To Suffer with the Church, with Christ

I used to think how lucky I was not to have been a Catholic early in this decade, as the abuse scandal was first coming to light in Boston. Only now, it’s worse, and I realize how shallow that so-called luck of mine is. Now, the daily, weekly drip, drip, drip of revelations—two months ago Ireland, last month Germany, yesterday Norway—is just exactly torture. And my Pope, about whom I have written so often with admiration, is right under the drain spout. What to do?

My first inclination is to go on the defensive. As a personal witness to abuse in non-clerical situations (secular day school, prep school, ashram), I know that this is not alone a “Catholic problem.” I watched “The Daily Show” with mounting outrage a couple of weeks back as host Jon Stewart guffawed through a seven-minute segment called HOLY SH*T about—guess what. I said to myself that when Stewart runs seven minutes on abuse in the Jewish community (his culture) I’ll watch the show again. It would not be politically correct to poke such “fun” at Jewish or Muslim communities, but the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church has a bullseye painted on her forehead.

But that defensive response misses the point. And there are other ways to get lost on this issue, like leaving the Church altogether, the Protestant response. Or to leave one’s body, the Buddhist response. My dear friend Robbie shared with me a video on brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor who is famous for describing a stroke—her own—from the inside out. You can check it out here.

If you don’t have time for this video, let me summarize: Taylor explains the basic differences between the left and right brain and then concludes that if only we could see the world from the timeless peace of the right brain all the time we would never experience distress, we would never suffer. It is a Buddhist view, and one that I imagine Robbie, as peaceable a person as I know, endorses.

But what is a Catholic to do, and now? Part of an answer can be found at the US web site for Communion and Liberation (CL). At the head of the CL web page you can find a link to a letter written to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica by Fr. Julián Carrón, president of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation (pictured here). In the letter Carrón begins by openly acknowledging the horror of the situation:

The request to assume responsibility, the acknowledgment of the evil committed, the reprimand for the mistakes made in the handling of the affair – all of this seems to us to be totally inadequate as we face this sea of evil. Nothing seems to be enough. And so we can understand the frustrated reactions that have been coming forth at this time.

Then Carrón poses a question:

“Quid animo satis?” What can satisfy our thirst for justice? . . . In other words, cannot the whole force of human will succeed in bringing about the justice that we so long for?

This is the question I and probably you are grappling with. What response will have any value at all? How can this wrong be righted? How can our desire for goodness and justice and truth be satisfied? Carrón writes that Pope Benedict has given us an answer, if we have ears to hear it:

To begin with, [Benedict XVI] admitted without hesitation the gravity of the evil committed by priests and religious, urged them to accept their responsibility for it, and condemned the way certain bishops in their fear of scandal have handled the affair, expressing his deep dismay over what had happened and taking steps to ensure that it not happen again. But then, he expressed his full awareness that this is not enough to respond to the demand that there be justice for the harm inflicted: “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.” Likewise, even if the perpetrators serve their sentences, repent, and do penance, it will never be enough to repair the damage they did to the victims and to themselves.

Benedict XVI’s recognition of the true nature of our need, of our struggle, is the only way to save our full demand for justice; it is the only way to take it seriously, to take it fully into consideration. “The demand for justice is a need that is proper to man, proper to a person. Without the possibility of something beyond, of an answer that lies beyond the existential modalities that we can experience, justice is impossible… If the hypothesis of a ‘beyond’ were eliminated, that demand would be unnaturally suffocated” (Father Giussani). So how did the Pope save this demand? 

(I’m glad you asked, Father Carrón. You were starting to lose me there.)

By calling on the only one who can save it, someone who makes the beyond present in the here and now, namely, Christ, the Mystery made flesh. “Jesus Christ … was Himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, He still bears the wounds of His own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church.” Calling on Christ is not a way to seek a hiding place to run off to in the face of the demand for justice: it is the only way to bring justice about. The Pope calls upon Christ, and steers clear of a truly dangerous shoal, that of distancing Christ from the Church, as if the Church were too full of filth to be able to bear Him. The Protestant temptation is always lurking. It would have been very easy to give in to, but at too high a price – that of losing Christ. Because, as the Pope recalls, “it is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ.” 

I read this letter last night and went to bed thinking about it and woke up to the Office of Readings. Does it happen to you, as it happens to me, that when you’re thinking about a question, answers appear all around?

