How can the success or failure of the Vatican “abuse summit,” which concluded yesterday, be measured? A week ago, your editor suggested one analytic tool: ten points which, if agreed upon by the participants, would constitute a “considerable success.” Reviewing them one by one may help get into preliminary focus a complex affair that was many things, including a sober and severe examination of conscience and a moment of cautious but real hope.
1. Did the summit recognize that sexual abuse is a global plague? Even prior to the summit, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., made this point and suggested that the Church ought to make combatting sexual abuse a pastoral priority. There seemed to be a tacit recognition of this among many of the participants. And the pope laid out the available facts in a lucid and concise way in his discorso concluding the meeting. But was there sufficient recognition of the fact that the Catholic Church will not make a major contribution to eradicating or at least seriously abating the plague until its own credibility as a body that lives what it teaches is restored? There was some of that implicit in Saturday evening’s penitential liturgy. But more might well have been said on this point: when the Church’s evangelical witness is compromised by sexual scandal, so is its capacity to be the “field hospital” to which Pope Francis refers in his programmatic apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
2. Did the summit recognize that, in a Catholic context, this is a crisis of fidelity that cannot be resolved by “best practices” alone? Yes and no. The degradation of the gift of Holy Orders by clergy of whatever rank, through abusive behavior or a failure to address it, was remarked more than once. And, in his closing address, the pope did stress the imperative of a deeper conversion to Christ and the gospel as the essential foundation of any deep ecclesial reform.
But the meeting’s sharp focus on “protection of minors,” essential as that goal is, mitigated a thorough wrestling with the more comprehensive scandal of clerical sexual misbehavior, of which the abuse of the young is one (albeit the most gruesome) expression. And there ought to have been more discussion in the sessions that were live-streamed by the Vatican of the challenges of chastity for all Catholics in today’s hyper-sexualized environment. The idea of chastity as “the integrity of love,” a keen insight of Pope St. John Paul II that was drawn from his pastoral experience as a university chaplain, might have been more prominent in the discussions—and would have helped locate the resounding “no” the Church must say to sexual abuse in the context of the larger “yes” it says to the beauty and dignity of love, by which human beings are configured to the divine nature of the One who is love all the way through.
3. Did the summit avoid using “clericalism” as an all-purpose explanatory factor in the sexual abuse crisis? There were numerous references to the abuse of sacerdotal and episcopal power during the meeting, including a lengthy section of the pope’s final statement. And no one should doubt that “clericalism” in this sense of the term—taking advantage of the reverence for the priesthood and episcopate that is deep in Catholic DNA—was and is a factor in sexually abusive behavior by clergy. What was not said, or at least not said often enough and crisply enough, is that “clericalism” in this sense is a facilitator of sexual abuse, not its cause. Those causes are often deeply rooted in dysfunctional personalities; the meeting did pay significant attention (as did the pope on Sunday) to the imperative of a deep reform of recruitment practices and seminary formation to identify potential bad actors before ordination.
There is another expression of “clericalism” that bears on this unholy mess but that was not discussed these past four days, save in private conversation: and that is the clericalism—the defensiveness, lethargy, and possessiveness—that still characterizes too much of the Roman Curia in its response to the abuse scandals. It is now manifestly clear, at least in the West, that there is no resolving this crisis without intense cooperation between bishops and priests, and between those in Holy Orders and dedicated, faithful lay Catholics. Such clarity has not been achieved in too many Vatican offices. Some get it, and are working hard on the problem, not least at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But if there was one en passant phrase heard more often than others over this past week, it was “They just don’t get it”: and the “they” is the Curia, taken as a whole. So as Pope Francis’s curial reform moves into its next phase, it is imperative that the Holy Father and his chief lieutenants demand and enforce within the Curia the “change of mentality” of which the pope spoke during his closing discourse.
