A publication of Sacred Heart University
Whither American Catholic Theology?
Catholics, the Supreme Court and Theological Formation

An Autopsy for Social Trust

As a religious sister, pediatrician and medical ethicist who has worked for almost 40 years to protect victims of clergy sexual abuse, there are days, weeks, months when I am overwhelmed by the challenges to healing and renewing the Church in our post-pandemic, post-Christendom world.

Faith and religion today are in decline, and democracy is in crisis. There has been a steady and steep loss of trust in North American institutions, documented since the early 1970s by Gallup and Harris polls, especially for the stock market, banks, television news and legal organizations. The root causes of this loss of trust include poor institutional performance and the global shocks of the pandemic, the 2008-2009 recession, rising economic and social inequity and bank failures.

We also live in an age where social media pundits question everything and cyber-criminals are willing and able to exploit the susceptible and vulnerable.

Embodied and embedded in communities and cultures, we depend on organizations and institutions: the police and military for protection, businesses for safe products at fair prices, schools for the promotion of knowledge, doctors for health care, government officials for justice and the common good and religious institutions for counsel on dealing with the moral issues of our time. Among others, the Pew Research Center has tracked the tragic and precipitous decline of trust in these institutions. This is dramatically so for the Church itself. How can we resuscitate it?

I know the Church as a living mystery of God’s love and presence among us. It has necessary institutions and an organizational structure and culture. Management studies exploring the life cycle of organizations and institutions recognize them as living entities with a founding by a charismatic leader, early growth, maturity and socio-cultural success, followed by an inevitable decline with the challenge of renewing the original vision and values of the sacred founding times or facing dissolution and death.

Important work on the wounded state of the Church has been written and ignored because of an ongoing denial of the depth of the issues, vicious in-fighting on the reasons for the wounds and appropriate responses, tragedy fatigue experienced from the ongoing clergy abuse crisis and pandemic loss of religious practice. We need to break through to the deep renewal so desperately needed.

In the evening, I turn to the television to debrief. I have become fascinated with television dramas about forensic scientists, forensic anthropologists and coroners. They engage my diagnostic heart in their captivating meld of science and detective mystery. They star passionate and dedicated individuals who literally get to the heart of the matter as they perform autopsies, crack open chests and go deep into vital organs and tissues to determine the cause of death and the extent of damage to vital organs and tissues.

Some autopsies are required by law, as in sudden and unexpected death; others determine culpability in a homicide; and others advance learning on the damaging effects of disease, trauma and environment.

My rambling reflections using the metaphor and method of autopsy help highlight the complexity of diagnosis and the need to reject simple answers. We begin with a careful visual examination of the entire body. Scars and skin changes from colonialism and the trauma of clergy abuse show the apparent health and vitality of the Church of western and white-privileged Christendom were false.

Diagnostic imaging investigations confirm old fractures, organ damage and obstructed blood vessels limiting the flow of life-giving nutrients. In the Church, these result from secrecy, denial, protection of institution and offender, avoidance of scandal (understood as loss of reputation) and inattention to a health status reflecting Gospel values.

Microscopic examination reveals an underlying moral theology that has been rule-bound and sin-centered, not focused on the promotion of personal virtues or the formation of conscience, which impairs judgment on the relational harms of sin that are powerful in our incarnational and trinitarian beliefs.

Microbiology documents the presence of endemic and syndemic infections. These are widespread and multi-generational. They produce persistent lethargy and weakness and result in the inability to know the vitality of good health and well-being.

Toxicology studies the harmful effects of chemicals, poisons, pollutants and environments. In the Church, they reveal a noxious culture of power and privilege in clericalism and James Keenan’s “hierarchalism” with its elitism and non-accountability, which are in complete contradiction to Jesus’ use of power and authority.

Because increasingly sophisticated genetic technologies reveal that trauma has multi-generational effects, it is urgent that we acknowledge the depth of pathology for the future of the Church and its youth.

My forensic mystery shows conclude with judgments, advice and the zippering of a body bag containing the corpse. For disciples of the risen Christ, we stand in hope at an empty tomb.

Pope Francis’ calls for a “new friendship” and real synodality can empower our response and resuscitate trust in the Church as a source of healing and hope.


Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.

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