On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world as the first pope in over 700 years to resign. The time of Pope Francis has been a tempest of controversy.
I think most readers will agree that it seems much longer than a mere five years ago, but what Catholic could forget the events of February and March, 2013? The story first broke on February 11 that year. It was a Monday. Pope Benedict XVI had summoned a minor consistory of the cardinal-residents of Rome. The official reason was the announcement of three new saints.
The names of the three beati were read by Cardinal Angelo Amati. Then Pope Benedict, looking tired and worn, stunned the world as he spoke in Latin from a prepared text:
“Ingravescente aetate non iam aptas esse ad munus Petrinum aeque administrandum…”
“I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”
I had just returned that afternoon from my job in the prison library when a prisoner knocked on my door. “Can a pope quit?” he asked. “No,” came my tired reply. “Well,” he said, “I think this one just did.” I quickly turned on FOX News, and like so many of you, my heart was stabbed with sorrow. Even in exile, I pondered what could have brought Pope Benedict XVI to this point, and what it will mean for the Church.
If you spent any time at all with the rabid round-the-clock television news media back then, it seemed that the haters of the Catholic Church had won as Benedict collapsed under a relentless assault. If the gates of hell had not yet prevailed against the Church, they were certainly giving it their all.
In hindsight, there were foreshadows of Benedict’s thoughts, but only the most observant Vatican watchers might have noticed, and for the most part, they remained in silent denial. In 2010, Pope Benedict was extensively interviewed by journalist Peter Seewald for a book entitled Light of the World (Ignatius 2010). Readers of the book might have noted this statement of Benedict:
“If a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances an obligation, to resign” (Pope Benedict XVI).
The last pope to have done so was Pope Saint Celestine V in the year 1294. In 2009, a year before publication of Light of the World, Pope Benedict visited the Cathedral in L’Aquila, Italy. While there, he placed a white stole on Pope Celestine’s glass coffin, a gesture given new meaning four years later when Benedict followed Celestine to become only the second pope in over 700 years to resign.
WHEN IN ROME, DON’T DO AS THE ROMANS DO
The media coverage was an absolute circus. Over successive weeks I felt an obligation to use my small voice at These Stone Walls to address this story in saner terms. In the five weeks leading up to the Conclave of 2013 and the earliest days of the papacy of Pope Francis, I wrote five weekly posts from my prison cell:
- February 27, 2013 – Pope Benedict XVI: The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love
- March 6, 2013 – Sede Vacante: The Sky is not Falling on the Catholic Church
- March 13, 2013 (The Day of White Smoke) – On the Successor of Peter Amid the Wind and the Waves
- March 20, 2013 – Pope Francis Can Call the West Out of the Sandbox of Self-Absorption
- March 27, 2013 (Holy Week) – Pope Francis, the Pride of Mockery, and the Mockery of Pride
Of course, I do not expect anyone to read all those posts anew, but writing them with limited resources and no Internet access at all made them more like editorials than blow by blow accounts of what was happening in Rome. This was all unfolding during Lent in 2013, and we were facing a daily media onslaught of wild speculation and agenda-driven reporting.
I had no idea when I wrote the above posts that so many readers would later thank me for bringing sanity and clarity to a dark, tumultuous time of uncertainty and doubt. Since then, I have written a total of eighteen posts about the almost hidden Pope Emeritus and the pontificate of Pope Francis.
Some readers who vehemently disagree with some of the actions and positions of Francis have chided me for defending him. But I don’t think I have defended him. He doesn’t need my defense and wouldn’t even notice if I had one. Instead, I have defended the truth of what was actually happening in the Church at the time Benedict stepped down, and of how a reformer like Francis came to the Chair of Peter. That does not mean that I agree, or even see his reforms as reforms.
I wrote about the “why” of what happened in what I think is an important post to consider when you find yourself irked by the positions and public persona of this pope. If you read only one other post today, make it “Pope Francis and the Lost Sheep of a Lonely Revolution.”
It tells the story of what brought Benedict to that point, and in the end, it was just as I characterized it in my first post on that short list above. Some in the media speculated that a Wikileaks scandal was the ultimate cause of Benedict’s decision. It resulted when Pope Benedict’s butler stole and released confidential documents but, in the end, this had little to do with his resignation. It was, as I described it then, a result of “The Sacrifices of a Father’s Love.”
