Pope Benedict infallible? So the Vatican would like us to believe
The pope will not take responsibility for the paedophile priest cover-up – no matter how badly it harms the Catholic church
guardian.co.uk, Friday 26 March 2010 18.58 GMT
At my Catholic primary school, our RE teacher drummed into us the meaning of papal infallibility. "It does not mean," she used to say, "that the pope can predict the weather, tell a lie, or get his sums wrong." She was explaining that papal infallibility is restricted to doctrinal matters, and only in exceptional circumstances.
And yet, in the matter of the proliferating paedophile priest scandal, the Vatican gives the impression that no scintilla of responsibility, still less fallibility, in fact or in principle, could possibly attach to His Holiness. It is widely assumed even by seasoned Vatican commentators that the least discovery, or admission, of a cover-up could lead to his resignation. Popes, according to canon law, can indeed resign with a stroke of the papal pen, but it has only happened once, in 1296. But no foreseeable, proven accusation is likely to prompt Benedict's abdication.
The complex paper trails are measured now in many tens of thousands of cases spread over half a century and across five continents. It would be astonishing if there were not at least a handful of documents leading back to the powerful orthodoxy watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict once was. From 1982 until 2005 he was responsible in large measure for the disciplining of the clergy. His failure to answer two letters in the late 1990s from Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee relating to an abusive priest 20 years after his crimes appears substantive enough. But the Vatican has responded with impressive casuistry as to the facts, and vehement indignation as to the insinuations, and will continue to do so with this or any other allegation brought against Benedict.
The Vatican and Benedict know, moreover, that there have been much worse cases of recent papal culpability in the matter of paedophile priest cover-ups. It is just eight years since Pope John Paul II first declined to investigate a priest called Father Marcial Maciel. Maciel founded an order known as the Legionaries of Christ and systematically engaged in sexual abuse of minors for 40 years. Nine former members of his order went public with accusations in 1997. Two investigators claim that Cardinal Ratzinger tried to have Maciel brought to book but he was allegedly overruled on John Paul's orders. John Paul claimed that he had "discerned" that Maciel was innocent. To his credit, and not before time, it was Ratzinger who in January 2005 (barely three months before John Paul's death) had Maciel, then 84, relieved of his priesthood. But Maciel, who died in 2008, was never referred to any country's criminal justice system. Benedict has since formally apologised to Maciel's victims.
John Paul II, who is nevertheless being fast-tracked by Benedict for sainthood, took an entirely mystical view of the paedophile crisis. He called it a mysterium iniquitatis, an apocalyptic reference to the influence of the powers of darkness. Benedict has continued in the view that the phenomenon is a matter of sinfulness rather than criminality, and he cites secularism and even the influence of liberals within the church for priestly failings. Unwilling, or incapable, of seeing his or the Vatican's share in responsibility for the cover-ups, he is unlikely to suffer a moment's personal remorse for the large numbers of Catholics who are likely to fall away in the wake of the non-stop revelations.
Twenty years ago Benedict predicted that the Catholic church would be better off as a smaller, totally loyal, orthodox and ascetical "remnant". The crisis will not alone consist in mass defections but the church's possible fragmentation. The Catholic church might well be facing its biggest crisis since the Reformation.
John Cornwell has written several books about the papacy, including Hitler's Pope. His latest work, Newman's Unquiet Grave, is published by Continuum on 31 May