Pope Francis has written a letter to the American bishops, who are on retreat at Mundelein Seminary this week.
It is, honestly, the usual strange/not-strange message from Pope Francis. Strange in that he goes all over the place except to the specific place where the problem resides, and not-strange in that, well, this is what he usually does, and there’s always a reason for that.
Your experience of reading the letter might be like mine: I read it and nodded and thought, Well, not bad, that’s true, sure, it’s good for these things to be said, nice point there—and then I finished, thought about it for a minute, and realized that none of the specific problematic issues had actually been addressed.
Further, the spiritual context which Pope Francis recommends for going forward, it could be argued, actually enables the original problematic actions. Many problematic actions.
To begin with:
At times of great confusion and uncertainty, we need to be attentive and discerning, to free our hearts of compromises and false certainties, in order to hear what the Lord asks of us in the mission he has given us. Many actions can be helpful, good and necessary, and may even seem correct, but not all of them have the “flavour” of the Gospel. To put it colloquially, we have to be careful that “the cure does not become worse than the disease”. And this requires of us wisdom, prayer, much listening and fraternal communion.
Quite true, of course.
The first consequence that Pope Francis raises, the first issue that seems to require addressing, is that of credibility:
The Church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them. This has led to a growing sense of uncertainty, distrust and vulnerability among the faithful. As we know, the mentality that would cover things up, far from helping to resolve conflicts, enabled them to fester and cause even greater harm to the network of relationships that today we are called to heal and restore.
We know that the sins and crimes that were committed, and their repercussions on the ecclesial, social and cultural levels, have deeply affected the faithful. They have caused great perplexity, upset and confusion…
This is institutional thinking, isn’t it? It is, in fact, one of the core attitudes that led to the level of this scandal over the past decades (and probably always): This makes us look bad.
One could say that this is really nothing more than the traditional Catholic understanding of scandal—a true and valid way of entering into this situation and its consequences. But it’s actually a little different. Traditionally, scandal is seen as a negative because it works to obfuscate the power and truth of the Gospel—people can’t see Jesus because you, the one supposedly representing it, have gotten completely in the way. There’s a hint of this here, but the entire passage is really more about the problem of people seeing the institution in a negative light being a problem simply because it’s better that they see it in a positive light.
The loss of credibility also raises painful questions about the way we relate to one another. Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it. This involves our ability, or inability, as a community to forge bonds and create spaces that are healthy, mature and respectful of the integrity and privacy of each person. It involves our ability to bring people together and to get them enthused and confident about a broad, shared project that is at once unassuming, solid, sober and transparent.
And so on. The rest of the letter expresses Francis’ usual themes—listen, dialogue, make space for the new, prioritize unity, don’t impose abstractions:
This approach demands of us the decision to abandon a modus operandi of disparaging, discrediting, playing the victim or the scold in our relationships, and instead to make room for the gentle breeze that the Gospel alone can offer. Let us not forget that “the collegial lack of a heartfelt and prayerful acknowledgment of our limitations prevents grace from working more effectively within us, for no room is left for bringing about the potential good that is part of a sincere and genuine journey of growth”.  Let us try to break the vicious circle of recrimination, undercutting and discrediting, by avoiding gossip and slander in the pursuit of a path of prayerful and contrite acceptance of our limitations and sins, and the promotion of dialogue, discussion and discernment.
And so I wonder: Is this situation a problem because it diminished the institution’s credibility and threatens bonds of communion, or because people committed all sorts of sins of commission and omission, used other human beings, did great harm to God’s children, and offended and disobeyed the Lord who created us for good, not evil?
The framework and assumption that what’s most at stake here is institutional credibility is exactly what led to cover-ups and protection of clerical perpetrators. Exactly. That, of course, is nothing the Holy Father would defend and is what his letter is presented in opposition to, but until you shake that framework that privileges the horizontal over the vertical, you’re stuck in the same rut. It’s subtle, but is at the core of so many problems in the contemporary Church, including this one.
Understanding human actions and choices as fundamentally, basically a response to God’s call and yes, law, keeps everything else in context, since, of course, God’s fundamental call is to love.
Understanding human actions as fundamentally, basically oriented towards keeping some sort of peace with others or creating a certain environment without our obligation to God at the center—absolute, unmoving center, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us—makes it really easy for us to create our own reality, including our own definitions for sin and forgiveness.
It’s the difference between living inside the Garden—or outside. That’s really the whole point of Genesis 1-3.
In short, it just seems to me that a week of reflection on this needs to not start with metaphors of jars and pebbles or concerns about credibility, but rather something more along the lines of Psalm 32.
Which it probably did, outside the official public communications.
Anyway, I haven’t even remarked on what struck me as the most problematic aspect of this letter: the deep, repeated call to work together, be unified, be in communion and so on.
Wait, what? Why is that a problem? I mean…isn’t dialogue and communion the point?
No. Truth is.
And the reason the harping on unity and scolding about “recrimination” is problematic in this context is that one of the crucial issues leading to this crisis was precisely that: prioritizing of the external bonds between clerics above telling the truth and the privileging of protecting image over allowing consequences to be borne.
Who’s against dialogue and a mature search for answers and new ways forward? Hey, not me! But nothing at all will change if that dialogue is conducted in a context in which we are focused on how we think we should make each other feel and how the world sees us, rather than on how all of this looks to God—or if we’re more invested in saying things that make us seem open-minded and unified rather than saying true things, no matter how harsh they may be.
Is the culture of church leadership in desperate need of encouragement to be more gently tolerant of all points of view and less critical of each other? It seems to me it is pretty much the opposite.
We don’t create the bonds of Christian unity. God does this. Jesus Christ does, through Baptism. Our call is to recognize those bonds, strengthen them and then do the harder thing: be willing to recognize when those bonds have been broken by sin—and courageously say it out loud, no matter what the price.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the “Charlotte Was Both” blog in a slightly different form and is posted here by kind permission of the author. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CWR staff or Ignatius Press staff.)
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