The Church must make amends to save its soul

By  Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, Catholic Register Special
  • April 29, 2010
The recent revelations of sexual abuse by some Roman Catholic clergy and alleged cover-ups by some bishops reveal a growing concern of a structural problem within the Church that goes beyond the misdeeds of a few bad people within the ministry.

At the heart of every case of clergy sexual abuse is the fracturing of faith, religion and trust, and the erosion of hope in a God of love and a Church of compassion and communion. Every new allegation is like a dagger to the very soul of who we are as a family of God. Each new case causes more brokenness, darkness, anger, shame and pain. Every act of clergy sexual abuse is an onslaught on the dignity of the human person, a distortion of religion as a value and the desecration of the very identity of the Catholic faith. Clerical sexual abuse eats at the moral authority of a Church working to heal a broken world.

Media interest in these allegations is not a witch-hunt, as some Catholics claim, nor should it be likened to any type of religious persecution. Catholics should regard it as a call for accountability, transparency, humility and openness from a Church that is perhaps one of the last surviving bastions of institutional Christianity. It is a call for conversion and interior renewal for the Church, and the restoration of the ideals of service, sacrifice and selfless love which are the very heart of the priesthood. This whole rot is indication of a broken reed in the Church that demands critical appraisal, broad consultation and repair.

The priesthood and the church as a whole require a renewal based on an appraisal of what led to the abuses and why they persist. Perhaps time has come for a worldwide protocol on preventing clergy abuse of children and an open dialogue on how to heal the victims. It may also be time to ask whether celibacy of priests, their isolation, the rigidity of their formation and the culture of reward and punishment in the structure of the Church is hampering the full development and maturity of Catholic clergy. Are clergy well integrated and well adjusted adults who are capable of feeling and loving freely and openly? Prayer and a renewed spiritual life are needed, but a return to dry-as-dust devotionalism and pietism might not be an adequate response to a problem that is situational, structural and systemic.

Events in the Catholic Church are often in the news because the Church is a significant cultural, political, social and moral force in the world. The present cloud hanging over the Church is an inevitable consequence of its institutional standing. The public demands the Church live up to its moral claims and spiritual stature. This call for accountability is not anti-Catholic. Anti-Catholicism, anti-Christianity and anti-religion are realities in our secular culture, but the current negative publicity stems from policies, failings and actions that have brought so much pain and sorrow to so many.

The Catholic Church should courageously address the fundamental questions raised by clerical abuse. This requires a return to authentic religious values, an openness to truth and re-examination of the criteria and practice of clerical ministry in the light of a changed world. A top-down pyramidal structure rife with secrecy and canonical privilege is not working. Time has come for the laity to assume an important role in the management of the Church and in holding pastors to account. Placing so much power, privilege and authority on one priest over so many parishioners, or on one bishop over so many other bishops, laity and priests, or on one Pope over so many laity, bishops, priests and religious makes it easier for abuses of all kinds to occur.

Canadian theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan defines religious faith as knowledge born of religious love. He argues that this kind of faith occurs when the love of God floods our hearts so that we can embrace values that are not only vital but are also social, cultural, personal and transcendental. This is the kind of religion that we should promote through Catholicism.

The measure of any religion is the extent to which it promotes the peace and happiness of humankind and projects the ideal of love. The religion we need today is not one that tends towards dogmatism or strict uniformity, but one that creates conditions for love and peace and readily engenders genuine concern for others, especially the weak. Any religion that preaches ultimate peace with God but promotes war and division, any religion that does not seriously take action to protect innocent children from harm’s way, is one that is losing its soul.

(Fr. Stan Chu Ilo belongs to the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Aid and Development in Africa and the Role of the Church in the Social Context.)

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