Thursday, May 29, 2008


LEE PENN takes a closer look at some of the statements made by Benedict XVI during his first visit to the U.S. as Pope, including his up-front approach to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, which got mixed reviews.

The Christian Challenge


May, 2008

Receiving a warm and rousing welcome wherever he went, Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States from April 15-20, speaking and praying at the White House, the United Nations, and Ground Zero in New York City, as well as to various assemblies of Roman Catholic clergy and laity.

Of the number of topics he addressed during his visit – which included Truth, freedom, social reform, the UN, immigration, religious freedom, relativism, secularism, Christian unity and inter-religious dialogue - he was most noted for openly and pastorally confronting the American Church’s clergy sexual abuse scandal. Critics, however, observed that U.S. bishops who enabled clergy abuse to go on have largely suffered no ill consequences for their actions, and that Benedict asserts that these same prelates now have the problem under control. (More on this later in the story.).

This was Benedict’s first visit to the U.S. as Pope, although he had been to the country five times while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II.

During his American sojourn, the Pope offered two open-air Masses, one at Washington Nationals Park, and one at Yankee Stadium, for Catholic laity. He also addressed congregations of bishops, priests, monks and nuns, Catholic educators, and seminarians and other youths from all U.S. dioceses at cathedrals in New York and Washington D.C.

Additionally, in New York Benedict visited a Jewish synagogue, and went to a Catholic parish to address a gathering of leaders from all major Christian churches. Though invited to attend this April 18 meeting, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori absented herself, pleading a prior commitment to bless a new center in the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. (Reports maintained that she made this commitment in April 2007, before the papal travel schedule was announced in November 2007.) Instead, The Episcopal Church (TEC) was represented at the April 18 encounter by Bishop Christopher Epting, TEC’s ecumenical officer, and New York Bishop Mark Sisk.

Tens of thousands of Catholics competed, schemed, and scalped for tickets to the papal services; as one New Yorker told The Wall Street Journal, “I don’t care what it costs ... To a real Catholic, it’s the closest thing to God you’re going to get.”

After the visit, a priest of the Legionaries of Christ wrote in the National Catholic Register that: “From the welcoming ceremony at the White House to the Youth Rally in New York, Benedict XVI drew tremendous, overflowing crowds. And their size was matched by their enthusiasm. The thousands of priests and religious who gathered with him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral gushed with three separate standing ovations and deafening applause that went on, and on, and on. The U.N. General Assembly gave him a standing ovation. The 20,000 young people who squeezed onto the rally lawn at Dunwoodie cheered so loudly and so often that the elderly Pope spent more time grinning than talking.”

The Pope’s arrival April 15 at Andrews Air Force Base, where hundreds of Catholic students gave him a rock star’s welcome, also marked the first time that President Bush had gone to the base to meet any foreign head of state upon his arrival. The President explained to the U.S. cardinals who were present, “How could I not come out to meet him? He’s the greatest spiritual leader in the whole world.”

The next day, Benedict’s 81st birthday, was mostly spent at the White House, where the pontiff was honored with a 21-gun salute and a crowd of 9,000 invited guests on the South Lawn – the largest such gathering of the Bush presidency. Among the guests, seated with the dignitaries, was conservative Dallas Episcopal Bishop James Stanton.

IN HIS U.S. HOMILIES, Benedict linked freedom to social obligation and the quest for truth. At the White House, he said, “The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good, and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate.”

He also restated the Catholic Church’s commitment to social reform and the creation of a “fraternal society” for all: “The Church, for her part, wishes to contribute to building a world ever more worthy of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God. … Faith also gives us the strength to respond to our high calling and to hope that inspires us to work for an ever more just and fraternal society.”

In his address to the Catholic bishops, Benedict took a pro-immigration stance, and emphasized the need for Catholics to live in accord with Church teaching seven days a week: “Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death?” he asked, for example. “Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted,” the pontiff said.

