2016-06-30
A Papal statement is a carefully crafted document, intentionally written in an ambiguous style that addresses both practical and spiritual issues. But each phrase is full of meaning -- political, spiritual, and historic -- if you know how to read it. While we can't, of course, know what was in the Pope's mind as he wrote this speech, based on his past statements and statements of other church officials, here is what we think the Pope really meant to say. Beliefnet editors offer, in brackets, our annotated version.

Dear Brothers,

Let me assure you first of all that I greatly appreciate the effort you are making to keep the Holy See, and me personally, informed regarding the complex and difficult situation which has arisen in your country in recent months. I am confident that your discussions here will bear much fruit for the good of the Catholic people of the United States. You have come to the house of the successor of Peter, whose task it is to confirm his brother bishops in faith and love, and to unite them around Christ in the service of God's people. The door of this house is always open to you. All the more so when your communities are in distress. [The Pope's real message: Even though the Vatican may look like a fortress, he does care about you and what's going on in the American Church.]

Like you, I too have been deeply grieved by the fact that priests and religious, whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives in the sight of God, have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young. Because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter. [He now recognizes that this scandal has already done great damage to the Church. It has injured its credibility because lay Catholics believe the Bishops themselves have covered up the problem.]


The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society [In the 1980s, the Church usually spoke of this as a "great scandal," not as a crime. The Pope's acknowledgement that this is crime, in civil terms, can be seen as a signal to Dioceses that they should cooperate with law enforcement authorities and prosecutors. This is a new emphasis for the Pope] ; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern. [It's interesting that he personally doesn't directly express remorse. He may be, ever so slightly, distancing himself and the Vatican from the scandal, trying to convey the sense that he is on the side of the aggrieved.]

It is true that a generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem and also at times the advice of clinical experts led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong. [He's saying that early on in this crisis, the Church messed up because it didn't understand pedophilia and relied on psychologists who told us that pedophiles could be reformed. It should be noted, however, that victims often view this explanation as a hollow rationalization: Even though there was less knowledge about the nature of pedophilia, church officials did know molesting children was wrong.] You are now working to establish more reliable criteria to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated. [Though the statement is ostensibly addressed to the bishops, it is actually designed to reassure the public that the Church is taking proactive steps.]

At the same time, even while recognizing how indispensable these criteria are, we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person's soul and can work extraordinary change. [This is, in some ways, one of the most remarkable statements in his speech. The Pope is reiterating a commoly held view that these priests are sinful, which means God can change them if they ask for forgiveness, as opposed to being irreversibly ill and therefore likely to repeat the behavior.]

Neither should we forget the immense spiritual, human and social good that the vast majority of priests and religious in the United States have done and are still doing. The Catholic church in your country has always promoted human and Christian values with great vigor and generosity, in a way that has helped to consolidate all that is noble in the American people. [Message: People shouldn't get caught up in the media frenzy. Even though America is often decadent, there are noble aspects of the American culture, and we Catholics are the ones who have most effectively championed those more wholesome values.]

A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which any intellectually honest critic will recognize. [Yes, the Church is imperfect, he is saying, but the media, the public and the Catholic reform movement should still recognize its great services to humanity and not imply that the entire institution is without value today.]

To the Catholic communities in the United States, to their Pastors and members, to the men and women religious, to teachers in Catholic universities and schools, to American missionaries in all parts of the world, go the wholehearted thanks of the entire Catholic church and the personal thanks of the bishop of Rome. [Those who have stuck with us, know that I personally appreciate what you've done.]

The abuse of the young is a grave symptom of a crisis affecting not only the church but society as a whole. [It's not just the Catholic Church that is in trouble.] It is a deep-seated crisis of sexual morality [In the context of the pope's earlier pastoral letters and encyclicals on sexuality, he probably has in mind the results of the sexual revolution and the advent of the birth control pill. So many problems, he believes, stem from the fact that people now view sex as something largely for pleasure instead of creating life. Once that shift took place in the 1960s, it was only a matter of time before people indulged their sexual desires], even of human relationships, and its prime victims are the family and the young. [The problem, in other words, goes beyond sexual abuse and includes divorce and the breakdown of the family].

In addressing the problem of abuse with clarity and determination, the church will help society to understand and deal with the crisis in its midst. [In this crisis, there is an opportunity: The Catholic Church can and should lead the way in reversing the damaging effects of the sexual revolution.]

It must be absolutely clear to the Catholic faithful, and to the wider community, that bishops and superiors are concerned, above all else, with the spiritual good of souls. [The hierarchy must be more concerned with protecting children and aiding victims than with minimizing bad press or advancing their episcopal careers.] People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality [Message: He's not going to back down on homosexuality. The term "fullness Catholic truth" refers to the current body of Catholic teaching, which specifically calls homosexuality "disordered"], a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.

We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. [This could be read a few ways. It might refer to the need to purge gay priests. Or it could be a signal that the Pope wants implicated Bishops and Cardinals to resign. Or it could be purely metaphorical.]

Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (Romans 5:20). So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier church. [Many Catholics have noted that in earlier times when corruption was widespread in the church--the 12th century, for example--great spiritual leaders like St. Francis of Assisi rose up and got the Church back on track. The pope is saying that a Spirit-led response to the scandals may lead to a more effective, more spiritually pure church.]

God alone is the source of holiness, and it is to him above all that we must turn for forgiveness, for healing and for the grace to meet this challenge with uncompromising courage [Conservative critics have complained that the Bishops have not had the guts to take strong action] and harmony of purpose. [The Cardinals should stop fighting with each other over this.] Like the good shepherd of last Sunday's Gospel, pastors must go among their priests and people as men who inspire deep trust and lead them to restful waters (Psalms 22:2).

I beg the Lord to give the bishops of the United States the strength to build their response to the present crisis upon the solid foundations of faith and upon genuine pastoral charity for the victims, as well as for the priests and the entire Catholic community in your country. And I ask Catholics to stay close to their priests and bishops [don't give up on the priests], and to support them with their prayers at this difficult time.

The peace of the risen Christ be with you!

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