Martin E. Marty
Holy Week in the Western Christian calendar is a time for Christians to confess their sins, ask for forgiveness, and seek to amend their lives. A billion believers will be doing all that in the five days ahead. Some may do it in their churches, some in other places of their choosing, and more in their own heads and hearts.
Leaders of many different churches are encouraging their fellow-believers to ask God and other humans for forgiveness. One of these leaders made headlines this week because of his extraordinary role, gifts, status, character, and celebrity. Thus: “Pope Takes Responsibility for Priests’ Abuse Scandal” (New York Times, April 11) and “Pope Asks Forgiveness for Priest Abuse Cases” (Reuters, April 11).
Predictably and understandably, leaders of organizations protesting the ways of bishops and others who fall far short of atoning acts and becoming accountable, made headlines of their own. They dismiss the Pope’s words as mere words, and keep their suspicions high. Their cause deserves attention, but the Pope has to be heard first. What astounds is the way in which he addressed the topic.
We have heard the language of many bishops and other leaders whose scripts are vetted, if not written, by diocesan attorneys, which means that few took them seriously. We have also heard many abusers who, along with other miscreants, whisper that they “made mistakes.” (One wishes that “I made a mistake” could be banished from serious records: apologies for “mistakes” are meaningless.)
The Pope did not say he made mistakes, though he knows he makes them. Refreshingly, he used the word “evil” for the perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and he talked of his personal responsibility for the way the church handled the cases. In other words, he spoke in terms of commitment, and not mere reportage.
He will be tested by parents of priest-abused children, adults who were once victims, and all the agencies who represent children—abused or not—in the church. Listen: “I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil. . . to personally ask for forgiveness.” At last we are getting classic, non-bureaucratic, non-managerial confession and language of resolve.
Sightings has rarely addressed this subject, for a number of reasons. First, for non-Roman Catholics to point fingers can obscure their own churches’ flaws. (The week of the Pope’s confession I received word from our local Lutheran bishop about radical action against a pastor who broke his marital vows and sexually misused women in the church.)
Other reasons: Catholics who are helping set their house in order are more credible and helpful than non-Catholics would be in helping bring about a better future. Pope Francis took major first steps with his personal word, spoken informally and without script, and he will be busy for the rest of his pontificate with following through.
Can one legitimately speak, as does the Pope, of one’s personal guilt in an instance like this, where others notably sinned?
Those who understand Catholic theology or, for that matter, biblical theology recognize that they can and should. In the Hebrew Scriptures, recalled by Jews last week, the whole community (=tribe? family?) suffered when individuals in it were errant. The New Testament speaks of believers sharing life in the “Body of Christ,’ the church. When one suffers, all suffer. When one has reason to rejoice, “the many” can rejoice and join in supportive action.
For the Pope, all this is more than a catechism lesson: it’s life.
Povoledo, Elisabetta. “Pope Takes Responsibility in Priests’ Abuse Scandal." New York Times, April 11, 2014, Europe. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/12/world/europe/pope-takes-responsibility-in-priests-abuse-scandal.html?partner=rss&emc=rss.
O’Leary, Naomi. “Pope asks forgiveness for ‘evil’ of child abuse by priests.” Reuters, April 11, 2014, Vatican City. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/11/us-pope-abuse-idUSBREA3A0UR20140411.
Image Credit: Jeffy Bruno / Compfight.com
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.