Vatican Time Warp
The newsmagazine launches a snide attack on the Pope.


George Weigel

It’s not easy to understand the decision of Time’s editors to run the magazine’s current (June 7) cover story, with its cheesy title, “Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.” The lengthy essay inside breaks no news; it recycles several lame charges against Benedict XVI that have been flatly denied or effectively rebutted; and it indulges an adolescent literary style (e.g., “mealymouthed declarations buttressed by arcane religious philosophy”) that makes one yearn and pine for the days of Henry Luce.

The lengthy story is also poorly sourced, relying (as many such exercises do) on alleged “Vatican insiders” and giving analytic pride of place to the Italian Church historian Alberto Melloni.

As real Vatican insiders know, real Vatican insiders don’t give back-stabbing and score-settling sound bites to the American media. That practice is more typically indulged in by clerics far down the Vatican food chain, monsignori who have no real idea of what’s happening within the small circle where real decisions get made inside the Leonine Wall, but who are happy to chat up journalists over a cappuccino or a Campari and soda while pretending to a knowledge they don’t possess. Such sources can be occasionally amusing; they are almost never authoritative.

Professor Melloni, for his part, is the leader of the “Bologna School” of Vatican II interpretation, which has long argued that the Council marked a dramatic rupture with the Catholic past. That interpretation was authoritatively rejected by the 1985 Synod of Bishops (in which Joseph Ratzinger played a decisive role) and more recently by Benedict XVI in his 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia. So Professor Melloni is hardly the man to provide dispassionate commentary on the life and times of Joseph Ratzinger, or to make a plausible case that the Catholic crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance was caused by the Catholic Church’s failure to follow the Bologna School’s counsel and becoming another variant of liberal Protestantism. Melloni on Ratzinger is like Paul Krugman on Reaganomics: Caveat lector.

The Time story may serve a useful purpose, however, in that it encapsulates, within ten pages, many of the things the world media continue to get wrong about the Catholic Church, the Vatican, and the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Here are a few of the more significant misunderstandings within Time’s cover story, although Time is hardly alone in circulating these fictions:

The Pope is an absolute monarch. During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI proposed that the Council’s central document, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, include the affirmation that the Pope is “accountable to the Lord alone.” This suggestion was rejected by the Council’s Theological Commission, which wrote that “the Roman Pontiff is also bound to revelation itself, to the fundamental structure of the Church, to the sacraments, to the definitions of earlier councils, and other obligations too numerous to mention.” Pope Paul quietly dropped his proposal.

Thus the papal magisterium — or what Time calls, in a rather overwrought tone of voice, “the historic, cumulative and majestic authority of the Pope to teach and preach the will of God” — is not something that each pope invents out of his own intellectual resources. Popes are the servants of an authoritative tradition; they are not the masters of that tradition. For Pope Benedict to speak of sexual abuse in the language of evil, sin, repentance, penance, and forgiveness is for him to speak the Church’s proper language, which is not the language of the politically correct “apology” to victims of wickedness, either alleged or (in the case of sexual abuse) real.