At the Catholic University of America in Washington, the Pope addressed the 200 presidents of Catholic universities and colleges, and the superintendents of Catholic schools from 195 dioceses. Benedict reminded the assembled educators that faith and reason are compatible, and urged them to be faithful to the church teaching in all aspects of school life, and not to use “the principle of academic freedom” to justify contradictions to that teaching.

“Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice,” Benedict said. “This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church’s Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution’s life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.” (If this principle were applied, the wayward practices of some Catholic universities, such as offering contraceptives to students, or hosting performances of The Vagina Monologues, would have to be ended.)

In his meeting with interfaith leaders at Washington’s John Paul II Cultural Center, the Pope called for continued inter-religious dialogue that would “inspire all people to ponder the deeper questions of their origin and destiny. May the followers of all religions stand together in defending and promoting life and religious freedom everywhere.”

He suggested that, “in our attempt to discover points of commonality, perhaps we have shied away from the responsibility to discuss our differences with calmness and clarity. While always uniting our hearts and minds in the call for peace, we must also listen attentively to the voice of truth. In this way, our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation,” he said. “Confronted with these deeper questions concerning the origin and destiny of mankind, Christianity proposes Jesus of Nazareth.”

At the UN headquarters, the Pope called for respect for religious freedom – not just freedom to worship, but also freedom for socio-political action by the religious:

“The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order.”

At the end of his address to the General Assembly, Benedict restated Catholic support for the UN’s mission, saying that “the Church is happy to be associated with the activity of this distinguished organization, charged with the responsibility of promoting peace and good will throughout the earth.”

But he cautioned against the creation of “new rights,” and said that such claims should be met by discernment between good and evil.

During the ecumenical Christian meeting –the one that TEC’s Presiding Bishop skipped due to a prior commitment to the Diocese of Utah – the Pope called for Christian unity on the basis of “sound teaching.” From the viewpoint of conservative Episcopalians, his remarks were highly relevant to the situation in TEC.

In an apparent rebuke of departures from traditional Christian faith, order, and discipline in various denominations, Benedict said, “Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called ‘prophetic actions’ that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition. Communities consequently give up the attempt to act as a unified body, choosing instead to function according to the idea of ‘local options.’” The result of this, he said, is “the splintering of Christian communities” and – for non-Christians – confusion about “the Gospel message itself.”

The Pope also denounced the dilution of the Gospel message by “a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is ‘objective’, relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling.”

Benedict also warned against the lure of relativism when he spoke to seminarians and other young Catholics. “Have you noticed how often the call for freedom is made without ever referring to the truth of the human person?…[A]nd in truth’s place – or better said its absence – an idea has spread which, in giving value to everything indiscriminately, claims to assure freedom and to liberate conscience. This we call relativism. But what purpose has a ‘freedom’ which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false or wrong? How many young people have been offered a hand which in the name of freedom or experience has led them to addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair and so tragically and sadly to the taking of their own life?

“Dear friends, truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust. In seeking truth we come to live by belief because ultimately truth is a person: Jesus Christ,” the pontiff declared.

Benedict then called upon the youth to follow “the example of the saints” and to cultivate “personal prayer and silence, liturgical prayer, charity in action,” and the pursuit of their God-given vocations.

In describing the arenas for “charity in action,” the Pope warned that “new injustices have arisen: some are complex and stem from the exploitation of the heart and manipulation of the mind; even our common habitat, the earth itself, groans under the weight of consumerist greed and irresponsible exploitation.”

-“Shame” Of Clergy Abuse Scandal-

On his final day in America, the Pope prayed at Ground Zero for healing and for peace, and then offered Mass at Yankee Stadium. The Pope gave thanks for the growth of the Catholic Church in the last 200 years in the U.S., and urged the faithful to bring their convictions to the public square, and thus to transform society

“Each day, throughout this land, you and so many of your neighbors pray to the Father in the Lord’s own words: ‘Thy Kingdom come’. … Praying fervently for the coming of the Kingdom also means being constantly alert for the signs of its presence, and working for its growth in every sector of society. It means facing the challenges of present and future with confidence in Christ’s victory and a commitment to extending his reign. It means not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal. It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness. It also means rejecting a false dichotomy between faith and political life…And this, dear friends, is the particular challenge which the Successor of Saint Peter sets before you today…Hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom in this land!”

