S+L logo

"We all are in this boat together" : A Reflection on the Current Crisis in the Church

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

August 17, 2018
This has been the summer from hell for the Catholic Church and our sins are blatantly exposed for the world to see. The recent tsunami of headlines about abuse of minors by a cardinal and priests in the United States; the tragic stories of abuse in Chile and other countries, together with re-runs of old stories from various places have brought the Church to her knees once again and filled us with anger, shame, sadness, frustration and discouragement. Many of us are perplexed and feel a deep hurt because our esteem and respect for Archbishop McCarrick were clearly misplaced. Anyone who discovers far too late that a family member or friend has a history of moral misconduct, we stand dumbfounded that that person lived a secret life and left us all in the dark. Is this not what many bishops and priests feel about the disgraced cardinal? What are we to make of the fact that the Holy See, through its various mechanisms, may well have dismissed multiple warning signs that should have stopped Archbishop McCarrick and others earlier in their careers? We therefore have a right to call into question everything the Church has done to safeguard children and adults from manipulation and violation.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rightly stated that this is a “moral catastrophe” and that that we are facing “a spiritual crisis that requires not only spiritual conversion, but practical changes to avoid repeating the sins and failures of the past that are so evident in the recent report [of the Grand Jury of Pennsylvania]. The Cardinal informed us that the USCCB has established three goals: (1) an investigation into the questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick; (2) an opening of new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and (3) advocacy for more effective resolution of future complaints. These goals will be pursued according to three criteria: proper independence, sufficient authority, and substantial leadership by laity.
To watch television networks or read newspapers and the plethora of blogs, one would think that the sexual abuse of children is a uniquely Catholic problem, one indeed facilitated by a wicked lot of priests and bishops. What has come to light over the past months and weeks are cases from the past that have not been dealt with in the same ways that we deal with the cases today.  The Church responded poorly or inadequately in the past, putting more emphasis on "saving face for the institution rather than restoring dignity to the victim."
Each time the heinous crime of sex abuse is reported, as it should be, victims and their families are wounded again and revictimized, the vast majority of faithful bishops and priests bow their heads in shame, and sincere Catholics, Christians, and people of good will experience another jolt of shock, sorrow, anger, and righteous indignation. Every single abuse case involving a minor, no matter when it took place, is a crime, and we must respond to those who have been victimized and hurt by any person acting in the name of the Church.  The Church stands by the victims and wishes to be an instrument of reconciliation and healing.

The Vatican's Response

In 2001, Pope John Paul II assigned responsibility for examining cases of sex-abuse against minors to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican, which was headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  The experience gave him a familiarity with the pervasiveness of the problem that virtually no other figure in the Catholic Church would have.  And driven by that encounter with what he would later refer to as "filth" in the church, Cardinal Ratzinger responded to what he read and learned in those years.  After being elected pope, Pope Benedict XVI, he made the abuse cases a priority.
We must not forget that Benedict was the first pope ever to meet with victims of abuse, which he did in the United States and Australia in 2008, and again in Malta in 2010. He spoke openly about the crisis some five times during his 2008 visit to the United States alone.  Pope Benedict was the first pope to dedicate a Pastoral Letter on the sex-abuse crisis, his pastoral letter to Ireland. During his years of thankless service as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and then as Supreme Pontiff, Benedict has pursued reform and has been determined to rid the Church of the filth which shames us.
No one has been more vigorous in cleansing the Church of the effects of this sickening sin than Pope Benedict XVI. The dramatic progress of the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada in particular could never have happened without the insistence and support of Pope Benedict. More than any other high-ranking Church official, he saw and understood the gravity of the situation and tried his utmost to chart a new course for the Church. Pope Benedict said that the calamity of clerical sexual abuse of children - as awful and destructive as it is for the Church - could also be an opportunity for the Church to repent of its clericalism, triumphalism, and its lack of transparency and be a time for a renewed commitment to put the protection of the vulnerable far ahead of fear of embarrassment for the Church and its leaders. Should we not see these events and movements that so profoundly affect our Church and our religious communities in their redeeming dimensions as the work of the Spirit alive in human history?
Pope Francis has made the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church a major focus of his Petrine Ministry these past five years – a focus that has intensified over the past three years in particular. In the eyes of some, both Popes Benedict and Francis have not done enough.  Much is left to be done to eradicate the evil, crime, and sin of the sexual abuse of minors. The task belongs not just to the bishops and priests but to the whole Church, especially very competent laywomen and men, with all working together in this fraught situation.

