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Entries from December 2019

Let There be Light

“Let there be light.” With these few words, God began the patient work of creation, introducing order into the dark and formless void, introducing the forces necessary for the flourishing of life (Genesis 1:1-3).  In these darkest days of the year, when inhabitants of the northern hemisphere await the return of light, we recall the coming of Christ—the light shining in the darkness for all of humankind (John 1:4-9). And throughout world, the global Catholic community awaits the day when the light of Christ might once again shine on the face of the church with credibility.

Speaking at Notre Dame University in November, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, leader of the Vatican office for the investigation of clergy sexual abuse, warned American Catholics to “be prepared for another wave of traumatic narrative.” The full story, he suggests, in particular the story of bishops who are themselves perpetrators or have covered up the full extent of abuse in their dioceses, has not yet come to light. More recently, reflecting on his own experience of confronting the reality of abuse, the Cardinal Archbishop of  Vienna, Christoph von Schönborn, acknowledged how the toxic culture of clericalism often enabled abusers to escape justice, as they hid behind “closed systems” and “closed institutions,” including the secret procedures of ecclesiastical tribunals.

This week it was announced that Pope Francis has ended the practice of the “pontifical secret,” a set of rules requiring strict confidentiality concerning the proceedings of ecclesiastical investigations and trials of members of the clergy for sexual offenses. This measure, coupled with new requirements to report all alleged abuse to civil authorities, is a harbinger of a new spirit of collaboration and openness.

The reality of sexual abuse first caught the attention of Canadian Catholics in the 1970s when complaints emerged concerning the Mount Cashel Boys’ Home run by the Christian Brothers in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The 1989 Royal Commission and the Winter Commission, an independent enquiry established by the Archdiocese of St. John’s, uncovered the full extent of rampant physical and sexual abuse. Both secular and church authorities had failed abysmally to protect vulnerable child victims. Their misguided coverup prioritized instead the defense of the institution and the religious order. Archbishop Alphonsus Penney apologized to victims and offered his resignation. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, Canadians learned of the sad chapter of abuse in a government-sponsored system of residential schools for first nations children managed by church organizations, including 50 Catholic “entities”—religious institutes and 17 dioceses.

In the wake of the Mount Cashel scandal, the Canadian Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops was among the first episcopal conferences to establish a set of national guidelines for responding to allegations of clergy sexual abuse in From Pain to Hope, in 1992.  These were updated by a new set of orientations in 2007 and replaced in 2018, by a more expansive set of guidelines, “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse.” Canadian bishops count themselves as “pioneers” in the effort to adopt a more just, victim-centered approach to the crisis.

Still, each bishop is responsible to implement these policies and procedures in his diocese. In the absence of any structure of public accountability, one might wonder whether they remain the workings of a closed system. Advisory commissions are appointed by the bishops and report back to them. Even the new procedures introduced by Pope Francis in the past year envision the investigation of bishops by other bishops—metropolitans and nuncios, whose lines of accountability run upward to Vatican officials—with no requirement to report to the people they serve.

The restoration of trust between the people on the pews and their pastors will require much greater transparency and accountability. A number of Canadian bishops are working proactively to rebuild this trust by conducting parish-based and diocesan-wide listening sessions or inviting independent audits of diocesan files and procedures. Archbishop Michael Miller of Vancouver has now published the names of nine priests publicly charged or convicted of abuse after an audit of cases dating back to 1950. The diocese actually identified 36 perpetrators in all, yet claims that privacy laws prevent the publication of the full list. The Archdiocese of Montreal and surrounding dioceses have invited a retired judge to conduct an extensive external audit of diocesan archives going back to 1950. Other dioceses across Canada are undertaking similar studies and weighing whether and how to publish the results. Such efforts are significant steps in the direction of increased transparency.

If the shepherds of the church really want to earn back the trust of the faithful and restore credibility with the wider community, such measures cannot be a one-off. They must be accompanied by the establishment of new checks and balances. Otherwise, they risk being seen as the noble gestures of a benevolent leader, or worse, as little more than the latest communication strategy aimed at controlling the flow of information and minimizing damage to the institution. Regular audits and systems of reporting must become a permanent feature of Catholic diocesan life—as they are in all public institutions and corporations today.

No serious Christian need fear genuine transparency—literally, allowing the light to shine through. Ours is a story, remembered in this season with great fanfare, of how a people who walked in darkness has seen a great light. He came not in triumph, but in great humility. The light of an honest accounting is essential if we are to grasp the full scope of the crisis and embrace our collective responsibility for the failings of the church. Only then will we begin to comprehend all that stands in need of healing. And only then can we hope to build safer, life-giving communities together, in whom the world might discern a reflection of the one who is Light.


Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.


Incarnation and Interpretation

The Christmas season, or, for you rigorists, the season of Advent, is suddenly and shockingly upon us once again. Already. Why does this always happen? The arrival Christmas, of course, is completely regular and predictable, as are the conflicting feelings (at least for me) of joy and dread. ‘Tis a truly wonderful time of the year, but oh no who did I leave off my gift list and what on earth am I going to get them?