In contrast to John Paul II, Benedict spoke explicitly and repeatedly of the “shame” and “great suffering” that the clergy abuse scandal has caused for the Roman Church. On April 17, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston escorted six abuse victims to a private meeting and prayer time with the Pope – a gesture that survivors had sought from Benedict’s predecessor, but never obtained. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), one of the prominent victims’ activist groups, said that this was “a positive first step on a very long road.”

During his flight from Rome to Washington on April 15, Benedict had told reporters, “It is a great suffering for the Church in the United States and for the Church in general, for me personally, that this could happen. If I read the history of these events, it is difficult for me to understand how it was possible for priests to fail in this way…I am ashamed and we will do everything possible to ensure that this does not happen in future.

“I think we have to act on three levels. The first is at the level of justice and the political level. I will not speak at this moment about homosexuality: this is another thing. We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry…Then there is a pastoral level. The victims will need healing and help and assistance and reconciliation: this is a big pastoral engagement and I know that the bishops and the priests and all Catholic people in the [U.S.] will do whatever possible to help.” The third level cited by Benedict was “a visitation of the seminaries…Only sound persons can be admitted to the priesthood.” It is “more important,” he said, “to have good priests than to have many priests.”

When Benedict addressed the assembly of American bishops on April 16 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he expressed “deep shame” over the “sexual abuse of minors,” describing this evil as “one of the countersigns to the Gospel of Life.” Nevertheless, he framed the scandal as a thing of the past, now being handled well by the bishops:

“Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior. As you strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs, you may be assured of the prayerful support of God’s people throughout the world. Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged. Responding to this situation has not been easy and, as the President of your Episcopal Conference has indicated, it was ‘sometimes very badly handled.’ Now that the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood, you have been able to adopt more focused remedial and disciplinary measures and to promote a safe environment that gives greater protection to young people…In this regard, your efforts to heal and protect are bearing great fruit not only for those directly under your pastoral care, but for all of society.”

In his first address to America’s Catholic laity, at Nationals Park on April 17, Benedict again expressed regret for “the sexual abuse of minors,” and called for the victims to be “given loving pastoral attention.” However, he assured his listeners that “great efforts have already been made to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation, and to ensure that children…can grow up in a safe environment. These efforts to protect children must continue… I ask you to love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do.”

On April 19, the third anniversary of his election to the papacy, Benedict led the Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral attended by over 3,000 priests, deacons and religious, at which he prayed for the “purification” and “healing” of the American Church. He urged his listeners to “cooperate with your bishops who continue to work effectively to resolve this issue.”

These apologies won applause for the Pope; as one NPR commentator said, “By saying sorry so openly and unequivocally, Pope Benedict’s confession and appeal for forgiveness has obviously rallied many Americans behind him and given millions of Christians a basic reminder of how true repentance can lead to a fresh start.”

However, Benedict, in addition to offering assurances that American bishops now have the problem under control, seemed to focus mainly on the issue of pedophilia, even though active homosexuality in the priesthood has been recognized as an equally serious matter. (A recent study sponsored by the U.S. Catholic Church showed that 81 percent of the abuse victims were male, and 53 percent of the victims were adolescents, not pre-pubescent children. As such, homosexual priests account for at least as much of the abuse as do pedophile priests.)

Fr. Thomas Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who has been an advocate for abuse victims since the 1980s, remains skeptical of the depth of Benedict’s change of heart. He said that the Pope “sidestepped the very hurtful, destructive reaction of a number of Vatican officials over the years. He sidestepped the responsibility of the papacy and the official Vatican reaction as well, and he certainly did not even get into the responsibility of the bishops in this country and other countries for enabling abusers, for lying about it, for re-victimizing the victims. He sidestepped that completely.”

Sources: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, The White House, Vatican web site, Catholic News Service, The Charleston Post and Courier, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, Episcopal Life, National Public Radio, National Catholic Register, Titus OneNine, Australian National Radio

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