The Pope’s focus is too narrow

Geraint Talfan Davies says Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter to his church in Ireland misjudges the public mood

You do not have to be inherently hostile to the Roman Catholic church’s emphasis on authority to argue that Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter ‘to the Catholics of Ireland’ grievously misjudges the public mood, and particularly his audience outside the church.

The letter feels like a letter from and to those within the church. Yet even understood in that way it misses the mark. It is true that the letter expresses ‘sincere sorrow’, ‘shame and remorse’, and that it acknowledges ‘sinful and criminal acts’ and the ‘inadequate response’ of the ecclesiastical authorities. However, taken in the round it is the predicament of the church that takes centre stage not the continuing pain of the abused and their families.

It is perfectly understandable that the Pope should address the question of the damage to the reputation of the institution itself. Yet, given that the letter was being awaited just as eagerly and nervously by victims and churchgoers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands and the United States, and that the Pope is the head of a church that claims universality, there was a pressing need for him to speak to several audiences at once. The pastoral letter does not succeed in that aim.

Instead, after the opening paragraphs, it sets out an extensive historical plea of mitigation, by reciting the contribution of the church both to Irish society and to Catholicism in general, and pleading in aid the difficulties of coping with the increasing secularisation of society. He says “there was a well-intentioned but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations”, and later refers to “a misplaced concern for the reputation of the church and the avoidance of scandal, resulting in failure to apply canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person”.

Even those who do not doubt the Pope’s sincerity in this matter, are likely to read “canonically irregular situations” as an offensive euphemism. At the same time, although they will agree that the tendency to avoid penal approaches was undoubtedly misguided, they will not be persuaded that the tendency was, in most cases, well-intentioned. Placing the interests of an institution above the interests of the individual and the requirements of the rule of law is not well-intentioned on any meaningful definition of the term.

More disturbing for its possibly pernicious impact is the continual stress in the letter on canon law, which contrasts with the letter’s more reticent injunction “to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence” [my italics].

Early in the letter Pope Benedict states that his intention is “to express my closeness to you, and to propose a path of healing, renewal and reparation”. There is much in what follows about healing and renewal, but, significantly, nothing about reparation, unless that is something that is intended to emerge from the planned Apostolic Visitation.

It would have been unrealistic to expect a pastoral letter from a Pope to read like a statement from an inquiring judge, let alone an angry government minister. But if the church is to retain moral authority, especially beyond its own adherents, then it must, in such moments of crisis, find a language to address secular society as well as its own members and priesthood. Secular society will struggle to interpret the Pope’s aspirations for “a church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity” in ways that give people confidence that the necessary scale of reform will be attempted. Those who were abused were citizens as well as members of a church.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

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