It wasn't anything new, exactly, and a lot less than I had speculated he might do, but Pope Benedict's heartfelt words this morning before a sea of 15,000 priests in white albs in St Peter's Square was still pretty powerful stuff. Speaking at the close of the Year of Priests, on the 150th anniversary of the death of the Curé d'Ars, whose chalice he used for the consecration of the wine, he said:
"It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the 'enemy'; he would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world. And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the Sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light - particularly the abuse of the little ones. ... We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again; and that in admitting men to priestly ministry and in their formation we will do everything we can to weigh the authenticity of their vocation and make every effort to accompany priests along their journey".Advertisement
And he went on:
"Had the Year for Priests been a glorification of our individual human performance, it would have been ruined by these events. But for us what happened was precisely the opposite: we grew in gratitude for God's gift, a gift concealed in 'earthen vessels' which ever anew, even amid human weakness, makes His love concretely present in this world. So let us look upon all that happened as a summons to purification, as a task which we bring to the future and which makes us acknowledge and love all the more the great gift we have received from God. In this way, His gift becomes a commitment to respond to God's courage and humility by our own courage and our own humility".
Benedict XVI is developing a response to the clerical sex abuse which is essentially theological -- discerning its place in God's plan for the purification of the Church. Put simply, the growing awareness of the fragility of the human dimension of the priesthood (the broken vessels) should lead to a greater dependence on its divine dimension. And to the extent that the priesthood has become -- or is in the process of becoming -- less clerical, less "attached" , less about power than service, the clerical sex abuse crisis can be seen as part of Divine Providence -- the way God uses the devastation of sin as a chance for smashing idols and rebuilding on more secure foundations.
Obviously, that's not what the media have been interested in. The calls I have had today from journalists are about what specific actions the Pope appears to be promising. The rumoured "global policy" on abuse, which would effectively extend the US/UK guidelines to the universal Church, has not yet seen the light of day -- ad might never do so, because of the difficulty in legislating what bishops should do in democracies as well as failed or totalitarian states.
Catholics, as good citizens, are obliged to obey the law of their land; the Church’s own law demands it; and there is little point in Pope Benedict saying so. Instructing all the bishops of the world to report all abuse allegations to the police would not, in any case, guarantee that the allegations were acted on: in some countries of the world, sex abuse of minors is not a crime; in others, the police do not bother to act or require bribing to do so. It is a very “Anglo-Saxon” assumption that alerting the civil authorities results in swift and effective action. In some countries, a bishop handing the matter over to police would amount to washing his hands of the problem.
But the Pope can still issue a worldwide letter to all bishops insisting that abuse allegations always be acted on, by whatever means is most appropriate; and that inaction is never acceptable. Such a letter would lay siege to the mentality still prevalent in some Churches that the Church's reputation should come before the suffering of an individual victim. Yet the wording of such a letter would need careful crafting for it not to be misinterpreted by a western media which starts from the "Anglo-Saxon" assumption.
Whatever the difficulties, the Pope must continue to face them. He has promised action in the strongest possible terms -- to do "everything possible" to ensure abuse never recurs. It is a bold commitment, that meets the demands of the hour -- even if it is not yet clear how it will be delivered.