Columns Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

On his visit to Chile, Pope Francis does something uncharacteristic … He shows that he is ‘fallible.’

Pope Francis talks with journalists during his flight from Lima, Peru, to Rome on Jan. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino; caption amended by RNS)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sightings is sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox twice per week (on Mondays and Thursdays). You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Between or after sessions at Vatican II, a circle of us “guests” were conversing with—which meant “listening to”—the Pope. (How’s that for name-dropping on a wintry day?) In one exchange, as my late colleague Robert M. Grant recalled it, the Pope misidentified him. Grant mumbled to himself and to us, later, “He is making a mistake, and he’s supposed to be infallible?” Grant loved tradition and was not uppity, and he certainly knew what the official definition of “papal infallibility” signaled. While the Catholic Right finds plenty of the “fallible” in Pope Francis, many of us non-Roman Catholics find plenty to affirm in his actions and words.

Such an affirmation does not mean that the Pontiff gets a free ride, especially from journalists and critical historians. We believe that we serve him and Church and world best by honest appraisals. This week count me in among the company of those who believe the Pope made a major mistake in dealing with one issue of priestly (including pontifical) administration: namely, a sexual abuse case. Pope Francis was in Chile, which is not the least uncritical locale for Catholic dealings—the Church is declining in numbers and influence there these years—and, for the most part, served up his usual mix of appealing approaches to personal and ethical issues. Specifically, in this one case, however, he was reported to have “accused victims of Chile’s most notorious pedophile of slander … an astonishing end to a visit meant to help heal the wounds” caused by the sexual abuse scandal.

It turns out that “until he sees proof that Bishop Juan Barros was complicit in covering up the sex crimes of the Rev. Fernando Karadima,” the disgraced and ecclesiastically exiled bad guy, criticizing him amounted to “calumny.” At our geographical, ecclesiastical, and reportorial distance, it is not possible to make a clear case that the Pope was fallibly overstepping here. But a Chilean judge had found Karadima’s victims to be credible, and many sources corroborate their testimony.

If the Pope has difficulties sorting this out, why should the general public presume to comment? I’d begin by saying that the general public would like to hear more. It would be important to know on what grounds the Pope can be true to himself, the Pope as we know him, and then at the same time make such a severe judgment that can be harmful to his causes, including the Chilean church.

Reactions continue. “Pope’s Comments Anger Priest Sex-Abuse Victims in Chile” was a January 19 headline. Ryan Dube’s story begins: “Pope Francis drew anger from victims of clerical sexual abuse in Chile when he said they had slandered a bishop who is accused of covering up molestation of minors.” Rather defiantly the Pope said, “The day that you bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I’ll speak … There isn’t any proof, it is all calumny. Is that clear?” One of the outraged victims asked whether the Pope wanted him to take a selfie while he was being abused and say, “hold it one second while I take a photograph with you abusing me and Bishop Barros standing beside me … How do you do that?”

Please don’t read this as a rush to judgment. But it is a word of caution and puzzlement and hope that this act, which counteracted the good which the Pope’s visit was intended to promote, is uncharacteristic of Pope Francis. I am going to continue to favor him in his pontificate, crossing my fingers while I give him the benefit of the doubt. We’ll await more explanation from him, who remains a hero to so many in a time when heroes and exemplars are few.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.

13 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Why do people think this is uncharacteristic of the Pope? This is the same Pope Francis who compared transgender people to nuclear weapons and complained marriage equality is a threat to the family.

  • Fallible in all aspects of Catholicism is he.

    Also think about the logic (or lack thereof).

    “I believe the Bible is inspired.” “Why?” “Because it says so.”

    Would anyone let that logic pass if it came from the followers of any other book
    or person?

    “I believe x is inspired because x says so.” Fill in the blanks:
    x=Pat Robertson
    x=the ayatolloah Sistani
    x=David Koresh
    x=the Koran”

    more “logic”?

    “I believe there is One God Jehovah because He is revealed in the infallible
    Bible. I believe the Bible is infallible because it is the Word of the One God Jehovah.”

    As circular thinking still abounds on the planet!!

    And actually, Jesus was a bit “touched”. After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today’s world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Many contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J’s gospel being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today’s followers of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah/Argentine white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher/magic man would do or say?

  • Because it is not only me but some one billion other non-believers out there.

    http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

    Religion…………………………Adherents

    Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

    Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion

    Hinduism 900 million

    Chinese traditional religion 394 million

    Buddhism 376 million

    Animist religions 300 million

    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million

    Sikhism 23 million

    Juche 19 million

    Spiritism 15 million

    Judaism……………………………………..
    14 million

    Baha’i 7 million

    Jainism 4.2 million

    Shinto 4 million

    Cao Dai 4 million

    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million

    Tenrikyo 2 million

    Neo-Paganism 1 million

    Unitarian Universalism 800,000

    Rastafari Movement 600,000

  • The National Catholic Register and you, Betty Clermont, have proven to be the least reputable of purveyors of anything having to do with this pope. You have shown time and again that you will not stop at anything to discredit him and continually try, unfectively, to bring him down. You’ve been at it for 5 years now and Pope Francis is still held in high esteem by the majority of the world, warts and all. Very few find either you or The National Catholic Register credible sources. They are using the EWTN translation (CNA is their news venue) of his news conference, another unreliable news venue for anything dealing with this pope.

  • Was Pope Francis also “misreported” when he claimed transgender identities were “ideological colonization?” I’m getting tired of all the excuses from Francis apologists for his bigotry that isn’t any different than the hatred Benedict preached. The only difference was Benedict was at least honest about it but Pope Francis is two faced and will pretend to be kind and loving when speaking to Western media while preaching hatred and bigotry when he speaks to Catholic countries.

  • Again, Pope Francis is two faced in that he will pretend to act kind and friendly when he’s talking to LGBTQ people or when he’s under the camera of Western media but will turn around and throw LGBTQ people under the bus to appease conservative bigots. The notion that Pope Francis’ religion is all that is preventing him from evolving on LGBTQ matters should be why LGBTQ people should be questioning religion and not turning to it to be our saviors.

  • 1. You would be unable to produce one quote of mine that is inaccurate or untrue.
    2. You would be unable to produce one transcript of this in-flight press conference that differs from the citation I provided.

  • Obama and Clinton changed their minds on marriage equality because the LGBTQ community spoke out against their political hypocrisy and progress made in the changing cultures made it easier for them to come out in support. But Obama and Clinton were not leaders on marriage equality and their decisions to switch positions, while welcome, were as much about political calculations as it was about a genuine change of heart. Yet according to your argument we shouldn’t be just as critical of Pope Francis as we were of Obama and Clinton because Pope Francis’ being old and religious somehow excuses his bigotry yet any sign of progress in the church no matter how mild is also all thanks to Pope Francis. And LGBTQ and progressive Catholics have been challenging the church for it’s bigoted teachings decades before Pope Francis came along, so the notion all this progress is all thanks to him and not the hard work of grassroots activists seems like a bold statement.

ADVERTISEMENTs