A penitent Pope is still a Pope. Pope Francis may want sincerely enough to model himself on the saint from Assisi, but he is still the head of the huge hierarchy of the Roman Church, still a man who takes hierarchical power for granted, rather than seeing it as a problem for disciples of Jesus. This has led to a peculiar blindness which allowed him to call sexual abuse “caca” meaning shit, or filth, as the decorous translators rendered it. That’s a dead give-away. He sees the abuse as some kind of disgusting sexual perversion, rather than what it is: an abuse of power. Why does a dog lick its testicles? Because it can. Why do clergy abuse children and vulnerable adults? Because they can. And they can, because of the power they possess. The actions of a pope after all are usually under continual scrutiny – the excesses of the Borgia popes are a thing of the past, or have been transferred to the White House-whereas the Parish Priest retains an unchallenged and often unsupervised power in his parish. Should he act in ways that cause offence he will be reported to a Bishop whose greater power may protect him from the criminal law. Of course, hierarchical power may sometimes be in the hands of saints, but it’s interesting to observe how often it’s in the hands of those who love it.
As the laws protecting children and vulnerable adults from abuse have been applied in all institutions in Scotland, there has been a greater measure of scrutiny of those who hold executive power within them. Ministers of my church, for example, have to undergo the same police checks as the lay leaders of children’s clubs. And rightly so. A church member discovering abuse reports immediately to the safeguarding representative who reports directly to the police. There are serious doubts as to whether this basic limit on ecclesiastical power has been accepted in the Roman Church, whose hierarchy does not want its fundamental structure to be questioned. The Pope’s horror at abuse does him credit, but it does nothing at all to stop what is fundamentally an abuse of the same power that makes him what he is.
If we are looking for a way forward for the church, we could usefully reclaim the Jesus who especially welcomed children, spoke gravely about crimes against them, and used them as a model for the powerlessness on which his community should be built. When he knew his disciples were bickering about power he took a child, telling them that they had to change and become like little children, emphasising that those who did so were the greatest in God’s kingdom. He promised that whoever welcomed a child welcomed him. He threatened that anyone who harmed one of his little ones would be better drowned in the sea. This last saying opened the category of “little ones” to include any powerless person who believed in him.
The implications of this teaching for the leadership of Jesus’ community are evident when he used another category of powerlessness to instruct his disciples, that of the slave. The force of his language is often lost because the Greek word for slave is often translated as “servant” which makes it all English upper class domestic.
”You know that those who rule the gentile peoples dominate them, and their great men wield power over them. But it shall not be so amongst you…..whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.”
If we look honestly at the structure of the Roman Church, is it more like the teaching of Jesus or the practice of the “gentile peoples”? I don’t think there can be much doubt about the answer. In spite of every person in the clergy saying that they are there to serve, there is no doubt that they can wield power if they choose to do so, and that the experience of that power opens them to corruption. I should add that although the structure of the Presbyterian church was devised to prevent that kind of power, by giving authority to elected elders, there is plenty evidence of both ministers and elders wielding arrogant power over the members of a congregation.
The leaders of Christian churches should share the powerlessness of Jesus. The apathy of church members often cited by clergy as a reason for the weakness of the church, is a powerlessness imposed by clergy who have taken all the power to themselves. Yes, there is a question about how there can be leadership without power over others, but there is an answer to that in the charismatic model proposed by St. Paul: God’s spirit provides people with the gifts needed to carry out particular functions in the “body of Messiah”, and such leaders have to persuade their fellow members to follow their lead, as Paul does all the time in his letters; he has to argue for the way of Jesus Messiah; authority is a matter of function rather than status.
Of course the church is an institution, as the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew. It exists in worldly space and time alongside other institutions. Its distinctiveness must be its absolute commitment to those who have no status in the eyes of the world, the child, the foreigner, the oppressed, and to the God who chooses to suffer with the little ones so that they may share his/her justice. In that church there can be no popery nor ministerial power, but only the community which “calls no man Father, for One is your Father, namely God.” The safety of children demands the reformation of the churches according to the teaching and example of Jesus.
None of what I have said here is original or profound but merely an exposition of what it means to be children of God, so how come I’m having to act as a teacher to the Pope?