…at poping, that is. Ross Douthat, the non-ridiculous Catholic on the Times columnist roster, makes an important point that can’t be said often enough: though John Paul II was by far the more charismatic figure, Benedict XVI will likely be remembered as the better pope. Excerpt:
So the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, and the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up. This pattern extends to other fraught issues that the last pope tended to avoid — the debasement of the Catholic liturgy, or the rise of Islam in once-Christian Europe. And it extends to the caliber of the church’s bishops, where Benedict’s appointments are widely viewed as an improvement over the choices John Paul made. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the most forthright ecclesiastical responses to the abuse scandal have come from friends and protégés of the current pope.
Has Benedict done enough to clean house and show contrition? Alas, no. Has his Vatican responded to the latest swirl of scandal with retrenchment, resentment, and an un-Christian dose of self-pity? Absolutely. Can this pontiff regain the kind of trust and admiration, for himself and for his office, that John Paul II enjoyed? Not a chance.
But as unlikely as it seems today, Benedict may yet deserve to be remembered as the better pope.
Try to imagine what would be happening today if a healthy, vigorous John Paul II were sitting on the Throne of Peter today, dealing with this latest crisis. We know what we’d get from the Pope and his inner circle: very little except more denial. But the public reaction would, I think, be much different. It’s easy to attack Pope Ratzinger; he’s nowhere near the rock star that Pope Wojtyla was, he’s German (it’s still shamefully easy to smear all Germans with the Nazi stereotype), he’s known to be an orthodox Catholic who takes doctrinal integrity and Church discipline more seriously than his predecessor did — something that’s very much to the good, given how standards in the institutional church had gone to the dogs over the past few decades. Indeed, I think one reason why so many orthodox Catholics have been so quick to defend the Pope in this, even to what I think is an unreasonable degree, is because he is rightly seen as the competent administrator who was going to clean up the messes John Paul left. You cannot look at the disgusting scandal with the Legionaries of Christ that John Paul let fester, and that Cardinal Ratzinger moved to clean up, even before their protector John Paul had died, without grasping that we are dealing with a very different — and much better, in this regard — pontiff.
Despite being an easy target for unjust treatment by critics — and I say this as someone who doesn’t think Benedict is going nearly as far as he must to deal with the “bishop problem” — there is a sense in which people who want to see actual repentance and reform in the Church over the child sex abuse scandal, instead of show trials and theater, should be pleased by the fact that the current Pope is not the charismatic figure that John Paul was. It makes it easier to see him as a man, not a celebrity “demigod” figure. Most Catholics have an enormous reverence for the person of the Pope, and this is appropriate. But JP2 was hero-worshipped to an unhealthy degree.
A personal story: In the summer of 2002, reeling from the psychological shock and trauma of 9/11, and the child sex abuse scandal, which began breaking in January of that year, with the Geoghan trial in Boston, I was having enormous trouble sleeping because of residual anger and anxiety. Lots of tooth-grinding in my sleep, that sort of thing. My wife urged me to go talk to a Catholic psychotherapist about my inner turmoil. So I did. My third visit occurred after I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying that John Paul had failed the American church. Excerpt:
When considering how this intolerable state came to pass, all roads lead to Rome. In Catholic teaching, the chief responsibilities of a bishop, including the Bishop of Rome, are to teach, sanctify and govern. John Paul has taught and sanctified zealously; his evangelical travels have inspired millions, and his writings about the nobility of human love are a treasure for all mankind.
Yet this pope has largely failed to use the disciplinary authority of his office. This statement will surprise those who see the pope as authoritarian, but it is true.
In serious matters, such as priestly sexual misconduct, abuses in the liturgy, corruption in seminary life, and the rejection of church teaching by Catholic universities and hospitals, the pope has explicitly recognized the crisis, given clear directions for its correction–and done nothing when his orders were ignored or undercut by subordinates in this country. Over the last 30 years, faithful Catholics have found a variety of ways to make known to the Holy See their urgent concern, but most often to no avail.
Even if it has been possible to believe that John Paul had been ignorant of the rape of children, the worst of all scandals, that is obviously no longer the case. The situation of Catholics in Boston is enough to make one weep. Cardinal Bernard Law claims to have offered his resignation, only to have it refused. Rome allows him to remain in office, though his mendacity and corruption are there for all the world to see, and the credibility of the church in Boston is destroyed.
Who keeps him there, and why? Who retains in office a host of American bishops defiled by their indifference to the victims of depraved priests under their authority? Who could remove them with a stroke of his pen? It is hard to judge John Paul, because we don’t know what he’s had to fight behind the scenes. Still, I find it impossible any longer to give him the benefit of every doubt, as is the custom of many papal loyalists. John Paul must bear partial responsibility for the catastrophe that has befallen us.
When I sat down in the chair across from the therapist (who, I should point out, was at the time affiliated in some way with the now-disgraced Legionaries of Christ, favorites of John Paul, and reported bribers of his inner circle), he tore into me for this column. He yelled at me that I was “a new Luther,” that I was going to lose my family if I persisted in criticizing the Holy Father, that I was under demonic influence, and so forth. I argued back. There’s nothing quite like your therapist — a man who took you on as a patient in part because you were seeking help dealing with anger at Church officials over child sex abuse — literally screaming at you that you’re in danger of going to hell for having published a criticism of the Pope. Needless to say, that was the last time I saw that therapist, or any therapist. That shocking experience taught me how pathological John Paul II’s cult of personality could be, even among intelligent people who ought to have known better. While it pains me to see the current pope subject to cheap attacks by petty controversialists, in the end the absence of a personality cult is one reason why it’s better that Ratzinger and not Wojtyla is in charge during this crisis.
UPDATE: Just to clarify the point, I believe that prior to 2002, Ratzinger was part of the problem, not the solution. It has been reliably reported that the 2002 US scandals pierced the fog of denial that he and others in Rome had been living in. But you can’t relive the past, and I don’t think people should be surprised if more documents surfaced showing Card. Ratzinger taking a much softer line on pedophile priests in the past than he would today. If Ratzinger defenders are depending on the current pope never being linkable in any serious way to softballing a pederast priest, in the routine manner of the bishops for so many years, they are going to be doomed to making narrow legalistic arguments that will fail in the court of public opinion (which is the only one that counts). Far better for Pope Benedict to give a major speech admitting forthrightly to grave errors in the past, personally and corporately, and pledging real reform. Of course he can’t give that speech unless he actually plans to undertake some sort of house-cleaning among the bishops to show that his are not just words. Maybe he can’t bring himself to do that. Maybe he really can’t do that, in any practical sense (which would raise interesting questions about papal authority in practice, versus in theory). My point, though, is humility and repentance would be a strength to the Pope in this crisis. I think any competent public relations expert would tell him that. But the Vatican’s PR sense is fifth-rate. You may believe that it’s beneath the Holy See to worry about PR, but you would be very, very wrong. That’s not how power and authority works in the world today. I’ll write more about this later, when I discuss James Davison Hunter’s book, and why all this matters a lot to me personally, even though I’m no longer a Catholic.
UPDATE: Please do go read this short Michael Sean Winters essay from America magazine’s blog, criticizing the media for shoddy reporting in the Kiesle matter. It’s the best thing I’ve seen from that side on all this.