Are We a Beleaguered Church?

This question has been spinning around in my head over the past months and it troubles me. As a Flemish roman catholic – a jesuit priest even – I cannot escape the feeling that I am expected to be on the defensive and that many people and the media in particular, are pointing an accusing finger at the faith of a church community I love and devote my life to. Some of the roman catholic leadership claims that we are under attack in a secularized world – and, for sure, many of our important and cherished values and attitudes are being challenged. But, I wonder, are we really a beleaguered Church? Are we not, rather, in a difficult and painful, but necessary process of discernment and growth in a world through which God is also addressing us? Is this not an invitation to move into the world and rediscover our faith in a God whom we precisely trust to encounter in this movement, because it is the movement into the world that characterizes God’s own love? At this moment, in Flanders, there are three issues on the table, which I want to view as opportunities to grow and to learn.

(1) There is not the slightest doubt amongst roman catholics and their hierarchical leadership that sexual abuse and in particular ecclesial sexual abuse is a serious and unacceptable wrongdoing. It needs to be brought to light so that proper care be taken of the victims, so that full attention be paid to them in their diverse processes of healing, so that perpetrators be punished and also healed, and so that safeguards be put in place to avoid future abuse. Restorative justice – so similar in many ways to honest and restorative processes of reconciliation as we celebrate them in our sacraments – may help us on this path. However, it appears to be much more difficult to admit hierarchical failure and guilt in dealing with concrete cases of sexual abuse in the Church. Of course, it is true to say that sexual abuse has never been confined to the Church alone. Of course, it is also true to say that fifty or sixty years ago societal understanding of and attitudes towards pedophilia were different. Of course, we need to be careful to admit to a guilt that would merely translate into legally decided financial compensations that will never be sufficient to alleviate the pain of the victims and that threaten to deplete Church resources to the point that other poor people cannot anymore receive the support they need. But, we know that we have made mistakes, that we have not been faithful to young people entrusted to us, that we have covered up real evil and that that covering up itself is evil. Should we not admit to this and avoid hiding behind statements about the punishment of individual perpetrators? The least we can do is ask ourselves: how did we allow this to happen? why did our leaders not react adequately? Today, procedures in the Church are changing and, undoubtedly, that is a good thing. But the question should still be asked and pursued: are we really addressing the issues of power abuse that have taken place and that may take place again in other circumstances? are we really fighting the evil of certain forms of clericalism that constitute a betrayal of a true catholic ecclesial sensibility? These are institutional questions – dangerous, narrow clericalism exists in one form or another in many institutions, not only in the Church – and the Church should be the first to recognize them and face them. Church leaders and theologians know that these challenges touch delicate theological matters in the process of building communities faithful to creation and to human dignity on the road towards the Kingdom of God; they also know that these challenges connect to the way we read our most holy books, understand our dearest traditions, and celebrate our most beautiful liturgies. The challenge consists in remaining open to how the world and our books, traditions and liturgies interact in a creative and consoling way that strips us from an arrogance that refuses, out of a fear that vests itself as loyalty, to recognize the limitations of our institutions, our spiritualities and our theologies. We should dare to be vulnerable as God in Jesus is vulnerable and as many of the victims we have made in the course of history and continue to make, are vulnerable.

