The awful extent of the Catholic Church’s abuse crisis hit home to me once a few years ago, when I found out that it affected a particular community I dearly love. I remember remarking to someone at that time, “It’s like the whole Church has a cancer, and it’s everywhere.” Now further revelations of how widespread and ugly this horrible cancer is have left the Body reeling.
Like many of my fellow Catholics, I have felt sorrow, moral repugnancy, and some embarrassment at being representative to many friends, acquaintances and family members of this Church I have chosen. And yet I’ve also noticed, despite the gravity of this ecclesial crisis of conscience, that it has not become a crisis of faith for me as it seems to be for some.
One person I know, writing after the McCarrick scandal broke, wondered how, if bishops are chosen by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit could make choices that go so horribly wrong; or, even allowing for the human element, how anyone can trust a Magisterium “so willing to throw lambs to the wolves,” and consequently, who else it may have judged wrongly in the past. To him, the nature and magnitude of such a scandal “calls the ontology of the Catholic Church itself, the Mother Church of all Christian denominations, into question.” Others have simply (and understandably) stated that to them the Catholic Church has lost all moral authority.
Understandably – yet I do not say it, though I myself have wondered why. There is something deeply Catholic about remaining with one’s ecclesial roots in spite of everything, or as my friend quoted above puts it, blooming where one was planted for better or for worse. For myself, once I make a decision it tends to stay made. Having once decided to be part of the Catholic Church, I am just now realizing that – perhaps for that reason – I do have something to say about the disease that now consumes it.
We need a clear-eyed ecclesiology.
Ironically, I wonder if it is partly my more low-church background that has inoculated me against any magicalistic assumptions about church structure and how it’s formed. If my faith had ever hinged on an absolute guarantee of divine protection against bad leadership, I could never have become Catholic in the first place and probably would have long ceased to be Christian at all. The presumption of any such guarantee has long since been disproven by history: there have been bad bishops and even bad popes. To be brutally frank, if the ontology of the Catholic Church depended on never having corrupt leaders, it would have ceased to be centuries ago.
Even the prophet Ezekiel, in Wednesday’s lectionary reading, recognized with a moral outrage that resonates all too well that the people of God sometimes have shepherds who fail horrendously at protecting the flock. And his scathing rebuke of bad shepherds is accompanied by assurance that God will not abandon the sheep. They are no less the people of God for the sins of their leaders.
This is in fact where I have to part ways with the Anabaptist narrative of a fallen Church, at the point where it takes the Church’s moral failures as a sign that God is absent from it, or that the Church, at certain times, is not the Church. It has become sadly clear that the Holy Spirit doesn’t neatly hand-pick every Church leader or magically insulate the Church from the possibility of its leaders committing grave sin. But neither does he abandon the Church.
We need a strongly sacramental faith.
A key part of the corrective to a magaicalistic ecclesiology is a robust sacramental theology. Our Lord is present in the sacraments ex opere operato, and it is his sacramental and real presence – not the personal holiness of any priest, bishop or pope – that makes the Church holy. This doesn’t mean the personal conduct of our pastors doesn’t matter, but we know that Christ meets us in the sacraments regardless. This is what draws us back saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” As Terrance Klein in America poignantly put it,
Why do some stay, even in sorrow, while others leave? I think it comes down to this: If you have been fed by Christ within the church, you know that come what may, you have no other home. To leave the church would be to leave behind the Christ you have come to know here, the Christ who continues to feed you here.
We need an eradication of clericalism.
What this does mean is that the stronger our sacramentality, the weaker our dependence on clericalism. The problem with clericalism is not the existence of Church structure or hierarchy per se, but of an aura of superstition around its members, as if presumed to be something other than human. I don’t say this to mean, “They’re only human, so let’s give them a pass,” but rather I speak of a need to in some way demystify their offices. To demystify is not to desacralize: yes, they are holy offices, and for those who are truly called to them they are a tremendous gift, and a tremendous responsibility. All the more reason they should be held accountable to the fundamentally pastoral nature of that responsibility, and to a moral example befitting the public nature of their witness. There can be no illusions that anyone by virtue of the office of priest, bishop or pope – nor indeed the structural institution of the Church, Spirit-led though the Church be – is beyond fault.
