Silence That Unites, Silence that Divides

Several days ago, in his regular reflections on the Scriptures, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of silence in confronting the forces of evil in the world, especially in the face of voices that seek to divide.  The Holy Father noted that the Lord Himself chose to remain silent during pivotal points in his life when faced with accusations and anger, most especially on Good Friday as he stood before Pontius Pilate and the crowds calling for his crucifixion.

Silence On Trial

Many around the world interpreted the Pope’s remarks to be a justification of his own intentional silence about the explosive claims of Archbishop Vigano, former papal Nuncio to the United States, who has accused Pope Francis of ignoring warnings about the sexually corrupt behavior of Archbishop McCarrick of Washington, DC.   Those claims by Archbishop Vigano have generated a firestorm of varying reactions, as well as daily increasing calls across the globe for the Pope to give some response.

In the face of all the growing discontentment and requests for clarification, documentation, or commentary, Pope Francis has maintained a steady and resolute silence.

Meanwhile, in related strands to this ongoing public meltdown of all things Catholic, it has been noted that Archbishop Vigano willingly broke his own vows of silence and secrecy that are held in common by anyone in the Church who comes into contact with highly sensitive information about the Church’s working apparatus.  For those who serve in the Church’s diplomatic corps as he did, this is a vow that is taken with utmost seriousness. Many have suggested that the whole system of secrecy, institutionally enshrined into the leadership of Catholic life itself, only contributes to our explosive scandals.

Some have used this current climate of understandable public rage over clergy molestation and sexual infidelity to call for the end of any legal protections on the seal of confession, especially in instances where a priest learns in the confessional of cases of child sexual abuse.

All of this takes place against the backdrop of an increasingly “tell-all” culture and society, especially on matters pertaining to sexuality.  To keep ones sexual yearnings or struggles to oneself is often painted as an unhealthy act of repression.  To keep much of anything to oneself anymore is increasingly viewed as type of repression.

I have already joined my voice to other voices of who have argued that the Church must respond to our current credibility nightmare by inviting civil agencies to examine our handling of all cases of clergy abuse in order to ensure both maximum transparency, as well as an end to the improper silence surrounding this issue.  In this way the Church ought to be a leader for other institutions to adopt a matching attitude of total transparency about offenders in their own ranks (teachers, coaches, medical professionals, etc).  Pope Francis is faced right now with an opportunity to lead by example in these needed steps toward total transparency for the sake of credibility.

Does silence still have an authentic place in and out of the Church for the sake of fostering authentic holiness and unity?

Essential Silence

Pope Francis is correct that in the Scriptures there are many instances of intentional silence, or seeming absence, on the part of God in the face of a variety of situations.  That fact alone tells us that silence can at times be a holy and necessary thing.

Cardinal Sarah has written extensively, as have other great spiritual masters, about the necessity of silence for intimacy with God.  Without it, there is no authentic unity between God and man.

The silence of the clergy surrounding the details of sins sacramentally confessed is noble and holy because it facilitates the indispensable transparency of man before God.  Such transparency before God deepens not only the bonds of communion between God and man but also among the members of the mystical body of Christ whose divisions are healed at the root in sacramental Confession.

Whenever one deals with the Sacraments, one deals with the unique arena of God’s concrete actions in this passing world in a way that far surpasses even the most solemn of merely human exchanges.  This is why the Church defends the seal of confession, and the necessary silence surrounding it, at all costs.  Precisely because of our conviction that it is God himself who acts in the Confessional, our silence about what is said is an acknowledgement of the limits of mere human authority.   We will die before we break the silence of that seal because we know we cannot take power over God’s action to remove sin.

Prudential Silence On Trial

The same thing cannot be said of other secrets in the Church, be that the pontifical seal or other realms of discretion that are part of the fabric of Church life.  However, such silence still has its place and can be at the service of unity in a variety of situations and for a variety of reasons, all of which revolve around placing trust in the judgment of another person to handle sensitive information with prudence and also with total regard for the well being of every party at stake in the situation.

It is in this realm of non-sacramental secrecy that the Church will face the greatest challenge for the near term because it has become clear that there have been many situations in which trust has been broken, and judgment, most especially about the safety of youth, has been poor. In such a climate, a suspicion of silence is understandable and maybe even necessary for the sake of authentic renewal.

Francis’ Judgment About Silence On Trial

This may be the crux of the problem for Pope Francis who has chosen now, as he has also done in prior cases of uncomfortable questioning of his decisions, to adopt a posture of discretionary silence about his own knowledge and behavior.  It essentially boils down to:  do the members of the Church trust his judgment?

If we were all in a trusting mood right now towards the hierarchy, one could make a case for his stony silence about the accusations now laid before the world, since it is clear that silence has its role in the fostering of holy unity. However, in the current moment of a torrent of news about bad clerical judgment, especially for the safety of the vulnerable, any type of silence about accusations, especially those it appears could be easily verified or dismissed by rummaging through the old Vatican filing cabinets, is a silence that only furthers mistrust.  Therefore, it is a silence that divides rather than unites.

To continue to persist in silence about the topic, in the light of the current mood, is a mark of a pastor who is out of touch with a large segment of his flock.  That could very well be the fault of his closest chosen advisors on whom Pope Francis relies for accurate information about the sprawling sectors of the global Church.  Worse, it might be a decision to turn a deaf ear to the shouting that has surely reached his ears.

Either way, it is poor leadership from the man who is supposed to devote all of his energies to fostering the unity of the flock.  To be a martyr for the role of silence in this situation is, so to speak, to be crucified on the wrong hill.

The Worst Silence Might Be Coming

If this persists, it may end up leading to what might be the worst silence of all, namely, the widespread silence of apathy on the part of the faithful who stop calling for an answer not because they have decided the Pope is right to stand above the fray speechless, but rather because they have decided he simply does not care.  Apathy is the spoiled fruit of despair, and the most poisonous fruit of a silence that divides.

May God protect the Pope, and the Catholic Church, from the apathy that is born of persistent unholy silence on the part of her leaders and her faithful alike.

May God place in our hearts a true longing for authentically holy silence, one in which we find ourselves standing quietly before God in our hearts.  Only in such a posture of authentic silence before God do we truly know when to face the rest of the world with responsible transparency, or appropriate silence, in a way that unites rather than divides.

About Father Nathan Reesman

On Twitter: @FatherReesman Father Nathan Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin. He is also the Courage and EnCourage chaplain for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Courage is an apostolate of the Catholic Church that ministers to men and women who experience same sex attraction.
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