That “change of mentality” must involve a 180-degree turn in the image of U.S. Catholicism, and its response to the abuse crisis, that is too often encountered behind the Leonine Wall: the image of a local church that is warped by a puritanical fundamentalism in its approach to the moral life; a local church that has been frightened into “Protestantizing” changes by an aggressive media. This is nonsense, and unless it is rooted out there is going to be persistent and potentially destructive chafing between the reform-minded American episcopate and the Curia. American Catholics are angry—and it is often the most dedicated American Catholics who are most angry—because they believe what the Church teaches, and because they understand that gross disregard for those teachings does grave harm to individuals while creating new obstacles to the New Evangelization—the grand strategy of the Church in the twenty-first century, according to the last three popes. A recognition of and appreciation for that passionate belief and commitment, by those working in the Church’s central governing machinery, would be helpful going forward.
4. Did the meeting recognize that optional celibacy is not the answer to the abuse crisis? Few participants in the summit seem to have bought the line being peddled by some in the meeting’s Off-Broadway dimension, that a married clergy would mitigate the crisis of clerical sexual abuse. Whether they express it in these terms or not, summit participants seemed to understand that, in a world where marriage has too often been degraded into a legal contract for mutual convenience (and tax benefit), to suggest that marriage is some sort of crime prevention program is not helpful. More attention might have been paid, however, to how important strong friendships with joyful, faithful married couples are in priestly formation, before and after ordination. To borrow a phrase from ecumenical theology: the “mutual exchange of gifts” between celibates and married couples might have been highlighted more than it was last week.
5. Did the meeting underscore the importance of a deep reform of seminaries? This theme came up frequently, and it was good that it did. What is now necessary is another “exchange of gifts”: namely, those seminary programs that are models of reform (many of which are in the Anglosphere) helping other seminary programs (in old and new Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia) learn from the often hard experience of those who have put into practice the vision of John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on priestly formation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give you Shepherds).
6. Did the meeting recognize that the abuse crisis is also a crisis of episcopal credibility? If there was an “American issue” at the summit, this was it, and in many respects the meeting vindicated the approach that the American bishops have been trying to take (impeded on occasion by the Vatican) since the 2018 Summer of Shame.
At least half of the twenty-one points for reflection proposed by the pope reflected American experience and American practice since 2002. Last fall, the U.S. bishops were told by the Holy See not to use the term “code of conduct” in reference to bishops; during the summit, Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez of Bogotá, one of nine major speakers, called for precisely that—a “code of conduct” for bishops—in an address that had to have been cleared with the summit’s organizers. Small progress, perhaps, but progress nonetheless.
Moreover, it seems that a green light has been given for the development of mechanisms and processes of episcopal accountability, tailored to different national situations and prominently involving laity. After this past week, few will want to hear the terms “synodality” and “synodal” for a while, given their numbing ubiquity in the meeting’s formal presentations. But if those terms come to mean that national episcopal conferences can proceed to fashion reformist mechanisms that meet the particular needs of their local churches, then a corner really will have been turned beyond the unfortunate events involving the U.S. bishops conference this past November.
7. Did the meeting encourage bishops to treat their priests as sons and fellow-workers in a unified diocesan presbyterate? This may have come up in the meeting’s small-group discussions, but it did not figure prominently in the summit’s public sessions. Yet it would seem to be essential to a reformed priesthood in which fraternal support in meeting the many challenges of ministry today is a given of clerical life.
8. Did the meeting recognize that episcopal authority is strengthened, not weakened, by drawing on the expertise of dedicated laity in the governance of the Church? As suggested in #6 above, the door now seems open, across the world Church, to serious collaboration between bishops and laity in addressing the sexual abuse crisis and in addressing issues of episcopal accountability. This is a very tough idea for the standard Curial mentality to grasp, but any serious Curial reform will, as noted previously, insist on uprooting the curial clericalism that has led to obfuscation, delay, and sometimes cover-up in dealing with clerical sexual abuse. There will also be challenges in instantiating new patterns and processes of collaboration in a culturally-diverse world Church, where the power-differential between those in Holy Orders and the lay faithful expresses itself in different ways and with different intensity.
