The Problems of Big Popes and Little Popes

Leave aside for a moment the fact that  the secular media  never likes to miss an opportunity to discredit Chistianity, the cover story of this week’s TIME Magazine deserves its place.  It is entitled–“Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry,” and details the extent of the current pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church and the attempts to cover it up. It outlines again the series of national church scandals of child molester priests in Ireland, Wisconsin, Boston, Belguim, Austria, Minnesota, and Brazil.  It chides the current pope for his apparent mismanagement of what happened to an accused pedophile priest under his charge when he was Archbishop of Munich.  And it explores why he doesn’t and perhaps can’t admit to being a part of the problem.

Of course, behind all this is the issue of how any pope can admit his errors without diminishing the authority of the magisterium and undermining the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility.

TIME then asks,  how can Pope Benedict XVI  lead the church “to properly atone for another stain on its history:  the decades of cases of child abuse by priests and cover-ups by their bishops?”

Here is where we need to do some straight, Biblical thinking as Christians.  The answer is, he can’t.  Atonement is the work of only one, and Pope Benedict, like everyone of us, is unqualified to atone for anything.   Atonement is the work of Christ the redeemer.  It only comes to us when by faith we depend on Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins on the cross.  While we can’t atone for anything, we can, (both clergy and laity), confess our sin and repent of it.   In the process, justice may need to be carried out and restitution made.

It is important to remind ourselves just how despicably  wicked it is to have pastors, youth workers, bishops and archbishops, who are supposed to be caring shepherds and a force for good in this world, betray their calling and molest children.  The physical, emotional and spiritual damage this betrayal of trust does to children is immense.  Perhaps that is why Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel,  “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (18.6).

Lest anyone take delight in pointing fingers here, remember that Scripture also says there is “none righteous no not one.”   Depravity is pervasive.  It extends to lay and clergy, to Protestant and Catholics, to Christian and secularist.   The truth is, these sins, especially in our overly sexualized culture,  extend far beyond the Catholic church.  More than that, this attitude of non-apology is pervasive as well.

Think about it. Fewer people believe in the reality of sin.  The closest we get to real apology is often—“I’m not perfect, but…”   In marriage counseling it is often difficult to get a each partner to admit their contribution to the problem.  In business matters, lawyers  counsel you to never  admit you are wrong.  In basketball play offs, players intentionally foul, and then feign innocence when the ref calls them on it.  This is the routine posture of many in our culture.  It is difficult to get anyone to admit they are wrong.    Is it a surprise then when this attitude seeps into the church?

It has been said that while Protestants do not have a big pope, in reality they have lots of little popes—that is,  leaders who often assume pope-like attitudes when it comes to criticism.  Instead of modeling humility, quick confession, keeping short accounts, improving our repentance, and being the first to admit when we are wrong, we often see this same reluctance to say and show we are really sorry.

TIME worries that the current scandal “has blunted Pope Benedict’s ambitious enterprise of re-evangelizing Europe.  It surely has. In fact, whenever this attitude is on display, (let alone clergy sexual abuse) it causes people to run from, not to, the church.

But what if….what if….we started early.  What if…we taught our people from the earliest years to learn to say those important words, “I am sorry, I was wrong, please forgive me?”  What if…we trained the leaders of the church to model, not cheap repentance, but real repentance?  What if we went out of our way to bless the children and  not hinder them from coming to Jesus?  What if…the pope himself were to add credibility to his profession by saying, not only that the church has allowed this wickedness, but that he too became part of the problem?  What  if he were to commit the church to redouble its efforts to care for the young?  What if he were to say, that like everyone else, he too needs a savior, and needs his sins atoned by the only one who can truly bring forgiveness?

That would be stunning.  It might even lead to another church reformation.  In fact, it might even cause the most hardened skeptic in Europe and America to sit up and take the church and its gospel seriously.


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