St Mary Magdalene, Mgr Battista Ricca and Public Reputation

I have been taking a little holiday from blogging for all kinds of reasons, not least that I had nothing to say that others were not saying better, but today’s feast of St Mary Magdalene and the allegations made against Mgr Battista Ricca have made me think about public reputation and I’ve decided to share my thoughts, such as they are, on this blog.

Most of us don’t have to worry about our public reputation. We are so obscure that, beyond our immediate family, only a handful of friends and acquaintances have any opinion on the matter. Those who have had their characters blackened by others are more sensitive on the subject. They know how unfounded rumours are transmuted into facts, and long after they thought all was ‘done and dusted’, the untruths continue to shape the narrative of their lives. St Mary Magdalene, for example, is often misidentified as a notorious sinner. Down the ages she has been portrayed as a whore and worse. We are told that Jesus cast out seven demons from her (which is morally neutral at the least), but beyond that, everything we read about her in the gospels is positive. She dearly loved the Lord and saw him more clearly through her tears than any of her un-weepy brethren. To her was entrusted the first news of the Resurrection. So, why, then, is she often spoken of in slighting terms? I think it has something to do with that misidentification I spoke of earlier. Although long regarded as a misreading of the text, something of the mud has stuck. If she was not a notorious sinner, she was too ‘womanly’, too ’emotional’. I suspect myself that she was quite steely when need be, and she remains part of the gospel narrative because the evangelists simply couldn’t write her out of the story. She is too important for us who come after; and the attempts of some to downplay her importance merely underlines her significance for believers.

Now take the case of Mgr Battista Ricca. When I read Sandro Magister’s original article, my heart sank. My first reaction was to believe everything he wrote and to become angry. Another priest who does not live chastely and brings the whole Church into disrepute! But then I began to think rather than just react. Who was providing the information and why? It might be true, it might be false, but why was it emerging now; who would profit by it, and who would lose by it? Put like that, the whole thing became much more complex, involving as it does the pope’s attempts to reform the Vatican Bank and the rumours of corruption and vested interests at the highest levels of the Curia. The most measured article on the subject I have yet read is to be found here. The author makes several important points, but one of the most important will pass many people by: the right to a good name. We do not yet know whether Mgr Ricca is guilty of any of the things alleged against him. If he is, words fail me. If he is not, those who have made the accusations have gravely injured him.

Perhaps we all need to take more care in what we say and write about others. It is a short step from the suppressio veri to the suggestio falsi. That does not mean we should naively believe that all allegations of misconduct against someone are false, or that we should not take seriously warnings and advices we are given. On the contrary, we should weigh them and heed them. But we also need to cultivate a certain generosity of mind, a fairness and decency which refuses to make assumptions that are injurious to others. St Mary Magdalene’s reputation has suffered through many centuries because someone somewhere first thought about her meanly, then expressed that meanness of thought in words. May she pray for us, that we never do likewise.

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