I would pray, papally, about what it means to be a Christian. I would take all of my fears of fraud with me. I would ask about the end game—and whether revenge or punishment ever got anybody, anywhere, closer to Jesus.
I know the punishmentalists and literalists love to “get back” and get even. Since I can’t imagine what full payment would be on the debt of even one pedophiliac act on one child, the rest of the calculations are beyond my calculator’s capacity. Most sin costs the perp and the perped-upon immeasurably. Pedophilia, on the scale that we now know is taking place in the church, is beyond data in its multiplication of misery. It gives new meaning to the word immeasurable.
Likewise, say we purporting Christians, God’s grace is immeasurable—as wide as the sea, as uncountable as the sand on the shores.
If I were Pope, I would find a number—like ten years—and lock up all those convicted of child abuse for ten years. Of course, this number would be meaningless—long enough to hurt and short enough to imagine a future. This very act would undercut the current refusal of grace and forgiveness by naming an endgame, a positive outcome, a spirit-driven metanoia.
Talk of hopeless revenge, banning people whom we can’t stand, putting them “away” forever, imitates the very kind of incarceration systems we oppose. They say you are a sinner and you can’t be forgiven. Nothing could be more opposite of Christianity or the Jesus way as this revenge. Punishmentalists, progressives and fundamentalists all argue, in different ways, that Jesus died to save us from our sins. Incarceration argues this foul theology as well. Why would the Pope put a lie to the very tradition he proclaims?
During this arbitrary time, former priests would be offered the chance for full repentance. They would be offered the chance to return to humanity, but never to the priesthood. There would be beautiful worship, superb counseling, group work that would make AA look unsophisticated. There would be vocational retraining.
There would be decent food and decent gyms, inside and out of prisons. There would be trees. There would be a gift to the sinner that would feel Christ-like. We would be shown what all prisons and jails and detention centers could look like. Jesus walked the edges of villages and welcomed prostitutes and the people who ate the wrong or “impure” kind of food. He got killed for his excessive healing love of sinners. Why follow him with frightened self-righteousness?
At the end of the period of repentance the sinners would be forgiven. They would be marked with the sign of the cross, as we do on Ash Wednesday. We would use ashes made from burnt written confessions made at the start of the decade-long retreat. The priests would demit their positions in the ministry, formally, on paper, never to return to their position of authority. Returning to humanity is different from returning to leadership.
Christians believe that death actually yields life, that within every death, there is new life lurking. Jesus died, Jesus lives. There is no calculable way to measure the death these many priests have caused. Those of us who have Easter sermons to write know that many more people won’t darken our doors because they just can’t “trust” anything like church. Why would they? We only purport to be Christians when we punish sinners or banish sinners or click our self-righteous tongues at them.
Some will say my idea will just encourage bad behavior. St. Paul asked, “What then shall we sin more so that grace may abound?” I will retort with Paul that people who molest children are so shamed by the very idea that they don’t seek the essential help that might have prevented their misery and that which they inflict on others. Shame and blame, fraudulently, replaced grace and mercy.
If I were Pope, I’d use this awful death to demonstrate repentance and Easter thinking. Extravagant mercy could flow from the hearts of those who can forgive, while holding people accountable for great sin. Saying that they are going to burn in hell is exactly the opposite of what Jesus offered.
Purporting to follow Jesus is trying to forgive. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” People can’t stop talking about the bombed church parishioners in Charleston who prayed for the power to forgive their attacker.
If I were Pope I’d offer an expensive and effective mercy to the sinners, not a cheap ineffective judgement.