Papal fallibility

THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW By Thomas J. Reese, S.J. Thirteen years after the Hartford Courant ran an expose of sexual abuses … Continued


By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

Thirteen years after the Hartford Courant ran an expose of sexual abuses by the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the Vatican has finally imposed martial law on the order and mandated the rewriting of its constitution and the revamping of its spirituality and culture.

Nothing comparable to this papal intervention has occurred in the church since John Paul II appointed a pontifical delegate for the Society of Jesus in 1981 during the illness of its superior general, Pedro Arrupe, S.J. In the Jesuit case, the delegate was simply an interim leader since there was no papal criticism of the Jesuit constitution, its founder and his spirituality. The alleged crime of the Jesuits was not being sufficiently loyal to the pope.

The two interventions point to a fatal flaw in the papacy of John Paul II. John Paul trusted those who cheered him and tried to crush those who questioned his ideas or actions. This led him to trust Maciel and distrust questioning Jesuits.

Having grown up in a persecuted church where unity was a matter of survival, John Paul could not accept open debate and discussion in the church. Loyalty was more important than intelligence or pastoral skill. As a result, the quality of bishops appointed under him declined, as did the competence of people working in the Vatican.

This is not to downplay John Paul’s important role in world affairs. He was much more important to the peaceful fall of Communism than Ronald Reagan. He also did more to improve Catholic relations with Jews than any pope in history.

But the sad truth is that while he was good for the world, he was bad for the church. His suppression of theological discussion and debate, his insensitivity to women’s issues, and his appointments kept the church from responding pastorally and intelligently not only to the sexual abuse crisis but to other issues facing the church.

I have no doubt that John Paul is in heaven, but the effort to canonize him should be put on hold along with that of Pius XII.

There are those who criticize Pope Benedict for trying to save the Legionaries instead of simply shutting them down. These critics forget that there were two sets of victims who were exploited by Maciel.

First there were those he sexually abused. But there were also the hundreds if not thousands of naïve, idealistic, conservative Catholics who were fooled into believing that he was a holy man leading them to Christ. Instead, he was a sociopath who, the Vatican concluded, lived “a life entirely without scruples and authentic religious feeling.” Those who joined the Legionaries and Regnum Christi were betrayed and are also victims.

I feel especially sorry for the good young men who joined the Legionaries. These men, like soldiers who were betrayed by their general, deserve special sympathy and help. Whether the papal delegate can make the changes and do the healing required to save these men and the Legionaries as an order, remains to be seen. He will certainly have to replace all the top leadership who were either complicit with or too stupid to see the evils of Maciel. In either case, they should not be leaders in the order.

But the Vatican response needs to focus not only on the Legionaries but also on itself. Why did it take 13 years for the Vatican to intervene? Why did the Congregation for Religious not investigate the numerous accusations against Maciel? Why did it approve such a defective constitution in the first place? Is it true, as Jason Berry alleges in the National Catholic Reporter, that Maciel used Legionaries’ money to buy influence with cardinals in the Vatican?

If the pope wants to deal with the core issue, he should hire an outside management consulting firm to answer these questions and to make recommendations on improving the Vatican curia. The sexual abuse crisis was not only caused by bad priests, it was compounded by bad management at the diocesan and Vatican level.

It will be too easy to blame John Paul for these failures without recognizing that the Vatican has systemic flaws. First among these is a culture that prizes loyalty above competence. The Vatican still acts more like a royal court than a modern bureaucracy. Cardinals and bishops in the Vatican act like and are treated like papal nobility and princes rather than civil servants. There is no theological reason why any Vatican official needs to be a bishop or cardinal.

The Catholic Church encourages the faithful to examine their consciences. The pope and the Vatican need to examine why the church failed as an institution to respond appropriately to the sexual abuse crisis. Such an examination must lead to repentance and change.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.

By Thomas J. Reese | 
May 3, 2010; 4:18 PM ET

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Georgetown/On Faith


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  • liddymic

    Fr. Reese – you wrote about Pope John Paul II’s “insensitivity to women’s issues”. What are you referring to?

  • Sajanas

    Its foolish to expect that the Vatican should be some sort of criminal court. Their slap on the wrist courts run at the speed of a snail… but did you expect anything run by 70 year old men in positions for life to do any different.They should stick to regulating spiritual matters and just turn over any murderers, rapists, and thieves to the secular authorities and be done with it. The RCC should not continue with its forgive and forget practices for clerical crime, since its the citizens of the rest of the world, not the Vatican, that pay for it.

  • mikem5

    Are you Catholic Fr. Reese? How do you have no doubt JPII is in heaven? Did not Jesus put him in charge of His flock? And what has happened to his flock? They’ve left the church, they’ve stopped going to confession regularly, they’ve stop learning about God and the list goes on. What planet do you live on?