This week’s readings from the first letter of Peter, prescribed for the Octave of Easter, enjoin us to suffer with Christ. Yesterday, household slaves were urged to “obey your masters with all deference, not only the good and reasonable ones but even those who are harsh.” Today, married women are instructed to obey their husbands and we are all reminded, “Even if you should have to suffer for justice’s sake, happy will you be.” Today’s second reading, from the Jerusalem Catecheses, reminds us that baptism is not some Buddhist rite of cleansing the mind and soul:

Our baptism is not like the baptism of John, which conferred only the forgiveness of sins. We know perfectly well that baptism, besides washing away our sins and bringing us the gift of the Holy Spirit, is a symbol of the sufferings of Christ. This is why Paul exclaims: “Do you not know that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus we were, by that very action, sharing in his death? By baptism we went with him into the tomb.”

I would have been lucky to be a Catholic in 2002, and I am lucky to be a Catholic today, especially today—lucky to be asked to embrace the Church now, when it is most wounded. The Church is the bleeding body of Christ. It is my Pope who said it: we encounter the person of Jesus Christ in our wounded Church, and nowhere better.

  • Athos

    We encounter the person of Jesus Christ in our wounded Church, and nowhere betterAmen, full agreement. After all, our Resurrected Lord had all the nail and spear holes to prove to even late-to-the-party Doubting Thomas. And didn't Jesus appear to Saul of Tarsus just as he was going to do more persecuting of the Church in Damascus, writ from the Sanhedrin in hand? What did Jesus say to him? "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting ME? (Acts 26,14)Perhaps Our Lord will raise up a few persecutors like Saul out of this time of social opprobrium and accusations (Gr. Accuser = ha' satan) to turn them into Apostle Pauls. In the meantime, remember that God acts (to us) very slowly in history, and we can't think we will understand it all with our puny minds and understandings. Cheers/blessings

  • Mary P.

    Webster, this post is very thought provoking. The question it brings to my mind is this: Will there ever be a time when pedophilia (or any other crime) from any given community will never, ever happen? I wish I could say that the Catholic Church, in the future, will eliminate this despicable act from ever recurring. But is that a realistic expectation? Or should we resign ourselves that, just as there will always be the poor, that Satan will always target those with whom a great deal of trust has been placed, and somewhere, somehow, despite our best efforts, some will make the wrong decision that will end in heartbreak, pain anger and confusion?What is the goal that the Catholic Church, or any other institution, should be aiming for? If/when these awful crimes are discovered, it will probably always make headlines. And maybe that's appropriate. Maybe it's even necessary, to keep those in positions of authority ever vigilant. You are right that such publicity should not be used as a reason to leave the Church. Me? Since I suppose that 100% prevention is, unfortunately, not likely, I'd be satisfied with the admission of poor oversight, with those who executed poor judgement being held accountable, and other common sense steps. In short, I feel our Pope is doing just what he should. But I certainly wouldn't hold our breaths that we will ever find ourselves out of the media spotlight. To think the Catholic Church will ever be out of the headlines is the most unlikely expectation of all.

  • Maria

    The answer no one wants to accept: the Cross.

  • Shannon

    It's a complex problem with an even more complex history. The solution? There is no one single solution. There is the church action that is needed. There is the civil action that is needed. There are structural and procedural issues to be examined, addressed, and rectified.What I'd like to see? I'd like to see those in authority taking responsibility for their own actions in protecting the church's reputation rather than putting people first. I'd like to see the people in authority quit whining that the media is picking on them when, quite frankly, it's quite clear that the media is reporting what IS.There have been reports of abuse that got official legal notice back in the 1980s. Some of you may be too young to know those stories. Some of you weren't around. No one likes the stories, but the fact that the bishops were aware of them (as far back as 1985 at their semi-annual bishops' meeting) and still protected the church's reputation, vilified survivors, and talked to lawyers before ever meeting with a victim–that's what causes me distress.

  • Laura R.

    Webster, thank you for this post. The distress is like a yawning abyss, too big for many of us to comprehend or begin to be able to deal with on our own. There is only One who can cope with it, both Victim and Savior; as Maria said, the only answer is the Cross, to be embraced by all of us.

  • Michael

    Webster – indeed all this is horrific and damaging to the Church and its faithful flock, and what to do about it?There are many options, but before I could think of an answer I opened my book and saw the following:Psalm 34:18 (KJV)18 The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.Maybe here lies one answer? Apart from the fact that hindsight is always 20:20, I would suggest to "future-proof" the Church and that the selection criteria for men in the cloth should be much more stringent. I am a Human Resources Generalist Practitioner with approximately 23 years experience and my duties and responsibilities included recruitment and selection of management and senior executives. I always profiled applicants via handwriting analysis, which I studied for 6 years and I can vouch for this methodology on an empirical basis: It shows ALL personality traits – good or bad and greatly assisted in the selection of "the right person for the right job". Being biblically trained is nothing to go by – who was it that quoted Scripture to Jesus when tempting Him in the desert? Matthew 4, 5-6.