Pope Benedict: “Greatest Persecution of the Church is from Sin Within”

On the papal plane, Shepherd One, en route to Portugal to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen got an interesting response from the Pope on the issue of the “sin within the church.”

Benedict’s emphasis on the greatest challenge to the church being from within, rather than attacks from the outside, is different from what other church leaders have recently claimed, that the media, the Jews, or secularists were to blame for unjust criticism of the church. (Really? That old playbook?)

The Pope’s response in the interview with Allen is intriguing because Benedict aligns the suffering of the church as embodied in the suffering of the pope – “because the Pope stands for the church” – but then states clearly that the greatest challenge of the church is sin from within. This raises the final corollary question – does the Pope carry the sin of the church within himself? The question is, of course, both theological and personal.

That the whole conversation is couched in the mysticism of the appearances of Mary at Fatima in 1917 is also fascinating. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

John Allen: Now we look to Fatima, which will be the spiritual culmination of this trip. What meaning do the apparitions of Fatima have for us today? When you presented the Third Secret of Fatima in a press conference at the Vatican Press Office in June 2000, you were asked if the message of the secret could be extended beyond the assassination attempt against John Paul II to other sufferings of the popes. Could it also be extended to put the suffering of the church today in the context of that vision, including the sins of the sexual abuse of minors?

Pope Benedict XVI: First of all, I want to express my joy to go to Fatima, to pray before the Madonna of Fatima, and to experience the presence of the faith there, where from the little ones a new force of the faith was born. It’s not limited to the little ones, but has a message for the whole world and all epochs of history, it illuminates this history. As I said in the presentation, there is a supernatural impulse which doesn’t come simply from someone’s imagination but from the supernatural reality of the Virgin Mary. That impulse enters into a subject, and is expressed according to the possibilities of the subject, who is determined by his or her historic situation. The supernatural impulse is translated, so to speak, according to the subject’s possibilities for imagining it and expressing it. In this expression formed by the subject, there are always hidden possibilities to go beyond, to go deeper. Only with time can we see all the depth which was, so to speak, dressed in this vision, which was possible for the concrete person.

With regard to this great vision of the suffering of the popes, beyond the circumstances of John Paul II, other realities are indicated which over time will develop and become clear. Thus it’s true that beyond the moment indicated in the vision, one speaks about and sees the necessity of suffering by the church. It’s focused on the person of the pope, but the pope stands for the church, and therefore sufferings of the church are announced. The church will always be suffering in various ways, up to the end of the world. The important point is that the message of Fatima in its substance is not addressed to particular situations, but a fundamental response: permanent conversion, penance, prayer, and the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and charity. One sees there the true, fundamental response the church must give, which each of us individually must give, in this situation.

In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the pope or the church don’t come just from outside the church. The suffering of the church also comes from within the church, because sin exists in the church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way. The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside, but is born in sin within the church. The church thus has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. Forgiveness does not exclude justice. We have to re-learn the essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That’s how we respond, and we can be realistic in expecting that evil will always launch attacks from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil. The Madonna for us is the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history.

Read the whole interview here.

‘Defensiveness and Self-Protection Are Not Gospel Values’

benedictOn Saturday’s Weekend Edition, NPR host Scott Simon talked with John Allen, who reports on the Roman Catholic Church as a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter on the Vatican facing renewed pressure amid charges that Pope Benedict XVI mishandled priest sex abuse cases while serving as archbishop of Munich in the 1980s. Allen calls the scandal “unprecedented” and a “global crisis.” (Listen to the interview here.)

When Simon asked how this scandal has affected Mass-going, financial donations, or dioceses spinning off from the Roman church, Allen responded:

From the beginning of this crisis there has always been the fear that this is going to cause some kind of fundamental rupture that is that it will cause the large number of people to stop going to Mass, it will cause large numbers of Catholic to stop making financial contributions to the church, and that some of them may decide to opt out of the system all together and create a parallel church.

To date the empirical evidence that we have is that really has not happened. At the end of the day the reason for that is fairly simple: Most typical Mass-going Catholics learned a long time ago to make a distinction between what their faith is really based on — which is God, the encounter with Jesus Christ, the supernatural dimension of the church — to distinguish between that and the very fallible human beings who at any given time may be running the show.

Additionally, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote How the Catholic Church Could End Its Sex Scandal in which he said:

The church needs to show it understands the flaws of its own internal culture by examining its own conscience, its own practices, its own reflexives when faced with challenge. As the church rightly teaches, acknowledging the true nature of our sin is the one and only path to redemption and forgiveness.

Of course, this will not be easy. Enemies of the church will use this scandal to discredit the institution no matter what the Vatican does. Many in the hierarchy thought they were doing the right thing, however wrong their decisions were. And the church is not alone in facing problems of this sort.

But defensiveness and institutional self-protection are not Gospel values. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

The church needs to cast aside the lawyers, the PR specialists and its own worst instincts, which are human instincts. Benedict could go down as one of the greatest popes in history if he were willing to risk all in the name of institutional self-examination, painful but liberating public honesty, and true contrition.

Read Dionne’s whole article here.