The kind of collaborative mechanisms that work in the United States, for example, cannot be considered universalizable. But the idea of collaboration ought to be universal, and if “synodality” means anything, it surely means that the different gifts of the Spirit are deployed within local churches in collaborative rather than competing ways. The human condition being what it is, that collaboration will always be tinged by the weaknesses and fears that can lead to conflict. But that collaboration is imperative can no longer be doubted, and the meeting seemed to recognize that, at least in theory.
9. Did the meeting grapple with the need for reformed criteria by which bishops are selected? In a word, no. But the critiques of episcopal misgovernance that were heard for four days surely point toward the necessity of such a reform. And in local situations where consultation with knowledgeable lay men and women on possible episcopal candidates is feasible, it ought to be mandated by the Holy See—and the Nuncios instructed to broaden the bandwidth of those from whom they seek counsel in identifying and assessing potential bishops.
10. Did the meeting grasp that deep and authentic Catholic reform is every Catholic’s responsibility? There was insufficient discussion of this, as there was insufficient discussion of the more comprehensive crisis of chastity in the Church. The Holy Father’s closing statement, however, pointed in this direction, and it is surely a theme to be stressed in the months and years ahead.
After the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, Winston Churchill, addressing Parliament and the British people, famously cautioned that “….this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Laying heavy stress on “perhaps,” the same might be said of this “meeting for the protection of minors” in the Church. Its focus was too narrow. The broader issue of the breakdown of chastity in the Church—chastity proclaimed, chastity encouraged, and chastity defended as life-giving and ennobling—was insufficiently remarked. But there was a sense of hope at the end of four days, and that sense was not illusory.
There was even modest progress on another issue that went largely, and unfortunately, unremarked during the meeting: the relationship of doctrinal dissent to the abuse crisis. As noted in this space before, the pre-summit statement by the Unions of Superiors General, representing the leadership of both men’s and women’s communities of consecrated life, was less than adequate in addressing religious communities’ complicity in the breakdown of sexual discipline in the Church and the corruption and abuse that followed from that. Nonetheless, the statement insisted that “the abuse of children is wrong anywhere and anytime: this point is not negotiable.” That will seem obvious to morally sane people. But in the context of the civil war within Catholic moral theology that has been reignited in this pontificate, it’s an exceptionally important affirmation, because it concedes that there are intrinsically evil acts, actions that are simply wrong in themselves and that no calculus of intention and consequence can make right. And the denial of intrinsically evil acts has been the linchpin of the assault on classic Catholic moral theology by dissident theologians for decades—an assault that has begun again in critiques of the teaching of Pope St. Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and Pope St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor that can be heard in pontifical universities in Rome today, among other venues.
This tacit affirmation of intrinsic evil by the Unions of Superiors General may seem a small thing. But thought through, it could be the twitch on the thread that begins to unravel the entire tapestry of dissident moral theology, which has played a crucial, and lethal, role in the abuse crisis.
So: perhaps the end of the beginning? Perhaps. Perhaps the end of the beginning, when the battle in question is curial denial. Perhaps the end of the beginning, in the struggle to get “Rome” to understand that the Americans were not exaggerating the gravity of the situation and its impact on the Church’s evangelical mission. Perhaps the end of the beginning of the struggle to get hidebound or fearful bishops to understand that engaging the collaboration of knowledgeable lay people does not diminish their authority but enhances it. Perhaps.
For the moment, no further damage was done. And a door that was closed this past November seems now to have been opened. So full marks to those who made some modest but real accomplishments possible—and who gave the people they serve grounds for hope.
- Xavier Rynne II
Closet, Cage, or Cross?
