The most perceptive comment on the recent Vatican confab to address the American priest sex scandal was an editorial cartoon by Dana Summers in the Orlando Sentinel. The first frame features an aged John Paul II opposite a gathering of cardinals who whisper among themselves that the pontiff "looks so frail." In the next frame, the same bishops are blown over like bowling pins by the megaphonic voice of a slightly more animated Pope reminding them that "IT'S A CRIME!"
Indeed, John Paul II's brief harangue left little wiggle room for what he thought about the cause of the extraordinary meeting.
"The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; 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," he said to the cardinals.
Further, the Pope advised that the American hierarchy should be concerned "above all else, with the spiritual good of souls. People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young" (emphases mine).
It was a message that resonated. USA Today, America's real newspaper of record, ran an above-the-fold cover story Wednesday with the headline "Abuse by Priests is 'a crime,' pope says," and similar headlines reverberated throughout the American press. The implication was that the Vatican is finally dropping the other shoe.
In the days that followed, however, the cardinals picked that shoe up and tried to shove it into their mouths. First, they distanced themselves from early talk of a "one strike" policy, preferring instead to reserve "special processes" (read "immediate expulsion from the priesthood") for the "notorious" abusers. Then they called for a wacky Day of Reparation, in which the whole of the American church would demonstrate remorse for the wrongs that arguably happened with the cardinals' and bishops' tacit approval.
This last bit was too much for rising conservative Catholic journalist Kathy Shaidle, who denounced the Day of Reparation as "obviously a cynical PR ploy." She called collective guilt "a trendy modern notion" that can't be squared with the words of Christ on the subject of the treatment of children: "It would be better if a millstone were tied around [the abuser's] neck and he were thrown into the sea" (from the gospel of Luke, chapter 17).
"Implicitly," said Shaidle, "someone has to stay dry. And do the tying. I'm delighted to volunteer..."
Shaidle's words -- and she is far from an isolated voice on this issue -- signal a new militancy on the part of the Catholic faithful. Their deferential habits, the argument runs, may have avoided some scandal in the past, but it also allowed administrators such as Boston's Cardinal Law to visit untold suffering upon many innocent victims.
Though his reaction to the scandal has been slow in coming, and though he didn't go far enough for many Catholics -- removing Cardinal Law, for instance -- John Paul II has embraced the criticisms of the American laity. It needs to be understood that administration has never been the pontiff's strong suit. Rather, his strength lies in charismatic leadership and moral suasion. We saw this when, upon his election to the papacy, he challenged the Soviet Union, and outlasted it. We saw this also in his patient but forceful breaking of liberation theology in Latin America. Though there is often a lag between words and actions, the Pope has proved that he can move the Church and the world.
I mention this dynamic because the Pope has articulated a vision for the priesthood that will bump up against what the American hierarchy is comfortable with. He wants a priesthood conservative (even judgmental) in social mores, celibate and bent on advancing the faith at full throttle. One of the least remarked-upon lines of his recent address hoped for a "purification" of the Church in reaction to the crisis: "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 vision, and this spirit, are likely to survive John Paul II in the selection of the next bishop of Rome, as the faithful in the regions that are experiencing the fastest church growth -- South America, Africa, Asia -- are most likely to share this vision. My favorite bon mot from Philip Jenkins newest book, The Next Christendom, explains why "the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church [the Vatican] are so very conservative: they can count."
Compared to some other Western clusters of bishops, the American conference isn't completely out to lunch. Most American priests are decent enough chaps, as far as that goes. They've pulled back from some of the peacemongering excesses of the 1980s and, like the Pope, they've made their peace with the market. They're even, often too quietly, pro-life. But the Pope's double-barreled Catholicism often strikes them as a bit much. Witness the less than flattering portraits that are often offered of the Pope's right hand, Cardinal Ratzinger, to the press. Their collective vision of American priests -- at least the American-born priests -- would usher in a kinder gentler Catholicism.
The contortions that allow these two visions to co-exist cannot be sustained. Eventually, something will have to budge, and I'm betting it won't be the chair of St. Peter.