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Some thoughts on a possible papal pardon for Paolo Gabriele

November 13, 2012

The ink was hardly dry on Paolo Gabriele’s conviction last month for stealing hundreds of confidential documents out of Pope Benedict XVI’s personal quarters when there was open curial speculation about the possibility (nay, probability) of a papal pardon being accorded the disgraced ex-butler. Fueling such speculation has been the pope’s sending of a book of psalms to Gabriele and, just a few days ago, reports that a commission of cardinals investigating the theft has “green lighted” a reprieve of Gabriele’s already reduced sentence.

Now, I have no idea whether Gabriele ought to be pardoned—only the pope knows for sure—but I can foresee, I think, some significant questions being raised about such a pardon if it comes to pass.

Consider: in the book-length interview he granted to journalist Peter Seewald, Benedict observed: “After the mid-sixties [punishment] was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people. Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.” Light of the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 2010) 25-26.

To be sure, the gap between these papal words on the appropriateness of just punishment and a papal pardon of a serious crime against the governing authority of the Church is not unbridgeable but, should such a pardon be issued, a coherent reconciliation of these two views would certainly need to be provided.

Personally, I don’t see the pope’s sending a devotional book to Gabriele as a sign of coming leniency; I see it more as a sign of continuing love. Benedict was the victim of a very serious crime, but he still loves the offender. The pope seeks Gabriele’s personal good but, precisely as pope, Benedict also has the future of the papal office to consider; pardoning Gabriele could well make the next pope’s job that much harder to perform—and who knows better than Benedict how hard it already is to be pope?

Update, 22 Dec 2012: Gabriele was pardoned today.

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