Sunday night, as I stood in my back garden observing the lunar eclipse, I noted that the moon turned dark on the very day that the Pope celebrated a huge public mass in Protestant America. I am biblical enough to know that prophetic movements can be accompanied by celestial ‘signs’; I also know that the old Adventist teaching as to how the ‘deadly wound’ of the papacy will be ‘healed’ has lost favor with many of Adventism’s educated elite. Still, I would invite us all to read Revelation 13 once again, and note that for such a maligned interpretation of Scripture, this one is proving to be uncannily accurate.
We all know that the Pope spoke at length in the Senate Chamber to a highly receptive audience. Were I not an Adventist, the Pope’s address would probably have seemed both fortuitous and welcome. Yet, 50 years ago, such an event would have been unthinkable given America’s protestant identity and heritage. Things have changed in our country: the old antipathy between Catholics and Protestants has vanished. Most consider this to be a good thing; only Adventists do not see this change as hopeful in quite the same way as others do.
I could not believe my ears when I heard a journalist quip, “I’m an atheist, but I could actually follow this Pope!” Even more bizarre, I listened as a chorus of commentators intoned the Pope’s unimpeachable moral credibility. What I did not hear were any media voices willing to observe how this papacy has pretended to great moral authority in spite of the serial rape of children at the hands of its clergy over many years and around the world. To be sure, the Pope met with some of the abused victims; he expressed great sorrow for their pain, but I cannot understand how this culture of abuse can be described as now possessing such a vast weight of moral authority in the person of its head bishop! I should think quite the opposite would be the case.
The Pope’s formal statements appear to urge reform and real sorrow for victims, but just this week, the Pope congratulated hundreds of his American Bishops for their ‘courage’ in handling the child sex abuse scandal. For the victims of the abusive priests, this comment represents an outrageous level of duplicity, given that some of these same bishops did all that they could to cover-up the scandal and to shuttle priests from diocese to diocese in an effort to protect both the criminal priests from prosecution.
The Pope has dismissed three bishops guilty of gross negligence for allowing offender priests to continue abusing children, but they have not been stripped of their office as bishops. Meanwhile, a recently appointed Chilean Bishop, Juan Barros, has been accused of protecting a notorious paedophile priest (his mentor, as it turns out). Three actual victims have identified Bishop Juan Barros of having been present in the room as the abuse took place. Of course, the offending priest has escaped government prosecution due to the statute of limitations and is now living in solitude protected by the Church. Thirteen-hundred Chilean church members sent a letter to Pope Francis begging him to rescind the Barros’ appointment; 30 priests sent a similar letter, but the Vatican did nothing; instead, it reiterated its unqualified support for Barros. At Barros’ innaguration, protestors filled the Church, while most of the diocese’s priests boycotted the event. In this light, Pope Francis’ uplifting rhetoric rings false. How could a man of such supposedly high moral credibility read even a few of those 1,300 letters from his own members (and priests) and decide to retain Barros in such a high office?
Andrew Chesnut, a professor of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University has observed that although the Pope has promised to “implement a zero tolerance policy… the church continues to spend millions of dollars litigating cases and refuses to divulge records of priests who have been accused.” In short, the public persona cultivated by this new Pope appears to belie the true character of the papacy. But we would be wrong to think, even for a moment, that this will prove his undoing.
Revelation 13 describes a ‘deadly wound’ that is healed; this healing implies a perverse kind of miracle, given that fatal wounds, if allowed to run their course, should lead to death. The ‘miracle’ in this case can only be that so many otherwise intelligent people are willing to exempt the papacy from a basic level of moral accountability on the grounds, apparently, that the Pope offers them what they want. The papacy will excite wonder and admiration not because it has achieved any true moral or spiritual reform; rather, the wound will be ‘healed’ only because the world will happily suppress the truth in order to embrace a lie perfectly targeted to meet their desires.
In our time of spiritual and moral relativism, well-crafted lies enjoy real legitimacy, not least because lies that conform to our desires have become the only truth we can believe in anymore. The actual truth (the papists’ egregious moral failures, for instance) no longer matters to us, once the Pope emerges as the one who might help us to recapture and secure our ‘personal peace and affluence’, to quote the late Francis Schaeffer. In this sense, the Pope’s much vaunted moral authority need have nothing to do with who he actually is or, more to the point, what he actually does or does not do. According to this new morality (and its underlying epistemology) spiritual and moral truth, such as it is, can only be constructed by virtue of our having need for it. We make it, and, therefore, it must serve us.
The postmodern ‘No Truth; only politics’ line does not mean that we do not believe in anything; it only means that what we believe in cannot be true in the old sense of the word, and therefore, we are free to believe or disbelieve in what we like. We like this Pope’s words; we do not want to be bothered with anything else. His failure to act on his own promises with respect to child abuse in the Church can be suppressed just so long as he offers to us what we want, and since what we want has become the only truth we trust anymore, the ‘deadly wound’ is healed, and a corrupt papacy may insinuate itself back into geo-politics as a saintly broker of peace, good-will, and unimpeachable virtue (whatever those words no longer mean).
We have a choice here as a Nation: we can focus narrowly upon the Pope’s meager virtues (for instance, his choosing to live in an apartment instead of the Papal palace) or we can observe his callous insistence that a Bishop implicated in a serious child rape scandal be allowed to continue in office with full Vatican support. In light of such deadly moral contradictions, a blood moon seems to me an appropriate token of the papacy’s true character, and a present warning of what is still to come.
Karl G. Wilcox is a Professor of English at Southwestern Adventist University.