Pope Benedict has been the successor of St. Peter, visible Head of the Church, for five years, as of April 19. But because the sexual abuse of minors by priests and other persons in positions of trust has been a widespread and longstanding problem in the Church as elsewhere, people are now blaming the pope for not having done enough to address this problem. The irony here is that, of all the prelates in the Catholic Church, the pope has probably done more than anyone to vigorously address the problem, especially since 2001 when his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acquired general jurisdiction over the matter.
Let the sunshine in. My point here is a different one: to see the matter in deeper perspective. St. Josemaria Escriva used to love to recite the Creed at St. Peter’s. When he got to the part ‘‘I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church,” he would say three times over, “I believe in my Mother the Roman Church,’’ and then add, ‘‘in spite of everything.’’ He once told this to Cardinal Tardini, who worked for many years as Cardinal Secretary of State at the Vatican. Tardini asked him what he meant by that. ‘‘I mean in spite of my failings and yours,’’ replied St. Josemaria.
Our faith is in Jesus Christ and in the Church he founded, one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. The Church is Christ himself extended in space and time, bringing us His Word and his Sacraments. And so our faith is not in Father so-and-so or Bishop what’s-his-name or even Pope whomever. These are men, and they are sinners, to one degree or another. The sacraments are effective, regardless of the worthiness (or unworthiness) of their ministers. The Church has survived bad priests, bad bishops and bad popes. Christ promised as much when he said “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18).
My favorite author, Flannery O’Connor, had a Jesuit friend and spiritual adviser named Father James McCown. He wrote a memoir entitled ‘‘With Crooked Lines,’’ which recounts a conversation he had with his father about a wayward priest. When his father called him a “damn crook,” the priest said that such priests almost made him want to leave the Catholic Church. His father was horrified: “Don’t forget that the Church is the church of Jesus Christ. He founded it. He guides it. And he guarantees that it will always teach the truth.” Human beings “are not the Church. They are people in the Church. Half the bishops, monsignors, and priests in the country, even the pope, could be crooked...and it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference.”
In 1991 then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave a talk in Rome on the Primacy of Peter. “To understand the way in which Peter is rock, a prerogative which he does not have on his own account, it is useful to keep in mind the rest of the story in Matthew. Not from ‘flesh and blood’ but by a revelation of the Father did he recognize Christ on behalf of the Twelve. Then, when Jesus explains the manner and way of the Christ in this world, prophesying his death and resurrection, then flesh and blood reply: Peter ‘rebuked the Lord’: ‘No such thing shall ever happen to you’ (16:22). And Jesus answered him: ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle (skandalon) to me.’ (v. 23). He, who by the gift of God can be solid rock, on his own is a stone along the road which will cause the foot to stumble.”
Jesus also entrusted Peter with the power of the keys: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). “The power of binding and loosing,” said Cardinal Ratzinger, “means essentially the supreme authority entrusted in Peter to the Church of forgiving sins. It seems to me that this is a matter of the greatest importance. The grace of forgiveness stands at the very heart of the new ministry which takes away the power of the forces of destruction. It is this grace which establishes the Church. The Church is established on forgiveness. Peter himself represents this fact in his own person since he, who can be the holder of the keys, although having fallen into temptation, is also capable of confessing his fault and is restored by means of forgiveness. The Church in her essential being is the place of forgiveness...: She is not a community of the perfect, but a community of sinners who need forgiveness and seek it.”
“The New Testament does not just hand on documentary proofs [of the Roman primacy] but remains a criterion and a duty. It shows us the tension between the stumbling block and the rock: precisely in the disproportion between human capacities and the divine plan, God allows himself to be recognized as he who is truly present and at work. If the granting of such supreme authority to men can, in the course of history, continually give rise to the fear of an arbitrary human authority (and not without reason), nevertheless, not only the promise of the New Testament, but also the course of history itself, demonstrates the contrary. The disproportion between men and this office is so striking, so evident, that the very act of conferring on a man this function of being rock makes it clear that it is not these men who sustain the Church, but only he who accomplishes it in spite of men, rather than through them.”
“Therefore, with the same realism with which we today admit the faults of the popes, their failure to live up to the greatness of their ministry, we must also recognize that Peter continues to be the rock against ideologies; against the reduction of the Word to what is plausible in a given age; against submission to the powers of this world...The promise made to Peter and its historical realization in Rome thus remain, on the deepest level, a continuous reason for rejoicing: the powers of hell will not prevail against her.”
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at University of Massachusetts School of Law Dartmouth (formerly Southern New England School of Law). He holds degrees in civil and canon law.