Pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral visit to the United States began well. President Bush personally greeted the pope upon his arrival on April 15 at Andrews Air Force base. A formal welcoming ceremony at the White House was held the next morning, where the gathered crowds sang “Happy Birthday” to the pope on his 81st.
The pope later met privately with President Bush. A joint declaration following the meeting contained only a list of items touched upon in their conversation. To the extent that Iraq was mentioned at all, the main focus seems to have been on the “precarious state of Christian communities there.”
As important as the welfare of Iraqi Christians surely is, the issue hardly trumps the overriding moral concern over the launching of the preemptive war in the first place. What, if anything, did Pope Benedict and President Bush say to one another about that?
That same evening the pope addressed the bishops in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Some bishops were quoted afterward bestowing effusive praise on the pope’s remarks. But advocates for survivors of sexual abuse by priests charged that the pope did not go far enough, that he should have indicated his intention to remove bishops who had mishandled the crisis or covered up its crimes.
The positive aspects of Pope Benedict’s address to the bishops are easy to detect. He praised the vibrancy of the Catholic Church in the United States and the generosity of U.S. Catholics on both national and international fronts. He also acknowledged the “great faith” of the American people, and their respect for religious freedom.
But surely the most positive feature of the address to the bishops, and later in his homily at Nationals Park, was the explicit and emphatic attention given to the sexual-abuse crisis in the priesthood. The pope referred to the scandal as among the “countersigns to the Gospel of life” and a cause of “deep shame.”
He called for “compassion and care” toward the survivors of sexual abuse, and reinforced his plea later in a private meeting with five survivors from Boston. At the same time, he appealed to the bishops “to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those seriously wronged.”
The pope also reaffirmed his determination to keep predatory priests out of the priesthood in order to protect other potential victims.
Not a word, however, about those bishops still in office who not only “mishandled” the crisis but actually covered up the criminal behavior of the abusive priests.
The failure to discipline any of these bishops rankles advocates of survivors’ rights and has upset not a few priests who feel that a double-standard is at work: punishment for priests, but not for bishops.
In the question period following the formal address, the pope touched upon the shortage of vocations to the priesthood and the need for intellectually and spiritually well-formed seminarians.
But the pope did not acknowledge that the vocations crisis is as much qualitative as quantitative. The church is not only getting fewer candidates, but too many of those who do come forward are below traditional standards of readiness.
His emphasis on the bishops as shepherds also was problematic. The highly educated laity are not sheep, ever ready to follow their shepherds wherever they might lead them.
Overall, however, the pope’s forthrightness about the sexual-abuse crisis insures that his pastoral visit to the United States will be regarded by most as a major success.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.