These have been sad weeks for Catholics across the globe and especially in the United States, as more and more headlines have spilled forth a seemingly endless stream of failures in the Church’s handling of sexual abuse, of clerical power, and of topics pertaining to sexuality in general.
Our present mega-storm is composed of several tempests all drawn together. First came the revelations about Archbishop McCarrick’s behavior, then the Pennsylvania report, and then the uproar in my own Archdiocese over a retreat for gay priests. The escalation of the debate about the nature and acceptability of same sex attraction, in and outside of the clergy, was taken to new levels. As if that were not enough, there came the bombshell testimony of Archbishop Vigano describing a web of protection and cover-up surrounding Archbishop McCarrick that ensnared, by name, several prominent prelates, implicating even Pope Francis himself in the sheltering of a known sexual pervert. What we are left with is a mess of epic proportions.
What’s worse has been the explosion of a civil war, out into the open, among some of the bishops, the varying wings of the Catholic and secular press (along conservative and liberal lines predictably enough), over the need for the Pope to give an answer to these claims. Several voices of the laity have added their voices to the same cry for transparency and accountability. Meanwhile, it appears to us on the outside that Rome fiddles while the Church burns. The Holy Father is said to be calm and serene in the midst of the firestorm, rather like Nero playing his fabled fiddle.
Many of the laity and clergy who have no means of influence feel the sickening sense of helplessness as this drags on with no clear movement toward resolution, and no end in sight. Even if Pope Francis were to resign, as some have demanded, it is not clear what that solves in light of the questions now swirling around so many others in the College of Cardinals and in the hierarchy.
This is what it feels like to be drowning in spiritually violent seas. Our teachings on the very important matters of human sexuality have been emptied of any power or coherency. Our leadership has zero credibility. Our survivors of sexual abuse are still in pain. Our laity are feeling ignored and abandoned by the thousands. Our Church appears to be tumbling down. This is a spiritual and moral heartbreak of epic magnitude.
The Cry of the Righteous One Who Waits for Justice
The Scriptures offer key insights on how to understand the causes, the meaning, and the remedy for our current situation. The psalms and the prophets poignantly articulate the cry of the righteous one who cries out to heaven for justice and feels ignored. The righteous one suffers violence and pain at the hands of the wicked and the powerful. These are cries of lament in the face of forces that seem intransigent and well outside of earthly control. Where is God?
The most poignant Scriptural laments express the sad realization that calamities have been occurring at the hands of fellow Israelites. The worst hurts are caused by those within the chosen fold, by the anointed leaders, while the priests and professional prophets (the clergy) stand by.
The same psalms and prophets also speak of confidence in God’s saving power, trusting that in the end the righteous and the innocent will be vindicated, while the wicked will be punished and brought to justice. If it does not happen in this life, then it will happen in the next. These days we, who have no official authority to make changes, find our voice echoed in that of the righteous one who painfully waits God’s justice.
The Destruction of the Temple Was Permitted for a Reason
The Scriptures gradually coalesced around the understanding that the destruction that befell the Israelites, most devastatingly with the Babylonian destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, was the result of the infidelity, hubris, and self-satisfied smugness of the chosen nation itself. God himself permits necessary suffering to come to the people He loves in order to teach them to repent.
Babylon has been knocking at the gates of the Church for a while now under a guise of many faces, brought on by multiple layers of infidelity and hubris. The prophets speak of an abandonment of the covenant. In our day there is the infidelity of decades of gradual watering down of the Scriptural and theological teachings about sexuality, especially the sensitive subject of homosexuality, during which the Church and the wider culture became slowly unmoored from the rock of Divine Revelation.
The prophets condemn the shepherds who prey on their sheep. In our era, over decades, the shepherds preyed on the vulnerable for the twisted sexual gratification of the clergy, fueled by the abuse of clerical power. Such evil rots the Church from the inside out.
The prophets speak of faithless leaders. In our era, over decades, there has been an abject failure of judgment and leadership on the part of the hierarchy who did not act to correct the offenses against doctrine, or the offenses against the vulnerable.
The prophets speak of bad politics and the forming of camps in favor of divergent agendas. In our era there has emerged, over decades, “conservative” versus “liberal” fault lines in the Church, causing earthquakes throughout our seminaries, our parishes, our dioceses, our presbyterate , and even between our recent popes. What gradually became more important than protecting young people was the question “which side of the theological battle are you on?” Little else can explain how it is possible for Pope Francis to, allegedly, ignore the warnings of the leadership of the prior regime other than the suspicion that a member of the “conservative” theological camp was trying to smear a member of the “liberal” camp, and therefore he was dismissed as a zealot. Similar arguments have been advanced to explain how Saint John Paul II became blind to the grievous sins of Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion of Christ. This type of ideological filtering that leads to tragic misjudgments of facts is occurring these days at all levels of the Church.
