I find myself praying a lot for Pope Benedict these days. From within the U.S., of course, it’s easy to overestimate how much the sniping of the New York Times actually roils global Catholicism. Nonetheless, as the Times stacks one leaky bucket atop another, it’s easy here to forget that they all leak. And, because of both the uniquely spiritual outlook of the Roman Catholic Church and the highly technical nature of her legal terms, it’s easy to impute malice and self-protection to garden-variety Vatican heel-dragging. The saga of Stephen Kiesle, the third and most recent of the front-pagers for the Times, is a case in point.
I feel compelled, in the interest of fairness, to make a few points specifically concerning Pope Benedict’s alleged negligence in this regard:
- The first version of the story essentially reported that Ratzinger had resisted the punishment of an abusive priest “for the universal good” of the Church. The Times, however, failed to explain that the CDF was handling only the laicization aspect of the Kiesle case. The following day—after the damage was done—they allowed Mr. Jeffrey Lena, the canon lawyer who handled the case, to make this point on the second page. There Mr. Lena indicated, moreover, that the letter seems to have been a “form letter”—albeit one specific to the case of a younger priest—sent out to encourage patience with the lengthy bureaucratic process. The response, written in stylized Latin, does not seem to have been a fresh composition reflecting Kiesle’s specific circumstances.
- “Laicization” or “losing the clerical state” is easily misunderstood. It is not the same thing as removing a priest from ministry. Laicization is much more like removing a priest’s sacramental status than his ministerial status (though even the former is a bit of legal fiction, since even a laicized priest retains sacramental “character”). A priest may abandon or be removed from his ministry without being laicized, that is, without ceasing to be considered a priest in the eyes of the Church. A familiar example would Fr. Maciel Degollado of the Legionnaires of Christ, whom Benedict, in view of Maciel’s old age and obvious guilt, assigned to a life of retirement and penance without laicization. Hence, when Bishop Cummins wrote to Ratzinger saying, “There might be greater scandal to the community if Fr. Kiesle were allowed to return to active ministry,” he was surely correct. However, the decision to return Kiesle to ministry was Cummins’, not Ratzinger’s, and was distinct from the decision to laicize. In fact according to the official request sent to John Paul II, Kiesle had already “procured a job of reasonable support” outside a parish and had made an “irrevocable decision to leave active ministry”–effective two years before Ratzinger assumed office in 1982. I repeat: Kiesle was not ministering as a priest.
- Moreover, even though dismissal from the clerical state is a grave penalty in the eyes of the Church, dismissal against the cleric’s will has always been rather rare. The vast majority of cases belonged to priests who willingly request laicization so as to pursue or regularize a marriage in the Church. In these cases, laicization is seen more as a relief than a punishment. Hence, in view of the fact Kiesle had already abandoned active ministry and was no longer a threat in this sense, rushing his case to the top of the queue may very well have sent the wrong message (i.e., “If you’re desperate to get out, there’s one sure way to expedite your case …”).
- These disturbing thoughts bring us to the question of “scandal,” which also has a technical meaning in Catholic theology: inducement to sin. Ostensibly, the most damning phrase in the whole correspondence comes from Ratzinger’s “form letter,” which claims that the CDF is “accustomed to proceed by holding the common good in first place before its eyes” (procedere solet habito prae oculis praeprimis bono communi). To the typical reader of the Times, it sounds like Ratzinger is advocating secrecy or stall-tactics to protect the Church’s reputation, that is, to avoid “scandal” in the everyday sense of the term. However, Kiesle had already gone through criminal trial, had been exposed to public shame, and had abandoned ministry. There was nothing left to hide. The CDF, on the other hand, probably understood “scandal” and the “common good” in terms of the stability and theology of the priesthood. The prospect of effortless laicization prompts struggling priests to make ill-considered decisions in times of discouragement or temptation. It also encourages seminarians to move through their formation thoughtlessly. Finally, a laicization that appears to follow too “automatically” on various crimes—even despicable ones like child abuse—tends to link the power of the priesthood too closely with the holiness of priests. The point is that even a sinful priest remains a priest (even if the nature of his sins indicates that he should never return to public ministry). ‘Tis an assurance to quite a few Catholics—myself included—to know that the holiness of the sacraments is not limited by the priest who confects them. I would wager that this sensibility is the “common good” that the CDF wants to protect from “scandal.”
- Finally, just to see whether we were paying attention, the Times includes in its documentation and story a complaint about Kiesle working in a diocesan youth program dated 1988. The purpose of its inclusion seems to be to suggest that Ratzinger’s inaction led to more children being put in harm’s way. However, it rather shows the opposite. As the Times itself reports, Kiesle had already been laicized under Ratzinger in 1987. But this did little, in reality, to protect children. Just as Kiesle could be removed from ministry before laicization, he could return to active ministry after laicization. The responsibility for oversight lay with the local Church.
Summary: In no way, that I can see, did Ratzinger’s treatment of the Kiesle case put children in danger. It suggests no attempt to cover up a crime. It suggests no particular indulgence toward abusers.