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Disturbing the sound of the Pope's silence



If the purpose of t-shirt messages is to start conversation, the must successful effort I have seen was: 'Don't start me talking!' Nothing, it seems, gets people talking as effectively as silence.

Pope Francis at St. Patrick?s Hall in Dublin Castle. Credit: Daniel Ibanez / CNA.It is not surprising that Pope Francis' sustained silence in response to accusations made by Vatican official Archbishop Viganò has provoked so much comment. He simply left it to the journalists to make their own judgment on the case, saying 'Read the statement attentively and you make your own judgment. I will not say a single word about this.'

Many commentators have claimed that his silence has been catastrophic for his reputation and popularity. That judgment reflects common wisdom about public debate. If accusations are made you get on the front foot, immediately argue your case, produce your evidence and use the media to muster public support.

The institution you represent and you yourself will be judged by whether you win over the public to your case. It is assumed that the public have a right to know and that you have a duty to respond to its media representatives who put questions to you. Silence will be taken to reflect contempt for the public, naivety about public conversation, or guilt. It is strategically disastrous.

That view underlies critics' claim that the Pope has lost credibility and support by his refusal to answer the charges made against him. They describe the events as a crisis. By derivation a crisis is a time of judgment. In common wisdom the judgment is made by the people on the strength of what the protagonists say.

In a recent article, however, Francis' biographer Austin Ivereigh claims that his response is not intended to be politically strategic but is made at a deeper religious level. Its rationale was honed at a time when he had been criticised and marginalised in Argentina. Silence in the face of calumny follows Jesus' way of poverty, humiliation and weakness, and can be expected to generate further assault.

It reflects the Fourth Gospel story of Jesus' silence before Pilate, which in turn is grounded in the mysterious Old Testament figure of the suffering servant. He took on the suffering of the people and carried their sins, and 'opened not his mouth, like a lamb that is led to slaughter'. Though he was despised, God worked through him.


"Bergoglio's conviction, echoed in his homilies in recent weeks, is that silence is a proper response to angry accusations made in times of public anxiety."


In Ivereigh's words, 'the purpose of Christ's self-emptying silence — his meekness faced with ferocious hostility — is to create space for God to act. This kind of silence involves a deliberate choice not to respond with an intellectual or reasoned self-defence, which in a context of confusion, of claims and counter-claims and half-truths, simply fuels the cycle of hysterical accusation and counter-accusation. It is a spiritual strategy to force the spirits behind the attack to reveal themselves.'

Bergoglio's conviction, echoed in his homilies in recent weeks, is that silence is a proper response to angry accusations made in times of public anxiety. And just as Jesus' silence before Pilate did not save him from death but proved ultimately to discredit those who plotted against him, so ultimately silence in similar circumstances may lead to immediate rejection but will ultimately serve the cause of truth.

Seen from this perspective, too, the attacks on the Pope provoke a crisis, a time of judgment. But in this case the judgment is made, not by the people after a sifting of claims and counterclaims, but by God. The protagonists, commentators and onlookers are not the judges but are judged. Or better, they stand judged by their own words. In the Fourth Gospel this claim is flaunted in Jesus' dealings with Pilate. Confronted by silence people are invited to reflect on the angers, fears, desires, anxieties and resentments that feed their response.

Perhaps that intuitive sense that in febrile public debate we are ourselves judged by another's silence is the reason why silence is so often met by increased hostility and stridency. Chosen silence is certainly not a strategy for building support. Faced with silence we feel the need to shout it down in order to silence the small accusatory voice in our own hearts. At issue in this kind of silence is not argument but character.

The challenge, of course, is to decide whether the silence is justified or is chosen to evade rightful scrutiny. Ultimately, however, chosen silence in the public square is offensive because it claims that the voice of the people and its verdict have neither the last nor the most telling word. The voice of God speaking through conscience makes a higher claim.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.




