Wisdom gained through journey into darkness

  • August 25, 2010
When Values CollideWhen Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse and the Challenges of Leadership  by Joseph P. Chinnici, O.F.M. (Orbis Books, 236 pages, softcover, $26).

The horror of clerical sexual abuse rocking the Church around the globe is a decidedly multi-faceted phenomenon. Coming to understand and perhaps transcend exactly what the scandal means, it matters deeply which perspective you choose. Over the coming months and years there will be a wave of books available to everyone struggling to make sense of and move forward from the sensationalist detail that preoccupies much of the mainstream media. Joseph P. Chinnici’s When Values Collide is one of the first and it is a truly impressive starting point.

Chinnici, a Church historian on the faculty of the Graduate Theological Union of Berkeley, California, is a Franciscan friar who served from 1988 to 1997 as provincial minister of the Franciscan Friars of the Province of St. Barbara in the United States. His talents as a writer and thinker make him a true triple threat when it comes to tackling one of the great spiritual crises of our time.  No sooner had Chinnici assumed the post of provincial than allegations of sexual abuse under the care and direction of Franciscan friars began to emerge. It was to be the issue of his time as provincial. It would tax and ultimately strengthen his attributes.

When Values Collide is actually three books in one. It is a memoir of a very difficult time and dealing with one specific set of abuse cases. Chinnici’s reflections and observations of the way the scandal unfolded and the strain it imposed on everyone involved is moving without being salacious or sensationalist. The story is a particular account with universal resonance. You may have never heard of the sex abuse cases in the St. Barbara Province but you will recognize all the stages as well as all the players.  

{sa 1570758735}The book is also a deep and provocative exploration of the pools of wisdom developed nearly a millennia ago as the Franciscans came into being. Chinnici’s skill at both explicating and making relevant the thinking of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure to our times is provocative and a matter of intellectual and spiritual importance. Of course it helps that both the founder of the Franciscans and the order’s greatest philosopher were confronted by scandal, corruption and comforted by a deep love for and faith in the Church. Their struggles to maintain and deepen their faith while both society and the Church were in convulsion — provoked by social tremors, institutional revolutions and human failings — are made vital and instructive in the modern context by Chinnici’s fine eye for comparison, equivalence and sense of history.  

When Values Collide is also, in the most positive sense, a how-to guide, a manual for charting dangerous waters and finding safe ground. Chinnici stresses what he and his colleagues discovered, implemented and reflected upon is not the answer but a way forward.

He repeatedly stresses that what the order did or didn’t do can’t be seen as the solution to a problem decades in the making — not out of a sense of humility, though clearly if the book teaches one thing that can be applied universally it is the necessity of humility.

Chinnici notes there was a moment in the 1990s when there might have been room for the creation of numerous intermediary avenues of reconciliation and healing, when confession and forgiveness might have been the bedrock of true wrestling with a problem that demanded attention. He even notes the work of the Canadian bishops in developing From Pain to Hope, its response to clerical sexual abuse, as one example of the ways the Church could have moved forward. Chinnici argues, persuasively, that the eruption of cases, charges, counter-charges, lawsuits and hardening of battle lines resulting from the revelations of problems in the archdiocese of Boston in 2002 put an end to any such optimism.

In the end, you can’t help but conclude that Chinnici is correct. When Values Collide is a way forward through the maze, but not the way. The scandal is a truly tangled web. So, it isn’t a map but it is a valuable travel guide.

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