Sunday, 21 March 2010

Office and person in the light of Pope Benedict's letter

A conversation yesterday has prompted me to return again to the theme of a distinction between "office" in the Church and the "person" who might occupy that office. Roughly speaking, this distinction asks Catholics to keep a respect for the dignity of the "office" - that is, for the dignity of the place and being of the Bishop, priest, religious superior - in the Church. It also asks them to be realistic and honest about the people who might fill those offices - in other words, the failings of the people who are Bishops, priests or religious can be the subject of appropriate condemnation. Maintaining this distinction is to an extent an act of justice towards those very many Bishops, priests and religious - the large majority - who have not been guilty of any sinful or criminal conduct, or of covering it up, in the context of the child abuse scandals.

A group of people who might consider this distinction are those who have been scandalised or upset, even to the point of abandoning their practice of the Catholic faith. Yes, you are quite right to express your indignation and horror at what individual Bishops, priests or religious have done and to expect a redress - as Pope Benedict expresses it in is letter, confession and penance within their Christian life and the verdict of appropriately constituted tribunals in the civil arena. But the distinction between "office" and "person" allows you at the same time to keep your regard for the "office", for what I might call "bishop-ness" or "bishop-hood" - and so to keep your practice of the Catholic faith. Though the following passage from Pope Benedict XVI's letter is addressed most immediately to those who are direct victims of abuse, I think those who are victims through their being scandalised can also read it in the light of their own situation:
....... It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.

Speaking to you as a pastor concerned for the good of all God’s children, I humbly ask you to consider what I have said. I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace.
I think that the distinction between "office" and "person" is important for all Catholics in how they respond to the attacks on the Church in the media, particularly those sections of the media that are inspired by secularist ideology. Fr Tim gives an idea of the flavour of this media coverage here. It serves their purposes very well to confuse this distinction, and use (justified) attacks on Bishops, priests and religious who have shown failings in their lives as attacks on the institutions of the Church precisely as institutions. If this is not to undermine the faith of Catholics, or how non-Catholics in general view the Church, we need to be able to articulate a response that draws the distinction between "office" and "person" clearly. Pope Benedict's letter to the Church in Ireland, acknowledging as it does the failings of those concerned and initiating a realistic programme of action in response to them, is an important resource for this. In the world of the media, we can only successfully maintain the importance of the distinction between "office" and "person" when the failings in the area of the "person" are fully and clearly acknowledged.

The calling that we all receive, lay, religious or ordained, in the Christian life is that we, as persons, live our lives in complete accord with our "office". In the terms used by Hans Urs von Balthasar, particularly in reference to the mission of Jesus Himself, we are called to an identity between our person and our mission. Re-establishing this identity in the life of the Church in Ireland is the purpose of the programme of action outlined in Pope Benedict's letter.

1 comment:

Fr Tim Finigan said...

St John Fisher and St Thomas More give a shining example of distinguishing between the man and his office. They went to their deaths upholding the authority of the Pope despite the bad example of Popes in their lifetime. (I mention this in my article for the Catholic Herald's Easter Supplement.)