Pope Francis photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis



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Existing comments

Andrew I like your argument however it seems to say that the pope is imitating Jesus before Pilate which will never do. There is almost nothing about the Catholic Church organization that resembles the Person of Jesus. Silence is a proper response in the face of an angry mob, but inaction is not. The Pope has done nothing to heal the wounds of abuse victims, nothing to hold offending clergy responsible including those who looked the other way. The mission of Jesus was most remarkable because he healed those who are most vulnerable in society, and he empowered women in a patriarchal system. The silence of Jesus before Pilate was due to the virtue of humility, not humiliation. Silence at a time of vulnerability is an indication of courage, it’s not a weakness. To understand Jesus one needs to be silent in prayer with pure attention to the mystery, followed by actions that unite the wounds of division and idolatry (where church clergy accept no responsibility). Can we say the same about Bergoglio?

Trish Martin | 12 September 2018  

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince.

P Boylan | 12 September 2018  

This avoidance behavior is called stonewalling, and its root is in Clericalism, it is what the bishops used against victims. Pope Francis and the Vatican have chosen to be “non-responsive” just as the bishops did for decades, when it came to the ongoing abuse cover-up. Perhaps Pope Francis could have been more direct as in been open which would have created trust by either stating that he was unaware of the crimes/sins of Cardinal McCarrick or confirming when he was aware of this on-going situation and in doing so give credence to his leadership, which should reflect the integrity of Jesus Christ; silence generally confirms agreement while avoidance relates to self-protection, true leadership instills trust. Of course Pope Francis could now make a statement, giving clarity to the present dysfunctional situation. But the problem now is how can Pope Francis with others break free from clericalism and reflect true headship, when he has with so many others been compromised within the clerical culture of the church, as no man is free from sin, all are entangled within its Web, some more so than others, but nevertheless compromised. A cleansing has to take place and it needs to start at the top as our Lord Himself has given the leadership of the Church the means to do this through the true Divine Mercy message one that incorporates an image of Broken Man "God will not despise a broken spirit and contrite heart” and neither will the faithful. The leadership has nothing to fear, no matter how compromised, as the cleansing grace of humility (Full ‘open acknowledgement of past failings/sins) is the communal bond of love that holds His flock together. Please consider continuing via the linkhttps://acireland.ie/amoris-laetitia-the-joy-of-love-reviewed-by-aidan-hart/#comment-10034 kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 12 September 2018  


Pam | 13 September 2018  

Thank you, Andrew. Your words are right on the mark. Pope Francis' silence is the very best response to the Vigano accusations. I was particularly struck by the comparison with Jesus before Pilate. As someone who has been caught up in ecclesiastical polemics at various times, your article really made me reflect. Thank you again.

Paul Collins | 13 September 2018  

I too thought of Christ's silence before Pilate. Francis may be Pope but he is a Pope whose adult life has been imbued with the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. I see in his behaviour the results of daily mediation on the life of Jesus Christ. The only words recorded in the Gospels as spoken by Jesus in the first thirty years of his life, the silent years, are addressed to his devoted mother and quiet earthy father, "Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father's affairs?" The rest is silence.

Uncle Pat | 13 September 2018  

There is one clear difference (among many) between the silence of Jesus and that of the Pope. In Jesus's situation there were no victims, no one hurting through his actions. While the outcry may be deafening and inappropriate, and this may seem to justify the Pope's silence; the victims themselves deserve an answer.

Vivienne | 13 September 2018  

There are other possibilities for Pope Francis's silence: given the nature of the allegations contained in Archbishop Vigano's testimony and the personnel named in it, there could well be an issue of the confessional seal; and/or there could be a concern on the Pope's part that American Bishop Robert Morlino's concurrent charge that a highly placed "homosexual subculture" rather than clericalism will be identified as the main cause of clerical abuse . . . Obviously, this is an extraordinarily fraught issue - Pope Francis's initial statement to the media did not rule out the possibility of his later addressing it.

John | 13 September 2018  

The silence of Francis is obviously a very considered silence as this morning's news item indicates. Before making a public statement he has decided to call together those who provide him with advice.

nick | 13 September 2018  

Thank you Andrew for a perceptive and accurate account of what is both precedented and to be expected of Pope Francis in this situation.I think there’s an extra thing to take into account when assessing Bergoglio’s moves and the speed of them - how much opposition there is and especially in the Vatican to anything he proposes. Critics of his silence need to take into account just where he is - in the Vatican, where most of the opposition to his reforms is based. How too manage that opposition without enhancing it is a question to be answered carefully. Furthermore, with Bergoglio look more at what he does than at what he says. He consulted the C9 and a statement is promised next week. The calling of the meeting of Presidents of bishops' conferences next February can only mean that that the three dicasteries - clergy, bishops and Doctrine of the Faith - will have enough time to consult and develop a universally applicable pattern of "best practice" for sex abuse that includes the whole Church in all its variety and complexity.