  • YEAL9

    If you have not already done so, please watch Julia Sweeney’s monologue “Letting Go of God”.(Ex-Catholic, now atheist) Julia Sweeney’s monologue “Letting Go Of God” will be the final nail in the coffin of religious belief/faith/infallibility and is and will continue to be more effective than any money-generating book or blog on the historical Jesus, the Jesuit way, atheism or secularism.Buy the DVD or watch it on Showtime. Check your cable listings. from Star Rating

  • JeannieGuzman

    At last a priest has nailed the root-cause of the problem with Maciel’s top brass/protectors: Fr. Reese said, “He will certainly have to replace all the top leadership who were either complicit with or too stupid to see the evils of Maciel.” I think that “the top Leadership,” should include cardinals in the Curia, who took bribes to keep Maciel’s reputation in tact, as well as the top dogs in Regnum Christi and the Legionaires. Will Pope Benedict XVI be courageous enough to do so? If past experience is any indication of future predictions, I rather doubt it! Protecting the reputation of the Vatican and the Curia is more important that routing out examples of sheer stupidity and pointing to “Stupidity.” as being the cause for coverups.

  • DaveHarris

    This is nothing but an attempt to show that the Vatican is finally responding to all the criticism about the child molestation problem. If there hadn’t been the recent revelations about the Pope himself (as a former Archbishop) covering up for molesters, there would be no action being taken against the Legion of Christ. After all these years of doing nothing, what is there to do? It’s all a sham.

  • RSG55419

    Sex abuse is just the tip of the iceberg. The emotional, verbal and physical abuse of Catholic clergy against children in America is despicable and has been for decades. The church’s negative culture has finally caught up with them. I have dozens of friends who call themselves Recovering Catholics since they have spent much of their adult lives trying to transcend the self-hate priests and nuns foisted upon them.


    I’m not sure that I would go as far as Tom Reese. “Martial Law?” That’s not the way I’m reading this.I believe that I read somewhere that none of the upper level people are going to be removed from their positions and these are people trained and put into place by Marcial. If this is the case it is a big mistake. Perhaps Tom Reese could speak to this?”I have no doubt that John Paul is in heaven, but the effort to canonize him should be put on hold along with that of Pius XII.”I’m sorry to be so blunt but really, who cares whether or not John Paul is in heaven? Personally I find that statement inappropriate and insensitive. Think about the former Legionaires who tried so long to get a response from John Paul. If I thought about it at all, I would have my doubts. Sorry Tom.National Catholic Reporter article, “Church leaders are spinning their wheels,” at:

  • John89

    I take exception with yet another Catholic apologist pretending he just doesn’t know this church has been as evil as it has the last sixteen hundred and seventy five years.To suggest this church, let alone Tom Reese, even knows a thing about ‘heaven’, John Paul II’s actions in the enormous Cover Up headed by then Cardinal Ratzinger from May 1981 until 2005 are unequivocally evil and show his penchant for lies, rather than any truth we’ve rarely seen since Constantine created this abomination.I prefer Catholic prophecies which state this church is on the way out.For this former Catholic religious who refuses to be known as an ‘ex’, it can’t come soon enough.

  • revbookburn

    All of these gestures are new and after decades of willfully covering up priest pedophilia. These perps, including the ruling hierarchy, need full legal and global consequences.Seperate subject: neither the late Pope nor Reagan deserve credit for the fall of Soviet-style communism. Their own actions, including military overkill spending and protecting the top at all costs (sound familiar), prompted their collapse.

  • dangerous1

    It sounds to me like John Paul and Marciel would have made great jesuits..

  • FarnazMansouri

    Maureen Paul Turlish,You are quite amazing both in your work and in your forthright speech.

  • wpguest1

    Instead of another gratuitous round of Catholic bashing from the [Attack] On Faith column, how about a discussion of Faisal Shahzad’s attempt to kill and maim innocent people in Times Square – and how he may have been motivated by the “Religion of Peace”?

  • DoTheRightThing

    The crime of the Jesuits (being sufficiently loyal to the pope) was NOT alleged – it was a fact. And Pope Piux XII’s canonization SHOULD continue – I wonder what Reese’s problem is with THAT.

  • xconservative

    I have no doubt that John Paul is in heaven, but the effort to canonize him should be put on hold along with that of Pius XII.

  • xconservative

    Posted by: wpguest1:Besides, no one is bashing catholics, they are bashing the morally bankrupt and corrupt leadership of the cath-o-lick church and that is NEVER gratuitous. They are the gift that keeps on giving!

  • gpcarvalho

    I am sure that Charles Silver, a devout catholic and a management specialist, would agree with your assessment of the Vatican’s feeble administration. Members of that gerontocracy have not been chosen on the basis of merit. The policies related to the recruitment, selection and retention of the clergy, not to mention the recent financial and sexual scandals, are here to prove it. This pope, as well as his predecessor, received his basic education in a totalitarian state, in which loyalty, not reasoning, was the passport to vertical mobility, the number one requisite for promotion. Silver, just like you, referred to bright people, such as Kung and Boff, who were implacably sidelined by the Vatican, apparently because they could not conform to the orientation of the church’s doctrinal unit (known in certain liberal circles as the organization’s thought police department).Accountability is what Silver can’t see in the Vatican these days. The leaders who were so determined and so fast to marginalize honest dissenters now move only a very few inches, even while acknowledging that inertia is no more a viable option.

