The Pope and the Step Too Far

There’s an Op-ed in the Times today by John Allen about Ratzinger’s place in the pedophilia scandals: “Nobody at the Vatican did more to confront abuse than the future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.” Given the nature of the charges, I’m loathe to say anything without looking at this quite a bit more. (It is notable how this is seen in Europe as a great crisis for the Pope, but it’s not much of a conversation thus far in the U.S.) But one can say that Allen goes a bit too far that somehow the pope was someone braving the tide of history around him and thus should be congratulated for his role. Invariably there was bound to be an article like this, but then you end up with quite unCatholic paragraphs like this:

What we are left with are two distinct views of the scandal. The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church’s decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.

“Those who understand”–what a classic phrase for ethical relativists. Why not just say “everyone was doing it”? Or “he was just following orders?” Also, why not confront that common surmise is that the Pope reacted only once the “glacial pace” was being outpaced by public outrage–and his “new course” was reaction less to moral duty than public relations? I raise this because as the crisis deepens in the coming weeks, we’ll see this strange dynamic at work: writers like Allen will have to suggest (implicitly)–the glacial pace that no one expects in the face of our moral duties–that the structure of the church was rotten to its core in order to begin to absolve the current Pope.  I don’t have much to say about the particular cases involved in the current crisis and Ratzinger’s own responsibility, but I do know what “responsibility” means and it isn’t the case that one can claim one was good simply since one wasn’t the worst of the bunch. Hopefully, we’ll see writers on this who do much better.


    1. I’m trying to be circumspect in the way that I talk about this issue in particular. I teach at a Catholic university and was raised Catholic—my father almost became a priest himself… Since I don’t want to get into a minute back-and-forth with people about the facts of the matter at issue in the diocese of Munich about events that were years ago and about events no so many years ago at all, I think it’s best to watch what kind of defenses are put forth, since responses that offer defenses like the one I mentioned clearly are non-starters.

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