Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Most Saintly Thing the Pope Could Do...

In today's Religion Dispatches, Frances Kissling and I offer opposing views on the merits of the recent New Atheist call to arrest the Pope.

In my article, I argue that an arrest-the-Pope campaign, if it is launched by the avowed ideological enemies of all things theistic and religious (including, of course, the Catholic Church), will only inspire the Church to become more entrenched in its defensive "we-are-under-assault-by-the-forces-of-Godless-secularism" stance. And entrenchment in that stance can only hurt efforts to pressure the Church to take the steps that, morally, it must take. Frances Kissling, in her opposing piece, argues that the Church has proven itself incapable of the moral responsibility necessary to root out abuse, and will do what needs to be done only in the face of the kind of strong legal actions that Dawkins and Hitchens advocate.

I see and understand this opposing viewpoint. In fact, as I confess in my essay, I have had some arrest-the-Pope fantasies of my own. But I'm still convinced that a legal move like this will do nothing but harm unless (a) it is based on truly compelling evidence that the current Pope was in fact guilty of criminal obstruction of justice, and (b) the impetus behind the move originates somewhere other than among the most publicly recognized leaders of a movement defined by overt hostility to all things theistic and religious.

That said, however, I think there is something to be said for the Pope suffering the penalty for the unquestionable crimes--the widespread and horrific abuse of children and the equally widespread instinct to cover up and minimize the abuse--perpetrated by officials of the Church he leads. More precisely, I think there is something to be said for the Pope volunteering to take on this penalty.

The Roman Catholic Church embraces the doctrine of Vicarious Atonement--that is, the doctrine that Jesus, who was himself innocent, bore on behalf of a sinful humanity the punishment due us for our sins. As the supreme pontiff of the institution that takes itself to be the true inheritor and preserver of the divine revelation that took place in Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope of all people should follow in the footsteps of Christ. And those who would be followers of Christ are sometimes called to take up a cross of their own.

I think there is good reason to think that, as a Cardinal, Ratzinger was actually one of those in the Church who advocated for a stronger response to child abuse cases than the Church actually pursued. While I certainly won't claim that he was wholly innocent, I am confident that he did not molest anyone. But what would it say if the Pope presented himself to secular authorities, asking to be held legally accountable for the crimes of all those pedophile priests? What would it say if, motivated by his own moral horror at what has been done, Pope Benedict XVI took it upon himself to do penance, vicariously, for every priest in his fold who raped a child, for every bishop who quietly reassigned a pedophile and thus left him free to molest again?

In the face of what has been done, it might just be the most saintly thing the Pope could do.


  1. Considering that he wouldn't actually be arrested for the crimes of other people, mightn't that come across as melodramatic?

  2. That's freakin' awesome! Love it. Great idea.

  3. "The Roman Catholic Church embraces the doctrine of Vicarious Atonement--that is, the doctrine that Jesus, who was himself innocent, bore on behalf of a sinful humanity the punishment due us for our sins."

    Just thought I'd clarify two things - that is not a correct articulation of Vicarious Atonement (actually, it's heretical). And two, properly articulated, Vicarious Atonement has some doctrinal backing, but not of the sort that makes it a definitive Catholic teaching.

  4. Brian--Such unexplained comments warrant, well, explanation.

    Obviously, what I offer here is a gloss, not a full-fledged articulation, of Vicarious Atonement. But I'm curious why you find that this gloss gestures towards a heretical articulation of the doctrine rather than an orthodox one (what do you take me to mean, and how does that differ from orthodox teaching?).

    Second, I'd love to hear how you would formulate the doctrinal backing behind the Vicarious Atonement. I know very well that this is not purely a Roman Catholic teaching--I said the Roman Catholic Church embraces this view, not that they are the only ones who do. The Lutheran Scholastics, among many others, adopted a variation of the Anselmian backdrop for the doctrine, but with some important modifications (John Kronen and I actually talk about this a fair bit in Chapter 6 of our new book).

    I'm not sure if you have anything like the Lutheran Scholastic underpinnings in mind, or if you in some other way endorse a variant of the Anselmian idea (namely, that sin is of infinite severity by virtue of being an offense against God, and so demands an infinite penalty that no mere human could possibly pay--therefore requiring that justice be met by the penalty being borne vicariously by the incarnate God). Whatever your understanding, I'd be interesting in hearing what it is.