Michael Kelly | 13 September 2018  

Trish, Kevin, Vivienne - 'spot on'. At this stage, unless Pope Francis provides us with more information, the accumulating evidence sadly suggests that for many years he has been an energetic concealer and protector of his sexually-abusive clerical friends. To put it frankly: he's been an enemy of the suffering victims of clerical abuse and injustice. Therefore, is it not entirely inappropriate for him to refuse to address the matters and add insult to injury by pleading the virtue of Christ-like silence. I've been a great supporter of Pope Francis and am now utterly flabbergasted by the revelations of his - let's face it - habitual criminal protection of sexually-abusive colleagues. This is by no means an in-house Catholic scandal. Billions of people across the world want Pope Francis to explain matters and/or to confess his past behaviours were deeply sinful, ask forgiveness, and clearly define a new day for the Church; one of total transparency, justice for even the least powerful, and severe punishment for those who use their positions of power to ruthlessly exploit God's sheep and lambs. Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 13:8 firmly instructs: "We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth."

Dr Marty Rice | 13 September 2018  

It seems Pope Francis and Mr Mueller have a similar method to deal with the incessant media storm. Dont participate ! Seems eminently sensible, and the media bewilderment opens the public to deeper condideration of whats at stake. ref NY Times 13 sept 2018 Special counsel Mueller maintains silence.

jp | 14 September 2018  

Your essay covers it all, Andy, and triggers an insightful exchange from many quarters. My take on it relates to the human factor that even Jesus would probably not have taken responsibility for correcting the sexual sins of so many clerics, all of which shunts back to the forthcoming Synod and the dangers of forwarding so many 'responses' emerging out of the Royal Commission Report to the apparatchiks at Head Office. The boss cocky, coming up for 82, would surely be overwhelmed, even in a work culture known for its fondness for micromanagement and consequent inertia, and allowing for the influence of the Holy Spirit to override the laws of nature. As to the possibility of "a concern on the Pope's part that Bishop Morlino's charge that a highly placed "homosexual subculture" rather than clericalism will be identified as the main cause of clerical abuse", I am appalled that the unverifiable link between homosexuality and sexual abuse, repeatedly advanced by Cardinal Raymond Burke and Archbishop Vigano, both leaders of the conservative faction, should be given playtime in any reputable media outlet, whether Catholic or not, except to reveal the profound prejudice, bigotry and ignorance of both of these homophobic prelates.

Michael Furtado | 14 September 2018  

1 of 2 Michael Furtado "homosexual subculture" rather than clericalism will be identified as the main cause of clerical abuse"… Pope Francis “There is something I have understood with great clarity,” he said. “This drama of abuse…has behind it a Church that is elitist and clericalist, an inability to be near to the people of God.”… The problem of authoritarianism and elitism that is embedded within clericalism emanates from an abuse of this teaching given by Jesus Christ…“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted”…‘Jesus appears to be conveying that His disciples do to take honour to themselves, which did not belong to them; nor even choose to be called by such names, as would lead people to entertain too high an opinion of them, and take off of their dependence on God the Father, and Himself, as these… Continue

Kevin Walters | 17 September 2018  

2 of 2... titles the Scribes and Pharisees loved to be called by, rather look to the mandate given at the last super, to those who would lead in His name’… If I were a Sheppard what would I do- In trust a bowl and towel I would bring to you- A Bondsman to the one above - To All, this must be truly understood - In spiritual poverty we only serve love - Water with grace to clean your heart feet and face - As I wash your feet the Masters heart I will seek - Your heart to mine will surly speak - No one can divide if in the light of the Spirit we truly reside - Our opinions are no longer our own - The Word of God (Will) is all we own - To the Bishop on his throne we will take our towel and bowl - As we wash his feet his heart we will seek - No one hides from where Christ truly resides - Father! with tongue and flame give us unity again…For Jesus, the title of Father is so unique, profound, and intimate that it really ought not to be used for anyone else. Why do we still allow it? Please consider continuing via the link.. https://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2017/12/the-priesthood-dehumanised-australian-bishop-urges-end-to-clericalism/#comment-92779 kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 17 September 2018  

