Letter to A Suffering Church - Part 1 of 2

Over the past months there has been a lot of press concerning the challenges facing the Catholic Church. Several parishioners have had discussions with me about whether there was something concrete that St. Monica could do to address the situation in some way. Thus, this weekend, the parish is offering a copy of Bishop Robert Barron’s new book, Letter To A Suffering Church.

An Amazon review notes:

The sexual abuse scandal has gripped the Catholic Church for the past thirty years, and continues to wreak havoc even today. It’s been a diabolical masterpiece, one that has compromised the work of the Church in every way and has left countless lives in ruin.

Many Catholics are understandably asking, “Why should I stay? Why not abandon this sinking ship before it drags me or my children under?” In this stirring manifesto, Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, explains why this is not the time to leave, but the time to stay and fight.

Reading the current crisis through the lenses of Scripture and Church history, Bishop Barron shows that we have faced such egregious scandals before; that the spiritual treasures of the Church were preserved by holy men and women who recommitted themselves to fighting evil; and that there is a clear path forward for us today.

For Catholics questioning their faith, searching desperately for encouragement and hope, this book will offer reasons to stay and fight for the Body of Christ

Barron’s book has now been out for a number of weeks. I am aware of several parishioners who have purchased and read a copy. Initial reviews have been positive. In termsices are asking of critique, what I have found interesting is not what people are finding wrong about Barron’s words. They are questioning what Barron left out.

The main issue is how all of this happened. Obvious systemic issues within the Catholic Church not only allowed - but seemed to encourage - such egregious behavior for too long.  Some questions that I am seeing are:

  • What were the causes of the crisis? Have we identified the issues that were at the heart of the crisis or are we still burying them?
  • Do systemic issues still exist? If so, are they being addressed? Are they being ignored? Is the situation improving or maybe even getting worse?

On February 21 to 24, at the invitation of Pope Francis, the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences gathered at the Vatican to discuss the current crisis of the faith and of the Church. Following that gathering, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offered his comments.  Benedict points to the cataclysmic changes of the 1960s and 70s to partially explain the crisis. “[T]here could no  longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative moral judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.”  In light of this, sexual morality collapsed entirely. Pornography became widespread and accepted. Pedophilia became seen as “allowed and appropriate” in some circles. “Catholic moral theology,” Benedict writes, “suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against these changes in society. The priesthood, meanwhile, fell into crisis.”

Soon after the release of Pope Benedict’s manuscript, Robert Cardinal Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) gave an address covering Pope Benedict’s comments. Incidently, Sarah will soon release his own book, The Day Is Far Spent, on the subject.  Nathaniel Peters is Contributing Editor of The Public Discourse and Executive Director of the Morningside Institute. He received his B.A. from Swarthmore College (…a local boy!) in linguistics, his M.T.S. from the University of Notre Dame and his Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and Christian ethics from Boston College. Peters has commented on Cardinal Sarah’s work. As seen in The Public Discourse, Dr. Peter’s words are indicative of much of the “Yes…. BUT!” commentary that I am seeing in light of Barron’s publication:

Sarah believes that we may be on the edge of a great reform of the Church, something akin to the Gregorian reform in the eleventh century or the Council of Trent in the sixteenth. Historians see such events as structural changes, but Sarah argues that saints, like Gregory VII and Charles Borromeo, are the ones who change things and advance history. Structures follow and only perpetuate the action of the saints. His message for the laity is to be, and to pray for, saints. If you think your priests and bishops are not saints, fast, perform penance, and show them what sanctity looks like. This is how we bear one another’s burdens.

This is true, up to a point. The Church certainly needs men and women of heroic virtue. It is God’s project, not ours. We certainly need bishops who are heroic not only in their teaching but in their governance. But the Church is also human. It is riddled with structural problems and crimes, which require structural solutions and criminal prosecution. These cannot be prayed and fasted away. Grace builds on nature, but nature is ordinarily mended through natural means. Someone with kidney failure or crippling depression should pray for relief, but he should also see a doctor. As the author of James reminds us, we must not just wish the poor well and pray for them; we must also give them the sustenance they require. Catholics are prone to saying that we are “the hands of God” at work in the world when it comes to feeding the hungry and strengthening the suffering. This is also true for the prosecution of criminals, the protection of children, and the reform of the Church’s structures.

I will continue my comments next week. In the meantime, please take a copy of Bishop Barron’s book for yourself. Feel free to also give a copy away if you know someone who might want to read it.l

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