Those are the clericalist illusions that must be uprooted in order to treat our Church’s cancer, on the part of clergy and laity alike, as Pope Francis has said in his recent letter to the People of God:
It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.
We need a turn to the kenotic.
As pervasive a problem as clericalism is, it is an offshoot of another, still deeper problem that has allowed the cancer of abuse to spread. It’s what I’ve sometimes termed the “Catholic impulse,” a drive toward collective and institutional upward mobility and social status with deep historical roots. At worst, it has taken the form of an explicit libido dominandi, a lust for power that has seduced citizens and emperors, laity and hierarchs into the satanic lie that to spread (what they take to be) the faith at swordpoint is to advance the Kingdom of God. Other times it appears under the well-intentioned guise of concern for the common good, but with the underlying assumption that the Church can best serve the common good by seeking status and privilege and governing power – in short, not primarily by serving, but by ruling.
In our present situation, the impulse is manifest in the institutional self-preservation that has taken precedence over the protection of children, resulting in a systematic cover-up that is a scandal in its own right. It should never have taken such an undeniable moral catastrophe to make this apparent, but all attempts at self-preservation have proven to be profoundly self-defeating. In the face of such sobering moral failure, the last thing any of us should be concerned with now is mere optics. But even for those who are, the worst possible thing to do is to go on the defensive, to stonewall further investigation, to hide behind statutes of limitations or any other legal technicalities, to make excuses for ourselves and our Church (and yes, that goes for us lay Catholics too).
Again, it shouldn’t have taken a crisis of this magnitude, but there finally seems to be a growing recognition of the need to take a radically different turn – including from among our bishops, as it must. USCCB president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo noted in response to Pope Francis’ letter “that only by confronting our own failure in the face of crimes against those we are charged to protect can the Church resurrect a culture of life where the culture of death has prevailed.” Bishop emeritus Robert Lynch has called for complete transparency at this fall’s bishops’ conference. Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie was the only Pennsylvania bishop to appear in person before the grand jury and has been noticeably more willing to grant press interviews than his brother bishops, who I pray might be compelled by their consciences to follow his example. And of course Pope Francis has promised abuse survivors to “follow the path of truth wherever it may lead.”
If the bishops take these challenges seriously, individually and as a body, it’s a beginning of the ecclesial metanoia we desperately need. But ultimately what is needed is not only a turn to truth but a turn to kenosis – an imitation of our Lord’s radical self-emptying. I have argued for such a turn before, both toward a kenotic ecclesiology more generally and in relation to the cover-up of sexual abuse following the death of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law:
The association of the Catholic Church with power and influence and prestige, to such damaging effects, illustrates exactly why the Church must not seek power and influence in the way the State understands them. To influence the surrounding culture from the ground up, yes – like leaven working through dough. To bear witness to the gospel through her ministries, most definitely – this is the practice of the works of mercy that all Christians are called to. And this is fundamentally, radically, diametrically different from any pursuit of ecclesial social privilege, from which individuals, ministries, and the very institution of the Church can only fall harder when that position is abused – and we must not be seduced by the presumption that any of us is immune to the temptation to abuse power.
If the world does hate us, let it then hate us for our defense of the vulnerable, not for our defense of the Church’s social position at their expense.
In the present moment, the need for the Church to adopt the mind of Christ, and its tragic failure to do so in recent decades, could hardly be more obvious. We must now turn from a posture of self-preservation to one of genuine contrition. The shepherds (to return to Ezekiel) must stop pasturing themselves and commit themselves unreservedly to strengthening the weak, healing the sick, and binding up the injured. And the whole Church, clergy and laity and episcopacy and all their institutions, must stop grasping at equality with God – or for that matter with Caesar, who presumes himself a god – and become a slave to all. At the very least, this must mean full and willing submission to the legal and canonical consequences of enabling abuse. It may even mean becoming obedient to the point of death, by considering the urgent necessity of pastoral care, especially of those the Church’s own shepherds have so gravely wounded, above fears for financial solvency. Even the rationale that the former may depend on the latter can no longer be an excuse, now that the very credibility of the Church’s witness is on the line. If that is lost, there will be nothing worth staying afloat for.
That may sound drastic, but the situation is drastic. It may sound radical, but the gospel is radical. What our whole Church needs, in short, is nothing less than a conversion. It is our only hope of retaining, or regaining, any moral credibility in the public eye.
the Church I (still) believe in