Kevin; you're a true brother in The Lord. How do I know? You prioritise The New Testament, the most precious material object God has provided (27 inspired texts by 9 holy authors): distillate of all Jesus and His chosen apostles said and did. His voice that we must listen to; His Person that we must follow; and, in this, our essential rule and guide. If only the Church had clung close one doubts there would have been an East/West schism, nor Protestant schisms, nor the current Pentecostal schisms. The New Testament is the Good News we should all dwell in and lovingly help each other to obey, no matter what it may cost us personally. God has never provided a second option. The present chaos in Catholicism stems from a pervasive neglect of the Apostolic witness. As things now stand it's difficult to see how the mess can be cleaned up without a new generation of Christ-like men and women leaders who are single-mindedly true to The New Testament in thought and word and deed. There's no eternal life without love of God and Jesus says: "If you love Me obey My commands." Couldn't be clearer than John 14: 23-24.

Dr Marty Rice | 18 September 2018  

Dr Marty Rice, thank you for your generous comment, I propose that the present generation can give the impetus to “a new generation of Christ-like men and women leaders who are single-mindedly true to The New Testament in thought and word and deed”…to be seen as ‘Servant leaders’ ones who serve in humility, as the serving of the truth in all situations, should be the binding mortar that holds them together. The problem; what example (Servant leadership) does the Pope give to the bishops? It is fair to say it is one of personal ‘spiritual worldliness’ that can be clearly seen by faithful, as he does not confront evil openly, rather he colludes with it through been two faced, so as to maintain the status quo within the culture of clericalism. True Christian leadership should instil trust and it does this by telling/speaking the truth, Pope Francis needs to be open, by speaking to the faithful from the heart. Presently he could deal with the McCarrick situation transparently, if he did so, he would have to show his own vulnerability/failings (as all have been compromised within clericalism), at whatever the personal cost to himself, but if he did so, he would lead the church into a new era, one of the ‘Servant leader’ One who follows the teachings/dictates of Jesus Christ, setting an example before the leadership (Bishops), in been Peter, while he stops trying to maintain the status quo of an ‘old boys club’ which is compromising ‘all’ within the leadership. To truly lead he must serve God (Truth) first, and be seen to do so. “The greatest amongst you shall be your servant” a servant gives account to those he serves, as humility/transparency is the ‘true’ unifying bond of Christian leadership. “Hope springs eternal” kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 20 September 2018  

Thanks Kevin. Underlying the scandalous failures of leading clerics we might also notice presumptions stemming from their ignoring of The New Testament. How many abuser clerics and the administrators who have (consciously or unconsciously) facilitated their crimes recognise the relevance of Matthew 24:51; i.e. that The Christ in Glory is returning when they least expect, to cut them in pieces and put them with the hypocrites. Even senior clerics seem to have been blinded by foolish trivialisations of, or distractions from, the final judgments of The Glorified Christ. As in Matthew 25:45-46 ". . whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, . . ." Let's earnestly pray that all our Church leaders come back to the saving humility of single-minded obedience to the uniquely inspired teachings of The New Testament.

Dr Marty Rice | 20 September 2018  

One aspect of this drama increasingly emerging is that, despite what he said on the flight back from Ireland, Pope Francis is clearly NOT remaining silent as Jesus did. In the first place, Pope Francis has from the get go allowed his media-savvy supporters - Frs Rosica & Spadaro, Austen Ivereigh, Cardinal Cupich, etc, etc, to speak out energetically in his defence. I have no objections to a defence as such. But Pope Francis can’t credibly assume a Christlike “silence” while simultaneously permitting his attack dogs to bark about his “silence” being a Christlike virtue. When Peter leapt to Jesus’ aid in the Garden, his meek Lord said to him, “Put your sword back in its scabbard”. He didn’t sneakily say “Go for it, just as long as I’m not seen to endorse your efforts.” Secondly, as time has gone on, Pope Francis has himself used his daily sermons to imply that those who complain about bishops who abuse or cover up are agents of the Great Accuser. In fine, he’s preaching loudly to the pious masses that Archbishop Viganò et al are mouthpieces of Satan. But because his condemnations are uttered within an incense-shrouded liturgical - not a judicial – setting (nor even a press conference where at least sharp questions can be put), Pope Francis is not compelled to produce evidence and submit his case to curial inspection. Your Holiness, it’s not a good look when you mount the church pulpit to demonise your accusers and then wrap yourself in the silence of Christ as you exit the West door.

