Pope Francis is seen Feb. 22, 2019, the second day of the Vatican meeting on the protection of minors. CNS photo/Vatican Media via Reuters

Peter Stockland: ‘Priestly problem’ must be tackled

By 
  • February 22, 2019

Long ago, a childhood friend and I were walking across an old wooden bridge in the small town where we lived when a car stopped to offer us a ride. The local priest was at the wheel.

My friend jumped in. I said no, heeding my mother’s admonition against getting in a car with anyone unless she was there. When I came in the house, she reacted with exasperated amusement.

“He’s a priest,” she said. “It would have been fine.” 

It was, in fact, fine. My friend got home unscathed, and faster than I did. But the memory has returned with particular poignancy leading up to the Feb. 21-24 “abuse summit” convened by Pope Francis. It’s not just nostalgia for a that-was-then simpler (more naïve?) time. It’s that the moment of offer, evaluation, decline, took place on a bridge. 

I cannot escape the growing conviction that I, and many lay faithful I know, are metaphorically on that bridge again, facing the choice of how to cross. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the leadership of Holy Mother Church will take its responsibilities at the abuse summit with utter seriousness. I do not question for an instant that the best minds in the Church, even mindful of Francis’ prudent message about unrealistic expectations, will use the four-day gathering in Rome to propose effective solutions to deal with clerical abusers and priestly profligates. My qualm is that those responses, well intentioned and finely tuned as they might be, will be answers only to the part of the problem most publicly visible.

Much I’ve heard in 17 years since sexual abuse by clergy galvanized our awareness has focused on bureaucratic moves to check secular crimes within the Church. I remember being at an otherwise sombre forum in Montreal several years ago when rays of hope were found in the procedures Pope Benedict had prescribed to combat “the problem” as it is often called. 

Such initiatives should never be discounted. If they protect one child, they must be enacted and enforced without hesitation. But there will always be a surveillance State approach: watch, react, bring the bad guys to light and justice. 

What afflicts the heart of the Church, I believe, is not answerable only in imitation of secular crime and punishment. 

It must be recognized  as the existential nightmare of the Church’s sin-sick soul.

It is not just about restoring regulatory order. It is about rooting out the ravaging disorder afflicting the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is, to be blunt, a priestly problem. I do not mean the problem is priests being caught in the act. I mean the problem is priests forgetting — and being allowed to forget — the transformative Christian moment in Acts. 

A friend of mine, whose prudential wisdom I value extraordinarily, suggests the disorder is so far gone it hints at a demonic source. I do see a Church, faced with this calamity, as perhaps having temporarily stopped actively heeding the Holy Spirit. 

How else can the collective priesthood so frequently fail to appreciate what this systemic crisis signals about how they regard their very vocation to administer the sacraments to the people of God? I’m not diminishing priority attention or the direct victims of clerical abuse. But crime, like Dante’s Hell, has circles. Square in the second circle of these transgressions are the lay faithful who entrust the priesthood with the sacramental loving care of the Body of Christ. 

Yet when responses to the Church’s sexual crisis are pondered, the wounds inflicted on the laity are, at best, footnoted, at worst ignored. Indeed, one of the lies that makes me almost ill these days is that the laity are at risk of losing their faith through this time of scandal. 

No! The remnant Church that now exists isn’t losing its faith in Christ. What the lay faithful are losing is trust in a priesthood that has, through its acts or its neglect, made my mother’s long ago “he’s a priest; it would have been fine” a source of bitter laughter. 

It’s a terrible sound rising through the superstructure of the bridge we stand on, searching our souls about how to cross while carrying this Cross. 

(Stockland is publisher of Convivium.ca and a senior fellow with Cardus.) 


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Unlike many other news websites, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our site. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

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