Spiritual Trauma and the Catholic Church: How Do We Heal Our Broken Hearts?

Spiritual Trauma and the Catholic Church: How Do We Heal Our Broken Hearts? August 15, 2018

Horrifying.  Devastating. Apocalyptic.

The sad fact is, none of these words are adequate to describe the events described in the recently released grand jury report on multigenerational clerical abuse in Pennsylvania and the PA bishop’s response (or lack thereof). In light of all that has come out about “Uncle” Ted McCarrick, as well as all the news from Chile, Peru, Argentina, and before that, Australia, the PA report is just the latest sign that our church leadership has failed.  Miserably. Catastrophically.  Globally. Sadly, its hard to believe that we are not just seeing the tip of the iceberg that could easily sink the barque of Peter.

Of course, the faithful have always taken comfort in Jesus’ words, “You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it(Mt 16:17-18).”  These words are true as ever, thanks be to God. Unfortunately, it is clear that many, if not most, of our church leaders have exhibited a leadership style less in keeping with our Lord’s words than with Edmund Burke’s, proving that,  “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

The bonds of clericalism have left our leaders bound and gagged, incapable of even the degree of fraternal correction required to maintain the most minimal levels of human decency and moral rectitude.

Hitting Close To Home
On a personal level, as I read through the PA grand jury report, I unhappily discovered that, as a child, I had a fair amount of contact with at least two of the men who were eventually removed from ministry. One was involved in the parish school I attended for junior high.  I interacted with him regularly as an altar server and lector for school masses.

The other was the asst. vocations director in the years I was discerning the priesthood.  Thankfully, I was never abused.  In fact, neither of these men ever treated me in any way that made me uncomfortable at the time. But I can’t help the sick feeling that rises up in me when I think back on those days and consider what could have happenned had the circumstances been even a little different.  What if I had been alone with them just a few more minutes?  What if they just happened to be a little less in control of themselves that particular day?  What if…?

From Thrones Corrupt
My head is spinning too much for me to offer any coherent thoughts on what we, the laity, need to demand in terms of reforms, but believe me, it’s almost all I’ve been thinking about lately. I read the report just before attending the anticipated mass for the Feast of the Assumption. Our gathering song was Bernadette Farrell’s beautiful setting of the Magnificat. When I got to the line, “…But mighty kings will swiftly fall from thrones corrupt” I found myself bursting into tears. The air went out of my lungs. I couldn’t sing or speak.  Something about that lyric perfectly articulated the feelings I had tried to keep at a professional distance as I read the grand jury’s report. I had to leave the pew to compose myself.

Staging An Intervention
Despite the disorienting effect all this is having—not just on me but all the faithful–the one thing that is clear to me that any authentic reform cannot come from the bishops. Even if there were enough good bishops to enact real reform, as a group, they have lost all credibility to teach or govern, much less sanctify.  Change has to come from us. The laity.  We cannot simply ask the bishops’ permission to lead this effort.  In a spirit of genuine but tough love, the elder children need to do whatever it takes to insist that our drunken parents give us the car keys.  And we must refuse to give them back until we are convinced that they have sobered up.

As I try to think through my own reactions to this crisis, both in terms what it means to my dearly-held Catholic faith and what it demands of me as a prominent lay Catholic and pastoral counselor, a few thoughts come to mind about how we can reclaim our bearings and our faith as we move forward to rebuild the church in Christ’s image rather than the world’s.

Dealing with Desecration
The emminent psychologist of religion, Dr. Kenneth Pargament, describes anything that threatens a person’s ability to access their spiritual resources (e.g., their ability to draw comfort from their faith, their ability to engage in healthy spiritual practices and connect with God, or their ability to seek support from spiritual leaders) as a “desecration.”  A desecration could be sickness, betrayal, doubts and spiritual crises, or other traumatic events that threaten my ability to draw comfort from my spiritual life.   I can’t think of a better word for this present situation.

Unhealthy Responses
Pargament notes that people can have either healthy or unhealthy responses to desecrations.  Unhealthy responses include things like…

-the abandonment of one’s faith

-the complete abandonment of spiritual practices,

extremism (obsessively asserting my “right-ness” even in the face the wrongs I am committing)

hypocrisy (where I decide to hold others to a standard that I, myself, refuse to uphold),

-and demonization of self or others (where I look to assign blame rather than seeking effective solutions).

The Healthy Alternative
By contrast, a healthy response to a desecration involves what Pargament refers to as Centering the Sacred.  It is a three-step process that allows a person experiencing spiritual trauma to sort though the wreckage and establish a foundation for healthier spiritual coping moving forward.

The first step is Recognizing the Limitations of Current Strivings.  That means taking time to reflect closely and intentionally on whether the former approach I took to my spiritual life is adequate for helping me deal with the traumatic events I’m facing.  For instance, perhaps my previous vision of God was “too small” and I didn’t believe that God was big enough, or loving enough, or merciful enough, or powerful enough to handle the struggles I am currently facing.  Perhaps the spiritual practices I relied upon to maintain my connection to God in better times just aren’t sufficient to help me maintain that connection in difficult times.

Rather than simply giving up on God or my spiritual practices, I need to view the desecration I am experiencing as an opportunity to increase my spiritual bandwith.  To allow my vision of God to grow or to reinvest in spiritual practices that are up to the task of helping me stay connected to God, my faith, and my values through this trial.

The second step is Letting Go.  I need to be willing to stop approaching my spiritual life in the same old way and stop doing the same spiritual practices despite getting less and less out of them. I need to see the desecration I have experienced as a challenge to develop a more mature, expansive, and engaged approach to faith than I have previously exhibited.

This is hard.  When we are going through trauma, we don’t want to have to be the ones to change. We’re the victims, after all. We want the circumstances to change so that we can keep being comfortable doing what we always did. But this doesn’t work.  In fact, it just sets us up for new, and possibly more devastating desecrations down the road. We have to be willing to let go and change our approach to our spiritual life and practices so that they are sufficient to bear the burdens we are asking them to carry.

Finally, we need to Center The Sacred.  When we first experience a spiritual wound, our pain, anger, and fear take center stage in our lives.  If we cling to these things—even with the positive intention of protecting ourselves—we will become stuck in a place of emptiness, anxiety, obsession, and rage. We need to make the effort—and it is almost always an effort—to place any spiritual beliefs, practices, and supports that do enable us to stay connected to God, our faith, and our values, at the center of our experience. That doesn’t mean that we ignore our emptiness, anxiety, worry or rage.  It means that we have to work to process those feelings through our faith instead of processing our faith through our feelings.

Sometimes we can do this on our own. Sometimes we require the assistance of a wise spiritual director or pastoral counselor.  But either way, focusing on this process allows us get our spiritual feet back under us so that we can do what needs to be done.

Moving Forward.
Whatever we, the faithful, decide needs to happen to resolve the broader spiritual crisis in the church and among our church’s leadership, we can only begin the process if each of us first pause to regain our  own spiritual center. Authentic change can be motivated by pain, but it can’t be driven by it.

It’s only natural to want to respond to our pain and anger by wanting to jump up and DO…SOMETHING!  And, granted, there is a lot to be done.  But that work will be better served if we can take a moment to work through these three steps for ourselves so that we can regain as strong a connection as possible to our own spiritual resources.  Because, let’s face it.  This is God’s church.  It has to be his plan we follow to fix it.  And we’re going to need as much of his help as we can get to do it.

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