HH | 21 September 2018  

Many thanks HH for a well researched and important new perspective on the persistently Machiavellian machinations of our dyed-in-the-wool clerics who are masquerading as critics of clericalism! We'd have to be real Galahs to believe them, for even a moment. Many thanks too to Fr Andrew for the important article.

Dr Marty Rice | 21 September 2018  

“The voice of God speaking through conscience makes a higher claim”....Many hope for divine intervention to deal with the chaos within the church at this present moment in time as the leadership of the Church have betrayed its core values (Teachings), so how could one trust, a given trust that has been shown to be so untrustworthy? Can trust be restored?.. A culture of seen accountability is needed for a transformation to occur, as powerful men, with evil intent, have spiritual ‘abused’ their positions, while dressed in the mantle of Jesus Christ. This evil intent does not stem from human weakness, as pride is of the devil. And this Pride/arrogance has manifested itself, at the pinnacle of the church, in a manner that cannot be misunderstood, as this ongoing hubris can clearly be seen by all, as the leadership have twisted the Inviolate Will/Word of God and created a self-serving image, one of worldly goodness, and placed it in God’s house to be venerated. The church acknowledges that God Himself has spoken her in the present time as its actions confirm this. It is said that silence is golden, but “the voice of God speaking through conscience makes a higher claim” as only one person at this present moment in time, has the authority to reverse this evil, before God and the whole Church. Does Peter/Francis continue to collude with this clerical arrogance, or does he bow down in humility before God, dressed in the mantle of Jesus Christ. In obedience to the original intended request given by our Lord Himself to His Church, and embrace in humility, the self-endorsed ‘true’ image of Divine Mercy, one of Broken Man. And as an ‘individual’ lead/teach with integrity, in enlightening us all, to do the same. kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 22 September 2018  

Thanks brother Kevin. Your love is evident in your gentle and compassionate suggestions for behavioural transformation in the clergy. Paul's second letter to Timothy is surely the crème-de-la-crème of Paul's faith relationship with Christ and of his apostolic ministry; Paul's 'last testament' before martyrdom under Nero in AD 67. This letter is authenticated in the earliest Church documents and today's scholarship finds evidence that faithful Luke also contributed to its final form. Here we have a highly-talented person turned around and commissioned by the Risen Lord; filled by The Holy Spirit; and, whose contribution to the Church is an order of magnitude above any other apostle or anyone since. His instructions to Timothy should - logic suggests - be basic for all aspiring Church leaders? Yet, many a Church leader today is of the opposite ilk. Ambitious, acquisitive, deceitful, unfaithful, unreliable, dominating, impure, abusive, collusive, sometimes criminal, non-accountable, quarrelsome, and roundly ignorant of (or at least ignoring) the specific commands of Jesus Christ laid out in black-and-white in The New Testament. The evidence for countless despicable crimes and injustices among their brotherhood have perturbed them very little. There's no detectable movement among Catholic Clergy for deep metanoia and reform. Is this because they think: "Why should we worry? We have all the properties, the wealth, the status, the schools, universities, hospitals, the best PR machine, the smartest/most expensive legal minds, and an almost infallible 'old-boys-network'. Anyway, people by the millions demand religion of some sort and we know how to give it them. Money and position's what counts. Truth: what's that?" Mission-wise: being of this world's spirit sabotages our capacity to be the True Light the world so desperately needs.

Dr Marty Rice | 24 September 2018  

Thank you Marty, for your considered and informative response. Yes, “Paul's second letter to Timothy is surely the crème-de-la-crème of Paul's faith relationship with Christ and of his apostolic ministry”... I suppose that these words given by Jesus Christ: John 16:33 "You will have tribulation, but be of good cheer!"… Apply as much today as they have done throughout the history of the church. Hope springs eternal; sincerely, kevin your brother In Christ.

Kevin Walters | 25 September 2018  

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