March 10, 2017
When clergy sexual abuse survivor Marie Collins resigned recently from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, I saw illustrated something sadly endemic to the inner culture of our Church today.
Collins said her decision to resign was triggered by a Vatican office’s rejection of what to Collins and her Commission colleagues seemed to be a reasonable request, namely, that all letters sent to the Vatican by abuse survivors receive a response. Collins did not specify which Vatican dicastery she was referring to, but her statement provoked a response from Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As reported in La Stampa, Muller referred to the whole thing as a “misunderstanding,” and that it was unrealistic of the Commission to expect the CDF staff alone to response personally to each and every letter it received from victims of abuse from all over the world.
In her resignation statement, Collins referred more broadly to “some members of the Vatican Curia” who were resistant to other proposals the Commission has been generating aimed at outreach to victims of clergy sexual abuse and the implementation of standards of education and on-going formation of clergy and laity in positions of leadership for preventing the abuse of minors.
As I read her statement, certain expressions jumped out at me, as she referred to what it has been like to try to carry on the Commission’s work since its inception a couple of years ago: having first to spend precious time to find “a method by which the Commission could enter into dialogue with Vatican [offices];” that was followed by “stumbling blocks,” “reluctance,” “long delays,” “unwillingness to cooperate,” and all this “like water on a rock.” One of her colleagues could not help speculating as to whether “jealousies, turf battles, fear of change, internal politics, and clericalism” were not to blame for the resistance the Commission has encountered.
Of course, there are two sides to every story.
But even if we grant his point, Muller’s response was obviously lacking in other respects: it came off as perfunctory and exculpatory; it lacked empathy and sensitivity. Collins was appealing to the need for a sympathetic outreach to victims from offices in Rome. Muller, who notes he has never met with Collins in person, responded in Vatican bureaucratese. And of course, there was no acknowledgement of the frustrations of Collins and her colleagues.
Again, to my mind, this whole episode illustrates something that is so very wrong with the Church today.
Setting aside the on-going debates over Amoris Laetitia for just a moment, I’d suggest that there’s at least one thing Pope Francis has gotten very right. When Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, editor in chief of the Italian journal La Civilta Cattolica, asked Pope Francis in August 2013 what kind of Church he dreams of, the pontiff responded:
[T]he thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.
Pope Francis looks out on a Church of wounded Catholics, emotionally wounded, and often at the hands of members of the Church, particularly those entrusted with leadership. He sees a Church populated in large part by Catholics who have endured hurts in their experience of the Church. Some of those hurts have been life-altering. All of them can be traced to our failures to love with the love of Jesus, failures we have grown accustomed to, failures we know not how to curtail, failures we have just come to accept.
And this, I submit, is a great elephant standing in the corner of the Catholic Church.
“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). In the Greek, the evangelist uses the term agapē to manifest the very unique kind of love Jesus is talking about: Jesus’s own love, the love of his heart. It’s as if Jesus were saying: “If you have agapē for one another, if you show toward each other, in your mutual interactions, in the manner with which you think of each other and speak to each other, in the expressions you use, in the patience, tenderness and veneration with which you hold each other in respect, in the concern you have for each other, in all of these manifestations of the self-emptying love of my Heart—if you bear this kind of love toward each other, if this is how you treat each other on a day to day basis, then, yes, the world will recognize you as my disciples.”
The Church’s elephant in the room is our pervasive uncharity. It’s the sad reality that we far too often fail, and fail miserably at what should be the most basic expression of our identity: everyday interpersonal charity. In its stead, far too often what do we experience in our parishes, rectories, chanceries and ministry offices? A sickly inner culture of harshness, gossip, backbiting, detraction, destructive criticism, jealousy, intolerance, manipulation, as well as uncaring aloofness, disinterest, insensitivity and unconcern.
Such is my contention in a new book I’ve recently published. In Hurting in the Church: a Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor), I take an honest and unflinching look at this dimension of the Church’s brokenness—a dimension we have become too accustomed to ignoring or simply tolerating as the status quo, as “just the way we are” as a Church.
To be sure, a constant and tragic flaw of Catholics throughout the centuries has been this relatively unquestioning acceptance of that very notion—the idea that Christians have always failed in charity, they always will fail in charity, and nothing is going to change that. And thus, from one generation of Catholics to the next, we settle for the status quo of a lethargic, anemic, indolent exercise of goodness and caring in our interpersonal relations with one another.
In many ways, we have grown accustomed to a life of charity grown cold. Of course failures in charity have been a challenge from day one. But history cannot lead us simply to shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well.” The fact that things have often more or less been this way in the Church does not absolve us of the imperative of doing something to change that status quo.
The answer that I explore in my book is what Pope Francis has called a “revolution of tenderness,” a far-reaching, repentant, and passionate return to lives of intense and intentional agapē-love —the love Jesus continues to teach to his disciples, the love he wishes to instill and set ablaze in the heart of every human person.
But that requires a collective examination of conscience, and a willingness in each one of us to reflect on those areas where we are sorely lacking in charity in our faith communities. It is also requires genuine Christian hope and trust that change—dramatic change—is possible; that in our faith-communities, one or two or three of us at a time, we can strive, aided by grace, to return to the genuine Christ-like charity experienced so intensely in the first Christian communities, a far-reaching, repentant, and passionate return to lives of intense and intentional agapē-love.
I offer my book as a small contribution in that direction, as well as a guide for the hurting, for those who’ve already turned away, or are direly tempted to turn away, from a Church that has too often become a place of callousness, coldness, and hypocrisy.
Lent of course is a season of conversion. As a Church, we would do well to begin Lent 2017 by taking an honest and hard look—at the elephant in the corner.