  • tslats

    Well, let’s see where this Pope takes things from here.Another good sign that he/they might be finally getting it, at least with respect to abusing children and abetting the crimes, would be the rapid dismissal of Cardinal Law. Can’t think of anyone less deserving of the title.

  • hoya20051

    While I agree with your assessment of the Legionaires, I cringe at your labeling of JPII as “insensitive” to women’s issues, etc. Even after attending Georgetown myself I find it hard to believe you are so liberal as to dismiss Theology of the Body, one of the most developed and might I add beautiful expositions on the relationship between, equal dignity of women and men in light of authentic Christian love. (though Lord knows I didn’t encounter that book at Gtown.) His views on women in the priesthood, etc do not merit the blanket label of insensitive. I further take issue with with the implication that JP was motivated by some desire for self-aggrandizement. If your pejorative use of the word “loyal” means orthodoxy (which I assume it does) then that explains everything.

  • hoya20051

    ” insensitive to women?” Even having gone to Gtown I can’t believe you are so liberal as to dismiss theology ofthe body, one of the most profound and beautiful accounts of the relationship between and equal dignity of men and women. It ushered in the “new feminism” which from a point of view of any concept of true Christian freedom is far more authentic, freedom-fostering and just than the abortion-crazed feminist movements of this time. His views on women in the priesthood do not merit a blanket label of “insensitive”. I also resent the implication that JP was motivated by desire for self-aggrandizement. If the pejorative use of the term loyalty means orthodoxy that says it all.

  • rmkraus

    Father Reese is the perennial antagonist . . . . . my how he loves to bash the hierarchy . . . . the Vatican . . . . I expect that soon he will take Mother Teresa down a notch or two . . . . . don’t expect much in the way spiritual uplifting words from Father Reese.rmk/akron

  • JS72

    Two small points:1) The Church should drop all its metaphors that echo contemporary military imagery because they are exactly and clearly the opposite of the Gospel (e g. “Legionaries”) and are remnants of the ancient Manichaen perversions.2) Rome can act very quickly when it wants to. For example JPII excommunicated a bishop just two days after the bishop ordained four bishops without permission in 2006. How many decades was Maciel known to Rome as a human travesty?

  • areyousaying

    Meanwhile in Ratzinger’s Germany (AP)The 41-year-old claims a chaplain, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, forced him to practice oral sex when he was an 11-year-old boy in the western city of Essen. Yet another daily news story of more abuse and cover ups involving Ratzinger while Donohue Catholics like WPGUEST1 remain in denial and call the writing on the wall “gratuitous Catholic bashing”

  • usapdx

    To hide the truth to protect the image, there will be no washing of the hands from the top to the bottom of the administration of the RCC.It is time for a new clean handed pope and then VATICAN III to turn the RCC around.

  • Aana

    I’m very sorry for the lack of charity in the part of F. Reese.

  • FarnazMansouri

    Brazil arrests ‘pedophile’ priestA Roman Catholic priest has been arrested in Brazil after a video captured on a hidden camera depicted him as sexually abusing a choir boy.Two other clerics also face similar charges as three former choir boys say they have been abused by them.”I want to tell you, your honor, only one word: I’m not a pedophile,” 84-year-old cleric Luiz Marques Barbosa told a court hearing, according to Reuters.The footage, which was broadcast on a Brazilian TV network and is now available for sale in streets, shows Barbosa engaged in sexual misconduct in front of a church altar.The Brazilian parliament has launched an inquiry into the scandal.Barbosa, who is in charge of the parish in the northeastern town of Arapiraca, was arrested this week and is currently under house detention, with his passport confiscated, pending the outcome of the investigation, AFP said on Thursday.The pedophile priest scandal is damaging the Catholic Church’s reputation worldwide and in South America in particular, as the continent is home to over half of the world’s Catholics.Priests there are now struggling to defend the Church’s image.

  • FarnazMansouri

    According to Terry McKiernan, between 1950 and January 2010, six thousand (6,000) pedophile priests had been identified.It is May.

  • RonG1

    Fr. Reese – Well Done!Thank God we still have the Jesuits.

  • publishersplace

    Fr. Reese – Thank you for your quite balanced approach. Balanced people will appreciate it. Those who live in denial of the hierarchy’s dysfunctional attempt to “protect the church from scandal” by keeping it beyond the pale of civil and criminal investigation and liability will, clearly, not have ears to hear what you are saying. Those on the other side of the political spectrum who would condemn earnest and holy if not always well informed pontiffs such as John Paul II to public ignominy and an eternity in hell are likewise deaf to nuanced and well-reasoned arguments.

  • GRobertStewart

    What an insightful commentary! It is clear that the thoughts expressed come from the head as well as the heart–i.e., from a very intelligent man who clearly loves the church and wants the church to be more effective in ministry.We obviously need loyalty, but we need to make sure those in leadership are being as loyal to the folks in the pews and even those who do not grace the church with their presence as they are to those in the hierarchy.Thanks to Tom Reese!