In the midst of the various crises in the world, are we Catholics too busy navel-gazing to be “a light for the world”? Are we trying too hard to get it right as an institution to notice that we are called to witness the journey rather than prove to ourselves and everyone else that we are standing at the “pearly gates”? Are we so convinced of our holiness that even the truth can be manipulated to serve “a greater purpose”?
In these past few weeks, I have been overwhelmed by the contrast between the Christmas message of humility and gentleness, and continued evidence of the institutional malaise of the Church: a malaise ostensibly rooted in our fear of admitting error, of blemishing “the Church’s reputation” in the world. This was brought acutely to the forefront by another sexual abuse report, this time focusing on the Archdiocese of Munich. The report highlights how prominent ecclesial reformers (Cardinal Reinhard Marx) as well as those who achieve the highest ecclesial office (Pope Benedict) erred in the way they dealt with accused priests. Sadly, the established culture within the Church continues to be one of self-validation and, when that is jeopardized, self-preservation. The focus is inward, fearful not only of how “the secular world” will penalize the Church, but even fearful of “scandalizing” the faithful—a scandalously patronizing stance. These attitudes reveal a distrust of those not in the hierarchical loop and reflect a disengagement from the world. In other words, navel gazing: justified by canon law, buttressed by superficial analysis of social currents and a moralizing disengagement from human experience. This institutional culture is so pervasive that a reform agenda only scratches the surface of the problem. Reform merely tinkers with structures. Indeed, reform is inadequate.
If not reform, then what? Pope Francis sees the synodal path as not simply a path of reform, but of conversion. How can conversion resolve deeply embedded institutional sin? In a recent Commonweal article, Austen Ivereigh turns our attention to an essay from the 1990s of then Fr. Jorge Bergoglio, in which Bergoglio distinguishes between sin (forgivable) and corruption (refusal of God’s forgiveness). Perhaps for too long what has been diagnosed as sin is corruption.
So, Church reform is insufficient. We need conversion: an admission that the institutional sin currently discussed is, in fact, corruption—an inability to admit sin and thus the refusal of God’s gracious forgiveness. Shuffling abusive clergy from one parish or diocese to another is a sign of a leadership unable to admit its inadequacies, its sins. A culture that fears to be open to the struggles of young people with their sexual identity, less it put in question teachings that have always been open to historical development, describes a culture that relies more on laws and prescriptions than divine grace and humility. When the evidence of misogyny in all aspects of Church life is undeniable, yet denied, refusing to see how Christ’s example of the treatment of all human beings challenges the way in which the Church has lived for centuries—the Church is living an untruth. Even today the truth is manipulated. In 1980, then Cardinal Archbishop Ratzinger was present at the meeting that decided to receive into the archdiocese a priest who had been convicted of sexually abusing minors. Benedict’s most recent denial of attendance at the meeting was described as “the result of an editing error” according to his personal secretary. Denials in the name of some “higher” value reject the presence of God’s grace. Such a Church does not bring light into the world.
Reform will not renew the Church. Those of us who have been called to lead must be the first to admit our errors, we must be the first to admit our struggles, we must be the first to allow our wounds to be seen, so that God’s healing power can be known not in the abstract, but as an experience. We must let go of our power. When we are open about our weakness, we liberate others from feeling shame, self-doubt or worse, self-condemnation. When we admit brokenness, we dissolve any illusion of perfection and we can be with one another as equals united by the One who humbled himself, becoming one of us, in spite of being God (Philippians 2:6). Therein lies truth and hope.
Myroslaw Tataryn is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University, Canada, and a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic priest.