This is the ancient pull that draws me to Catholicism and leaves more modern iterations of Christianity feeling empty.  What any human being says or does will never compare to sacramental grace. It’s best for all of us to just get out of the way and let that happen.

3) The Church’s ability to endure despite humanity’s best efforts to destroy it is evidence of God ultimately being in charge.

Look, at the end of the day, the Catholic Church really shouldn’t still be around.  Human beings have done their best to run it into the ground for centuries to no avail.  I’d posit they’ve gotten a lot of help from the -um- other guy. And yet that Catholic Church continues to grow worldwide.  Perhaps it’s best to spend less time answering for the sins of other people and more time marveling at God’s infinite goodness.

I once met a young man who became a cloistered Catholic monk after the minister at his Evangelical church was arrested for some financial crime and the church closed after the scandal.  I had to laugh. “Your Church had a scandal so you became Catholic?”    He shrugged. “You guys never close.”

No.  We don’t.

So yes, I can be angry at the Church without having to leave it.  I can be outraged on behalf of victims and still defend the institution wholeheartedly.  And yes, I can still think the pope is fundamentally morally wrong while falling at his feet in spiritual awe as he passes.

Because that’s how simply complicated genuine faith is.  It’s why Catholicism is so essentially… human.


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