Deed, not words – a philosophical comment on the state of the church

Was it a sign, a warning to us Catholics, that the continuing child-abuse scandal flared once again, this time during Holy Week?

Was it a sign, a warning to us Catholics, that the continuing child-abuse scandal flared once again, this time during Holy Week? We saw a parade of articles, attacks and defences – all, by my reading, beside the point. Some of the defences were embarrassing, ranging from self-serving claims that Catholic priests are no more abusive than any other group, that the criticisms amounted to gossip and media bias against the church, that everything was to blame but ourselves. Even Pope Benedict’s heartfelt but stern letter to the church in Ireland seemed not to register in any meaningful way. Words failed.

Among the scribes of culture and church, allusions were made to Holy Week itself. But no one asked why Jesus himself was rejected and executed.

We are at a crossroads

The gospel reading for the eve of Passion Sunday makes it quite clear that Jesus was a threat to vested national and religious interests. ‘If people believe in him, we will lose our land and our nation.’ The reigning powers saw that he was a danger to their property, privilege and power. Even his apostles, arguing over who would be first in the kingdom, have to be rebuked by Jesus. In Luke’s account Jesus says: ‘Among pagans, it is the kings who lord it over them… This must not happen with you.’ The Christ-formed leader must never ‘lord’ it over others. And any Christian leadership rejecting this command is destined not only to failure, but to being a countersign to the gospels. Such leaders might muster sympathy for their own caste, but precious little for any other. This is the worm at the core of many believers’ discontent.

Destined to bring scandal
If there are priests and bishops who think they are better than other followers of Christ, or presume that they are to be served and honoured, or who think their privileges and interests are more important than the people of God, they are destined to failure as ministers of the gospel and will bring scandal on the church.

At the end of Lent 2010, two other prominent Catholics resurfaced in the news. The first is Marcial Maciel, of the Legionaries of Christ, who was sadly but honestly repudiated as ‘a model of Christian or priestly life’ by the community he had founded.

As well as his sexual abuse of seminarians, this priest exercised tight control over the lives and monies of his followers while he garnered friendships among the powerful and privileged.

Despite his exploitation of people in matters of money, sex and power, he was merely invited to end his life in quiet reflection and repose.

The second name to surface was that of Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated 30 years ago. This was a priest-bishop who lost all his allies in the Salvadoran oligarchy and most of his fellow bishops, because of his choice to identify with Christ’s poor and oppressed.

Archbishop Romero was murdered, so appropriately, while celebrating Mass. There is no doubt that he died for being faithful to Jesus’ model of leadership. One hopes that neglect of his cause for canonisation has not been influenced by interests of power, property and privilege.

The way of Maciel or of Romero
Like all great reforms in the history of the church, we may well be called to repent of the ways we have ‘lorded’ it over others. Such change, however, is not effected by mere words. We need to act out the truth rather than merely utter it. Perhaps two prophetic actions could start us on our way.

The first is a pilgrimage to Assisi. Although Pope Benedict has been attacked, probably unfairly, he still represents the church and especially priests and bishops. Since he is not strong enough to walk a penitential pilgrimage to Assisi, he should send his closest proxy, to be met at the site for a liturgy invoking the patronage of St Francis in reforming the church and establishing a shrine of repentance.

Second, Pope Benedict should press for the canonisation of Romero. These two simple acts might indicate, even without words, that our church, still so loved by us, is not as interested in privilege as it is devoted to the way of the Lord Jesus.

The question for us is whether we believe in Christ, without whom all of our hierarchy, sacraments, laws and traditions are emptiness.

John F. Kavanaugh SJ, is a professor of philosophy at St Louis University in St Louis, Missouri. this comment was first published in America Magazine, May 3, 2010.

For Vatican journalist John Allen’s latest comment on the pope’s involvement in the sexual abuse scandal: