I noted in my last entry that several years ago I visited the ruins of Cluny Abbey, once the mother church of a vast religious system of monasteries throughout Europe. It was completely destroyed by anti-clerical forces in the French Revolution. But the glory days of Cluny had long since passed by 1790; it had devolved into a corrupt and gilded clerical enclave by then. One thing becomes ever more clear in the face of such a ruin: the object of faith lies not in human traditions or in the forms of religion per se. Faith arises rather in God’s desire for us, a divine desire made manifest in the person of Jesus, who, like the prophets before him, decried religious emptiness, the confusion of holiness with mere human precepts:
Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.
You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition. (Mark 7)
What Jesus says of individual persons is also true of religious institutions.
That which defiles comes not from the outside, but from a gradual interior disintegration of the integrity of persons, and through them, of religious institutions. Institutions themselves become corrupted from within, their very structures sinful. Something like this was happening in the ancient synagogue of Jesus’ day, and he stood in resolute opposition to the clericalism that had given rise to it—a clericalism of privilege, power, prestige, and ambition that had forgotten the fundamental focus that had been set by Moses: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord alone” (Deut 6:4). There shall be no idols placed before me. I am God and there is no other. Certainly not the god of clerical arrogance and empty practices.
The Philadelphia revelations and their aftermath have only begun to make themselves felt in the life of the church. There will be more to come. This can seem like a moment with little modern precedent. And the magnitude of the developments is such that it is a massive challenge to begin to comprehend not only the monstrous crimes against children that have served to catalyze the present crisis, but also the serious pervasiveness of the cover-up by bishops and religious superiors over many decades. The words of Ezekiel (34:7–10) seem particularly apt:
Therefore, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
. . . because my sheep have been given over to pillage,
and because my sheep have become food for every wild beast,
for lack of a shepherd;
because my shepherds did not look after my sheep,
but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep;
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I swear I am coming against these shepherds.
I will claim my sheep from them
and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep
so that they may no longer pasture themselves.
I will save my sheep,
that they may no longer be food for their mouths.
When the shepherds are not only feeding on the sheep or casting them aside, but feeding on one another in shrill public screeds (viz., the Viganò letter) we have to wonder what the future portends. We have to wonder further when some of these same shepherds, and their well-funded networks, aim to neutralize or even depose the Holy Father and actively work against the catholic unity of the church. That’s serious stuff. And we shudder when some of these prelates and their followers recklessly conflate homosexuality and all gay priests with pedophilia and ephebophilia—to what end, one might ask? The genius of Ignatius helps us understand to some degree how the evil spirit abhors the good, and how that same spirit has insinuated itself into the life of the church in the abdication of the shepherds.
Yes, justice must be done, the bishops must be held accountable, and a full airing of the truth needs to take place. Everything needs to be placed on the table for radical evaluation. The victims of clerical sexual abuse, and their families, need to see justice accomplished, with a thorough accounting, from the top down. These are indeed times when only the words of ancient prophets can begin to help us give vent to the depths of outrage, anger, and a thirst for justice. But, in adopting such as stance, the prophets themselves also kept their eye on the prize: on the deeper longing of a people for the living God. And we would miss a tremendous opportunity in all of this for a rediscovery of the heart of our faith if we were to dwell only on our outrage, anger and thirst for justice.
The institution may have been defiled from within, but the faith itself has not been. And there lies, at the heart of Catholicism, a beautiful truth: that God has become human, and from within that human state, indeed from the very place where sin issues, God has saved the world: in Jesus, where God became sin for us, Paul reminds us (2 Cor 5:21). Catholicism, at its heart, avoids the binaries that separate human beings from God because of the evil of which human beings are capable. There is always hope for human beings; human nature is not wholly corrupted, despite the defilement that issues forth from human beings themselves, and despite the sinfulness of religious institutions, including the church, and its ministers.
So, together with the outrage over betrayal and our desire for justice, we are compelled to ask where we would begin to place our hope, how to begin to dig out of the rubble and to arrive at new form of church. A young former student, now studying theology himself, asked me this week: “Is there any good left in the church? Where can we turn?”
One answer to that question also came to me this week, in the form of an email from another former student, now a Jesuit Volunteer in Latin America. She had been struggling with how to fit into a well-funded neo-traditionalist student group that calls for a highly regulated form of religious practice and a sexual code that can seem perfectionist. She writes:
I have been thinking a lot over the past nine months that I have been here (I am currently serving as a Jesuit volunteer in a rural village . . .at a Jesuit parish in their social outreach programs . . .) about the range of what Catholicism can look like. I remember that this question, “What does it mean to be truly Catholic?,” was a common one during the brief spiritual direction that you and I did together. From where I am sitting now, I can surely tell you that it’s not the contemporary American conservative mold I wrestled through with you. It involves a lot more brokenness, accompaniment, and genuine humanity. Seeing the way that the people I work with and accompany integrate their suffering and their cultural traditions with their accrued Catholic faith, I do remember conversations we had in [class] about the complete humanity of Christ, and I see it here.
The complete humanity of Christ—in the suffering poor. There lies the foundation of Catholic faith, that which remains after all the implosions. Only by living from within that humanity, which is our own humanity, will we be able to recognize both the temptations and the graces that can establish the holiness we seek for the church, and the reforms necessary to live and promote the Gospel with our lives. And as Pope Francis never ceases to remind us, we will find that complete humanity to the degree that we give ourselves to others, especially to the broken and the poor, and accompany them. As does evil, so, too, does the good issue from within the human heart—a human heart responsive to God.
We seek the living God. We seek authentic holiness in ourselves and in our church, not just a ritualized sham or corroded power system that we may confuse with holiness. It is there to be found, as that email from my former student attests—not in cloying returns to an imagined past, another idol, but in a facing of the brokenness of the present. We must find ways of growing such holiness again, of discovering it anew. Then will authentic reform come, and true justice triumph.