Toward the future

As we continue to address the burning issues that have surfaced over the past months of this crisis, we cannot and must not become imprisoned in the past. We must recognize the wounds and be about the work of healing and reconciling.  Our message and response must focus on several key elements: asking forgiveness from the victims, accountability for those who have made mistakes, and transparency in how cases have been handled and establishing overseeing bodies that deal not only with priests but bishops and cardinals. New policies and protocols must be implemented and strengthened in every diocese around the world. The credibility of bishops has been gravely compromised and has given strong reason of doubt to the faithful, and also to priests. The credibility of the Church will only be regained when we honestly recognize the failures of the past.

Clerical Celibacy

There are those who think incorrectly that obligatory clerical celibacy contributes to depression and causes the sexual abuse of children. Celibacy is not in itself a factor, but – like any form of the Christian life taken and lived seriously – it has its perils.  When celibacy works well for priests, it can be a blessed source of spiritual and pastoral fruitfulness for the Church; when it works badly it can be very damaging and have devastating effects.  Priests and religious who sexually abused children did so because of the sexual disorder of pedophilia or ephebophilia. They abused because of a sexual disorder, not because they were celibate.  The studies are clear on this point: most child abuse takes place within the family.  Sexual abuse of a child by a family member results in serious, psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest. We have a right to be angry over the current situation but no right to despair. We must pray for a true cleansing of the temple – of the Church.  We must pray that our anger and frustration not lead us to hopelessness but to a deeper witness of faith and a holy life especially in such difficult times.

Simon’s Boat

Let me conclude with a powerful image that can sustain us and guide us though the current storm.  It is an image that relates to the Church’s origins – not in a big city of the Roman Empire but rather to the small fishing village in Palestine, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus gets into Peter's boat in order to teach the crowds. This is not the only time in the Gospels when the boat – the fishing boat – Peter’s boat, is featured in Jesus’ teaching to His Apostles. From the bark of Peter, the Church, Jesus continues to teach the whole world.
One time, while the Lord sleeps in the Gospels, a storm rages, putting the fear of death into the apostles. But the Lord wakes up and calms the storm. Another time, His desire to be with His brothers moves Him to walk upon the waters, and He challenges Peter to do the same. Both times, the Lord chides the apostles about their lack of faith - for if we have faith in Him, in His care for us, then no storm will overturn the boat in which we sail, and no water will open to swallow us up in darkness.
At certain times, during Church history, and perhaps at this time, it might seem as if the light of the Spirit had been all but extinguished.  But let us be honest and realize that the flame never went out.  The Church goes on, saving souls and journeying to its final harbour. In that blessed realm, beyond the seas of this life, all the things that threaten God’s Church in this world will be gone forever.
We all are in this boat together. What does this mean for each of us?  It means, first, that we are to trust the Lord to show us the way, to bring us to our goals safely, and to feed our souls on the journey. We will encounter problems and crises - there will be days when we cast out our nets all day long, and at the end of the day, there might be nothing to show for it. At those times, we must listen to the Lord, as Peter did, and cast the nets again into the deep - for it is our faith that is being tested - not as to whether we profess it or not - but as to whether we are ready to do something about it or not.
We are not sailing on Noah’s Ark nor on the Titanic.  We are on the waters with Jesus.  We cannot be triumphal, clerical, or proud - pride was the undoing of our first parents - we must be humble, for only then can we remain united to one another in Christian love. Only then can we be together in that bark which sails across the sea of life. Only then can we be saved together by His strong arm - from hunger, from blindness, from the storm, from the chaos of our times.
Let us pray that we increase in every way our willingness to serve others, to see and to solve the needs of those we serve, and to find in every situation, no matter how hard, a way to love, to show the charity, justice, and mercy of God for those who are our brothers and sisters.
The Lord does not abandon those who come seeking His mercy and His forgiveness. He walks upon the waters.  He calms the storm. He guides the boat into safe harbour, and brings with Him the great catch, the great feast, to which we are all summoned. We pray that all those who have been abused, deceived, discouraged, repelled, and frustrated may begin to see the glimmer of light of the dawn of a new day. We beg the Lord that Church leadership be renewed and have the courage to take the necessary next steps.
Nor can we forget the deeply moving words of St. John Paul II in his final homily at Canada's 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto.  This world ecclesial event was prepared and took place under the terrible shadow of the sex-abuse crisis that erupted in the USA in early 2002.  The Holy Father's words were so important and consoling then as they are today:
"Even a tiny flame lifts the heavy lid of night. How much more light will you make, all together, if you bond as one in the communion of the Church! If you love Jesus, love the Church! Do not be discouraged by the sins and failings of some of her members. The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good! There are many priests, seminarians and consecrated persons here today; be close to them and support them! And if, in the depths of your hearts, you feel the same call to the priesthood or consecrated life, do not be afraid to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent. And holiness is not a question of age; it is a matter of living in the Holy Spirit."