This post first appeared on the Catholic Herald website on 19 Feb, 2016.
The papal mid-air press conference has become an almost clichéd source of tension ever since Francis first grabbed a microphone at the back of a plane and started fielding questions.
These impromptu sessions have given us some of the most unguarded, most quoted, least prepared, sound bites of his pontificate. Yesterday was no exception, with the Pope taking the unprecedented step of calling out an individual politician for a specific policy. In much the same way that “Who am I to judge?” has become, in the public mind, the Franciscan policy on sexual mores, by calling Donald Trump “not a Christian” because of his immigration policy, Pope Francis has now made, whether he meant to or not, immigration the defining policy issue of his pontificate.
As is often the case with the Pope’s more eye-catching statements, it seems unlikely he will have predicted or intended the likely consequences of his turn of phrase; you can bet your house that American political debate and punditry will now regularly invoke the “Francis test” of Christianity.
Of course, Trump is a basket case, and his immigration policies, especially as they pertain to Latin America, show it. But by calling him “not a Christian” because he wants to build a wall, an intervention in the political process so personal that it is unprecedented, the Pope has unwittingly sent the message, which will be explicitly interpreted in the media, that Mexican immigration is a more pressing moral issue for the Catholic Church than is partial-birth abortion. And that will be a storm which could have been easily avoided.
Unfortunately, the Pope’s habit of providing the in-flight entertainment, while certainly good at generating headlines, plays to his greatest weakness; if you examine the thrust of what he says, he is not actually saying anything that controversial, but his ability to turn a phrase in front of a live microphone often distorts and hijacks the very message he is trying to convey.
While the Trump line will, no doubt, dominate the media reaction to Francis’s comments, it was his answers to a journalist about the ongoing issues of the child sex abuse scandals which I thought were rather more representative of the Pope’s measured thoughts on the matter, and they were all the more disappointing for it.
I have written before that there remains a real obstacle of understanding to the Church, as a hierarchy and institution, fully processing the lessons of the child sex abuse crisis and making the changes, legal and cultural, necessary to prevent such abominations in the future. Pope Francis, like many in the Curia, showed he is both aware of and engaged with the technical process of reform, highlighting in his answers the tireless, and largely unacknowledged, work for Cardinal Ratzinger and later Pope Benedict, and his own recent structural reforms of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Unfortunately, while he showed a decent engagement with the reform of the process for handling individual cases against individual clerics, when the Pope spoke about the case of a bishop who moves a priest whom they know or suspect of being a peadophile, the Pope called them, depending on your translation, either “irresponsible” or “reckless” and that the best thing they could do was present their resignation. Language like this will, rightly, enrage the victims of clerical sexual abuse, and it is a very sad illustration of the the Vatican’s often tone-deaf approach to dealing with these issues.
According the the reforms made by Pope Benedict, and Francis himself, such bishops are not “irresponsible”, they are criminally negligent; emphasis on the “criminally”. The best thing for them to do is not submit their resignations and be allowed to quietly disappear into retirement, but for them to be formally charged before the new tribunal at the CDF, erected by Francis, competent to hear abuse of office cases against bishops, and then be publicly deprived of their office.
Of course the victims of clerical abuse want change. And of course they want the bishops whose conduct allowed individual predictors to become systematic abusers to be removed. But by simply letting such bishops resign, the victims, and the whole public society of the Church, are denied the public vindication of justice which is essential to the process of healing and reform.
Child sexual abuse is the most vile of sins, and it is evil, as Pope Francis said. So too are the actions of those bishops who facilitate their crimes, sometimes over a period of years. The Church’s ultimate response to sin is always to announce the love and mercy of God, and this is no less the case with those who commit the most serious of sins. But these sins are also crimes, crimes which the Church has a legal and moral obligation to punish, and punish publicly, to redress the damage done the community and to justice.
The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has recently seen a number of its members publicly express their justified frustration at the pace of reform in the Curia and language like that used by the Pope yesterday is likely to only increase their frustration.
Until the Vatican, beginning with the Pope, acknowledges the essential demands of justice in these situations, and begins to speak as much of crimes as it does of sins, recognizing that public justice is an essential part of the corporate life of the Church, and not anathema to it, the real process of healing and forgiveness cannot begin.