In Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday,” released on March 21, he makes short reference to the sexual abuse scandals rocking the Church in the United States. He attributes these horrendous acts to “the mystery of iniquity” or sin. For many commentators, this just doesn’t seem to be enough. Some have suggested that the Pope just doesn’t “get it” and that his response falls short. To the contrary, the Pope has spoken to the issue, from the theological perspective, as one who really does get it and goes to the heart of the problem.
The few paragraphs offered by the Pope come in the context of a reflection on the Sacrament of Penance. This sacrament presumes a world view of flawed human beings prone to sin because of disordered passions and weakened judgments due to imperfect reason. The Pope knows as a theologian and a mystic that the root of all evil is personal sin, which harms the perpetrator and the victim as well as the structures that enable such actions to occur. For John Paul to identify the cause of the scandals does not signal inaction but instead a call for all the spiritual resources of the Church – which is really what Christ has bequeathed to Her – to combat this serious offense against God’s law and God’s people. The call to holiness and the use of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Penance, are the spiritual weapons needed to forge this battle against evil and reform the damaged institution.
It would have been out of place for the Pope to comment as a psychologist, sociologist or organizational theorist. This does not mean that the insights of these professions are not important to him. These disciplines will be used in reassessing priestly formation, the requirement of celibacy and the Church’s present hierarchical composition and structure. John Paul has often quoted from and taken counsel from the social sciences and has encouraged their wisdom to be used in guiding ecclesiastical life and discipline. Yet, he reminds us that psychology’s popular perceptions as to cause and effect or politically correct agendas cannot trump what is divinely revealed as the authentic teaching of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. To allow this as a quick fix in a time of crisis would contradict the very nature of the Church.
I have no doubt that the present crisis, borne of the sinful and criminal actions on the part of Fr. John Geoghan and other priests like him, as well as the gross negligence of their superiors in reassigning these priests to other parishes, is a watershed moment for the Catholic Church in America. For the Pope to confront these actions as he did was more profound than the untrained eye may realize. For him to place this message in his Holy Thursday Address to Priests, which traditionally commemorates the institution of the Eucharist – which, in Catholic theology, is the source and summit of all the Church’s actions and, by its nature, intimately united to the priesthood – is indeed very serious business and not business as usual. Thus, the Pope strongly challenged the establishment through a Vatican technique known as “Romanita,” a term which means subtly or diplomatically getting a point across. The point in this case is that we must change because we have not been faithful to our calling.
The Pope is smart enough to know that comparing statistics of abuse by priests with those of other professional groups and classifying sex offenders by categories such as pedophile and ephebophile are secondary concerns and perhaps diversionary tactics. Instead, he calls for the community founded to conquer sin to strive for holiness, which will alone provide the clarity needed to reform the Church and the clergy in the Third Millennium. John Paul knows that it is only when the power of the Holy Spirit comes into the minds and hearts of believers that real renewal takes place. It is the Church’s story throughout history. Having lived through the horrors of fascism and communism and having viewed with heartache countless other horrors, John Paul knows evil when he sees it. He deals with it on the best terms he knows – fidelity to Christ and the Gospel’s call to holiness of life. He knows that, only in this way, will true reform come about. His past success in confronting the evil of communism, effectively changing the world, should give us confidence that John Paul really does “get it” and is hard at work to right the problem.
For those who claim to be disappointed in the Pope’s message, Good Friday’s simple statement – Christ’s dying to conquer sin – surely must be a let-down, too. But for those who remain faithful, the whole world changes on Easter Sunday! From our knowledge of John Paul, his faith expects nothing less than new life for his battered Church. After his remarks last week, the Church surely can never be the same.