A statement is attributed to an elderly, ailing and increasingly isolated pope, wading into one of the most raucous controversies in the Church. It unleashes a firestorm, with people challenging whether the pope actually said it, what he meant by it, and if he really knew the ends to which it would be put.
Alarmed by the prospect for embarrassment, the pope’s top aide tries to put some distance between his boss and the controversy, but other principals offer alternative versions of events. Those speaking out most loudly seem more interested in scoring political points than establishing the truth, and in the end, ordinary onlookers are left utterly unsure of what to believe.
With the small caveat that it’s about a pope emeritus, not a sitting pontiff, that could easily be a description of the current fracas surrounding Benedict XVI and a new book on priestly celibacy. In fact, however, it’s a spot-on synthesis of the tempest that erupted in 2003/2004 around St. John Paul II’s alleged endorsement of Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ,” expressed in the infamous soundbite, “It is as it was.”
For those who don’t remember, or who didn’t pay attention in the first place, Gibson’s “The Passion” caused a sensation when it came out in 2004. It immediately splintered Catholic opinion, with some finding it a gripping depiction of Christ’s suffering and death, others finding it excessively violent and explicitly anti-Semitic.
As that debate took shape, it emerged that a private viewing of the film had been arranged for John Paul II, which took place over two nights to accommodate the ailing pope’s reduced focus and energy levels.
Afterwards, news reports claimed that John Paul had issued an epigrammatic line upon completing the viewing: “It is as it was.” The suggestion was that the film was a faithful depiction of the Gospel narrative, and it was immediately seized upon by producers and promoters as a papal endorsement.
(In the interests of full disclosure, I was one of the reporters who broke that story, based on a background comment from a senior Vatican official extremely close to John Paul II who was involved in organizing the screening and who was present afterwards when the Polish pope supposedly made the remark.)
The idea that John Paul would have given the equivalent of a Siskel and Ebert “thumbs-up” to such a controversial film immediately stoked backlash, which caused his private secretary, then-Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, to issue a statement essentially asserting the pope had said no such thing. That, in turn, caused other Vatican officials, including papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, to issue their own “clarifications” which clarified very little, and in the end, it was completely unclear to anyone what, if anything, the pope had actually said.
In the meantime, what seemed abundantly clear was that people opposed to the movie didn’t want the pope to have said anything nice about it, while people supportive of it were determined to leave the suggestion that he did, so in both cases the contest was less about reality than appearances.
No one, to be honest, came out of the episode looking especially good. Flash forward sixteen years, and here we would seem to be again.
Once again, a controversy is swirling in the Church, this time over clerical celibacy and the decision facing Pope Francis over whether to take up a recommendation from the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon to permit married priests on a limited regional basis to better serve isolated rural communities.
Once again, a pope has been perceived as taking sides in that debate, only in this case a pope emeritus, in the form of a book originally touted as co-authored with Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea and titled From the Depths of Our Hearts. Once again, questions have been raised about what the pope in question knew, when he knew it, and whether he intended the ends to which his statement have been put.
Once again, the pope’s secretary (German Archbishop Georg Gänswein) has tried to put some space between his boss and the controversy, once again others (in this case, principally Sarah) are insisting the pope was fully informed, and, once again, most ordinary people are probably flummoxed about what in God’s name is actually going on.
Once again, many of the people carrying this debate - this time around, mostly on social media - seem only fleetingly interested in the facts, and far more passionate about making the other side look bad. Finally, once again, the obvious simple step - to go ask the pope in question what he meant, openly and for all the world to hear - is something no one seems especially inclined to take.
One could, of course, regard all this as no more than an entertaining but ultimately irrelevant sideshow. Just as the fate of Mel Gibson’s movie was never going to rise or fall on what John Paul II said about it, in all likelihood whatever Francis decides to do on married priests will not depend on what Benedict XVI knew about the new book.
However, there are perhaps three matters of consequence worth pondering.
First, the affair can’t help but seem a blow to the Church’s credibility, since an impression has been left of power politics, infighting, and cynical manipulation. That’s not just a problem for Benedict, Sarah, and the rest, but for anyone who has to represent the Church, in any context and at any level.
Second, this situation is a reminder that the institution of a “pope emeritus” remains entirely new in the life of the Church, and there may be the need for some further reflection among canon lawyers, theologians and others on the role and functions of a retired pope, given that this is unlikely to be the last time we face such a scenario.
Third, the situation also would seem to beckon an examination of conscience among those who engage in public discussion about the Church. Granted, we live in a hyper-partisan era in which spin sells, and there don’t seem to be many rewards for patience and restraint. However, to paraphrase “A Man for All Seasons”: “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world …But for your Twitter following??”