So the other day, the Pope screwed up and gave a nasty response to some reporter in Chile about his skepticism regarding a Bishop Barros, who is alleged by some people to have known that one of his priests was an abuser. The pope snapped that the charge was slanderous. Not surprisingly, victims of sexual abuse took this as a slam against them.
Now as an American monoglot, I have no clue what the merits of the charge against the bishop are. This is an argument that has mostly been conducted in Spanish, which I neither speak nor read. So I have no opinion about whether the pope is right or wrong in saying he does not believe there is evidence for those charges. My view, like O’Malley’s, was that even if the bishop turns out to be innocent as a dove, you still don’t tell sexual abuse victims that they are slanderers, especially when you are the pope. It’s a bad look. And it’s an even worse look if the bishop turns out to be guilty.
So I’m happy that the pope apologized.
And I note this: It should not (but will) be lost on the people who have spent the last five years shrieking that the “dictator pope” “refuses to listen to critics” that he instantly listened to a reasonable critic. If they were not malice-filled harridans who just constantly screamed at the pope about everything he says and does, they would probably discover that he’d listen to them too. But since he knows that all he has to do is have a pulse to earn their rancor, malice, panic, and contempt, he does what any sensible person does with implacable enemies: he tunes them out.
My take on this is that it is a fairly classic case of a person’s gifts being badly used. The man is a Jesuit whose training and background has ordered him toward a) expecting obedience from subordinates and b) defending perceived underdogs from perceived bullies. For most of his pontificate, those gifts have served him extraordinarily well in his mission, which is easily summarized as “He has preached good news to the poor”. They have allowed him to stand up to the endless shrieking complaints about every piddly thing he says and does, and above all, to stand up to Reactionary Holocaust Deniers, the “Francis is a Gaia worshipper” corporate enemies of the Church’s teaching on the environment, the FOX news mouthbreathers who fear his teaching on our duty to the poor and the refugee, to face down the lie that he is a Communist, and to shrug off the motley assortment of Ann Barnhardts, 1 Peter 5, Liesite, Verrecchio kooks and liars who perpetually claim he is gay, or is murdering dubia cardinals, or is “Stalin’s Pope, or who are screeching that he is trying to destroy the Church, the prolife movement, the family or just All That is Good and Holy.
The problem was, those skills don’t serve you when you snap at reporters speaking on behalf of a country traumatized by sexual abuse, because now you are talking to victims, not bullies. John Paul II discovered something similar when he moved from confronting Commies to victims attacking Maciel, who turned out to be a monster. I repeat, I have no clue if the bishop Francis is defending is guilty or not. As Francis is an honest man and says he has seen no evidence of his guilt, I take him at his word. He should not have called the guy’s accusers “slanderers”, but if thinks there’s no evidence against him, I’m in no position to rebut him. My assumption is that the evidence will come out if it’s there.
All of which is to say, I have no doubt that Francis is a very good pope and a very good man. But like every pope, good and bad, all the way back to Peter, it is quite possible for him to both speak the truth and, now and then, deserve to hear “Get behind me, Satan”. It is to his great credit that when Cardinal O’Malley, like St. Paul before him, rebuked this Peter, he saw the justice of it, humbled himself like the obvious humble man he is, and apologized.
I am deeply grateful such a Pope, as I am deeply grateful for his great predecessors who have reigned in my lifetime.