Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI; drawing by John Springs

Charges and countercharges are swirling around the Catholic Church. Newspaper articles have raised questions about how much Pope Benedict XVI knew about particular cases of alleged abuse by priests and the ways in which he himself dealt with abusers. No one can predict what will happen as more cases come to light and more victims tell their stories. But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and remembering that Benedict is probably the greatest scholar to rule the Church since Innocent III, the brilliant jurist who served from 1198 to 1216. He knows how to wield all the tools of historical research and theological and exegetical argument. No one has studied the development and meaning of the Catholic liturgy with more care and precision, or performs Mass more beautifully. His rich sense of the value of tradition—and the way it develops over time—will likely determine his response to the current crisis.

The Pope’s thinking about the Church and its relation to the faithful emerges clearly in his eloquent apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, issued in 2007, in which he specified the rules for celebrating the Tridentine (Latin) Mass. There he explains that

the sacred liturgy, celebrated according to the Roman use, enriched not only the faith and piety but also the culture of many peoples. It is known, in fact, that the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and made their piety bear fruit.

The Church brings the means of devotion to its people—even to its saints.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, the present pope served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office). In this capacity he maintained a strict eye on the orthodoxy of Catholic theologians. He showed notable severity toward Leonardo Boff and other representatives of Latin American Liberation Theology. Among many other duties, he also oversaw the papacy’s dealings with priests accused of sexual abuse. As prefect he cultivated a fierce clarity about what is, and what is not, Catholic doctrine, and what distinguishes Catholicism from other religions and other forms of Christianity.

The Pope is capable of showing equal clarity when dealing with scandalous violations of the rules that govern priestly conduct. For years, accusations of abusing teenage boys swirled around Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a special favorite of John Paul II. His privileged position, and wads of cash, kept him safe. In 2004, however, then Cardinal Ratzinger reopened an investigation of Maciel and ordered a Vatican official to interview Legionaries and alleged victims of abuse worldwide. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “asked” Maciel “to retire to a private life of penance and prayer, giving up any form of public ministry.” (In late March, the Legion of Christ acknowledged in an unusual public statement that Father Maciel “had fathered a daughter in the context of a prolonged and stable relationship with a woman, and committed other grave acts.”)

Under pressure in recent weeks, the Pope has confessed in general that the Church made grave errors, and should “do penance” to address its “sins.” He has also clarified the procedures for reporting accused sexual abusers to the police authorities. More important, he has now made clear that he grasps something of what abuse means for its victims—that abuse destroys a child’s world. On April 17, he traveled to Malta to meet with alleged victims of abuse, and was reportedly tearful in this private encounter, experiencing “shame and sorrow” over what “the victims and their families suffered.” He assured them, according to a Vatican statement, that the Church “is doing and will continue to do all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future.”

Those who want more—who want emotional public scenes of reconciliation with former victims and a clear, detailed accounting—are not likely to find satisfaction. The Pope seems to have seen priestly abuse of children, for a long time, as an American problem, rather than the general one it clearly is. He still seems to regard journalistic discussions of it as part of a broad, deliberate attack on the Church, a line that his surrogates and some outside defenders have made their own.

At first, he responded to accusations defensively, like many long-serving officers in powerful established institutions whose members wear uniforms and live, in some ways, outside the normal social world—think of the armed forces or the police. At bay, as he is now, he has found it hard to accept the simple wisdom that any competent public relations consultant would offer: cover-ups do even more damage than the crimes they are meant to conceal. Until his visit to Malta and the statements that followed, he turned his spikes outward, as hedgehogs do.


That stiffly protective attitude toward the institution helps to explain some of the Pope’s past conduct—such as the masterly inactivity with which he greeted pleas from the Oakland Diocese to defrock a priest who

had been sentenced in 1978 to three years’ probation after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of lewd conduct for tying up and molesting two young boys in a San Francisco Bay area church rectory.

Ratzinger’s office met a long series of urgent requests from the United States with every known bureaucratic delaying tactic, from a claim to have lost the dossier to a Latin letter in which the cardinal, after four years, explained the need for further study and the harm that might be done to the “Universal Church” by releasing so young a priest from his vows. One wonders what exactly was said to Bishop Cummins of Oakland when he visited the Vatican in September 1983.

But that is no reason for Catholics—or non-Catholic admirers of the Church, like the present writer—to despair, especially in view of the statements in late April. Over the centuries, the central institutions of the Church have often worked in counterproductive ways, emphasizing the powers and prerogatives of the institution over the spiritual life of the faithful. Again and again, Catholics have proved astonishingly resilient and inventive, and have come forward to offer what the hierarchical Church was not providing. Under Innocent III, the Curia, intent on its rights and revenues and deeply engaged in politics, became a well-oiled judicial machine that could efficiently handle the litigants who flocked to Rome from all over Europe. It showed less concern for tending to the poor and sick who were crowding into Europe’s rapidly growing industrial and trading cities.

But when Francis of Assisi founded an order of men who were willing to give up all they had and minister to the urban poor, and Dominic founded a second one of men dedicated to preaching the truth and rooting out heresies, Innocent III gave both of them vital encouragement. Three centuries later, between 1534 and 1549, a very different pope, the politician and aesthete Paul III, offered warm support when Ignatius Loyola arrived in Rome with a few tattered followers and a plan to preach to former Catholics in Protestant lands and to non-Christians overseas, and when Saint Angela Merici created a new form of religious life for women.

It seems unlikely that Benedict is the man to transform the Church, so that it freely and frankly confronts what many priests have done to the children in their charge, and what many of their superiors did to conceal their crimes. Still less does it seem likely that he will remake the Church into an institution that not only worships in an orderly, beautiful, and theologically clear way, but also ministers to the world as it is now. But he is a great scholar, with a mind as crisp and deep as Innocent’s. He knows that the Church, whatever its resources, needs its saints, and has often found them far outside the Curia. History matters to the Pope, and that gives some reason to hope that he is not looking for another Dominic, since he himself has played that role so effectively, and that he too will recognize the Francis or the Angela Merici of our time when he or she appears before him.

—April 28, 2010

This Issue

May 27, 2010