The Sadness of the Church

Anyone who has read the IICSA report on Ampleforth and Downside (which you can obtain here, or the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report into sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses in the State of Pennsylvania (which you can obtain here, will have been left feeling sad and probably angry as well. It is appalling that children and young people should have been treated so abominably while the depraved behaviour of some clerics is mind-numbing. No one ‘gets over’ such abuse, no matter how admirably they cope, or seem to cope, in later life. Official apologies or promises to learn lessons sound increasingly hollow, the clerical equivalent of corporate-speak.

I think we can say the whole Church is sad because of the failure of many bishops and priests to realise how the laity and good, decent clergy and religious feel about the incessant revelations of corrupt and depraved behaviour among their pastors. It is not ‘just’ that young people have been abused; not ‘just’ that there have been cover-ups; not ‘just’ the hypocrisy of promising celibate chastity then living a dissolute life; it is the enormity of the sin and, time and time again, the arrogant indifference of the response that has hurt and led to yet more suffering, especially among the poor. A few years ago I wrote about nuns in the Boston diocese who literally lost the roof over their heads because the diocese needed to pay out large sums in compensation. There was inevitably a knock-on effect on schools and hospitals for the poor. I daresay we may see more of the same in the future, with the most vulnerable suffering the most. But, and it is an important but, it is not my purpose to add to the chorus of lamentation and anger, although I must acknowledge the dreadful wrong done. We need to address the question of what to do now. What do those of us who are ordinary Catholics — priests, religious, lay — do in the light of these scandals?

Calls for collective repentance and conversion of heart only go so far and are sometimes a substitute for facing up to the reality of the situation. Of course we must pray, and pray hard, but we must also act. Our bishops cannot deny that the Church is in crisis, at a turning-point. It is no good dredging up statistics to prove that abuse is much more common in society as a whole than in the Church. We know that, but we expect better of those who are Christians. It is no good arguing, as I have heard many argue when attending Safeguarding training days, that the ‘whole abuse thing’ is an attack on the Catholic Church. It isn’t, unless one acknowledges that it is an attack from within. We must be honest and admit that there is a huge problem, one we must tackle at the individual level if we are to succeed in overcoming it at the ecclesial level. So, no excuses for any of us, no attempts to play down the wickedness of what has happened in the past or to walk a double-path in the future; but, having said that, I do think there are grounds for hope.

I think of the priests I know who have been insulted and even attacked because many of the public — including Catholics — are incapable of distinguishing between the innocent and the guilty. Their fidelity in the face of scorn and derision gives me hope. I think of religious who have braved disbelief and opprobrium because they would not collude with evil. They give me hope. I think, too, of the attempts of many American Catholics to ensure that the laity are properly included in any commissions of enquiry, despite Cardinal Wuerl’s apparent inability to recognize that they are as much a part of the Church as the bishops. Their concern for the Church, their willingness to go on despite the negative response they receive, also gives me hope. The sheer decency of so many Catholics who quietly persevere in trying to live good, generous lives gives me hope. Some have called for changes in Church discipline or teaching to allow clerical marriage more generally or admit women to the priesthood. They make me suspect another agenda at work. It may sound simplistic or old-fashioned to some, but if we have promised celibate chastity, that’s it — no infringements, no ‘accommodations’; and where there have been lapses, no cover-ups or attempts to minimize the harm done.

This Sunday many a homily will be preached on the Bread of Life. I daresay some would prefer to hear from the pulpit some straight talking about abuse and the Church’s response, but I think the gospel homilies have an important point to make. We are not members of the Church because of the pope, the bishops or the clergy. We are members of the Church because we have been called by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is in him that we place our trust. Teilhard de Chardin once described the Church as being like a mist surrounding a lamp, both concealing and revealing the light. To get to the light (Christ) we have to go through the Church. At the moment the way may seem very dark, but it is the Light that draws us and the Bread of Life that sustains us as we go. May we never forget that.