A “Wounded Healer” offers guidance for wounded Catholics

Fr. Thomas Berg’s “Hurting in the Church” is an important and necessary book, rooted in a solid ecclesiology and free of both excuses and histrionics.


Two things will strike readers of Fr. Thomas Berg’s Hurting in the Church: first, that this book needed to be written at all, for who could have ever believed that so much hurt could have been inflicted so quickly on so many in the Church; second, that an effective response to such pain would not only help heal those hurting in the Church, but could also inspire others not wounded to become greater vessels of charity and justice within the Mystical Body of Christ.

Fr. Berg, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York teaching at its Dunwoodie Seminary is, and is honest about being, what Henri Nouwen famously called a “wounded healer”. The psychological abuse suffered by Berg and many others who once belonged to the great fraud known as the Legion of Christ ran deep in him for years and in some ways runs still today. But Berg knows that, in most cases, we cannot insist on being completely healed ourselves before setting about helping others to heal. In part, therefore, as a step in his own recovery from the terrible betrayals that Marciel Maciel worked on the Church, and in part to assist others toward recovery from the various hurts they have suffered at the hands of ecclesiastical figures, Berg wrote Hurting in the Church. And thank God he did because this book is a treasure.

As one who has suffered no more than the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a lifetime of Catholic living and working, I frankly came to Hurting in the Church with some emotional distance from its theme. I was interested, to be sure, in learning more about what others have experienced (and Berg includes several illustrative stories besides his own) and I was desirous of knowing how experts (spiritual, psychological, administrative, and so on) might be able to help those suffering today.

But what surprised me as I moved though the narratives that Berg presented and his observations on them was, first, just how many and how varied are the experiences of ecclesial pain; and second, how these stories make real demands on the entire Christian community, how, in other words, there are (or should be) no merely interested observers, but instead, how all in the Church are called to respond to this crisis.

Berg’s ecclesiology, focused on the responsibility of all the members of the Mystical Body of Christ for one another, shines through in his writing, of course, but not in a sanitized way that obscures the special responsibility of those in positions of responsibility (clerical or lay, paid or volunteer) to take care that the image of the Church they bring to others is truly marked by the face of Christ—and to repent of all the times that they failed to reflect Him. Moreover, Berg does not, I think, make the mistake that some others have made in addressing this topic, namely, that of accusing the Church herself of inflicting evil on her members, but neither does he paint so rarefied a picture of the Church that ecclesiastical leadership and rank-and-file members alike can wash their hands of responsibility for the deeds committed on their watch.

The mechanics of Berg’s discussion are easily set out. He looks first at the surprising number of ways that believers can suffer hurt in the very contexts wherein ecclesiastical solace and support should be most abundant. Berg takes away nothing from the gravity of the harm suffered by victims of clerical sexual abuse (a topic he addresses frankly) by acknowledging that others have suffered other forms of psychological or emotional torments at the hands of pastors and formators (such as those Berg himself suffered) and he illustrates how, for example, certain ecclesiastical employment scenarios can be disrespectful of human dignity.

Second, Berg looks at some of the practical methods that he and others have discovered for bringing relief from the personal pains experienced by those wounded in the Church and which portend a measure of healing for wounded psyches and souls.

Finally, Berg looks at certain institutional factors that might have contributed to the scope of the damage a relatively few could inflict on others, and he offers suggestions for turning the Church’s governing apparatus into a more effective tool for protecting and serving her faithful. All of this he does calmly and clearly without the sort of histrionics that are more likely to distract than to describe. Berg’s individual chapters, after an author’s note and a general introduction, can be read in pretty much any order that appeals to individual readers. He relegates factual citations and deeper commentary to end-notes which I, for one, found helpful.

One thought occurs to me, however, a thought that Berg could not have conveniently included in the present work but about which his views might be appreciated in some future study, namely, what about that new kind of hurt—a genuine, palpable pain—being experienced by more and more faithful as they watch ecclesiastical leadership (notably prelates, but other shapers of Catholic opinion as well) fail, time and again, to defend basic Church teachings on, say, sacraments, conscience, and the capacity of the Gospel to critique a society that is unquestionably careening off its rails. Berg, aware of this emerging crisis, too, could offer us, I am sure, some good insights into dealing effectively with this novel kind of failure in the Church and with the suffering being sown in its wake. But I stray from our present concern.

Fr. Thomas Berg has written a necessary book that will help many who were wounded by some people in the Church. He has written an important book that can engage others who might not suffer in the Church, but who need to be more aware of and more committed to assisting those who do.

Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics
by Fr. Thomas Berg
Our Sunday Visitor, 2017
Paperback, 208 pp.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

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