The newswires are carrying this story this morning: Vatican official tells paedophile priests to expect damnation. It is a classic case of the “chinese whispers” effects which often happens with stories eminating from the Holy See. I was especially surprised to read that Msgr Charles J. Scicluna (the man who has been in charge of handling the canonical response to charges of sexual abuse by priests since Cardinal Ratzinger appointed him in 2001) was reported to have said outright “that those who hurt children should be thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck.”
The circumstances was a “service of reparation” – actually an hour long service of Eucharistic adoration including a meditation by Msgr Scicluna and ending in Benediction – which was organised by the seminarians in Rome last Sunday. The full text of Msgr Scicluna’s mediation is helpfully provided by Zenit here.
John Allen’s report on the service and on what Msgr Scicluna actually said is better than The Guardian’s, but even he loses some of the nuance of the meditation, which was not quite as pointed as he reports it. Allen reports that:
Christian friendship, Scicluna said, is “submitted to the law of God,” so if a member of the church is an “occasion of sin,” then a believer “has no other choice … but to cut this tie.”
Weeding out abusers, Scicluna implied, is a form of “divine surgery” intended to save the body by amputating a diseased part…
The remedy to such scandals offered by God as the “Divine Surgeon,” according to Scicluna, is to “cut out [disease] in order to heal,” and to “amputate in order to restore health.”
Beyond such drastic measures, Scicluna also proposed the “preventive medicine” of solid formation for future priests, calling on them to be on fire with the faith, making them salt and light for the world.
I am not quite sure that this is exactly what Scicluna was actually saying. Here is the section from the actual meditation:
But the Lord, who does not enjoy the loss of his servants and does not want eternal death for his creatures, immediately adds a remedy for condemnation, a drug for the disease, relief from the danger of eternal damnation. His are the strong words of the Divine surgeon that cuts to heal, amputates to cure, prunes so the vine bears much fruit:
“And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mark 9:43).
“And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off” (Mark 9:45).
“And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (Mark 9:47).
Several Holy Fathers interpret “the hand,” “the foot,” and “the eye” as a friend dear to our heart with which we share our life, to whom we are bound by ties of affection, harmony and solidarity. There is a limit to this relationship. Christian friendship submits to the law of God. If my friend, my companion, a person dear to me is for me an occasion of sin, a stumbling block for me in journey, I have no other choice. According to the criterion of the Lord, this relationship must be cut. Who would deny the agony of such a choice? Is this a cruel amputation? Yet the Lord is clear: It is better for me to go alone in the Kingdom (without a hand, without a foot, without an eye), than to go with my friend “into hell, into unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43; cf. Mark 9: 45,47).
He then goes on to quote St Paul to the Romans in Chapter 7, where he says:
The reference to the hand, the foot, and the eye recalls the words of the Apostle Paul in the letter to the Romans:
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members [my emphasis] another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:21-25).
The Apostle of the Gentiles, who became a witness to the Gospel of grace (Romans 1:16a), does not surrender to our propensity to sin. He exhorts the Romans with fiery words that invite them to conversion and fidelity: “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6:19).
He then goes on to speak about the need for the “fire” of God to purify us of our attachments:
“This effect of the divine fire, however, frightens us, we are afraid of being ‘burned,’ we prefer to stay just as we are. This is because our life is often formed according to the logic of having, of possessing and not the logic of self-giving. Many people believe in God and admire the person of Jesus Christ, but when they are asked to lose something of themselves, then they retreat, they are afraid of the demands of faith. There is the fear of giving up something nice to which we are attached [my emphasis]; the fear that following Christ deprives us of freedom, of certain experiences, of a part of ourselves. On one hand, we want to be with Jesus, follow him closely, and, on the other hand, we are afraid of the consequences that this brings with it.
So my reading of what Msgr Scicluna was talking about is that the “friends” from which I must detach myself are in fact those attachments that lead me into sin, rather than particular persons from which I must cut myself off.
As for the comment about being thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck, Msgr Scicluna was not, of course, advocating a new universal canonical policy, but simply quoting Jesus (Mark 9:42) as a warning to those who make themselves an “obstacle” in the way of children coming to Jesus, who “hinder their spiritual progress”, who “let them be seduced by evil” and who “make children the subject of [their] impure greed”.
Perhaps all this was just a little to subtle for the news reporters to understand. Or perhaps I am reading it wrong. What do you think?