A Response to the New York Times
by the Rev. Philip G. Bochanski
It has been one of the great privileges of my priesthood to work with the members of the Courage apostolate, faithful Catholics who experience same-sex attractions and have decided to live chaste lives. I have encountered an unexpected joy in this work that has had a profound impact on my life and ministry: namely, the opportunity to support brother priests who experience same-sex attractions. Their commitment to understanding themselves and their vocations better, as they strive for that “successful integration of sexuality” and “inner unity” that defines the virtue of chastity (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2337), has been an inspiration for me and a challenge to live my own priestly commitments more authentically.
It is often not easy for a priest, who has been formed to be generous in providing pastoral care, to ask for support and care in his own moments of need. The love that parishioners show their pastors ought to be a help, but sometimes it reinforces a priest’s hesitation, if he supposes that revealing his own weakness would mean losing their respect. Priests often live at a distance from one another, and amid busy schedules even the idea of calling on a brother priest can seem daunting. I do not underestimate the strength and courage it took for the priests that I serve to seek support, and I marvel at their pursuit of the Goals of Courage, set by our founding members in 1980. The third goal of Courage is particularly important for them: “To foster a spirit of fellowship in which all may share thoughts and experiences” so that no one need live with this experience alone.
Many stories that I hear from these courageous priests were reflected in the recent New York Times article about priests who identify as gay. They fear being misunderstood by superiors, coworkers, and parishioners. They suspect that people will neglect the nuance in the Church’s teaching, namely, that “the Church does not teach that the experience of homosexual attraction is in itself sinful” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination,” p. 5), and will condemn them as sinners for their feelings. They worry about recent discourse in the Church that suggests that the mere experience of same-sex attractions disqualifies a man for priestly ministry. I understand these concerns, and how difficult it can be for a priest to seek support when these fears hold him back.
But I cannot understand, and I will not accept, the charge made in the New York Times’s headline, that the teaching of the Church on the subject of homosexuality is “a cage” designed to trap and torture priests who experience same-sex attractions. This notion, that the Church’s moral teaching is inherently harmful and intentionally hateful, is false and is an impediment to understanding that teaching fully.
Let us say it clearly, with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action” (CDF, no. 10). It is a serious sin against the dignity of the human person, and when it comes from someone in the Church, it is not only sinful but gravely scandalous, and “deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs” (ibid.). The way that some of the priests interviewed by the Times say they were treated by bishops and fellow priests makes me ashamed and deeply sorry. That this happens, however, stems not from the nature of the Church, nor from her teaching, but from sin. The proper response is not to reject or change doctrine, but to call and challenge everyone in the Church to live it more fully.
That teaching is expressed in two paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that have been widely criticized for the language they employ, when the Catechism says that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered” (no. 2357) and that a homosexual inclination “is objectively disordered” (no. 2358). Because, as Cardinal Francis George once wrote, “the Church speaks, in moral and doctrinal issues, a philosophical and theological language in a society that understands, at best, only psychological and political terms,” these terms have been deliberately misinterpreted to imply that the Church believes that a person who experiences same-sex attractions is suffering from a mental disorder, or that “all of his or her love, even the most chaste, is disordered” (James Martin, S.J., Building a Bridge, 2nd ed., p. 74).
This is not what the Church means. “It is crucially important to understand,” the U.S. bishops conference wrote in 2006, “that saying a person has a particular inclination that is disordered is not to say that the person as a whole is disordered” (USCCB, p. 6). The term is used to indicate that an action, and the desires that lead to that action, do not form part of the plan of God for human life. Something is disordered precisely insofar as it departs from this plan, this order, for creation, for the body, for sexuality. Such a desire “is not ordered toward the fulfillment of the natural ends of human sexuality. Because of this, acting in accord with such an inclination simply cannot contribute to the true good of the human person” (ibid.). The Church says “no” to certain actions and desires, to say a bigger “yes” to the divine plan for human flourishing.
But something even more important is at stake than the term disordered, as we see reflected in the way that priests like Father Martin and those interviewed in the Times article speak about identity. Like many in the broader “LGBTQ” community, these priests speak about “being gay” in a way that asserts that same-sex attractions are a natural, God-given, constitutive part of their identity. But this is a theological impossibility. As I have said elsewhere, it is not possible to assert that God deliberately creates a person to have a homosexual inclination, to “be gay”—God is not creating a different kind of human nature, with a different kind of sexual morality, nor does he create people and give them unfulfillable desires. If it is true that sexual acts between two people of the same sex are always immoral, and also true that “God … tempts no one” (James 1:13), then erotic or romantic desires for a person of the same sex do not, cannot, originate in God, and cannot be seen as a blessing or a good that defines a person’s identity.
Implicit in the adoption of a gay identity, then, or in saying that “God made me this way,” is a rejection of the Church’s teaching about homosexual inclinations and actions. But this is not just any teaching. Paragraph 2357 of the Catechism uses very particular, technical language to present the teaching, noting that “basing itself on Sacred Scripture … tradition has always declared that ‘homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. … Under no circumstances can they be approved.” This invocation of Scripture and Tradition, rare if not unique in the Catechism, must mean that this teaching is to be considered part of the deposit of faith. That is, it is not a prudential judgment on the part of the hierarchy, much less a culturally-conditioned assumption that can change with the times; rather, it is a truth that must be held to be divinely revealed and infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. It is not up for debate or revision; such a teaching is “to be believed by divine and catholic faith” and “all are therefore bound to avoid all contrary doctrines” (Code of Canon Law, c. 750).
This obligation to believe what is divinely revealed is the responsibility of every faithful Christian; it is part of what it means to say, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” But it is a special obligation of the clergy and of those who teach in the name of the Church, who make a Profession of Faith and an Oath of Fidelity before being ordained, and before taking any office in the Church. “In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church,” the candidate says, “I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it.” For a priest to embrace a gay identity, then, both impedes his self-understanding, and obstructs his presentation of the faith in its fullness to the people who have a right to receive authentic teaching from their pastors. “Departure from the Church's teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church's position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve” (CDF, no. 15).
“What, then, are homosexual persons to do who seek to follow the Lord? Fundamentally, they are called to enact the will of God in their life by joining whatever sufferings and difficulties they experience in virtue of their condition to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross” (CDF, no. 12). For the priest who experiences same-sex attractions, this begins with a humble, faithful submission to the teaching of the Church in regard to his identity: that the experience of his attractions is an important part of his experience, but that his true nature lies in being a man created in God’s image; a redeemed and adopted son of God; a baptized Christian; and a man ordained for prophetic and priestly service in imitation of Christ. His celibate vocation requires perpetual continence; that is, abstaining from sexually intimate thoughts, words, relationships, and actions. But he is called more deeply to acquire the virtue of chastity, which means integration—understanding his identity as a man and as a priest as a call to spiritual fatherhood, to virile self-sacrifice for the sake of those under his care—and to exercise mastery over disordered thoughts and feelings so that he can love freely and authentically.
Chastity is not typically an easy virtue to acquire, particularly in the modern world, and the priest as much as any other man needs support and accompaniment along the way. “There can be little hope of living a healthy, chaste life without nurturing human bonds,” the U.S. Bishops wrote. “Living in isolation can ultimately exacerbate one’s disordered tendencies and undermine the practice of chastity” (USCCB, p. 10). Nowhere does the Church’s teaching or practice forbid a priest to share his experience of same-sex attractions with trusted confidants. “For some persons, revealing their homosexual tendencies to certain close friends, family members, a spiritual director, confessor, or members of a Church support group may provide some spiritual and emotional help and aid them in their growth in the Christian life” (USCCB, p. 17), and it has been a tremendous privilege for me to be entrusted with this intimate confidence by brother priests.
But as spiritual fathers, priests ought not to share every personal struggle with their spiritual sons and daughters: “in the context of parish life,” the U.S. Bishops note, “general public self-disclosures are not helpful and should not be encouraged” (ibid.). Parishioners who have only a ministerial relationship with their parish priest are often left confused about whether that relationship has changed: “Why is Father telling me this? Does he need me to do something to help him?” It is not promoting clericalism or inauthenticity to ask a priest to keep private things private, for the sake of not burdening his pastoral relationships, and to share his own struggles and particular needs with his spiritual director, mentors, and close friends rather than from the pulpit.
So what the Church proposes to priests who are experiencing same-sex attractions is a Cross, not a cage nor a closet. The world says, “What’s the difference?” but the Christian knows that the paradox of the Cross is that, the more closely one configures himself to Christ, the freer one becomes to be himself. The Crucified One took on extra burdens in order to unburden others; he was nailed in place in order to set others free; he “testified to the truth” (cf. John 18:37) at the price of his own life, so that we could come to believe. The priest who experiences same-sex attractions is called to make particular sacrifices, which the Church knows well and about which the Church is deeply concerned and intensely sympathetic. But this is the nature of his vocation: at his ordination the bishop exhorts the newly-ordained to “understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.” The prayer of every faithful Catholic ought to be that our priests who experience same-sex attractions embrace fully the teaching of the Church, seek support and accompaniment in their striving for virtue, and become more deeply configured, even through their experience of suffering, to Christ the High Priest.
Father Philip G. Bochanski, a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is the executive director of Courage International.
Flannery O’Connor in the Vatican Basilica
by George Weigel
In one of her finely-crafted apologetical letters to the pseudonymous “A” in The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor explains to a skeptical friend that Catholics today suffer far more from the Church than for the Church. In the placid Catholic Fifties, Miss O’Connor undoubtedly had in mind the suffering that came from dull preaching, inept catechetics, obnoxious behavior, and other quotidian challenges to spiritual equanimity. And what was that, compared to what had been suffered in the great ages of persecution?
Were Flannery O’Connor alive today, however, it’s not hard to imagine her making the same observation, but with a considerably sharper edge on it. And perhaps her keen insight would have led her to a further suggestion: that the suffering that Catholics endure from the Church today—suffering has been palpable for months—must be transformed, by disciplined effort and a more radical openness to grace, into a suffering for the Church that helps cleanse the Church.
I hadn’t expected to be thinking of Flannery O’Connor quotes last Friday when I walked into the Basilica of St. Peter’s a little before 7:30 a.m. with my friend and former student, Father Daniel Hanley. I wanted to see the candlelit Bernini Altar of the Chair and the robed, tiara-crowned statue of the Prince of the Apostles on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, and Father Hanley, a faculty member at the Pontifical North American College, kindly agreed to celebrate Mass in the basilica for me. The altar Father Hanley had reserved, which includes the tomb of Pope St. Leo IX, had been usurped by another celebrant, so we “moved” a few yards away to the altar of St. Joseph, within which are relics of the apostles Simon and Jude. That location (the closest you come in today’s basilica to the probable site of Peter’s crucifixion in Nero’s Circus), the Gospel reading for the day, and Father Hanley’s fine homily combined to put my experiences of recent months, and of the pope’s “meeting for the protection of minors,” into perspective—and then brought to mind Flannery O’Connor.
The Gospel the Church reads on the Feast of Peter’s Chair is quite familiar: Matthew 16:13–19. On the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples what the crowds are saying about him. After a variety of answers are given, Peter makes his confession of faith—“You are the Christ, the son of the living God”—and the Lord gives him a commission: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, Father Hanley observed, that scene is not a revelation of Christ: in his first chapter, Matthew has already told his readers that Jesus has been conceived by the action of the Holy Spirit, so the readers know what’s what and who’s who. No, Peter’s confession and the Lord’s response, twelve chapters later, is the revelation of the Church. And as the Lord makes clear by the gift of the keys, the Church exists to preach the gospel: to proclaim the salvation of the world and be the vessel of grace by which we are saved. That is what the Church is for. That is Catholicism’s raison d’etre.
