A Response to Time Magazine’s Cover Story on the Pope

It would probably be too much to ask that Time magazine run a cover story on the bold statements and concrete actions that Pope Benedict has taken to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis. No self-respecting journalistic enterprise wants to be separated from the pack when it comes to covering a controversial news story, which means it must always follow the herd, even when the evidence points elsewhere.

But the Time magazine June 7 cover story is a particularly frustrating example of a media enterprise playing to prejudices with half-truths even to the point of severely misrepresenting the story.

“Why Being Pope Means Never having To Say You’re Sorry: The sex abuse scandal and the limits of atonement” is the provocative headline splashed across the cover of Time and over an image of the back of Pope Benedict’s mitered head.

Lest we have any doubts where this is heading, the lead sentence of the story manages to drag in the Inquisition: “How do you atone for something terrible, like the Inquisition?”

The gist of the story is that Cardinal Ratzinger wasn’t so hot on apologizing for the Inquisition, and he isn’t really doing enough to apologize for the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Time magazine wants the Pope to offer a personal mea culpa, particularly for his handling of a case in Germany when he was archbishop of Munich, and more generally for the fact that he “was very much part of a system that had badly underestimated and in some cases enabled the rot of clergy abuse that spread through the church in the past half-century.”

The story, written by Jeff Israely (reporting from Rome) and Howard Chua-Eoan, while appearing to be about the sexual abuse crisis, is really a subtly written assault on the papacy itself, making the following case:

  1. For the past two centuries, the Vatican has centralized power and authority over the Church, including the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.
  2. This centralization is how it has managed to control its docile flock even as it has lost temporal power.
  3. At stake in the sexual abuse crisis is the prestige and power of the papacy and the Church’s own authority.
  4. There needs to be some sort of acceptance of personal guilt on the part of Pope Benedict for his actions, despite all he has done to address the crisis.
  5. Such an admission of guilt and apology would call into question, however, the “theological impregnability of the papacy” and hasten other changes in the Church that will diminish its size and authority.

The provocative headline of the article  — “Why Being Pope Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry” — makes more sense in this narrative because it yokes the claim of infallibility to the current crisis, making the papacy the center of the abuse story.

The fact that the Pope has apologized repeatedly thus becomes irrelevant for Time magazine — despite the obvious contradiction of the headline — because the apologies are just a public relations strategy to head off a greater challenge.

In laying out this political analysis of the last 200 years of Church history, the article also serves to bolster the case of those lawyers seeking damages from the Vatican for sexual abuse cases that occurred in the United States. Since the Vatican was so centralized and domineering, the question of its liability for the handling of individual local cases becomes more plausible.

Thus, after recounting the many positive steps the Pope has taken, Time still concludes that he is hedging: “He assigned wrongdoing not to the church but to its servants.” This, the magazine suggests, is to protect the Church from legal liability. “The consequences of sin are subject to divine salvation, but the consequences of crime lie within the purview of human judges and entail courts of law, prison, public humiliation and the loss of property.”

Time quotes an Irish theologian: “This very centralized church [tightly managed out of Rome] has only really been the case since the end of the 19th century.”Here it ties everything back to the First Vatican Council and its statement on papal infallibility. In keeping with the heavy editorializing of the entire story, it sums up Vatican I as a “stage-managed” council that used a “suspect majority of bishops” to approve infallibility, thus allowing the Roman Curia to become “ever more centralized and domineering.”

While the article dismisses “a purportedly impromptu crowd of 150,000 people” who showed up to cheer the Pope one Sunday (although no one claims it was impromptu), it lauds plans for a “Reformation Day” in October being organized by victims of clergy sexual abuse too “pressure the Vatican to act” and to “take back” the Church.

The story gets so many details wrong that defenders of Pope Benedict in some ways don’t know where to start. Infallibility has nothing to do with the story of sexual abuse. The centralization of authority is more stereotype than truth, as witnessed by the diversity of Catholic voices, the independent actions of many bishops, the rise of the national bishops’ conferences and on and on. If anything, what is frustrating to many Catholics and puzzling to non-Catholics who hold a simplistic view of papal authority is that the Pope cannot just rule by arbitrary decree. (It is ironic that this same misunderstanding permeates the controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII and the struggle with Nazism.)

