All sorts of Catholics — the hurt and the whole, the progressive and the traditional — want to believe our eyes and trust all the positive signs and signals out of Rome in the week since Francis was chosen to succeed Benedict: “It’s like falling in love,” a friend said. “God help me,” another agreed.
It’s been a long, bruising decade since the height of the clerical sex abuse scandal here in the United States in 2002, and this new pontiff’s message so far, in both words and symbolic gestures, is right on target for many of us who chose to stay anyway, denying nothing.
“How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor,” he told reporters, and a little bit of my “wait and see” posture gave way. “True power is service,” he tweeted Tuesday. “The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.”
He took the name of Francis of Assisi, he has said, as “the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, don’t we?” Oh, my, and an enviro, too? Don’t fall before all the facts are in, I told myself, but with limited success, I’m afraid, as I read about the signals that he had real reform in mind and had announced that no one in the Curia should feel too safe in his current job. All assignments are only donec aliter provideatur — “until other provisions are made.”
From closet cynics to liberation theologians with whom he has differed, “everybody I talk to says he’s the real deal,” said my friend Tom Roberts, former editor of the National Catholic Reporter, back in his old chair for a few weeks while the paper’s current editor is in Rome. “I don’t want to have a naive hope, but I do have hope. So many of the things he’s doing are so right; the words are so right.”
The last time I saw people respond like this, in full knowledge of how hard it is to turn around the culture of same-old, it was 2008, and another relative newcomer to the world stage was offering change we could believe in.
But what to make of reports in The Post and elsewhere that are not at all glowing, and charge the former archbishop of Buenos Aires with standing silent during his country’s “dirty war,” and silent, too, on sex abuse allegations against priests in his diocese?
One of the original doctors of the church, Saint Ambrose, argued all the way back in the 4th century that those who do nothing to stop evil are on a moral par with perpetrators, since Christian love requires us to intervene. No, that’s not always practical or possible, but if Francis did turn out to be an episcopal version of those in Steubenville, Ohio, who saw or later learned of the brutal, opportunistic attack on a passed out 16-year-old girl and did absolutely nothing, no amount of packing his own bags or living in solidarity with the poor would make that okay.
On the abuse, do I take the word of a priest who is a convicted sex offender that Francis “never let go of my hand”? No, but the report that he refused to meet with abuse victims is troubling, and if true, plain wrong.
On the issue of silence vis a vis the junta, my long-ago fellow Catholic lay volunteer and housemate Charles Kenney, who lived in Peru for years and teaches comparative and Latin American politics at the University of Oklahoma, is critical of the former Jorge Bergoglio, a 39-year-old provincial when the coup in his country took place: “The Argentine Church leadership, with a few notable exceptions, behaved abominably,” Kenney wrote on Commonweal’s website. “They gave public recognition and support to the military dictatorship for years. They gave almost no public recognition or support to the victims and their families. Several priests played central roles in the detention, torture, and murder of suspected dissidents, and justified this in religious terms. Only a few bishops defended the human rights of the disappeared and supported organizations like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. . . . In this context, Bergoglio would have to have been heroic to speak out. He did not.”
As if in answer, the Jesuit Tom Reese writes: “In the face of tyranny, there are those who take a prophetic stance and die martyrs. There are those who collaborate with the regime. And there are others who do what they can while keeping their heads low. . . .
“Those who have not lived under a dictatorship should not be quick to judge those who have, whether the dictatorship was in ancient Rome, Latin America, Africa, Nazi Germany, Communist Eastern Europe, or today’s China. We should revere martyrs, but not demand every Christian be one.”
We should, however, expect that when the white smoke clears and the crowds go home, Francis will tell us the truth about his record on both matters, as difficult as it might be for him to say and for us to hear.
“Just tell us the truth,” said the National Catholic Reporter’s Tom Roberts, “after 30 years of deception” on clerical abuse, which his newspaper has been covering since 1985. “Say, ‘I didn’t understand it, I acted badly,’ or whatever — there’s evidence he changed over time — but dispel it, deal with it, disclose. We’ve been lied to for so long; it’s time.”
Francis doesn’t have to be a hero, in other words. Though if he did tell us the truth, we’d surely see him as one.
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for The Washington Post.