“If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
It shouldn’t take the abomination of clergy sexual abuse of children, nor the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, for this self-evident truth to goad Catholics to action; but for many of us, myself included, it has. I feel penitential about this. Yes, this week I’ve signed my name to eloquent petitions to the U.S. Catholic Bishops demanding wide-ranging structural reform; yet this action of mine is paltry and late in coming. Did I ever before speak publicly in defense of those little ones who had been caused to stumble already? Catholic girls who have been told by the church that they exist less in the image of Christ than do boys and men; children whose self-image and self-respect have been deformed by a medieval view of sexuality that goes hand in hand with a medieval view of punishment and sin; LGBTQ+ folk who have been shamed to the point, literally, of self-destruction. The abuse we’ve read about this week is the epitome, but not the full extent, of a profound moral sickness in the institutional Catholic church.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13)
True, I have done my best to preach a Gospel of love, imperfect as I have been in living it out by my actions; but so as not to be political, or so as not to scandalize anyone, or because I am afraid of the implications of my own anger, or because I believe that ultimately faith is a gift and I have wanted to protect its fragile flame, I have tended to keep to myself my criticisms and even rage at the mighty institution of the church and its many forms of moral and intellectual backwardness.
Of all of Jesus’ admonitions — and Jesus always reserved his harshest criticisms not for tax collectors or for prostitutes, not for foreigners or for people considered unclean, but for conservative religious leaders — perhaps this is the one that is meant for me: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)
I say this may apply to me because I have whitewashed the image of the church. This was done from a love that is as far from malice as it is possible to get, but it remains a failure of responsibility and of radical honesty. And now we are seeing more clearly than ever that the prolific sexual abuse of children was not solely due to the reprehensible actions of some — even a few hundred — individuals, but was enabled by silence and a drive to whitewash the church’s image. It was enabled, too, by the celibate clerical culture in which I once took part. (It is certainly true that celibacy doesn’t cause pedophilia, but what role does mandatory celibacy play in the cultivation of an image of the priest as a person closer to God than others, and above reproach; in the consolidation of power in the hands of privileged and unsupervised men; and in the creation of a culture of secrecy and silence, of looking the other way when celibates fail — as so many inevitably will? I am reckoning with having been a part of that structure and complicit in its faults. There is grace despite everything, and my time with the Jesuits was beautiful and taught me so much about the rich gift of mercy; yet somehow I failed to learn everything I should have about justice.)
I am hesitant to get up on my soapbox here because I don’t think very highly of my own platform or opinion, nor of social media slacktivism. In fact, my overriding temptation is to leave social media altogether. It feels like each day of the digital age brings a further deterioration of our privacy and interiority, and Trump’s bombastic tweeting only makes me more ambivalent about the pretense and posturing of the social media circus — which Jesus may have addressed in the Sermon on the Mount had it been around at that time: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven….When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. … And when you pray, do not stand on the street corners like hypocrites who want to be seen, [nor] keep on babbling like pagans who think they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matthew 6:1-7)
But then I went to Mass last night after a long debate with a dear friend who proposed it was immoral to continue to do so until serious ecclesiastical reform has begun. Wanting to be generous toward the church — and, in all honesty, needing some word of consolation, myself — I went anyway. I couldn’t believe it when the processional hymn (this is in Philadelphia, mind you, in the state in which the Grand Jury Report was published) was “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus.” And then throughout the homily there was no explicit mention of this crisis at all, no admission of guilt; instead, the priest gave us a fatuous lecture on the importance of attending Mass even when we are angry at the priest or bishop. By leaving, we would only be hurting ourselves, he said — not the church.
And I snapped. I stood up and shouted and made a scene in the middle of the church. I cried out that silence crucifies, that it was deafening in that church that night, and that I would leave the liturgy without receiving the Eucharist and would be perfectly at peace with God. (Then I did, and I was.) My only regret is that it took so long in my own spiritual development to feel in my gut the pain and righteousness of those who made the decision to leave the church in a permanent way long ago.
I still don’t think very highly of social media, but in the light of my experience last night, I felt it would be an extension of that crucifying silence not to say something here. …And succinctness has never been my strong suit!
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (Matthew 23:25-26)
Others have made incisive analyses of the cause of the sex abuse crisis, and others have made important proposals for serious structural reforms. For my part, as I think about what it means to clean the inside of our cup and dish — and this is required of all of us, not only the powerful, who contribute to the life of any church — it occurs to me that the inner purification of religious people must necessarily involve renunciation. This could mean, for a start, renouncing all pious resistance to the painful, powerful words of one sex abuse survivor, who said on CNN, “Religion is for those who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for those who have already been there.” Despite everything, I do still believe that there is some place left for participation in the church; but only a transformed participation marked by the renunciation of clericalism, of the accumulation and abuse of power, of prejudice, of pharisaical purity laws, of ecclesiocentrism, and more. Any one of us may have more to add to that list, and may discover what form of renunciation makes sense for us as individuals, but I think that for all of us, true plenitude can only be found through poverty of spirit, through the letting go of so much seductive and coveted dross. “In order to possess what you do not possess / you must go by the way of dispossession.” (T.S. Eliot)
I hope against hope that enough people’s anger and renunciation and both interior and structural renewal can make the church a safer place for vulnerable people. Even if it doesn’t, then perhaps it’s still as Flannery O’Connor said: The life you save may be your own.
Even before this scandal broke, when I was simply processing my own personal experience of grief these days as my year-long residency in hospital chaplaincy comes to a close, I was sitting with this prayer written in an anonymous letter in the fifteenth century. It seems valid this week, as well:
“O deeply buried treasure, how wilt thou be unearthed? … Thou silent cry: no one can find thee who knows not how to let thee go.”