SINS OF THE CHURCH ARE ITS GREATEST PERIL, SAYS POPE

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Speaking to reporters on his plane en route to Portugal, Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday said that the “sins inside the church” posed the greatest threat to Catholicism.

By Rachel Donadio
The New York Times

LISBON —In his most direct condemnation of the sexual abuse crisis that has swept the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday said that the “sins inside the church” posed the greatest threat to the church, adding that “forgiveness does not substitute justice.”

“Attacks on the pope and the church come not only from outside the church, but the suffering of the church comes from inside the church, from sin that exists inside the church,” Benedict told reporters aboard his plane en route to Portugal, speaking about the abuse crisis.

“This we have always known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way, that the greatest persecution of the church does not come from the enemies outside but is born from the sin in the church,” he added. “The church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute justice.”

In placing the blame for sex abuse directly on the church, Benedict appeared to distance himself from other church officials who in recent weeks have criticized the news media for reporting on the sex abuse crisis, which they called attacks on the church.

In recent months, the sex abuse crisis has revealed an ancient institution wrestling with modernity and has brought to light an internal culture clash between traditionalists who have valued protecting priests and bishops above all else, and others who seek more transparency.

The crisis has also raised questions about how Benedict handled sex abuse as prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as bishop in Munich in 1980 when a pedophile priest was moved to his diocese for treatment.

A traditionalist but also a strong voice within the church calling for purification, Benedict met privately with victims of sex abuse on a brief trip to Malta last month, his third such meeting. In March, he issued a strong letter to Irish Catholics reeling from reports of systemic sex abuse in Catholic institutions. And last week the Vatican took control of the Legionaries of Christ, a powerful religious order whose founder was founded to have abused seminarians and fathered several children.

But the pope’s off-the-cuff remarks on Tuesday were his most direct since the crisis hit the church in Europe earlier this year.

On the plane, Benedict told reporters that the church had to relearn “conversion, prayer, penance.”

The pope landed in Lisbon on Tuesday for a four-day trip to Portugal aimed at underscoring several themes of his papacy: the threat posed by secularism in Europe, the dialectic between faith and reason and the role of ethics in economics.

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Pope Benedict XVI spoke with D. Jose Policarpo, the archbishop of Lisbon, left, and the priest Jose Manuel dos Santos Ferreira at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon on Tuesday.

Portugal has been hit hard by the financial crisis, and markets are jittery about its prospects of getting its debt and deficit under control. En route to Lisbon, Benedict told reporters that the financial crisis and the threat to the euro were an opportunity to reintroduce a “moral dimension” to economics, a theme he raised in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” which appeared last year.

“The events of the last two or three years have demonstrated that the ethical dimension must enter into economic activity,” Benedict said. “Now is the time to see that ethics is not something external but internal to economic rationality and pragmatism.”

In Portugal, Benedict is also expected to underscore the church’s stance on social issues. A largely Catholic country, Portugal legalized abortion in 2008, and its Parliament, which has a Socialist majority, approved a same-sex marriage bill earlier this year, which the president has not yet signed into law.

On the plane, Benedict said that Portugal, with its Catholic roots, post-colonial heritage and multicultural present, represented a place where faith and secularism were not mutually exclusive. Later on Tuesday, Benedict was expected to celebrate an open-air Mass in Lisbon.

On Wednesday, he is expected to travel to the pilgrim shrine of Fátima on the tenth anniversary of the beatification of two of the three shepherd children who say they saw a vision of the Virgin Mary there in 1917. John Paul II credited the Virgin of Fátima with saving him from an assassination attempt in 1981 on the anniversary of the apparition.

Tradition has it that the Virgin revealed three secrets to the Portuguese peasants, which the Vatican acknowledged in 1930. The first was a vision of hell, which some interpreted to predict the end of World War I and the start of World War II. The second told of the rise and fall of Communism and included an appeal for the conversion of Russia, which gave Fátima an anti-Communist allure during the cold war.

In 2000, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, oversaw the Vatican’s revealing the famous third secret of Fátima after years in which its mystique had developed a feverish cult status for some Catholics.

Disclosing the secret in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, then the Vatican secretary of state and now the dean of the College of Cardinals, said that the third vision was of a “bishop clothed in white,” the pope, who makes his way through a field of martyrs, which the Vatican interpreted as prefiguring the assassination attempt on John Paul by the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

In his comments on Tuesday on the sex abuse crisis, Benedict said that the message of the Madonna of Fátima could be extended not only to the “suffering” of John Paul, and therefore of popes, but also to the suffering of the entire Catholic Church.

Presenting the third secret in 2000, the future pope said the images of Fátima were not to be taken literally, but rather “synthesize and compress against a single background facts which extend through time.” He added then that the apparitions at Fátima had a central message: “Penance, penance, penance.”

See Related: CATHOLIC CHURCH SEXUAL ABUSE OF CHILDREN ARCHIVE


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