Survival of a Charism

The heat over the Irish child abuse report continues. Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin editoralizes today in the Irish Times. Archbishop Martin phrases this in a rather alarming way: survival. This newest shocking episode is going to set everybody back.

I know that many Catholics are concerned about homosexual individuals and couples adopting children. Their cred on the issue has eroded away, even as some apologists are quick to characterize male on male abuse as homosexual. Overall, the issue is so charged, I don’t have a hope that this adoption issue will ever get a calm and reasoned discussion. The status quo will remain: people wealthy and/or well-connected will adopt children, and most of those children will grow up reasonably healthy reared by reasonably loving parents. Or better. If you want to find worse, go to the report, and be confirmed in the knowledge that institutional child care by the Church is now suspect.

This sets the bishops back. Given the hair-trigger on Archbishop Nichols, there’s no agreement within their own ranks about how to address this. A bishop’s seemingly innocuous (by some accounts) statement is pounced upon by another bishop for being insufficiently penitent. Just imagine what the lay people are thinking.

This sets ecumenism back. A Lutheran minister, Donald Heinz, suggests “institutional Catholicism … is nearly unredeemable.” More:

The moral compass of modern Catholicism has only one true north — institutional self-preservation. Everything else is relative. It will not do to argue that “most” priests did not in fact abuse children. The fact is that the entire hierarchy (which constitutes the definition of “church”) has been and remains complicit and therefore utterly compromised.

“Reform in head and members” was the call of the 16th-century Reformation movements, and contemporary responses are long overdue.

The notion isn’t that other clergy and religious outside of Rome haven’t abused–they have. Or that non-Catholic institutions didn’t and don’t protect themselves–because they do. To claim a stellar and foremost witness that roots itself in Peter, the apostles, and the tradition of the martyrs, but then be undercut by repeated institutional complicity (at worst) or incompetence (at best), this is potentially ruinous. What if Lutherans, Anglicans, the Orthodox, and others just get up from the table and tell the Roman Catholics to grow up? Would there be anything to say in reply?

Speaking of incompetence, can anyone begin to take seriously Roman “investigations” of any sort? Lay people may or may not be concerned about the particulars of who’s hired to give talks to women religious. But most of them would be concerned about moral responsibility among religious and clergy. When the CDF comes knocking at the doors of women’s communities, would there be anything to add if the women said, “Go away boys, and if you’re looking for investigation fodder, why not check out your clergy in Africa, since you’ve already missed the boat in Ireland, the US, and elsewhere?”

Let’s consider how this sets back the cause of evangelization. Forget, for the moment, about Catholics sickened and embarrassed to be associated with institutional preservationism. Moving to Christianity, to Catholicism, is, as we believe, entering into a closer communion with Christ. Suddenly, the lived witness of the faith has become an obstacle to thousands, if not more.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not. The immorality of some in the hierarchy does not invalidate the moral teachings of the Church. A police officer may murder a civilian. Her or his colleagues may have doubts, and the institution might over-protect the killer. But this does not invalidate the laws good citizens and good peace officers strive to uphold. But we know what it does do: wrongdoing, cover-up, and obfuscation erodes overall confidence in the system.

Certain aspects of governance are not founded by Christ, not bound by faith or morals, and even variable within the bounds of small-t tradition. These aspects of governance deserve the most piercing scrutiny. And we, the Church, including bishops and pope, should be prepared to discard whatever trappings that have compromised the moral standing of the Church. One bishop has pledged martyrdom to help steer human beings from a heinously immoral act. No bishop need die to ensure accountability. But dying, in a way, is very easy. Something less than dying, something of a dying to self, may be required for the Church to get back on track.

Archbishop Martin asks, “What happened that you drifted so far away from your own charism?”

I believe that you owe it to your good members to try to answer that question thoroughly, honestly and in a transparent way. Your credibility and the credibility and survival of your charism depend on the honesty with which you go about that soul searching. This may be a painful task, but it is unavoidable if it is to be possible for your charism to survive.

Whether they see it or not, I think the bishops must realize that their charism is also endangered. The episcopal charism, top to bottom, has been compromised. In a way, the bishops struggle with a greater poverty than we lay people. I have a wife, a boss, parents (when they were alive), and countless other people telling me what I should do. Bishops don’t seem to listen to one another, and they sure don’t seem inclined to listen to anyone outside their order.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Survival of a Charism

  1. Todd,
    Though my mental acuity is oft-challenged, though I had trouble discerning where YOU were going in your narrative, your last paragraphy laid to rest any apprehension I had. Hear, hear! Good on ye.

  2. Fran says:

    What a thoughtful,clear and thought provoking piece you have given us here.

    As I have mentioned in more than one comment box, here as well I believe, I was abused as a child, although not by clergy. As my healing in adult life was pushed forth by trying to understand the behavior, I can say that my own reading and study(not to mention my own experience) shows that blaming the homosexual and/or the celibate is beyond ridiculous. Such talk demeans the abused.

    In any case, I have also long said in many conversations and comments that the constant harangue with no room for discussion from one section of the Catholic voice on birth control, life issues and same sex issues will always remain off key. One reason for this is a lack of moral authority from a church that stood silently and then acted immorally for far too long while abuse spun out of control… and coverups with it.

    I would pray that it be clear to anyone who knows me from the blogs that I love our Church very much, but that I can’t help but be very honest about these things and as a result “critically loyal.”

    As to the idea put forth by Donald Heinz, he sadly is onto something I think.

    As to us all being complicit, that was my initial response from a very deep and painful place when I read the story out of Ireland. While I have felt this way before, I have never felt it more profoundly.

    As to the charism of the Bishops, I weep but I think you are right.

    God have mercy on us all.

  3. Randolph Nichols says:

    I was struck by a statistic recently reported by the Boston Globe that underscores the consequence of our institutional dereliction. When I came to this region in the 1960s as a student, approximately 55 percent of the population identified itself as Catholic. Today the percentage of people who do so is 34 percent. Some of that drop can be attributed to a migration prompted by changing economic circumstances; there is also a greater acceptance of secularity among the general population. But let’s make no excuses. The scandal of those who supposedly dedicated their lives to holiness and service has been the greatest contributing factor in the demise of the faith.

    There are signs of hope. Locally, Cardinal O’Malley combines keen intellect with piety and has won the confidence of the majority of Boston’s Catholics. (Those fighting the closing of particular parishes and some priests whose pensions have been diminished would object to my characterization.) It will take many years of exemplary Christian witness, however, to erase the memory of the sins of the past few decades.

  4. Liam says:

    I don’t think memories of this sort get erased. They may eventually co-exist with other memories, but one thing I hope people learn to detach from is the goal of forgetting.

    Cardinal Sean has avoided many of the mistakes of his predecessors, but not all of them. There are ongoing unresolved problems with transparency, and the chancery culture that Cardinal O’Connell begat dies very hard, as it were.

    I think we should not forget that the faith in Boston before recent years was somewhat brittle – the scandal exposed its weaknesses. Like Cleveland Amory’s immortal Brahmin doyennes who, when puzzled by an inquiry about where they got their hats, responded, “Get our hats? My dear, we have our hats!”, Boston Catholics “had” their faith. And, the handful of places like St Paul’s aside, Boston was largely marked by a culture of liturgical minimalism that survives still despite cosmetic changes thereto.

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