Does Time need to say, 'We're sorry'?

Guilt is a heavy burden sometimes. Every now and then, I tear a long article out of a mainstream magazine or journal that clearly deserves comment and put it in the front pocket of the shoulder bag that I carry while commuting. The longer and more complex the article -- or the more horrible its contents -- the more likely it is to linger in the bag, caught in layers of guilt that get harder and harder to crack. This brings us to that recent Time magazine cover story on Pope Benedict XVI and the clergy abuse scandal.

My first thought, when I read it, was that the article wasn't all that bad -- but that the headline on the cover was ridiculous. (More on that in a moment.)

Then I decided that the article wasn't all that bad, except for a stunningly horrible lede. (More on that in a moment.)

Then I decided that the article contained a few interesting ideas, but that it was doomed by -- ironically -- it's all-knowing magisterial tone and its utter dependency on anonymous sources and long, long, long passages of analysis that have no attribution whatsoever for the information contained in them. This is kind of where I have ended up.

Luckily, I bumped into an analysis online by a professional Vatican watcher -- the conservative thinker George Weigel -- that, in its opening paragraphs, put many of my feelings into words. Thus, read this, care of National Review Online:

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." ...

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.

Now, the problem with this analysis is that it is easy to dismiss it as the whining of a pro-Vatican conservative. The problem with that is that, as even the Time cover notes, conservative Catholics have been some of the fiercest critics of how bishops have mangled or strangled many attempts -- over three decades -- to bring the horrors of this crisis into the light of day. I mean, I am still trying to finish Leon J. Podles' epic, brutal and livid "Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church," a massive tome that makes we want to rethink my total rejection of the death penalty.

This multi-generational crisis is truly not a matter of left and right. There are horrors in all kinds of closets, with Catholic conservatives hiding dark secrets as well as Catholic liberals.

The Time article also gives a small amount of space to the voices that argue that Pope Benedict XVI has been a trailblazer in reform on this issue, as well as a man who, when caught in the maze of ecclesiastical politics, may have been forced into silence or some bitter compromises. But the Benedict attackers are given way more ink, naturally. It's the pull of MSM gravity.

Thus, the Catholic wire Zenit is able to critique the article in this manner (landing a major punch by quoting that lede that I mentioned earlier):

It would probably be too much to ask that Time magazine run a cover story on the bold statements and concrete actions that Benedict XVI has taken to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis. No self-respecting journalistic enterprise wants to be separated from the pack when it comes to covering a controversial news story, which means it must always follow the herd, even when the evidence points elsewhere. ...

"Why Being Pope Means Never having To Say You're Sorry: The Sex Abuse Scandal and the Limits of Atonement" is the provocative headline splashed across the most recent Time cover, which also features an image of the back of Benedict XVI's mitered head. Lest we have any doubts where this is heading, the lead sentence of the story manages to drag in the Inquisition: "How do you atone for something terrible, like the Inquisition?"

So what did I find interesting in this piece?

Well, that would be the very last paragraph, which quotes one sobering vision of the Catholic future.

By the way, try to keep reading after the horrid and inaccurate use of the word "prophecy" in the first sentence of this passage. I realize that it's hard, but please read on:

A conservative website is circulating a prophecy uttered by a 42-year-old Catholic theologian in 1969, amid the turmoil of that year of radicalism and barricades. The priest envisioned a post-imperial papacy, shorn of wealth and pretenses of earthly power. "From today's crisis, a church will emerge tomorrow that will have lost a great deal," he said on German radio. "She will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning. She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor. Because of the smaller number of her followers, she will lose many of her privileges in society. Contrary to what has happened until now, she will present herself much more as a community of volunteers ... As a small community, she will demand much more from the initiative of each of her members and she will certainly also acknowledge new forms of ministry and will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs ... It will make her poor and a church of the little people ... All this will require time. The process will be slow and painful." The theologian was Joseph Ratzinger. And his vision from 40 years ago may now unfold in ways he could never have imagined.

By the way, if you attempt to read the Time cover story from beginning to end, if helps to keep asking a basic question: What do the editors mean when they say that "being pope means never having to say you're sorry"?

Obviously, the pope has said that the sexual abuse crisis -- including the episcopal cover ups -- has been rooted in sin and immorality and that many leaders in the church have been guilty. He has expressed regrets. He has urged reforms. He has talked about the "filth" that haunts the life of the church. He has sought forgiveness from victims and has urged bishops to do the same. Is the key here that he has not personally apologized for his own actions, as framed by media reports? Is that the key?

If so, is the crucial issue here actual reform in parishes and dioceses around the world, or some form of media-friendly act of personal penance? Would that be satisfactory? If so, I assume that kind of public statement will eventually be made.

But I have my doubts. I mean, what does the headline on the Time cover actually mean?

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