These are indeed heavy days for the Church as she enters Holy Week. The coincidence of Passiontide with ongoing scandals in Ireland and Germany calls to mind Fr. Romano Guardini’s haunting observation:
The Church is the Cross on which Christ is always crucified. One cannot separate Christ from his bloody, painful church. One must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the church.
It seems to say everything necessary—that Christ is always both obscured and revealed in His Church.
Most of the analysis of Pope Benedict’s involvement in the scandals, on the other hand, reminds me of a different quote—A. E. Housman’s mordant observations on thought and prejudice in “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” (1921). Apparently, even in a field as unlikely to excite the passions as manuscript editing, he detected the hindrance of complacency:
These internal causes of error and folly [in textual criticism] are subject to very little counteraction or correction from the outside. The average reader knows hardly anything about textual criticism, and therefore cannot exercise a vigilant control over the writer: the addle-pate is at liberty to maunder and the impostor is at liberty to lie. And, what is worse, the reader often shares the writer’s prejudices, and is far too well pleased with his conclusions to examine either his premises or his reasoning. Stand on a barrel in the streets of Bagdad, and say in a loud voice, “Twice two is four, and ginger is hot in the mouth, therefore Mohammed is the prophet of God,” and your logic will probably escape criticism; or, if anyone by chance should criticise it, you could easily silence him by calling him a Christian dog.
Substitute “Canon Law”—or even “the Church”—for “textual criticism,” and I think you have a decent pretty description of the present situation: both the media’s distorted presentation of Benedict’s past and the rather uncritical reception of it by the public. I have in mind here mostly the recent articles by the New York Times and the screeds that build upon it, such as those by Maureen Dowd and Andrew Sullivan.
Hence, I’d like to do my little part to balance the perspective. Of course, I’m also aware that, as a seminarian defending the Pope in these matters, I risk seeming blind, callous, or complicit (in short, “a Christian dog”). Nonetheless, based on the evidence so far produced, it strikes me that the most serious charge that can be leveled against Ratzinger is that he was slow to realize the full dimensions of the problem. Even in so saying, I am aware that I judge by the more exacting standards that only hindsight provides.
Rather than rehearse the sordid details of the two major cases, I thought I would merely refer the concerned reader to more balanced views. The Murphy Case, though it receives the most attention stateside, does not reflect as badly on the Pope as was first thought. At the very least, the story ought to be read in light of John Allen’s useful distinctions here. Fr. De Souza, however, makes a pretty convincing argument here that the bulk of the New York Times’ case rests on outright misrepresentation of the facts.
The 1980 case in Munich is actually more problematic, since an abusive priest was assigned, on Benedict’s watch, to pastoral work with youth (though, it would seem, the Pope personally approved only his transfer into his diocese for treatment). John Allen’s description of Benedict’s “Munich Years” here sheds some light on why the Pope may in fact not have kept abreast of the disastrous reassignment. Nonetheless, would a prudent bishop nowadays leave the assignment of a known abuser to his vicar general? Surely not. In that sense, it would seem that even Benedict shows the limitations of his time and his (then) slight pastoral experience. While he was not directly part of the “problem,” neither was he yet directly part of the “solution.” This does not seem especially damning to me, but it must be admitted.
On the other hand, Allen’s article (as well as this more recent one, and this one by Archbishop Nichols), suggests that Ratzinger led the charge for disciplinary reform as soon as he realized the scope and extent of the problem. Though he initially considered the crisis largely invented by hostile media outlets, he turned on a dime when internal Church documents largely corroborated these claims.
In sum, could Ratzinger have taken decisive action earlier? From where we presently stand, it seems so. Could he have been less dismissive of the initial reports of the media? Sure. Yet, in light of the low journalistic standards currently prevailing, I also find it hard to fault him for his initial skepticism.