What was less predictable (though shouldn’t have been, in retrospect) was that the crisis in the Catholic Church, and the moral imperative of a top-to-bottom reform that is the raison d’etre of our columns here, is as urgent as ever. The sobering aspect this Christmas is that we are still reckoning with the sexual abuse scandal and the virulent opposition to Pope Francis and his effort to promote a pastoral conversion in the church.

How to think about such turbulence in the midst of Advent? Yes, there are the parallels to Lent, as both move us from darkness to light, and both seasons are marked by a period of intense spiritual preparation. But I think the Christmas season has another, vital, lesson for us that we can carry through the years of change and transition to come. That lesson is the most obvious one, namely the reality of the Incarnation. How does the Incarnation relate to the crisis in Catholicism?

For one thing, there is the obvious messiness of the human condition that God, as Jesus, entered into. He didn’t fix it. He just redeemed it. We still live in hope of seeing “thy kingdom come.” We grow impatient as we wait for that hope to be fulfilled, or at least to see some greater steps toward that hope, some clear signs to answer our predicament.

But what the Incarnation reminds us above all is that even Jesus did not provide easy answers to his followers, much less simple solutions to those of us who came later. He couldn’t. He was human, and we are human, and we are all bound by those limitations. I was reminded of this reality some years ago when, in one of those happy accidents that can save a writer (and make you forever doubt whether you have ever consulted enough sources to actually finish a piece), I lingered at a stoop sale and came across a volume of essays on Gnosticism by the late Jesuit scripture scholar George W. MacRae.

I hadn’t known of McRae, though I should have, and I found his observations for a project on Gnosticism very insightful and helpful. But it was something I hadn’t been looking for, an informative essay that McRae wrote on the modernist scholar and priest Alfred Loisy, that remained with me. It struck me not so much for what MacRae said about Loisy as for what MacRae wrote, at the end of the piece, about the Incarnation – namely, that “the central doctrine of Catholic Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation.”

That’s an obvious statement, I suppose, though one with consequences that that the church has too often taken pains to avoid. The anxiety around Loisy, McRae noted, and the anxiety among many in the contemporary church, is that applying methods of research and criticism to the Bible and Christian history and the figure of Jesus confounded the longstanding yearning “for a situation in which God would provide biblical and dogmatic access to the truth about himself and his Son, would provide revelation, that is, which is exempt from the laws and the limitations of human discourse.”

The church had allowed itself,” he wrote, “and many Christians still do, to yearn for that point at which God will speak directly, not through the muddled confusion of human utterance: there must be somewhere some words of God that are immune to the interpretive processes that we of necessity have to exercise when we try to understand one another.”

But, as McRae continued, “in that yearning the church sought a privilege that was not granted even to the Son of God. In the Incarnation, God entrusted his Son to humanity in its fullest sense … If all the utterances by which revelation is communicated to us are utterances in human language, that is, as is often said, if God speaks to us in the language of humanity, then we must interpret God’s speech as we interpret the language of humanity.”

It has been a hallmark, almost a verbal tic, of the critics of Pope Francis to argue that he is spreading “confusion” in the church, and confusion “is of the Devil,” as Archbishop Charles Chaput once said in reference to the synods Francis has called to discuss critical issues facing the church. Or, as Chaput said elsewhere, “Honesty and clarity are always good things. Confusion and ambiguity are never of God.”

Francis’ teaching is nothing if not ambiguous, these critics say, open to various interpretations, and his preaching is imprecise and subject to misunderstanding and, well, not fit for a pope whose every utterance could carry magisterial weight. Never mind that the Bible is full of episodes in which the Apostles are left scratching their heads over something Jesus has said. No, argue these critics, all must be clear and in black and white, with no room for discernment or adaptation or, God forbid, considering the situation of the person in front of you or examining your own conscience.

That’s not how Jesus worked, that’s not how human beings are, that’s not what the church is. And if the church tries to operate simply as a legal system then she betrays herself, and her founder. As Francis told a forum of canonists earlier this month, ministry “is not something mathematical, simply to see which reason weighs more than the other. No. There is the Holy Spirit that must guide the case, always. If the Holy Spirit is not there, what we do is not ecclesial.”

We want a road map and a timeline, clear direction and perfect certainty. We will not have them. Instead we will have an assurance, a hope, a baby in a manger and a mission to accompany those in need, to pursue justice, to be merciful and to accept that no pope and no commission, no expert and no saint, is going to provide a magical solution to our predicament. Proof-texts and easy judgments are the opposite of the Incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. Our mission has as much to do with persistence as with patience.

As McRae concluded: “The church should not shy away from accepting that same risk which God may be said to have taken in the greatest mystery of our faith. The church can do so, and with confidence, if it does not forget the promise that God is with us.”

Blessed Advent, and Merry Christmas.


David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. 


Apologies, apologies, more apologies

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.