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Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St. Peter square at the Vatican, Wednesday.23 October  2013

Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St. Peter square at the Vatican, Wednesday.23 October 2013

Of all the topics to approach on my return, that of the present Pope ought, probably, to be the last one. At the moment his reaction to allegations of child abuse in the case of Bishop Barros have raised real concerns about his grasp of such a crucial issue; it is, his critics and supporters (agreeing for once) quite unlike him. But then what would it mean to ‘be like him’?

His critics focus on his reaction to the issue of re-married people within the Catholic Church, rightly pointing to the ambiguity of his stance. If anything is clear in this mess, it is that Francis himself wants to extend mercy to couples he thinks needs it, finds the traditional teaching of the Church an impediment, and is looking to see whether allowing local bishops to make a decision is a way to achieve that objective. In view of the fact that Catholic teaching was formulated to deal with Catholic marriages, and in view of the the fact that many converts contracted marriages in other denominations (whose orders the Church does not recognise) or civilly, there is a case for considering how to deal with a pastoral situation exacerbated by our Society’s inadequate understanding of what a sacramental marriage is; whether Amoris Laetitia is the optimal way of conducting that discussion seems doubtful. But the blunt response that teaching designed to deal with Catholic sacramental marriages has to apply to all marriages, seems worth questioning.

But now the Pope finds himself embroiled in a sex abuse scandal concerning the Chilean Church. Christopher Altieri, a respected Vatican commentator, sums it up admirably in the Catholic Herald:

At this point, there are four possibilities: Collins  [Marie Collins, a former member of the Pontifical Commission on abuse and Cruz [who alleges he was a victim of Fr Karadima’s abuse, and who wrote an 8 page letter to the Pope which she gave to Cardinal )O’Malley] are both lying about the letter; Cardinal O’Malley gravely misrepresented the diligence with which he discharged his promise to deliver it directly to Pope Francis (though Collins has expressed full confidence in him on several occasions); Pope Francis received the letter and did not read it; Pope Francis received it and read it, only to forget about it.

We hear much from the Pope about the rigidity of clericalism, but in all of this there is something of that. It is the echo of the way in which Churchmen of the Pope’s generation deal with these cases as they first came to light, that is within the Church and without regard to external standards of safeguarding. At the very least the Pope needs to clear this up swiftly. But, as with the famous dubia, His Holiness has been swifter to condemn his critics than to answer them. At some point, smelling of the sheep involves deal with them in a transparent way. One can only hope.

Why hope? There is an almost open sense of something like schadenfreude among some of the long-time critics of the Pope at the latest trials, but that is to ignore that, as ever, there are two sides to the story. To say that the Pope has attracted praise from non-Catholics is a double-edged sword to those Catholics who feel betrayed by what they see as his departures from the straight way; but if the Church speaks only to itself in language it alone understands, it betrays its Great Commission. One might feel the Holy Father goes too far in the other direction, but Mission matters. It would be a great shame if yet another Pontificate were to be mired by the enduring legacy of child abuse.

Satan knows his enemy, and he will always target the One True Church. Since the late 50s, at least, we had had what amounts to a Catholic Culture war between modernisers and those who feared that the baby was being thrown out with the bath-water. The fruits of modernisation are meagre, and whilst the German Church maybe extremely rich in cash, thanks to the Church tax, it is, like most other European Churches, poor in vocations and people in the pews.

The Catholic Church is far from alone in fighting this culture war. In my own former Church, the Anglican Church, with a patrimony which has much to contribute to the Catholic Church, a route has been taken which Catholic modernisers can only envy; but they might like to ask themselves whether the current situation there is one they would wish to imitate?

The Catholic Church is identified with the successor of St Peter, and it is a matter of regret that any Pope should become the object of partisan manoeuvrings; but it was, history suggests ever thus, just not so widely known in an era before mass media.

As Lent approaches, each of us can only do what we are taught to do, which is to pray for the Holy Father, our Archbishops, Bishops and Priests, and the Religious. They are the front line of the war against Satan, and they need the support prayer provides.