Benedict and the Scandal Redux

Last week, a new wrinkle seemed to appear in the conduct of Pope Benedict XVI vis-à-vis the sex abuse scandal.
Down in Paraguay, Bishop Fernando Lugo got himself elected president of the country in direct defiance of canon law. What is more, he is earnestly seeking to be relieved not merely of his office but of his clerical state. Benedict is mulling over whether to do this.
Now we return to the United States. Here in this country, various folk who have been urging for years that the pope could simply get rid of bishops with the “stroke of a pen” are naturally watching that situation and remarking on the seeming disconnect between Benedict’s treatment of Lugo compared with his treatment of American bishops who reassigned abusers. For instance, Rod Dreher at the Dallas Morning News writes:
The Pope has the power to reassign bishops — that’s what John Paul did to the troublesome Bp Gaillot, moving him to a titular see to get him out of his diocese — or, under grave conditions, to remove a bishop from the clerical state entirely. The question is not “can the Pope do this,” but “should he do this?” It is certainly possible for honest people to disagree, but let’s not pretend that it’s not his role to take strong measures to govern the Church when bishops get way out of line. If the pontiff moves against Bp Lugo (who is leaving Benedict little choice in the matter, frankly), but not lift a finger against a single American bishop, no matter how outrageous his conduct in the abuse scandal, that will send a message about priorities.
He continues, criticizing my contention that this conception of “stroke-of-a-pen governance” is not really paying attention to how both Benedict and John Paul II conceive of their office in relation to the bishops of the Church. He writes:
If Benedict goes through with this unusual move — which, let’s be clear, involves not only removing Bp Lugo from office, but from the clerical state entirely — what does this say about the argument often made by my friend Mark Shea to the effect that bishops exist in some special mystical state that the Pope shouldn’t threaten by merely removing them from office when they’ve failed spectacularly as shepherds?
Further, Dreher asks if Benedict would “be out of line to ‘fix’ the Lugo problem by laicizing him? Or if the pope does pull the trigger on Lugo (as John Paul pulled a somewhat different trigger on Bp. Gaillot), will Mark find a reason to praise it as an act of genius?”
Finally, in response to my questioning how he can reconcile the fact that his own communion is even more opposed to papal meddling in the autonomy of bishops than the Catholic communion is, Dreher responds:
This is easy. For one thing, I don’t know the precise canons here, but I am reasonably certain that the Orthodox have a procedure for deposing a bishop. For another, if Orthodoxy invested the same kind of power in a Metropolitan that Roman Catholicism does in the Pontiff, and the Pontiff tolerated the kinds of awful things from certain bishops that John Paul and Benedict (till now) have tolerated, I would be distressed. I would find it weird if Mark was perturbed that an Orthodox synod didn’t govern like its analogous body in Catholicism. What Mark is asking is along the lines of why I can believe that the laws of the United States are valid, but be distressed that the government of France won’t enforce the laws of France. It’s not a paradox, it’s a non sequitur.
These are all fair but inadequate responses to my points.
To begin with, it’s a straw man to say I have ever asserted that bishops exist in some special mystical state that the pope shouldn’t threaten by merely removing them from office when they’ve failed spectacularly as shepherds. I’d have a rough time arguing that, since — as I have repeatedly noted — the pope has removed bishops from their office.
With respect to the American situation, the “trigger” has usually been “active participation in the sin,” as near as I can see. So when Cardinal Law tries to resign repeatedly, John Paul II refuses the resignation — apparently because Law did not himself abuse boys but only reassigned priests who did. Same for other bishops (and not all did this, of course).
But when O’Connell and Symonds down in Palm Beach are found to have actually been molesting boys? They’re outta there like a shot.
That seems to have been John Paul II’s thinking. I don’t know what Benedict’s thinking is. However, given that he did not deliver that gust of cathartic rage and “read them the Riot Act” as some had hoped (any more than he started chewing out Bush on the White House lawn — another equally unrealistic expectation that issued from other quarters), my guess is that, yet again, he is not going to handle things with the stroke of a pen either.
If Benedict does follow John Paul II’s pattern and, say, Cardinal McCarrick is found to be guilty of Richard Sipes’s charges, I expect McCarrick will get sent down the ecclesial river (whatever that consists of) because he will have directly participated in the sin.
I don’t think canning (or not canning) Lugo will be an “act of genius.” Nor do I think John Paul II’s approach to the scandal was an “act of genius” either. I simply think it’s more or less what could be expected, since neither he nor Benedict seems to regard himself as being in charge of micromanaging the Church.
The basic problem for Dreher and other critics is that comparing Lugo to the American bishops is a case of apples and oranges. He is a bishop who is not only aiming to defy canon law but requesting and insisting on removal from office and laicization. He’s the president of a whole country begging the pope to interfere in his episcopal office. It’s not a big surprise that the pope is looking at the matter.
What is really remarkable is that, even then, with Lugo begging to be relieved of his vows, the pope is slow and reluctant to do so. Until the reason for that is thoroughly grasped, it is difficult to discuss the American situation because it means that Dreher is still approaching the relationship of the pope to the bishops in light of management theory and non-Catholic ecclesiology.
Similarly, appeals to the example of the banishment of Bishop Gaillot to Partenia don’t work. The basic problem with the appeal to Gaillot is that he’s about all there is to appeal to. We don’t see zillions of bishops banished to titular sees — just Gaillot. That, again, suggests that the whole “stroke of a pen” analysis here is failing to take into account some rather salient facts about just how free the papacy regards itself to go around bumping off bishops. The key here is not that Gaillot got exiled to Partenia. The key here is that only Gaillot got exiled. It’s a vanishingly rare occurrence and has been for a very long time. Heck, even Milingo, the crazy Moonie, was labored over for years and never really got the boot. The Church is in the business of redemption far more than it is in the business of showing people the door.
That’s why I’m (still) puzzled by Dreher’s stance here. We’re not talking about potato/potahto differences in canonical procedures between Rome and the East; we’re talking about what Dreher’s conception of the Church is. He professes an Orthodox ecclesiology, but still appears to resist that at heart. At the same time, he also doesn’t seem to really grasp a Catholic ecclesiology, either. Yes, the Orthodox get rid of miscreants (slowly). So does the Catholic communion (slowly). Both communions could do better, but the fact remains that neither communion could — without doing a lot of violence to itself — do what Dreher expects the pope to do “with the stroke of a pen.” And nobody is more acutely aware of that than the Orthodox bishops.
So, in the end, I think the cases of Bishops Lugo and Gaillot illustrate exactly the opposite of what Dreher and other critics believe they do. The hesitation of Benedict and John Paul II to get rid of a bishop even when he is demanding to leave his office and his clerical state points clearly to some other explanation than “circling the wagons” and Good Ol’ Boys Clubs. I maintain that since this pope is, above all, a theologian, the place to start looking for why lies not with the Innocent III fantasy that seems to dominate so many people’s minds, but with the nature of the sacramental office the bishop has and his real relationship with the papal office.
It will doubtless be protested that all this stuff about the nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders and the office of the bishop is “abstract theory.” Too bad. Until that theology has really been grappled with, the actions of the pope will continue, I think, to be enigmatic and perverse to some, just as Benedict’s “refusal” to ordain women continues to completely baffle certain folk who simply regard it as his personal sexism. Until we have a bead on why the pope does what he does, we’re simply arguing with a phantom pope about phantom motivations.

Image: Fernando Lugo Jorge Saenz, Associated Press


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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