When Jesus chose Peter as his chief apostle, he knew he was delegating his authority to a very weak, and very flawed man. Peter was impulsive, inconstant, given to cowardice, and – by his own description – quite a sinner. Yet Jesus, the all-knowing Son of God, chose him over all the others.
And Peter’s denial of Jesus just before the crucifixion was not the end of his constant screw-ups. He tried to lie to the apostle Paul, in regard to his opinion on keeping Kosher, and even tried to cover his tracks about having lied (Galatians 2:11). Up until the end he kept screwing up, and those around him kept recording his faults. Legend has it that when Nero began his persecution of the Christians in Rome, Peter headed straight out of town, and would have kept going if the risen Jesus had not bumped into him and asked “quo vadis?”, hey, where are you going? But legend also has it that he came to his senses, returned to Rome, and was crucified upside down on the Vatican hill.
Every pope after him screwed up in various ways. Three examples should be enough.
Pope Honorius I (625 -638) agreed with the monophysite heretics in a private letter, and his remains were later dug up and thrown into the Tiber River.
Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) had several mistresses and fathered a brood of ruthless illegitimate children, one of whom – Cesare Borgia — was not only made bishop at the age of 15 and cardinal at the age of 18, but actually went on to become a formidable back-stabbing warrior, and the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince, the ultimate how-to manual for unprincipled tyrants. As if this were not enough, he also inspired the lurid and dreadful Showtime television series, “The Borgias.”
In 1517, when Pope Leo X first heard of an Augustinian monk in Saxony named Martin Luther who had angered a Dominican preacher by challenging the legitimacy of indulgences, he dismissed all the fuss as nothing more than another “monkish squabble” between religious orders. Of course, we all know what happened next: the Protestant Reformation.
What are we to make of this, those of us who are Catholics? And those who are not?
The First Vatican Council proclaimed in 1871 that the successors of Peter are infallible in questions of faith and doctrine, that is, they are incapable of leading the faithful astray when it comes to their salvation. But it said nothing about the pope’s private life and his behavior concerning earthly matters.
Up until today, all of this had been a very abstract issue for me. Yes, I knew all this, and have studied it and taught my students about it ad nauseam, but I had never been affected by a papal failure of character until today.
Today reminded me of Good Friday. It felt like it, more than any Good Friday in recent memory. There was an abject despondency in the air, an oppressive grief beyond words. A crucifixion, multiplied eleven million times.
Today His Holiness Benedict XVI disowned Christ in Cuba. Today, he averted his eyes from the eleven million crucified Cubans in his midst, as he celebrated the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist. Today, he chose not to speak for the crucified, or to chasten their tormentors. Instead, he spent his time criticizing the so-called embargo, blessing the tyrants, and preaching a platitudinous sermon written for the theological faculty at the University of Regensburg rather than for the Cuban people.
And his subaltern, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana, beamed with satisfaction at the abject submission of Church to state.
I am saddened, yes, as are many other Cubans. I wept today. I am beyond sad: today has been one of the blackest days for me in a long time. The clouds hung low. At one point the sun was blotted out. I could not help but see eleven million crosses, with bodies writhing on them, stretched from one end of Cuba to the other. But I am not broken. Nor is my faith shaken. God works in mysterious ways. The Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, Pope Benedict XVI has betrayed Cuba. So what? Aside from questions of faith and doctrine, he is as fallible as all of us are, and as prone to moral failure. And as a Catholic, it is my duty to pray for him.
I am angry too, yes. Mad as hell. I am angry at the old man, Joseph Ratzinger, and at the subalterns who advised him and made excuses for him. But popes have screwed up before, and will continue screwing up. And it isn’t up to any pope, or cardinal, or any foreign power to free Cuba from its tyrants. It is up to us, and to us alone, whether there or in exile.
His Holiness Benedict XVI did all Cubans a great favor today, when you look at his behavior from a crtain perspective. He showed us that we cannot depend on anyone to help us.
Forget the pope. Let Peter weep, when he comes to his senses. Weeping is not for us, nor is whining. Forget any power on earth. Forget the differences between Catholics and non-Catholics. Forget heaven above, forget hell below . Cuba is hell on earth, our hell. Our task is to fight the tyrants and those who set up the eleven million crosses. Our role is to stand up to the tyrants and the henchmen who set up the crosses, wherever we are, and to remind the world constantly of their crimes against humanity.
Eventually, we shall overcome. Yes, we will.
But first, we have to realize where we are, and what the hour demands of us. Right now, for every Cuban, everywhere, there is but one question to answer: “quo vadis?”