THE WINDS OF CHANGE
In his eye-opening book, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (Henry Holt 2014) British religious affairs expert and journalist, Austen Ivereigh got to the heart of why Pope Benedict really stepped down. It was an event that occurred one year earlier in March of 2012, and my heart went out to Benedict when I read it:
“…at the end of a fleeting trip to Mexico and Cuba, [Benedict] realized that he could not go on. He had stumbled on the steps of the cathedral of Leon in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, and that night he hit his head on the sink as he fumbled his way to the bathroom in his hotel in the city. The cut was not deep, and few knew because his skullcap covered it, but, as often happens to old people after such falls, it brought a sudden cognizance of his frailty” (The Great Reformer, p 344).
And as Austen Ivereigh also points out, “the Vatican was at this time imploding.” Headlines were full of the “Vatileaks” scandal described above. The public airing of confidential documents pilfered from the elderly Pope’s private desk conveyed an image of “an ineffectual pope sitting powerlessly atop a Vatican riven by Borgia-style factionalism and rivalry” (Ivereigh, p 343).
The Vatican was under siege by factions within its ranks.
The documents were stolen by Pope Benedict’s otherwise faithful butler, Paolo Gabriele, and leaked for the same stated reason for which he stole them – a desperate action moved ultimately by fidelity to the Church. A lot of people in Rome shared his frustration with the stifled need for reform blocked by endless powerful factions in Rome – especially in the financial scandals in the Vatican bank. Austen Ivereigh characterized the time:
“Looking back, it is hard not to see in [Benedict’s] decision an exhausted European Church standing back to allow the vigorous Church of Latin America to step forward.” (p. 344)
I’m not so sure that I agree that the above quote was what Pope Benedict had in mind when he made what had to be the most momentous decision of his life. But I do know that the local sensus fidelium – the mind of the truly faithful in Rome – had some sympathy for the desperate act of the Pope’s butler. Who knows? Centuries from now, his actions may be seen as inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I know that sounds unlikely, but judging this point in Church history is impossible in a Church that sees its place in history in terms of millennia. Awhile back, I wrote a post entitled “Michelangelo and the Hand of God: Scandal at the Vatican.” Its point was that one of the most corrupt and tumultuous periods in the history of the Church – the Renaissance papacy of the 15th and 16th Centuries – was a time in the Church, says historian Barbara Tuchman, “when the values of this world replaced those of the hereafter.”
From our vantage point in history, the corruption and scandal of that time also produced much of the art and architecture that we today treasure as the centerpieces of our expression of faith – including Saint Peter’s Basilica itself. Wherever you stand on the directions and decisions of Pope Francis, history supports the truth that the Holy Spirit has at times used our flawed human nature for the same ends in which He has used our gifts.
In “Pope Francis and the Lost Sheep of a Lonely Revolution,” I described that the Conclave of 2013 was carried out in an unprecedented intrusion of minute-by-minute media coverage and coverage by social media. The pressure for a reformer was great.
I must tell you that, like many of you, I have misgivings and distrust about some of the direction in which this Pope seems to be taking the Church. I think most readers know that I share a deep respect for Tradition. Most readers would conclude, and rightly so, that I have felt thoroughly betrayed by liberal factions in both Church and state. My reasons for that sense of betrayal are many and complex, and I will write about them soon.
But there has been a betrayal from the voices of Tradition as well. It’s a point that I know may alienate some readers, but it must be said. Among some conservative voices in the Church, there has been a huge controversy about the Pope’s pastoral exhortation, Amoris Laetitia.
The concern is that its pastoral approach to reception of the Eucharist for some divorced and remarried Catholics undermines the sacramental bond of Matrimony and the meaning of Communion. I share this concern for the integrity of the Sacraments and the integrity of the Church’s mandate to teach and personify the ideal – even when human nature doesn’t always live up to ideals. When has it ever?
THE “HERESY” OF POPE FRANCIS
But for me, the Traditionalist voices pick and choose these battles selectively. They remained largely silent over the last sixteen years since the great public priesthood scandal of 2002. Using scandal as a means to an end, factional agendas in the Church have demanded broad changes in the way the Church perceives priests. These agendas have greatly undermined and reinterpreted the Sacrament of Holy Orders and all but destroyed the paternal bond between bishops and priests.