(2) The meaning of the “K” of the K.U.Leuven (the Catholic University of Leuven) and of other catholic organizations – “K” standing for the Flemish word “katholiek”, meaning roman catholic – represents another challenge. Many formulate the question as: “should the “K” be maintained?”, as if the catholic character of these institutions would be threatened. Others think that it would be good to change the “K” into a “C” – the “C” of “christelijk”, christian – as if roman catholics would have betrayed the christian faith.  Although some would certainly attempt to remove the “K” or change it into a “C”, my impression is that many want to maintain the “K”, and also want to have a part in the discernment over its meaning in ever changing contexts. Christians and in particular roman catholics want to have a say in how to understand the meaning of the “K”, as they attempt to articulate their relationship to God in Christ and as members of the worldwide roman catholic traditions and communities in the contemporary world. They know that the Son entered the world also to reveal in it the Father and to uncover in it the Holy Spirit. They view today’s ethical, institutional and political challenges as a place where they will come to meet God. They do not want to understand their faith as a mere inner or interior experience of the heart or the soul, individualized so as to avoid the challenges and the pain they experience at the failure of the institutions and the Church – they know that community building and the politics of community building are part and parcel of their faith. I am often happily surprised and feel deeply consoled and empowered, when meeting catholics who want to affirm their catholic faith as a personal and common effort, that does not always take for granted the understanding of a catholic truth as it is sometimes proclaimed by their religious leaders, but that aims at assuming the responsibility of articulating this faith in an adult way amidst the contemporary world. These people want to know God, they want to discover God in their traditions and in the world they inhabit. Moreover, they want to commit politically, institutionally and socially precisely because they are christians and because they know all too well that institutions are a part of the ecclesial reality that builds and receives the Kingdom of God. They will tenderly and honestly cultivate their inner soul and resources, but do not want to restrict the catholic experience to that inner experience: they want to be touched by the world, particularly by the suffering part of the world to which they belong, and they also want to touch the world, to transform it, knowing that they will make mistakes, knowing full well that they will stand vulnerable. Therefore, and in my opinion, the discussions and the processes of discernment concerning the “K” should not be viewed as an attack on some backward people who adhere to an archaic religion that attempts to avoid the  realities of the world, but rather as the desire of roman catholics to re-articulate concretely the meaning of their christian faith in the midst of a challenging world that is a holy place where to encounter God. When viewed as such, the “K” becomes combative and creative in a world that more than ever needs an honest, critical sparring partner to find its path.

(3) There is a growing concern amongst the roman catholic faithful about leadership. To many, some bishops and religious superiors seem to be out of touch with the realities of our world and with its evolutions that teach us, in fact, to be more sensitive to core issues of our faith. The authoritative and offensive way in which some of these leaders appear to speak – although they will consistently deny that such is their intention – seems to foreclose the space of Christian discernment in difficult, complex and delicate human situations. Recently, our newly appointed archbishop stated that AIDS may be seen as “immanent justice” for those who live a sexual promiscuous life, a statement made in an attempt to clarify that AIDS cannot be considered a punishment of God. The words he used cannot but be understood as a straightforward negative ethical judgment about promiscuity without any consideration of the complex societal and social contexts in which promiscuity takes place. Maybe his words could nevertheless be understood by some specialist philosophers and theologians in terms of a past theology of natural law, but most Flemish catholics and theologians do not appreciate such discourse, that does not correspond to contemporary catholic sensitivities. Of course, people will agree that sexual promiscuity offers an easy seedbed for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and also for AIDS, but they want a more prudent and careful, delicate and respectful, moral discussion on promiscuity and on people suffering AIDS. They are angry, very angry, because the archbishop’s language stigmatizes people, makes victims and victimizes existing victims even more. It is difficult not to share that angry emotional reaction. Moral delicateness and discretion is, in the opinion of many Flemish catholics, theologians and even bishops, also required when one comes to speak, for example, about homosexuality, preservatives, or in vitro fertilization. People who want to be very radical in their following of Christ and in their relationship to God, demand the space to discern delicately about complex human issues such as human sexuality. Part of their leadership voices far more outspoken opinions, particularly on sexual matters, than they themselves think wise and they are shocked by what they perceive as the arrogance of a hierarchy that should have learned some humility after having failed so miserably with regard to sexual and power abuse. Our leaders should not, also, hide behind the distinction between the respectful pastoral care for people and the faithful duty of clear pronouncements that sometimes provoke the crises and the pain that later on will require pastoral care. Once more: Flemish catholics are adults. They know there exists a tension between ideals that should be proclaimed even when we have difficulty attaining them, on the one side, and, on the other side, concrete human experiences that may turn out to be failures; they also know that some of the ideals we hold, need revision, as life turns out to be more complex than was first taken for granted. This is not about a beleaguered hierarchy or Church that hold values over against a society on the loose: this reality is that of christians discerning and assuming their values in the midst of a troubled world and in the light of their traditions, by discerning their relationship to God in Christ. I think we should listen more carefully to these many voices of people through whom the Spirit speaks to the whole of God’s Church – I perceive a sensus fidelium at work that, it seems, not all our religious leaders always know to appreciate and to value. Of course, we need to be loyal to the experience of our traditions and the values it seeks to uphold, but such loyalty is possible only in a spirit of creativity that considers the world not primarily as a dangerous place, nor its people as not worthy of trust, but that embraces this world and its people, particularly its suffering people, as a precious gift of God, opening up our minds, changing our prejudices, revealing our shortcomings and inviting us to share in God’s life. However, the outspoken voice of a part of the roman catholic hierarchy sometimes comes with such power that exceeds its legitimate authority. As a consequence, a sense of fear and distrust is growing in the ranks of the faithful and some theologians. The growing atmosphere of suspicion that I experience, the caution people exercise in voicing their opinions, and the fear that I feel in some meetings and that hides itself as strategic or tactical wisdom, are to me a source of desolation and shame. I do not always know how not to be a coward in such circumstances. Efforts should be made, on the side of leadership and on the side of those who experience these destructive feelings, to dispel the suspicions and fears, and to re-create an atmosphere of trust that is crucial for adult common discernment. Christianity does not square with an atmosphere of suspicion.