The real story is this: Pope Benedict is aware of the scale and the scope of the crisis worldwide. He has taken decisive actions (such as the removal of the founder of the Legion of Christ). He has intervened strongly in Ireland, with a remarkably honest and plain-spoken letter to the Irish Catholics, a visitation of top prelates to study the root causes of the crisis and how it was handled, the acceptance of several resignations by bishops, and a high-level meeting with Irish prelates at the Vatican. He has quite clearly led the way in encouraging local bishops’ conferences to address their scandals head on, and he has laid out the language for understanding the crisis: Endorsing the search for truth, calling for penance, not blaming the media or enemies outside the Church, but pointing to the enemies within.

Mistakes have been made. Grievous mistakes. Mistakes were made by bishops, by priests, by psychiatrists and police and judges and yes, even by well-intentioned and grief-stricken relatives. The cost of these mistakes is very high, and the Church will have to pay these costs. But efforts to make Pope Benedict part of the problem rather than part of the solution would be an even bigger mistake, for it is he who is providing real leadership on this issue. It is Benedict who is refusing to circle the wagons and understands the spiritual as well as the canonical and civil issues at stake. It is Benedict who is championing the necessary reform and renewal that the scandals demand.

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  • Cooky642

    This makes me both sad and angry. I hadn’t seen the cover of TIME because I’ve read enough to know who and what they are. Unfortunately, this issue attacking Pope Benedict XVI and the Church only reinforces my unfavorable perception. I understand that they don’t “get it” in any way, shape, or form. They are secularists! They are NOT Catholic! Many of them don’t believe in God at all! They simply have no mental construct for understanding that the Church is not a group, an institution, but a Person! (And lets not get into that Person being 3 Persons: the Trinity only confuses them.) I wish there was some EASY way to open their minds and pour in a little relevance, but without the Gift of Faith it just isn’t going to happen.

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  • noelfitz

    Pope |Benedict XVI need to be congratulated and thanmksed for his actions against sex abuse. While JP II was Pope Fr Maciel was protectged by the Church up to its highest levels, but as soon as JP’s influenvcecd waned, Cardinal Ratzinger, even befor he was Pope acted decisivelly. Carfinal Ratzinger refused to be bribes, while many others close to JP II accepted bribes, including thsSecretary of State, Cardinal Sodano (http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=2749).

  • noelfitz

    Sorry. My post was sent before corrections. Here is the corrected version.

    Pope Benedict XVI deserves to be congratulated and thanked for his actions against sex abuse. While JP II was Pope Fr Maciel was protected by the Church up to its highest levels, but as soon as JP’s influence waned, Cardinal Ratzinger, even before he was Pope, acted decisively. Cardinal Ratzinger refused to be bribed, while many others close to JP II, accepted bribes, including the Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano (http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=2749).

  • Joe DeVet

    Memo to TIME: How’s the circulation trend goin’ for ya?

    The serious point: long after TIME magazine is consigned to the dustbin of history, the Church and its leader on earth, Christ’s vicar, will be here, continuing to advance the mission of salvation. It will be doing so imperfectly and sinfully, as always, because we are sinners–but it will be doing so nonetheless.

  • While the article was obviously slanted. The conclusion was rather interesting I thought. And perhaps TIME maybe right given the number of people who claim to be Catholics who don’t even attend Mass on Sunday, much less follow the Church teachings on contraception, marriage or abortion. The final paragraph from the article states,

    “One vision for the future echoes from the past. A conservative website is circulating a prophecy uttered by a 42-year-old Catholic theologian in 1969, amid the turmoil of that year of radicalism and barricades. The priest envisioned a post-imperial papacy, shorn of wealth and pretenses of earthly power. “From today’s crisis, a church will emerge tomorrow that will have lost a great deal,” he said on German radio. “She will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning. She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor. Because of the smaller number of her followers, she will lose many of her privileges in society. Contrary to what has happened until now, she will present herself much more as a community of volunteers … As a small community, she will demand much more from the initiative of each of her members and she will certainly also acknowledge new forms of ministry and will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs … It will make her poor and a church of the little people … All this will require time. The process will be slow and painful.” The theologian was Joseph Ratzinger. And his vision from 40 years ago may now unfold in ways he could never have imagined.”

    Jesus once wondered will there be any followers left when he returns. I have often wondered how that could be possible and yet it seems that those true believers are becoming fewer and fewer each passing decade. While it seems hard to comprehend on one level, it may be what Jesus saw in our future as a Church.