Like many lifelong Catholics, I recently hit the boiling point with regards to our current Pontiff. Pope Francis never misses an opportunity to, in the harshest of terms, condemn capitalism, the demonstrable successes of western nations, and the virtues of individual liberty. At the same time, he has a nasty habit of praising some of the planet's worst systems and nations.
In the span of a few decades, we went from a Pope who teamed with Reagan to defeat the Soviet Union, to a Pope who embraces the classist financial rhetoric of our old enemies. This, of course, has made him a darling of the normally religion-averse left who’ve abandoned decades of Catholic mockery in order to portray Francis as a font of economic, environmental, and geo-political wisdom.
Back in 2015, I'd heard enough of what Pope Francis had to say, and I wrote a piece indicating that I had no intention of supporting an organization that was moving in the direction he wanted to go. I was immediately accused of turning my back on God, Jesus, and my fellow Catholics.
That was never the case. There are great people in the church, there are excellent local parishes, and there are wonderful priests out there who disagree with the current Pope's attitude but are unwilling to voice their concerns.
As I said at the time:
“I’m not interested in being part of a group which is trending both anti-capitalist and anti-West. I’m also not inclined to ally myself with Priests, Cardinals, and Bishops who are unwilling to speak their minds. This isn’t a rejection of faith, or of Jesus, or of God. I’m not turning my back on the Bible or its teachings. I’m simply acknowledging that, until it corrects its course, a socialist Pope sites atop an organization that's heading down a path I can't - and won't - follow.”
I took a lot of flak over that piece, but I've been feeling pretty good about it ever since. The Pope has only become more extreme in his views, the Priests, Cardinals, and Bishops are still silent about internal disagreements over his rejection of traditional dogma, and Rome's politics are still decidedly anti-West. In short, things have gotten worse, not better.
Last week, the report chronicling horrific child sexual abuses perpetrated by clergy in Pennsylvania was yet another straw on an already demolished camel's back. Here we had grotesque confirmation that the "few bad apples" argument was completely bogus, and the church has known that for at least 70 years. In light of the report, their already disgusting practices of hiding abuse, shuffling priests away from prosecution, and issuing hush-money payouts were rendered all the more horrifying. But at least the report afforded the Pope to, finally, do something with which no one could disagree.
He had been given a chance to come out, guns blazing, and demand a course-correction so massive, and so blatant, that no sane person would be able to find fault with it. He could offer genuine solutions. He could promise excommunication, assistance with prosecutions, and an internal cleansing that would leave no stone unturned. He could have offered the names of currently unknown priests who deserve to be exposed for their crimes. He could demand the immediate, voluntary, and complete release of all evidence of such abuses, not just in the U.S. but all over the world.
He didn't do that. On Monday, Pope Francis issued a 2,000-word letter that offers virtually nothing we haven't heard before.
As he says:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26). These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons. Crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike. Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated. The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.”
If you read the whole thing, you'll see some lip service paid to aiding in judicial measures but, for the most part, he’s discussing a cultural conversion within the church. That’s a step in the right direction, but it sounds like the same "penance without teeth" we've seen for decades. Praying for forgiveness is fine, but forgiveness doesn't mean a lack of consequences. If you can find it in your heart, you can forgive a murderer. That doesn't mean the murderer shouldn't be in jail, nor does it mean that a global system which actively hides murderers should be allowed to escape public scrutiny through the continuation of feckless self-regulation.
If the church is genuinely sorry, that’s super. But “creating a culture” and acknowledging “shame and repentance” isn’t going to cut it in terms of a response.
While some sections of the Pope's missive do feel genuinely contrite, there are other lines that seem woefully out of touch and out of place. At one point he suggests most of the 1,000 accusers experienced crimes that "belong to the past" and at another he once again interjects his socialist tendencies, bemoaning "the thirst for power and possessions." He incorporates literally none of the clear-cut fire-and-brimstone he regularly lobs at western nations, but this was included? The very fact that these ideas found their way into a discussion of how the church is handling thousands of abuse cases - in just one state - is honestly shocking.
At a time when religion is already on the wane, it’s impossible to overstate the damage the Pennsylvania report has caused. The Vatican’s hypocrisy is a poison that has targeted faith with deadlier precision that an army of atheists ever could, and it strikes at the very heart of Catholicism at the exact moment when millennials are wandering away from God.
It’s time for the Pope to consider that his organization has already damaged itself, possibly irreversibly, through a long history of blame-shifting word salads and empty promises. What really "belongs to the past" is the inaction, the indifference, and the mealy-mouthed, half-hearted, platitudes.
If the church seeks to regain the trust of those who have turned their backs, it needs to be wholly transparent, and unflinchingly resolute, in an effort to expose and purge the monsters within its ranks.