How did we get here? Power, Shame—and at Long Last, Mercy

This essay was first published in the August 26, 2018 edition of the Springfield State Journal-Register, in the Beliefs column,  for which Sister Beth Murphy writes regularly.

How many tears have been spilled over the latest scandal in the Catholic Church? It is deeply disturbing, painful beyond imagining, to think of the thousands of children who’ve suffered at the hands of clerical abusers. What frightens me most is this: I don’t think there is something especially toxic in the water in Pennsylvania. If this heinous abuse happened there at such a scale, it was/is happening everywhere at the same scale. It’s painful to be Catholic just now, for me and I’m sure for many others. During this suffering and near-despair, where to find hope?

I’ve found three touchstones to cling to as tangible signs that this period of lament for the Church I love—if fully embraced—can lead to meaningful transformation.

  1. Cardinal Blase Cupich’s compassionate, heartfelt response to the two-fold suffering of victims, first at the hands of their abusers and again because of the denial and neglect of those who failed in their responsibilities for calling the abusers to account. He also recognized the important role of the secular news media in calling the Church to account and—most hopefully, to my mind—acknowledged the need for “systemic change in the way we order church life.”

That is huge.

We’ve heard the same thing from Pope Francis in a powerful letter released Monday: “To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” defined by the pope as “a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority,” that undervalues the role of nonordained persons and the sacrament of baptism and focuses solely on the power and authority of the ordained. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.

If the pope and leaders like Cardinal Cupich are serious about reordering church life so that the full body of the Church participates in the ordered ministry of the Church, then tectonic plates are shifting. We live in hope.

2: The response of the Catholic laity. Why not just walk away from this dysfunctional institution? There are surely some who make that choice, or made it long ago. It is not ours to pass judgment on them. I can’t blame them. A sign of grace and encouragement for me, as one bound by my religious vows to a life of service to the church, is the courage and commitment of Catholic laity who deeply understand the responsibilities that are theirs because of their baptism. Their witness is a call for all of us to be Christ in the world!

  1. I also have a tentative, halting hope for an honest reappraisal of church teaching on human sexuality by church leadership and theologians—one of depth, insight, and compassion. For more on this, read an essay published in the British Catholic magazine The Tablet. The author, James Alison, is a thoughtful theologian and priest. Father Alison is honest, realistic, and hopeful that—with a truthful, merciful, and mature understanding of some rarely acknowledged realities—healing and growth is possible. He writes about a “systemic structural trap” of dishonesty that exists in the church, very much related to the clericalism that Pope Francis and other prominent church leaders have called out.

I still lament the situation in which we find ourselves. It is still painful. And I still believe that by facing our reality and living in hope, the Body of Christ can heal.

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