‘This is a resurrection moment for the Church’

  • October 15, 2021

The 2023 Synod on Synodality can’t come fast enough for physician, ethicist and expert on sexual abuse by priests Sr. Nuala Kenny.

“I always believe, because I’m a doctor, that there’s something you can do to make things better — that there’s something you can do to fix it,” she said. “And because I’m a diagnostician, I’ve always been interested not just in the immediate fix but let’s get underneath this so it doesn’t happen again.”

In her new book for Novalis, A Post-Pandemic Church, Prophetic Possibilities, Kenny lays out an agenda for a Canadian synod. It’s an agenda for a Church in crisis, Kenny said.

“To me the crisis is a crisis of credibility in the Church as a place of protection, care of the most vulnerable, justice and witness to the compassion of Christ,” she said.

Thirty-three years spent investigating, analysing and understanding the sexual abuse crisis, beginning with the 1988 Winter Commission of inquiry into the Mount Cashel case, gives Kenny a unique perspective.

“I got into this because I’m a pediatrician. I’m a baby doctor. My professional career has been the care and protection of sick, suffering and endangered children,” she said.

The years of research, thinking and writing about sexual abuse has led her to conclude that the Church has a problem with clericalism.

“The issue was the abuse of power, position and conscience by leaders of the Church. It was that the Church of Jesus Christ could use its power and prestige to protect an image and deny what was going on, when what was going on was harm to the most vulnerable,” Kenny said.

The difficulties the Church faces are many — its relationship with women, the majority of Catholics who reject the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, the negative and defensive posture of the Church in the culture, its embrace of colonialism at the expense of Indigenous people, divisions over liturgy, doctrine and culture and the hemorrhaging of young people. But it’s clericalism and the exercise of authority at the centre of all of it, according to the Sister of Charity of Halifax.

The pandemic and nearly two years of restricted access to the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, has revealed to Catholics what they are losing and how quickly they are losing it, she said.

“If a pandemic doesn’t move us to change, what will?” she asks toward the end of her book.

Kenny uses the science of epigenetics to dispel any illusion that with enough vaccines and the natural burnout of most pandemics everything will go back to normal. Kenny believes many Catholics who went from Sunday Mass to Mass on TV to Mass on their phone to no Mass at all aren’t missing it and aren’t coming back.

“There’s no going back to normal. You can’t go home again, even if you wanted to,” she said. “Things have been unmasked as unjust, un-Christlike and un-Godlike. The pandemic has not just entered into our physical DNA, but through the experience of liturgical lockdown, through the experience of all of this, we are changed forever.”

And that’s why we need a synod. For Kenny, a synod is an opportunity for prophecy.

“The prophets hold up a mirror to us. They speak of who you’ve been called to be by the Lord and they look at how far you’ve come from that,” she said.

The prophetic can save the synod from becoming a morass of division, negativity and self-pitying. Kenny believes a prophetic spirit in the coming synod could allow Catholics to look at themselves and their Church through the eyes of Christ.

“Once you’ve done that, then you do prophetic imagination,” she said. “Imagine if we really were a community of friends of Jesus Christ, discipled, committed to His words and His witness, committed to conversion. Imagine all of that. That becomes important.”

In the book, Kenny puts it in terms of the central event of Christian life.

“This is a resurrection moment for the Church,” she writes. “The twin traumas of revelations of abuse of power in the Church and the pandemic have seen the death of many practices and beliefs. Some needed to die, but the pace of change in the Church is glacially slow. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for new life in Christ that cannot be ignored.”

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