It is dangerous when, before we receive the world as God’s precious gift, we consider it to be a dangerous place in which we are led astray. Catholicity is not only about a message we have to bring to a lost world, it is also and foremost about a universal openness to the creativity of this world as revelation of the ever unsettling and unexpected love of God, who over and over again asks us to deepen our humanity and our sense of creation. We should not hide our fears and insecurities behind a discourse of the Church as beleaguered. As John XXIII did, we should open the windows of our hearts and institutions to discover how God is at work positively in this world, as a healthy wind that forces the smothering dust to fly away. We may have to face a storm sometimes, but we can trust the Lord of life to be on our side.

I must admit that I am in pain. I do not know how to speak and express my feelings or thoughts in a way that will not betray the reality and the faith of so many people and fellow catholics, who love and struggle in this world. I am also in pain, because I am a member of a hierarchy that is not always up to its task and sometimes even turns arrogant. Nevertheless, I also know many members of this hierarchy who do their best to serve, who admit their mistakes and who, in all humility, hear the voice of God in the people they are called to serve. I am in pain, because I think the Church has so much on offer, particularly in a world that faces life threatening global disaster and in which the Church and many of its religious movements do not commit the full force and authority of their universal institutions, their spiritual resources, their presence at many levels of society and all around the world. There are so many urgent challenges, so many people suffer and pain. There lies our calling. That is where I want to spend my energy, as a christian, as a theologian. That is where all of us should spend our energy.

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2 responses to “Are We a Beleaguered Church?

  1. This has been a very interesting blog entry, tying in with many of my thoughts over the past months and perhaps even longer. I should point out from the start that I am a lay Catholic and practicing, to boot.
    From observation I find it difficult to reach any conclusion other than that we are in fact a very beleaguered Church, beset by scandals, institutional rigidity, falling numbers, changing social mores and so on, but am also drawn to the conclusion that ultimately this crisis/challenge/threat cannot be any other way. Your entry, indirectly, offers me confirmation of this as well as indicating some of the reasons why this crisis is in vigour. I believe that you show some of this unintentionally but, nevertheless, accurately.
    You say explicitly as well as implicitly, I believe, that this situation offers us a chance to ‘rediscover our faith in God’, to test it and see it grow but you also wonder if it is ‘not an invitation to move into the world’. This last comment causes me great concern as I believe that you may be suggesting that the Church must in some way compromise its philosophy to cope with the challenges of the day. We must make it more up-to-date, more relevant, more accessible to the problems and challenges of the day. We should be firefighting, offering greater more ‘tolerant’ and understanding solutions instead of showing how people can be strong in their belief, become the person they are supposed to be, not some excuse for a man, limping before the lame and deeming it a kindness.
    Judging from the three main points these concerns revolve around a sense of structural and institutional inadequacy, if not downright failure, in the face of the demands of Modernity – ‘hierarchical failure in dealing with abuse’, need for Christians to ‘commit politically, institutionally and socially’, ‘some bishops and religious superiors seem to be out of touch with the realities of the world and with its evolutions‘ (my italics).
    As a reader and a layman I do sense a feeling of ‘fear and distrust’ coming through this article, almost a sense of hopelessness in the face of this inevitable machine of progress, of Modernity.