Where were these voices of Sacramental concern when all due process for accused priests was thrown out the window to pacify lawyers and insurance companies and a corrupt, scandal-hungry news media? None of them are ever pacified.
Where were the voices of sacramental concern when it was the Sacrament of Holy Orders that was being discredited, undermined and cheapened? Where were the defenders of the Sacramental bond when priests were being described as self-employed contractors as some bishops did to fend off insurance liability in 2002?
Where have these defenders of Tradition been while bishops dismissed priests from the clerical state with no corroboration, no defense, little due process, and no appeal, and often based on mere accusations that were sometimes 30, 40, 50 years old?
The Sacrament of Holy Orders suddenly became dispensable in response to the current orthodoxy of political correctness which demands that no one must ever question a claim of victimhood. I must tell you that this attitude toward accused priests has invaded every aspect of American Catholicism, and like all things American, it is spreading throughout the world.
Sometimes, even with the most practiced politicians, it is a spontaneous reaction rather than one filtered through handlers that most clearly reflects justice in the human heart. I believe I saw justice, wisdom, and courage in the heart of Pope Francis when he let loose a spontaneous reply to a question for which he was later dressed down by his own team.
It happened during a visit to Chile amid the controversy of a bishop widely condemned for tolerating, even witnessing, acts of sexual abuse. When asked why he had not removed that bishop, Pope Francis spontaneously replied, “Show me some evidence.”
For the victim culture that fuels the #MeToo movement, the Pope had committed cultural heresy. The next day, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley issued a rare public rebuke, clarifying that the Church must not question any claim of victimhood. Within a day, the Pope’s spontaneous words were filtered through the new orthodoxy of political correctness and he fell into line with its doctrinal infallibility.
A recent issue of Our Sunday Visitor has an otherwise fine article by Brian Fraga entitled, “Abuse Survivors and the Value of Belief” (OSV Feb. 25-Mar. 3, 2018). It was marred, however by an agenda-driven quote from Mary Jane Doerr, Director of the Archdiocese of Chicago Office for the Protection of Children and Young People:
“Doerr said that, generally, less than four percent of allegations are not true. ‘Children lie to get out of trouble, not into trouble…’ She added an insight she once heard from a mental health professional: ‘Children lie every day about sexual abuse. They lie to protect the abuser.’”
Mary Jane Doerr, and, I hope, Brian Fraga, should know that this in no way characterizes the story of Catholic priests accused of abuse. Seventy percent of the accusations have come, not from children, but from adults who stand to gain huge financial settlements for making such claims. That in itself should be cause for caution and investigation. Finding the truth does not re-victimize real victims, only the fraudulent ones.
My accuser is not a child. At the time of my trial, he was a 27-year-old man with a criminal history of fraud, forgery, assault, and drug charges. He and his three adult brothers all conjured their memories of abuse in the same week. They together amassed nearly $700,000 in unquestioned settlements, and bragged to friends who have since gone on record that they “got one over on the Catholic Church!”
Noted Boston Civil Rights lawyer Harvey Silverglate wrote in “Fleecing the Shepherds” in 2004 that the Church should not capitulate to significant numbers of claims brought only after it became clear that the Church would settle financially, and with no corroboration. The initial, spontaneous reaction of Pope Francis to the matter of Bishop Barros in Chile was the only just one, and the only truly Catholic one.
It is heresy, today, to even suggest the notion of due process and a presumption of innocence when a man stands accused of abuse. By no means do I want to compare Pope Francis with President Donald Trump, but both committed the same spontaneous heresy against political correctness at roughly the same time.
After a media flurry about dismissing a White House staff member accused of domestic abuse, the American President also had one of these lucid moments of spontaneous justice not yet filtered by handlers concerned for its political correctness. In one of his famous, sometimes too blunt tweets, President Donald Trump expressed a truth that I hope Pope Francis will keep in mind:
“Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused. Life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as due process?” (President Donald Trump, Feb. 10, 2018).
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: This post is an example of a topic that many in the Church and the media want to suppress. You would serve the causes of truth and justice by sharing it on social media. You may also like these related posts: