The Church and Clergy in Crisis: 7 Practical First Steps We Must Take
Today’s Gospel reading brings us to a pivotal moment for the Church. We might call it a “genesis” moment. Jesus asks the Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter—faulty, impulsive, not always brave but earnest to the point of ingenuousness—immediately confesses the message of the Church: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus says,
“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 to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15-19)
This is a timely and profoundly important reading for us to ponder as we face the catastrophic clerical and spiritual crisis effected through the actions of some of the most powerful and prominent members of our ecclesiastical leadership, and the inaction of others—sins of commission and omission. For many Catholics, there is a sense that if the gates of hell are not prevailing, they are coming loose at the hinges, and bent at the bars.
The question is asked: By what measures may we hold accountable the autonomous bishops of the Church, and the diplomatically protected cardinals, whose revealed past actions have precipitated a deep and real shattering of trust among the faithful? Without trust, without a secure sense that the men placed in a position to bind and to loose the sins of others will themselves come into the light—and hold themselves accountable to what is true within this unholy drama—it will be impossible for the Church to avoid being cast into shadows, at the cost of souls.
Let’s think about that reading again. Whatever excitement the Apostles felt at the idea of a Church instituted by the Son of the living God must have been thrust into doubt at the arrest of Jesus. Peter denied ever knowing Christ; the rest of the Apostles, all but one, abandoned him. One of their number so despaired of his own contributions to the moment that he—not yet formed to understand the unique mercy that accompanies justice in the divine economy—destroyed himself.
Whatever trust they had placed in Jesus and the Good News must have been increasingly battered as Christ’s passion proceeded, unto his death. They became afraid of the mobs -- perhaps afraid of their own cowardly response to something so shocking -- and so they hid, and did nothing. We might call it the Church’s first episode of leadership inertia in the face of crisis.
It wouldn’t be the last, either, but fortunately Jesus’ resurrection was swift, and his lessons, his ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost resolved their predicament—helped them to regain their trust, define and refine their faith, and be strengthened for the work ahead, all the way to their individual martyrdoms.
Our current calamity tempts us to say, “Lord Jesus, come again! We are lost in a thousand different ways and this is a fantastically difficult moment for your Church around the world.”
Oh, it is difficult, and the myriad situations and issues we will need to address, reform, and resolve as a Church have not all bubbled to the surface yet. One thing has become very clear, however, even in some bishoprics: nothing will be repaired—including the trust which is absolutely necessary to the life and growth of faith in Christ—without the laity using their baptismal priesthood to shine light into every area of our current darkness, and to humanely but directly address questions about the objective and subjective nature of sin and how justice and mercy respond to it; the character of the apostolic priesthood, and what it means to be a healthy and vibrant church.
We feel lost, but we mustn’t. God is in this moment, just as surely as he was in the moment of Christ’s arrest, and Peter’s denial, and the Crucifixion, and Judas’ death.
Consider this: awful, untenable things have happened and time is a construct. To all of the unjust, horrific, and bloody tortures of those days of fear and passion in Jerusalem are merged our present troubles. Eventually, but not in three days, there will again be glory.
However, we do not have the Apostles’ chance to hide in fear. Our ordeal will be long—think in terms of decades, not years—and our need for real action, both individually and as a Church, is most urgent. Let us begin, right now, to take practical steps, and ponder how to bring them even further. We can start here:
- Speak up! If you know something, say something. Access local law enforcement if possible; seek a diocesan investigation. Anyone who has ever been abused will tell that silence abets it. Loving the Church too much to see it scandalized by revealing what you know? Honey, that ship has sailed. If your child is being abused, you do not “hide” it for the child’s sake. You validate the child’s importance, and demonstrate your love by going after the predator.
- Appeal to the Holy Father: This week a group of prominent young Catholics signed an open letter to Rome begging for exposure, redress, and transparency. Circulate similar calls within your parish and diocese and send them to your bishop and to Rome. Any solution to our situation must be initiated through Rome. Request that Pope Francis appoint an investigator, and that this appointee create commissions to examine the realities of how and where our leadership have sinned, and that those commissions be led by faithful and agenda-free lay people of varying gifts, from canon lawyers to insightful moms and dads, for the sake of transparency.
- Begin a real dialogue with each other about what seminary policies, no matter how well-intentioned, have not only failed but have perhaps fed and exacerbated a corrupt clerical culture. Be willing to listen to each other without a knee-jerk digging in of heels, remembering that Christ often calls surprising and confounding vessels to do his will, whatever we think of it.
- Request that layfolk, priests, and religious be appointed, in every deanery and diocese, to participate in investigatory panels able to look into accusations and make public recommendations for action to their bishops. Ensure that every seminary has a screening and evaluation process for future priests that includes a similar body.
- Help define what makes a healthy church and begin to be yourself the church you want to see by becoming an open conduit for the love, justice, and mercy of Christ, and the movement of the Holy Spirit, to come forth—even if how Christ defines justice and mercy is not quite as you would prefer; even if the Holy Spirit seems to be taking a turn you don’t understand. That openness is essential because it is a form of consent that speeds along both the action of the Spirit and the glory of God.
That last might be the most difficult of all, because we often have trouble getting out of our own way, so commit to deepening your own prayer life. Pick up the Divine Office and pray some part of it daily. If the opportunity to pray before the Blessed Sacrament is available to you, take advantage of it. Ignore anyone who tells you that it’s an antiquated medieval piety best left behind, which is precisely the sort of stupid, arrogant thinking that helped bring us to where we are. How can praying before the very Presence of Christ be anything but good and powerful? Hint: it can’t.
Two more imperatives:
- Offer up your own troubles for the healing of the Church and in reparation for all of her sins. Yes, offering it up is still a thing, and it is powerful.
These are early days of a long process, and the first suggestions of what must be done. More, obviously, will come and from better minds than mine. But we can begin here, and today.