Misunderstanding Popes

Pope FrancisOne of the dangers of having a new Pope is that we see everything he says and does as a break from the actions and words of his predecessor. This is especially true if the charisma of the new Pope is so different than that of his predecessor.

In the short weeks since his election, Pope Francis has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of lots of people, through his easygoing nature as a people’s person, at comfortable with social interaction and obviously valuing the contacts with his coworkers, not just in the Curia, but also the people working the kitchens, offices and streets of the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI is clearly a more private man, appreciating the quiet of his study and his books, of contemplation and the written word. That is not to say that he avoided people, or that Pope Francis is a stranger to solitude and careful thoughts, but for the sake of this blog post, the difference is certainly noticeable.

Does this make the one Pope better than the other? Obviously not. But there is risk that we start thinking of the one we most easily identify with as the origin of many seemingly new thoughts and actions.

Today, Pope Francis told Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, to continue “along the lines set by Benedict XVI, act decisively with regard to cases of sexual abuse”. Many media, both secular and Catholic, reported this today as a new position taken by the Holy Father, as a tougher stance on sexual abuse. This is, as the official blurb says, quite untrue. Pope Francis wants to continue what Pope Benedict started.

Of course, Pope Francis’ recommendation is praiseworthy, but it must not be understood as a divergence from the path taken by Pope Benedict XVI. It is a continuation. By presenting it otherwise, we unfairly pit the one Pope against the other, and depict Pope Benedict as somehow not as good as Pope Francis. And why? Only because Benedict is less of a people’s person, more retiring and at ease with decorum and ritual than Pope Francis is.

It is true, both Popes are different, but neither exists in isolation. Father Z is right when he says that we should “read Francis through Benedict“. If we don’t, we not only run the risk of misunderstanding either man, but also of being guilty of deception and, in fact, superficiality.

The Michelle Martin case – Christian charity?

Over the past days there has been much talk about the suggested early release of Michelle Martin, the ex-wife of Belgian child molester and murderer Marc Dutroux. Convicted in 2004 of complicity in the abuse and death of two of Dutroux’ victims, she was sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment. Now, after having served 8 of those years, and having served 8 more years before her conviction, she is up for early release. Although this yet needs to be granted by a judge, a community of Poor Clares in Namur has indicated that Martin can take up residence with them following a future release.

Abbess Sister Christine spoke about their decision on 31 July.  She said, “[…] we thought that, in our society, no one would win if we would respond to violence with violence.  We are convinced that permanently locking up of criminals in their criminal past and leaving them to despair would mean a step backwards for our society.”

After much deliberation the Poor Clares of Malonne indicated two conditions. First, that the current administration of justice is fully respected, and, second, that Martin shows true progress and is able to fully commit herself safely and with the slightest chance possible for recidivism.

Following all this, there have been protests at the monastery, and altogether too many tasteless accusations that linked Martin’s crimes to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church (and, in extension, Catholics in general are made suspect). The Poor Clares’ decision to display such enormous hospitality, although it befits their vocation, is presented as if they condone the crimes and, in fact, made the decision to release Martin themselves. The latter is up to a judge to decide, and the former is, frankly insulting.

The sisters of Malonne have nothing to say about the administration of justice. Go protest at the courts of law if you are against the early release of Michelle Martin. There is nothing the Poor Clares can do about it. What they can do is provide a safe house for a person who, according to the law, paid for her crimes. A house safe for her and which makes her safe for society.

Mother Abbess emphasised that Michelle Martin will not become a sister or join the religious community in any way. She will be provided with food and lodging and required to contribute to her own life. She is kept away from the site of her crimes (the Belgian provinces of Limburg and Liège have been declared off-limits to her).

Is this a matter of justice? Not in the sense that Michelle Martin has avoided punishment for her crimes. She has served the time the law requires of her. Whether or not we believe that that time has been too short is of no matter when looking at the case from a purely legal point of view.

The Poor Clares in Malonne, in going through the effort of housing Martin, go beyond the precepts of the (secular) law, providing for these thoughts that, somehow, she hasn’t paid enough for her crimes. Michelle Martin is kept away from where she could, in theory, do harm or cause scandal.

This is not condoning misdeeds, but providing for the best solution for both Martin and society. To somehow twist this into an accusation against the sisters and Catholics in general is something I consider gravely insulting.