The Sound of Papal Silence

 There is “a time to be silent and a time to speak”.

Pope Francis has been mastering the technique of silence in recent weeks, although I suspect there has been little quiet behind Vatican walls. Last month, former Vatican envoy to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò,  published an 11-page document, outlining allegations of cover-up by Vatican officials in relation to hundreds of cases of abuse in Pennsylvania. Included in the list of those who had knowledge of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s appalling history of sexual abuse, is the current Pope.

Pope Francis’ initial response to the allegations was to say, 

“I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”

Then eight days ago, he added,

“With people who do not have good will, with people who seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction, even within families,” the answer is “silence. And prayer.”

“May the Lord give us the grace to discern when we must speak and when we must be silent. And [to do] in all of life: in work, at home, in society…” to become more closely imitators of Jesus Christ

As it says in the day’s Gospel, the people “rose up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill… to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away.”

Those who drove Jesus out of the city were not people, but “a pack of wild dogs,” …They shouted instead of using reason, and in the face of this, Jesus’ response was to remain silent.”

I certainly hope Pope Francis wasn’t inferring that he is behaving like Jesus and that those asking for clarification of the allegations are not like ‘a pack of wild dogs.’

Yesterday (September 11), Pope Francis once again broke his silence, by preaching a sermon in which he accused Satan of undermining Rome’s Bishops. He said,

“In these times, it seems like the ‘Great Accuser’ has been unchained and is attacking bishops. True, we are all sinners, we bishops. He tries to uncover the sins, so they are visible in order to scandalize the people. The ‘Great Accuser’, as he himself says to God in the first chapter of the Book of Job, ‘roams the earth looking for someone to accuse’. A bishop’s strength against the ‘Great Accuser’ is prayer, that of Jesus and his own, and the humility of being chosen and remaining close to the people of God, without seeking an aristocratic life that removes this unction. Let us pray, today, for our bishops: for me, for those who are here, and for all the bishops throughout the world.”

I’m presuming Pope Francis hasn’t read my particular recent criticisms, but in case he has and this is what he reckons,  I think he and I need to have a chat. Far more likely, this is a veiled attack on Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò and others who are bringing to light details of a very sordid history. Notice there is no sense of what Jesus asks his followers, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit…Blessed are those who mourn.” There is, however, a game of blame the Devil for the bishopric scandal!   Don’t get me wrong, I believe in a real Satan, one who is an architect of evil, but surely the evil is of men pretending to be of God and penetrating shocking acts against children. Surely, the work of the Devil is to obfuscate the beauty and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ by introducing ideas that are septic.

So why the Papal silence?

There are 3 reasons why one would choose silence in the face of serious allegations, such as those being leveled by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

First, there is weight to the allegations, and so one is working out the best strategy before speaking up. There is something to be said about this. Not every word needs to be spoken along the high-speed highway that is Twitter. It is okay to slow down a little and to offer considered responses rather than instant tweets. I think it is appropriate given the gravity of the allegation, that a thoughtful response is offered. It has however been several weeks now and the Pope has been speaking, but just not answering.

A second reason for choosing silence is because you consider your interlocutors or accusers as fools. As Jesus said, why cast pearls before swine?

A third reason for keeping quiet is because it’s an effective rhetorical tool. I will bore people to the point of giving up, and they’ll soon enough be swept up in a controversy somewhere else.

One of the suggestions being made is that there is a civil war breaking out in the Vatican. Perhaps this is true, but of course, that does not mean the allegations are any less true (or untrue as may be the fact).  I’m not interested in internal bickering inside the Vatican unless of course, it involves calls to return to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus, in which case we praise God for such a movement.

I also remain amazed at how the mainstream media have played down this story, given that it is potentially the biggest religious stories of this Century thus far.

Since the story broke in August, much of the media have either sided with Pope Francis, arguing that this is nothing more than internal fighting with conservatives trying to push back on the enlightened progressives inside the Vatican, or they have kept quiet. It’s as though the Pope said, “shh,” and the media answered, “ok.”

Since becoming the Pope, Francis has bedazzled onlookers, with his vintage styled uniforms with glittering gems, and his seemingly progressive views on social issues.

The behavior is most unusual, given that journalists are usually trigger happy when it comes to reporting the sins of Christians. Even when there is a sniff of an allegation or rumours of another religious nut saying espousing an outrageous message, we can sure that there are journalists at hand, with shovel ready to dig it up. If you think I’m exaggerating, as a veiled attempt to mock Scott Morrison’s Christian faith, last week The Guardian uncovered a Pentecostal preacher whom no one has ever heard from a church that no one has ever heard of,  and they reported his scandalous message ‘from God’ about our new Prime Minister. Yes, the preacher was saying dumb things that were not from God, but was it really worthy of public attention? Catholic clergy who have been accused of abusing children or of covering up abuse, have been rightly highlighted in our news. And yet, when the head of the Roman Church and other most senior Catholic clergy are named as co-conspirators to protect child abusing priests, the cone of silence descends not only on the Vatican but also on the media.

One of the accusations leveled at religious organisations is their lack of transparency and their long attempts to cover up abuse. Peoples’ anger at religious institutions is understandable and largely justifiable. It is beyond outrageous that ecclesial authorities should hide evil men who have destroyed the lives of thousands of children in their care. It is an automatic pass to hell.

If I had friends who were victims in Pennsylvania, for their sake I’d be wanting answers. If my children had ever been placed in such a vulnerable position, I would be in Rome right now with placards and a megaphone and a list of verbalisms to compete with any that Martin Luther ever preached.

This is time for reform inside the Roman Catholic Church. They ignored the opportunity when it came around 500 years ago, but they cannot afford to ignore it now. Bad theology leads to justifying bad living, and a trail of broken people in the wake.

 

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In the growing strange web of paradoxical ‘silence’, Rome refuses to break the seal of the confessional, but the Pope is still breaking God’s rules about praying, as he sends out more tweet prayers to Mary and to other saints.

I say all this, being aware of the plank in my own eyes, and the wood-paneled rooms of my own denomination. This is not about, ‘let him who has no sin throw the first stone’. Our broader society often misinterprets Christianity and Churches, and claims wrongdoing when there is none, but on this issue, people are right to be horrified. The harshest words Jesus ever spoke, were not toward those who admitted ignorance about God, but those who claimed to know and represent God, but by their actions denied him.

There is no glory or good to be found in the silence or in feeble half measures. If Jesus is Lord, then we must obey his call for repentance. Repentance repudiates cover-ups and superficial penances or forced retirements; repentance begins with confession and true contrition.

We wait to hear the silence end.

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