The abuses of power by the clergy do not confine themselves only to sexual abuse of minors, teens, and seminarians. It is an abuse of power for clerics and theologians, especially those who make the popular media circuits, to set themselves over and above the revealed tradition of the Church by seeking to make murky our doctrines on sex, sin, and grace. Those who suffer most are those who need clear teachings to sort out the muck of their own moral messes. They are the vulnerable who are led astray by clerics on power trips.
The parallels of our own day with those of the prophets are clear. Therefore we should not be surprised if our current strongholds and structures, like the Temple of old, are allowed to burn down.
The Necessary Transparency of the Gospels
Not only are the psalms and prophets helpful to understanding our situation, but instructive also are the Gospel narratives and the writings of the New Testament. In the ancient Church, whose picture is painted in the divinely inspired writings of the Bible, we are given a model of how to handle the reality of a failure of judgment on the part of the Church’s leaders, namely, the Apostles themselves.
The Apostles, and their close followers, are the ones who told the story of their encounter with the Lord during His life, on the last night of His life, and in the days of His death and resurrection. It is a very unflattering picture of themselves that they paint for all the world to see. There is no attempt to protect their reputation by papering over their own bad judgment and failures.
Their transparency intentionally serves to demonstrate the Savior’s power. God saves, not us. It is His message, not ours. His Sacraments have power not because ministers are holy, but instead because God is holy. His Church is true not because men have kept it going, but rather because God pushes her forward, through storm after storm, allowing with great care all the buffeting that she must endure for her good.
What We Need to Do Now
In the light of the Scriptures, I propose the following remedies for the epic mess in which we currently find ourselves.
First, the Church herself, as an entity, needs to go to Confession.It is true that the majority of the abuse cases roiling the news and the public now occurred a long time ago. However, our attitude about this fact should be the same attitude any good pastor has when someone approaches him in Confession, explaining that it’s been 40 years since his or her last Confession. The answer from our side of the screen is always: “Confess it all, even the things that happened 40 years ago. Then you will know healing and peace.” The Church needs to go to Confession, and we need to confess everything.
Secondly, we need to confess to the civil authorities.We need to request that every attorney general, in every State, and also any international authority with any teeth, conduct a full investigation of every American Archdiocese, and of the Vatican, of how the issue of clerical abuse has been handled. For a complete picture, those same civil authorities also need to be given an accounting of our handling of finances and contributions right down to the local parish level.
Sadly enough, I do not think we are capable of making a full confession without the assistance of an external agent. For the record, I do not trust the secular and anti-Catholic agenda of many of the civic powers that will no doubt have to carry out this embarrassing exercise, but the fact is that if we are honest then we have nothing to fear. If we are dishonest we need to suffer. Did not the Lord freely place himself into the hands of his enemies for the salvation of the world? What else is there to say?
Thirdly, I join my voice to others who have already called for an inclusion of the lay faithful in the process of making priest assignments within dioceses and bishop appointments throughout the world. I also echo the recent calls for the creation of a lay review board for accusations against bishops.There are challenges with this to be sure, for example, who decides which laity are included, but nonetheless there is immense benefit to seeking the wisdom of professional lay leaders in evaluating the suitability for clerical leadership within the Church.
Lay professionals offer a vital extra pair of eyes on the judgments of clerics. One occupational hazard of the priestly vocation comes from the “power of the keys,” or of “binding and loosing” that is of the essence of Holy Orders itself. All bishops and priests exercise this role of discernment and judgment within the confessional. It is the weighing, with hopefully tender heart and sound theology, of the gravity of a person’s sins, as well as their sincerely expressed desire to change, in order to extend absolution.
This duty of priests hearing confessions is unique on the face of this earth. After years and years of it, we run the risk of developing a mistakenly high tolerance for the failures of others, as well as an overly optimistic view of how some situations may change with time. Priests see miracles of grace and transformation all the time in the personal lives of our flocks, and we do accept God’s awesome power to transform even hardened sinners into changed men and women. One can see how an overly optimistic mentality about conversion could have been applied to personnel decisions of priestly assignments, especially when there were no professional laity involved to check our reasoning about difficult cases.
Lastly, the laity and the clergy need to be inspired to take up true, internal reform. This requires embracing the fullness of the Scriptures, the fullness of our teachings especially those pertaining to sexuality, returning to penance and fasting, increasing our prayer, embracing simplicity, assisting the needy, and being ardent in devotion to the Lord Jesus. From such reform movements new lay sodalities grow, and new clerical associations are born. From those groups, new bishops are chosen, new cardinals are named, and authentically reforming popes are elected. This all takes generations. It will come again. I dare say it must come soon.
Only a New Generation Will Move Us Forward
Until the reforms I speak of come about, we find ourselves in the psalms and with the prophets. We find ourselves as well on the long journey out of Egypt, a time of real testing and trial. None of the Egypt generation were allowed to see the Promised Land, including Moses, because of their sins. A new generation had to move forward with God. Similarly, a generation or two were lost in the Babylonian Exile, and the Temple was burned, and the priests were taken captive, before God would again allow them all to return home. If we end up losing it all, then one must conclude it was time for it to go.
Such things are necessary in every era. It is how God purifies His chosen people.
On Twitter: @FatherReesman