The Failure of the Pope’s ‘Letter To the People of God’

In response to a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing decades of abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis wrote a recent pastoral letter “to the people of God” in which he again acknowledges the sins of the church and asks all the faithful to take part in “the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need.” It is a response that few have found adequate.

Not a year has gone by in my entire adult life when I have not been involved in some way with the care and supervision of young people. I have been a youth pastor, a classroom teacher, a pre-collegiate program coordinator, and a private school administrator. I have been a witness at the deposition of an individual accused of sexual abuse, and I have been involved at every level with crafting policies and procedures to keep anything like that from ever happening to any child under my care. At every point along the way it has been my job to communicate to my volunteers and staff the importance of protecting the safety and integrity of children, and to make sure parents were assured of the same.

Reading the letter of His Holiness, I think I understand why it landed so weakly and pathetically, like a slab of beef hitting a linoleum floor. It fails to communicate that the church understands the seriousness of the situation and thus that the children it takes into its care are protected. Consider how it opens:

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26).  These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.

This letter is long and formal. The pope is at his best when he speaks briefly and plainly. At those times, he seems to identify with the people. The length and tone of this letter suggests he is identifying more with the priests. It is as if the pope is gripped by a subconscious defensiveness. This comes across in subtle ways. Consider the following example (with emphasis added):

With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives.

He speaks of the failures of the entire “ecclesial community,” not the failures of the priesthood. He says, “we were not where we should have been,” not “we are not where we need to be.” He says, “we did not act in a timely manner,” when he should have said, “we have not acted…” This simple change would have brought the crimes closer to the present. Instead, the pope writes as if they are long gone.

Even Pope Francis’s call for “solidarity” seems to deflect blame. What is needed is accountability. While the church must stand together, it can only do so by holding those in charge of it to account. The priesthood needs to earn the trust of the laity before it has a right to ask for “solidarity.” Thus the pope asks for patience where none is deserved.

I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children…We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.

A clause that starts with the word “yet” sometimes negates or lessens the impact of the clause that came before it. It is as if the pope is saying, “I know we have delayed. Sorry ’bout that.” The phrasing betrays a lack of commitment to prevent future crimes against children. When it comes to the protection of “the least of these,” there can be no delay.

Some might read my critique and say that I am focused on semantics, and while they would have a point if I were quibbling with a few turns of phrase here or there, the entire document reads this way. An overall consistency of language is generally indicative of the mindset of the writer. In other words, the fact that the pope’s language throughout the letter seems defensive means the pope is probably being defensive. Thus his assurances fail to reassure because the head of the Catholic Church is insufficiently mournful.

The pope misses the mark when he draws his letter to a close by calling “the entire holy faithful People of God to” penance, prayer, and fasting. While the faithful need to do those things, on this topic, the priesthood needs to do them more. How much more powerful would it have been if the pope had written instead, “We have been too slow to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children. Therefore, I command all priest, clerics, and consecrated persons to engage in a forty-day period of intense penance, prayer, and fasting. We will never truly understand the pain we have caused, but let us pray that God may soften our hardened hearts, pierce our souls, and drive us to more immediate action to protect the little ones in our care.”

Such language would not only signal to the faithful that the church will protect their children, but it will signal to the priesthood that the church must take action. Indeed, if the Roman Catholic Church is to survive this century, it has no choice.

Photo credit:  Catholic Church (England and Wales)

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