The Church, Father Hanley continued, is a secondary object of faith; the primary object of the act of faith is the Thrice-Holy God. But the Church is, nonetheless, an object of faith. Yesterday, hundreds of millions of Catholics throughout the world signaled that by saying “I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” Yes, the foundation of Catholic faith is friendship with Jesus Christ: He is the primary object of our faith, along with his Father and their Holy Spirit. But Catholic Christianity does not permit a choice between Christ (or the Trinity) and the Church. It’s a package deal. To say, in our various ways, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” means incorporation into his Body, the Church.
The import of reciting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed every week is, somehow, easier to grasp in St. Peter’s, where the extraordinary density of Catholic history is palpable—and so is the reality of suffering from and for the Church and its Lord.
We were, after all, celebrating the Eucharist in a time of crisis and praying for the Church’s leaders a few yards from the likely site of St. Peter’s final suffering—Peter, who had suffered from the Church (some of whose early members challenged his table-fellowship with Gentiles) as well as for the Church and the Master. Our Eucharist was being celebrated above some of the mortal remains of two of Peter’s friends and fellow-apostles, Simon and Jude—also martyrs. The altar itself and the mosaic above it were dedicated to St. Joseph: Patron of the Universal Church, and a man who had to configure his will to God’s will on many occasions, no doubt with some measure of suffering. Next door, so to speak, was the tomb of Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg, St. Leo IX: a reforming pope who worked with St. Peter Damian (an ascetic who embraced mortification and fasting as spiritual disciplines) to cleanse the Catholic clergy of sexual sin in the eleventh century.
Twenty-first-century postmodernity regards suffering as an absurdity and flees from it by any number of escape routes—including the seemingly attractive but ultimately soul-crushing path of sexual license. The gospel challenges Catholics to be countercultural in many ways, but none of those ways is perhaps more sharply countercultural than the challenge to embrace suffering as a means of purification. And that is one lesson I took away from that morning in the patriarchal Vatican basilica, amidst a meeting to consider the suffering that men consecrated to the service of Christ and the Church have inflicted on others: Those who have personally suffered the scourge of clerical sexual abuse, those who have suffered from angry embarrassment over revelations of it, and those in the Church’s official leadership who have been inadequate (or worse) in their response to it must find ways to transform this suffering from and in the Church into a suffering for the Church that becomes a means of purifying the Church.
Lent begins next week. The Lord told his frustrated and angry disciples that certain kinds of devils can only be cast out by intensified prayer and fasting. As the Church struggles with the devils that beset it during the upcoming Forty Days, may the mortification the people of the Church freely embrace for the Church, in their Lenten disciplines, be a means of repairing the damage that has been done from the Church, for the sake of a purified Church that can proclaim again, with credibility, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
And may this coming Lent, and the Eastertide to follow, be the occasion for Catholics to thank the many good men in Holy Orders whom they know—and in doing so, help ease the pain these priests and bishops feel over the failures of their brothers in the ministry.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
(This is the last in this series of LETTERS FROM THE VATICAN. Your editor is most grateful to those who have gotten these LETTERS to those for whom they were written: Ramona Tausz and R. R. Reno at First Things in New York; Luke Coppen and Nick Hallett at the Catholic Herald in London; Peter Rosengren and Catherine Sheehan at the Catholic Weekly in Sydney. Thanks, too, to our collaborating writers: Fr. Philip G. Bochanski, Fr. Brett Brannan, Dr. Theresa Farnan, Fr. Thomas P. Ferguson, Fr. Carter Griffin, Mary Rice Hasson, Father James Mason, Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, Dr. Deborah Savage, Dr. Janet E. Smith, Dr. Susan Selner-Wright, George Weigel, Dr. Shawn McCauley Welch, and Stephen White. For various forms of support that have made these LETTERS possible, thanks as well to the members of the Junior Ganymede Club, to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, and to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Weber. XR II)