I have a great deal of respect for our Holy Father, and as a Catholic and a priest I owe him (and give him) great deference – to him personally, not only to his office. But it’s quite legitimate to ask whether he truly understands the gravity of the situation into which the sex-abuse scandals and the consequent cover-up has placed the Church. Popes are only infallible when they teach definitively on faith or morals; when it comes to reading the “signs of the times,” they’re human just like the rest of us. Some people – Catholics included – believe he doesn’t appreciate how angry lay Catholics are; there have even been calls for his resignation, or claims that he’s downplaying or actually complicit in this mess.
That said, I took some solace in Pope Francis’s remarks to a gathering of young people in the Baltics last month. He seems to understand that things are going very, very badly for church leadership, at least with regard to young people’s perspectives. Here are a few things he said:
When we adults refuse to acknowledge some evident reality, you tell us frankly: ‘Can’t you see this?’ Some of you who are a bit more forthright might even say to us: ‘Don’t you see that nobody is listening to you any more, or believes what you have to say?’
He went on:
We ourselves need to be converted, we have to realize that in order to stand by your side we need to change many situations that, in the end, put you off.
This was in the context of the sex-abuse scandal. Referring to it directly, he said that young people –
…are upset by sexual and economic scandals that do not meet with clear condemnation, by our unpreparedness to really appreciate the lives and sensibilities of the young, and simply by the passive role we assign them. These are just a few of your complaints…
“Clear condemnation” goes at least part-way to the real issue, I think. But the “change [of] many situations” is the heart of the matter. I think the jury is still out on this.
On the positive side, Pope Francis acted decisively in the case of Archbishop McCarrick, ordering him to “a life of prayer and penance” while he awaits a canonical trial, and stripping him of his cardinal’s rank.
In the “What is he thinking?!” column is the apparent rejection (as I write) of the U.S. Bishops’ request for an Apostolic Visitation to investigate how Archbishop McCarrick was promoted and protected. A U.S. based investigation will likely not be able to access any evidence that the Vatican may possess, or query Vatican-based prelates who may potentially be involved. If this is the case, it’s unfortunate.
For the “wait and see” list, the Holy Father has called the worldwide heads of national bishops’ conferences to Rome for a meeting this coming February to address the crisis. What actions follow from that meeting will be evidence either for or against Pope Francis’s expressed need to “change many situations.”
So what are people like you and me supposed to do at this moment? First, don’t give up; our faith is in Christ, present in Word and Sacrament in the Church regardless of the quality of the leadership. Then, pray that the Holy Spirit will give church leaders wisdom and courage. (A priest I admire said once that a true spiritual life is supposed to give one “not ideas in the head, but steel in the spine.” Amen to that.) Third, recognize that there are still a lot of needy people around – hungry people, homeless people, refugees, sick and elderly people, and so many more. On care for these people, it’s clear that the Holy Father does indeed “get it.” He deserves to be backed when he speaks up for refugees, warns against indifference to poverty, reminds us of our duty to care for the environment, and calls every Catholic to show the mercy that God shows to us. Watch his actions on the abuse crisis, of course; but don’t lose the big picture.