I forgive Pope Benedict. I hope others can too.
I first met Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1994 while researching my book Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. I was about to leave Rome and it was one of the last and most important interviews in the book. Due to illness, he had to cancel our first meeting, then graciously reschedule me at a time when most Vatican officials were taking naps.
At the end of the interview, I asked for his blessing – which I only did with two other Vatican officials – because I felt I was in the presence of a holy man.
But I also knew that I was in the presence of a man who, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had done irreparable harm to theological discussion in the church. There were dozens of theologians who had been studied and silenced by his congregation during the pontificate of John Paul II. Articles and books had been censored. The teachers had been removed from their posts. Even more had practiced self-censorship to avoid harassment.
Among those targeted were liberation theologians in Latin America, moral theologians in the United States and Europe, and anyone writing about the priesthood.
Some of them were my close friends. I lived with two Jesuits who spent most of their sabbaticals defending themselves against attacks from Rome. They weren’t minor characters. One, Michael Buckley, had worked as chief of staff for the American bishops’ committee on doctrine; the other, David Hollenbach, had helped the bishops write their pastoral letter on the economy.
Ratzinger’s problem was that he treated theologians as if they were his graduate students who needed correction and guidance.
Accordingly, my last question to the Cardinal was: “Given the history of this congregation and of the Church in relation to certain theologians — I am thinking of some who were silenced before Vatican II and who were later recognized “Do you ever worry that you might be…?”
He laughed and replied, “Well, every day we examine our conscience whether we are doing good or not. But ultimately only our Lord can judge.” In short, you do the best you can.
My own struggles with Ratzinger began shortly after I became editor of America Magazine, an opinion journal published by American Jesuits. When I became editor in June 1998, I wanted to make America a journal for discussion and debate on important issues facing the Church. I knew there were limits to what we could post. There would be no editorials in favor of married priests, female priests, or changing church teaching on birth control. But I thought we could have discussions and debates in articles that didn’t necessarily represent the views of the magazine.
That summer, the Vatican published documents on the authority of episcopal conferences and on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. I asked around to find the best canonists and theologians to write about these documents and published their articles. I didn’t tell them what to say. For the most part, these were polite responses that began by saying what they liked about the docs, followed by where they thought the docs fell short.
During my seven years as editor, I tried to find writers who would represent different viewpoints in the church. I have published all of a bishop’s submissions (except one). When Cardinal Walter Kasper submitted an article critical of Ratzinger’s ecclesiology, I immediately requested and received a response from him for publication.
I even invited Raymond Burke, then Archbishop of St. Louis, to explain his position on denying communion to pro-choice politicians. But I also published the responses of a prominent canon lawyer and the Catholic representative he had targeted.
We have also published numerous articles on the sexual abuse crisis.
A few years later, Ratzinger, through the superior general of the Jesuits in Rome, signaled his dissatisfaction with the journal. It became clear that, according to Rome, a newspaper of Catholic opinion should express only one opinion, that of the Vatican. Every document and word from the Vatican should be greeted with uncritical enthusiasm.
Conservative Catholic voices in the United States were also attacking the magazine for not obeying the pope. Interestingly, many of those same voices are now criticizing Pope Francis in a tone that I would never have struck with anyone in the papacy.
At one point, the Vatican wanted to impose a committee of bishops as censors of the magazine. Fortunately, Cardinal Avery Dulles and others came to our defense and the idea was tabled.
The final nail in the coffin was a series of articles on same-sex marriage, beginning with one that strongly opposed it by a professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America. In response to this article, we received an unsolicited article supporting same-sex marriage by a Boston College theology professor. I knew it would be controversial, so I allowed the first author to respond to the answer, and thus have the final say. It was not enough.
Shortly after, word came from Ratzinger that Reese was to leave. For various reasons, the message was not communicated to me until after he was elected pope.
I was not surprised when I heard. I had already concluded that it was time to leave. Given my history with Ratzinger, now that he was pope, it was better for the Jesuits and the magazine that I bow out. And although I loved this job, I was tired after seven years of looking over my shoulder.
Granted, I was angry and depressed, but it soon became clear that once I was no longer editor, no one in Rome cared what I said or wrote. I was free. I enjoyed my post-American career as a writer for Religion News Service and the National Catholic Reporter. And the election of Pope Francis lifted my depression.
I am getting old and now I want to forgive Benoît. I want to let go. I don’t think we really grow until we are able to forgive our parents for their failures.
Benoît didn’t ask my forgiveness. I doubt he remembers who I am. He probably still believes that what he did to me and many theologians was the right thing for the church, but I still want to forgive him.
I cannot insist that others forgive him, especially those who have been abused by priests. At the start of the crisis, he was like all the other prelates, but he improved over time and faster than many of his peers. It ultimately helped the church improve its response to the abuse crisis. But my experience is nothing like the pain they went through.
In short, I see Benedict as a holy but flawed individual who did his best. For all of us, that’s the best we can say, so we should forgive as we would like to be forgiven. Ultimately, as he said, “finally, only our Lord can judge”.