It seems that the Church has learned a new phrase: “we are sorry.” A phrase to wipe away the many ways in which Church leadership has denied the truth of the Church’s mission: “to bring good news to the oppressed . . . bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). Alas, not denying the significance of this change, we all know that acknowledging the sins of the past is only the first step to conversion. If the Church hierarchy genuinely wishes to repent, every cleric must discover within his heart the true cause of his abdication of the Gospel’s key message. He needs to recognize the corruption that has become insidious within his ranks. I do not speak here of medieval material excesses (although they can still be found), nor of the manipulation of office (also still around). Rather I suggest the worst evil is succumbing to a belief in one’s certainty: that somehow ecclesiastical office invests a guarantee of knowing truth absolutely and well beyond the claims of any of the saints or doctors of the Church.
The Cappadocians provided one of the great insights of the Christian fourth century. They insisted that as much as we may “know” God, there is so much more to the divine than can be known. This negative theology meant that our fundamental stance towards all things divine must be one of humility. The human mind can never fully fathom the divine. Yet, somehow, over the centuries, the Church has forgotten that humility and succumbed to the temptation of assuming we can know the mind of God. We have invested our hierarchy with a claim of knowledge and authority in matters divine that allows for no declaration of: “I do not know,” or “I am not sure.” The hierarchy assumes to speak God’s mind with absolute certainty concerning sexuality, gender relations, the power of the state, the innermost truths of the human heart in each of us. Proclamations are made not with prayerful humility, but with authority and judgment. Today, when the pope, as a poor shepherd, bows before a sinner and kisses his/her feet, we are stunned, shocked; some of us see this as a sign of an authority abdicated, a divine institution betrayed. Canons have become more important than kerygma.
The sexual abuse crisis is a mark of the corrupt power unleashed by this exaggerated understanding of authority. The focus on condemning non-heterosexuals at the expense of Christ’s pastoral embrace is rooted in the power that opts for domination, rather than the power to be humble and loving. The stubborn insistence on ignoring the voice of prayerful women who challenge the accepted norms for women’s roles in the Church betrays the insecurity of male power more than it manifests the inspiration of the Spirit. The fear of real reform of the Church’s structures has everything to do with holding onto power and nothing to do with trusting the Spirit as the lifeblood of the Church. We need to apologize for much, but we cannot succumb to the temptation of regarding our apologies as sufficient.
If we wish our apologies to be sincerely transformative, then we need to go to an even more challenging place: the place of uncertainty and journeying. Our bishops must lead, not by declaring, but by journeying with us, recognizing the need to admit the challenges of uncertainty in the face of current struggles, believing our Savior can assist us in discerning the Spirit within every one of us. One of the great difficulties of a parent is being honest with one’s children about his/her struggle, his/her not knowing everything. Yet it is in those moments of honesty that we, as parents, learn to trust the Spirit moving among us. It is in those moments, admitting our ignorance and our humanity, that our children begin to assume their adulthood. Our bishops’ leadership requires just that kind of honesty, that humility, that brokenness, in order to manifest the Spirit alive in the Church so that we may once again witness the Good News in the world—not by our perfection—but by our humble woundedness that opens before us the power of the Resurrection.
Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.