    I think that it is worth pointing out one or two things of which I am totally convinced. The evidence of everyday events only confirm me in these convictions:
    Modernity, for want of a better word, is failing. It is a system on the road to nowhere; it is a resource-driven Ponzi scheme fast running out of resources as it stumbles from one crisis to the next: financial, ecological, social, political. The efforts of ecologists, the ‘Green’ movement and the like are vital but can only ever help contribute towards an inevitable softer landing rather than a hard crash as the Powers of the world grapple with each other for the material they need to fulfill their promises to their ‘people’. As they embrace power so they must commit themselves more and more to fulfilling their ideological promises. They cannot betray the very nature of the system, the very system which has given them power and authority, which has promised that they can solve the problems. It would be to ask to much them to change.
    The system is fundamentally flawed. The Protestant Reformation/Revolution set it off on a technical project to perfect the world and the human condition. The Globalisation process has ensured its spread throughout the world. It was philosophically flawed from its very inception. It claimed to embrace a so-called scientific view, reductionism and technical/technological solutions as a way of addressing and solving the problems of the human condition. There was no need for a Church which sees Man is flawed. Man is perfectible and has the ability, by applied effort, to achieve this perfection. So a power system was created, the one we live as we see the produce of the world carved up between governments and corporations. This is inconsistent with Catholic doctrine. What we have, as the 19th century British Historian Lord Acton so aptly put it, is the ‘inversion of the pyramid’, with power at the top but a reasonable filtering down of some of the wealth.
    However, the great failing for me has been that Catholics have not stood out for something different, for a clear choice. They have diluted their stance, shown their readiness to compromise with a system for which they offer little alternative, this top-down, pervasive, ubiquitous system. The Church seems to stand for some wishy-washy compromise. It was not built for this purpose. It was built to be a spiritual edifice which could embrace society, not a support for a society which tolerates belief so long as it is private and doesn’t upset anyone else. I feel that the Church should be beleaguered; this would indicate that it stands for something, that it is not scurrying along the road of compromise. Unfortunately, and here I agree with you, it has become institutionalised, ossified even. It has lost much of the sense of its original purpose, its energy; the power of the Holy Spirit is present but not evident, dormant. Catholics are not really catholic in anything but name.
    As Modernity continues its downward path, which it must inevitably do, it will become more clear that what the Church has to offer is the only alternative. The ultimate, painful choice is either the pyramid of power or the inverted pyramid. This is when the Church will be truly tested as it was once before. As we know, no matter what may happen, the Gates of Hell have not, will not, cannot prevail despite the great travails it has to undergo. There is a price to be paid, ground to be made up, on the 5 centuries of reversals of the Church. Even if it seems to fail absolutely, so it is transforming and renewing itself, removing the dead bone, near inert muscle. Our days can be compared to the late days of the Roman Empire.
    This is no longer a time for gentle consolations, but for a girding of the loins. Those priests and bishops who brought grief and shame will have cause to be sorry. The Church is indeed beleaguered. You should rejoice.

  2. It wasn’t unusual back in the 70’s to see nuns in their habits in our towns and in our hospitals. I used to find this very comforting and I felt privileged to work with them. It is such a shame that their numbers are dwindling. They were like candles burning in the night.

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