WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Catholic Thinking – Theologies of Lament, Listening and Healing

WelCom April 2019:

Our Catholic Thinking articles about theology, morality, ethics and faith heritage, are written for WelCom by lecturers from New Zealand’s Catholic Tertiary Education Providers: Good Shepherd College – Te Hēpara Pai; and The Catholic Institute of New Zealand (TCI) – Te Pūtahi Katorika ki Aotearoa. Dr Christopher E Longhurst, TCI lecturer, revisits Catholic theological thinking given the severe institutional crisis of clerical child sexual abuse.


Theologies of Lament, Listening and Healing

Responses to Institutional Crisis of Clerical Child Sexual Abuse

He aha te mea nui o te ao?
What is the greatest thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
The people, the people, the people.

Catholic theological thinking requires revisiting given the severe institutional crisis of clerical child sexual abuse. The broader Catholic cultural habitus, which emphasises ‘duty’ to avoid scandal, remaining silent, the ecclesial notion of secrecy in Church administration, doctrinal teachings that the right to communicate truth is conditional (CCC 2488), and the idea that the use of discreet language is preferable (CCC 2489), have all deepened the crisis. Theologians are now obliged to seek out reasons why this abuse could be at once endemic, hidden, denied, and routinely mismanaged. As a preliminary theological response, the following considers:

  • lamentation (ngā tangi);
  • listening (whakarongo); and
  • healing (hauora);

within our local communities, to facilitate ecclesial-social transformation.

“Theologians are now obliged to seek out reasons why this abuse could be at once endemic, hidden, denied, and routinely mismanaged.”

Theology of lament – ngā tangi

Theological lament responds to the cries of all victims of clerical child sexual abuse. It recognises the harm done to victims, the assault on their dignity and self-esteem, their humiliation, fear and anxiety, their isolation and abandonment. It acknowledges how victims were not heard, believed, comforted and supported. It seeks to comprehend the true nature of the abuse and transform victims’ pain into prayer by petitioning God to deliver them from their anguish.

The first prayer is the cry of victims: ‘My God, I am hurting; my body is violated, my soul disassociated. Heal me, O Lord!’

The second prayer is of the people for the victims: ‘Heal them, O Lord!’

Theological lament encourages victims to cry out loudly and in public, like the biblical prophets ‘crying in the wilderness’, because it believes that through their voices comes healing. This is true because public lament breaks the evil silence which aided the cover up. As victims cry out, God’s people hear their cries and recognise that the faces of victims are the face of Jesus, and that what abusers and concealers did to innocent and helpless children, they did to Jesus. (Mt 25:40)

“…public lament breaks the evil silence which aided the cover up.”

Theological lament is cathartic for both victims and the Church. It spurns the pretence that ‘the good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent’ (CCC 2489). Its organ is the voice and its methodology is lament. What follows lament is listening. Pope Francis avowed that ‘here resides one of our main faults and omissions: not knowing how to listen to victims.’1

‘The power of listening.’ Photo: Unsplash

Theology of listening – whakarongo

As the Church is constrained to hear the victims’ cries, a theology of listening follows. This establishes a change in the collective voice of the Church. The voice of the faithful who acknowledge the truth is now heard.

Acknowledging the truth is part of theological listening. Its organ is the ear and its method is honest and muscular speech from both victims and those who report on the abuse, coupled with earnest listening on the part of the other. Theological listening rejects the use of discreet language because it is misleading and offensive to disguise the true nature of this kind of abuse. It proscribes the use of expressions such as ‘inappropriate touching’ and ‘clerical misbehaviour’. Instead, theological listening recalls Jesus’s example of direct speech when he called the religious leaders of his time:

  • ‘whited sepulchres’;
  • ‘false prophets’;
  • ‘blind guides’;
  • ‘hypocrites’;
  • ‘serpents’;
  • ‘ravening wolves’;
  • ‘a generation of vipers’.

Regarding what is in store for those who harm children, Jesus was unambiguous: ‘It would be better for them to have a great millstone fastened around their neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea.’ (Mt.18:6; Mk.9:42)

“Regarding what is in store for those who harm children, Jesus was unambiguous: ‘It would be better for them to have a great millstone fastened around their neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea.’ (Mt.18:6; Mk.9:42)”

Theological listening also counters the evil of silence because it requires victims to speak out. There are different kinds of evil silence; that of victims silenced by their abusers and those who cover for them, and that of those who knew and kept silent. While silencing is a crime of commission, keeping silent is a sin of omission. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer held that ‘silence in the face of evil is itself evil’. Esther’s warning for neglecting God’s people in distress is telling: ‘If you remain silent at this time,…you and your father’s family will perish.’ (Es.4:14) Speaking out breaks the evil of silence, and deep listening responds to that silence-breaking. It hears the victim, cultivates empathy, and does not talk back. It prepares the groundwork for healing.

Theology of healing – hauora

Healing follows listening when concrete action takes place. This entails changing some rules. It requires that institutional interests are not placed over and above the protection of God’s people, and that ‘privacy’ concerns are not used to justify withholding information damaging to the institution. Healing proscribes the maladministration of Church officials who seek to ‘defend the Church’ as if the Church were an object rather than the people of God. It requires acknowledging that what is damaging to God’s people, is damaging to the Church. Above, all, it requires giving justice to victims.

‘Abused boy crying.’ Photo: Shutterstock

Justice is the foundation of healing. While victim-centred prayer is helpful, true healing will not take place without justice. This requires holding perpetrators and concealers accountable, and other concrete actions like the good work of restorative justice. James asked, ‘what good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have good works?’ (Jm.2:14) If our brother is a victim of clerical child sexual abuse, and we say to him ‘go in peace’ without giving him justice, no purpose has been served. We effectively succeed in making prayer seem offensive.

The organs of theological healing are the mind and heart. Its overall goal is whakawhanaungatanga, to repair broken relationships. Its enemy is concealment and the denial of justice.

These theologies are, therefore, public and practical theologies for us all. They operate on the premise that healing victims means healing the Church. They see the Church not as an institution, but as a community of believers, the people of God.

1 National Catholic Register, Pope Francis to Chilean Catholics, Vatican: 1-June-2018.