Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.
It was an unprecedented act. Never before in the history of the nation had the prime minister publicly — in the legislature and filmed for wide media distribution — delivered such a broadside against the Vatican.
The prime minister deplored the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.” He called on the Catholic Church to listen to “evidence of humiliation and betrayal” and abjure the parsing and analysis of lawyers.
That prime minister, or Taoiseach, was Enda Kenny and he was speaking to the Irish parliament, in July of 2011 following the publication of the Cloyne Report, which had highlighted sexual-abuse crimes in the Irish diocese of the same name.
The dust-up following Mr. Kenny’s excoriation resulted in the withdrawal of the papal nuncio by the Vatican secretary of state, and the retaliatory closing of the Irish embassy to the Holy See.
Undoubtedly, Mr. Kenny’s performance was more than moral outrage — and the political repercussions for him and his party were a boon. There is, however, a special sadness in the fact that Mr. Kenny’s Dáil jeremiad came just a year after Pope Benedict XVI’s Pastoral Letter to the People of Ireland, in which he declared that “those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we feel.” It was as if nothing had been learned.
Rapprochement subsequently occurred: The embassy in Rome was reopened, a papal ambassador took up residence in Dublin, efforts at repair are ongoing, but the memory of the Taoiseach’s address linger and sting still.
Fast forward to Ottawa and the decision to debate an NDP-originated motion calling on the Pope to formally apologize to the victims of residential schools, garnering the full weight of the Commons and Senate, and driven by the disappointment created in light of the Pope’s declining the invitation by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to do precisely that: apologize in person. This motion is as much moral censure a la Mr. Kenny’s speech as it is a political response to the Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation that the pontiff be invited to do so on Canadian soil.
The decision by Pope Francis to decline doing so has been received with pain, incredulity and mystification by most Canadians, including most Canadian Catholics. Why would a pope, this pope in particular, be reluctant to follow through with Mr. Trudeau’s invitation? After all, humility is a byword for the Bergoglio papacy, and he has throughout his life as a priest vigorously defended those on the periphery, the marginalized and the persecuted. He has kissed the feet of Muslim prisoners, welcomed migrants into the papal household, travelled to dangerous regions of the world to stand in solidarity with outcasts, and most recently, acknowledged an error in judgment on his own part regarding the behaviour of a Chilean bishop he had previously defended.
This is not a pope who avoids his pastoral charge, minimizes his own leadership failings, nor rationalizes his way out of responsibility by blaming his predecessors.
So what gives? It is fear that paralyzes, dilutes moral probity, blunts prophetic witness. The fear of protracted accountability, fiscal peril, reputational loss of face and political manipulation by hostile forces mutes our voice when it should be given unfettered freedom.
Popes don’t invite themselves to a country; they are invited. And if it is a state visit, the invitation is mediated by both the government authorities and the national bishops conference. The Pope is both a universal pastor and the head of a sovereign power; his visits will always have both a political and pastoral dimension. The astonishingly successful visit of Francis to the United States, where he addressed the combined Houses of Congress, is a case in point.
It is easy to surmise why the Canadian bishops might be inclined to view Francis’s compliance with Mr. Trudeau’s wish as ill advised: Their lawyers might be skittish about vicarious liability vis-à-vis the Pope and the residential schools; claims on remaining compensation will be difficult to counter with a pope known for his mercy on site; given the quite justifiable pique of the bishops toward a self-identified Catholic prime minister keen on circumscribing the role of conscience with his Canada Summer jobs restrictive funding, they are not disposed to give him any legitimacy on the political front; the prohibitive nature of their cost-sharing for the papal visit following the disastrous financial headaches they inherited because of the World Youth Day folly they got saddled with in 2002; and the pending bankruptcies of some smaller Quebec dioceses on the horizon.
Compelling reasons all and not to be trivialized or judged through a cynical lens. But in the end, doing the right thing has always been costly. It is the nature of discipleship.