Putting our Past in Front: Redeeming the scandal

Fr. Michael Sweeney, O.P.

"It has always intrigued me that in biblical Hebrew the way of referring to past and future has the opposite orientation than does either English or French. While we say, 'the past is behind me' and 'the future is in front of me,' the biblical idiom is the opposite: i.e. the past is in front of me (before my face) and the future is behind me(at my back). The image is visual, something like rowing a boat across a lake. The receding shoreline is 'in front of you,' where you are headed is 'at your back', behind you. You view the 'past'-the receding shore-in order to fix your course for where you are going." (Donald Senior, CP, "The Biblical Heritage and the Meaning of Vocation," Origins, Vol. 31, No. 46).

If we are to understand and deal with the recent scandals in the Church, we must, like the ancient Hebrews, keep our past firmly in front of us-"before our face." The reason we are suffering scandals at all is that we have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten who we are because we have forgotten where we are from. Our task therefore is to remember who we are, and where we are from. To chart our course, we must put our future behind us, and our past before us.

What are the things that we should remember?

The scandal has not so much to do with the sins and criminal acts of certain priests. That Catholics-including priests-sin should not surprise us. We should not be shocked that sin infects even our episcopate. Jesus came in order to redeem sinful humanity: it could be said that the first prerequisite for being a Catholic is that we have sinned. Therefore the first thing to remember is that we are sinners-not just sinners, but sinners whom Christ has redeemed.

"I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me," says the psalmist (Ps. 53:1), and we must never pretend otherwise. The scandal is not that some of us have sinned, even egregiously, but that church leaders attempted to cover up the fact, even to the degree that priests who are incompetent to govern the people of God were reassigned to pastoral offices. Why?

Again, we have forgotten where we are from and, therefore, what we are to do and to become. The Church was founded upon a commission to the apostles-which, as John Paul II insists, was actually addressed to each of us: "And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age'." The Holy Spirit was communicated to the apostles and to the Church for the sake of this commission; we will correctly chart our course only if we have this commission "before our face."

Redemption versus edification

Notice that Jesus did not command us to edify others. He did not say, "Go and be a moral example to the nations", or, "Go and edify all nations." The work of the Church is to redeem, not merely to edify. Our job is to baptize and to teach-to bring others to the salvation and healing of the One who, we know, is with us always.

Some of our bishops appear to be acting as if Jesus had commanded us to edify and to preserve the public reputation of the Church's ministers at all costs. I am utterly certain that they did not intend the betrayal of Christ and his Church. Yet this is what has occurred. In contrast, Our Lord seems to have been singularly unconcerned for the reputations of the Twelve. And what a hopeless lot they appeared to be in the beginning: they were quarrelsome, slow to understand, and in many cases, more of an impediment than a help to him. In the end they abandoned him completely, committing him to face his passion and death alone, deprived of their consolation. Yet it was to them and to their successors that Our Lord committed the care of the Church. We who belong to the hierarchy are in every way the successors of the twelve: we, too, are quarrelsome, slow to understand and, as is all too apparent, capable of impeding Christ's mission and betraying him.

The Church's ministry, however, does not rest upon the moral indefectibility of her ministers any more now than it did in the beginning. Rather, it rests upon the commission and power of Christ communicated to the Church through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We should never pretend that the integrity of the Church's witness depends primarily upon the moral integrity of her ministers-nor should we permit others to think so. If the world sees us as we are, sinners who have received a knowledge, a power and commission that we do not-could not-merit, then so much the better. It is in our weakness, St. Paul reminds us, that the divine source of our mission is most manifested.

Keeping our past firmly "before our face," we remember other things to help us chart our course. We recall that Jesus identified himself completely with the mission of the apostles: underneath every command of our Lord is his admonition, "Do this in memory of me." In his Name are we to exercise his mission. Therefore we must notice that these scandalous acts first betray not the child who has been molested, or the parents who have been completely overlooked in their Christian office to care for their children, or the parishioners who have been entrusted to the care of a criminally behaving priest. The first person who has been betrayed is Christ himself. Because he has been betrayed, his body, the Church, has been betrayed. If we are to exercise his ministry with integrity, we must first be reconciled to him. Through being reconciled to Christ, we will chart the course that is necessary for us to be reconciled to each other. What must we do? Those of us who serve the Church in the hierarchy must judge with Christ. God himself has placed a father and a mother in authority over their children. When a child is abused, the parents must be the ones who first prescribe what is to be done for their child. Some children may, indeed, require psychological help. All will need to be healed in their relationship to Christ and to the Church. Alone, the priests and bishops of the Church do not have the competence to judge what is to be done for the children who have been abused; we must have recourse to the parents, supporting them in whatever ways they judge best for their children.

The way of reconciliation

In many cases this recourse was neglected. Most of the cases with which we are presently concerned occurred many years ago. The children who were abused have grown into adulthood and many have ceased to practice their faith. We must now seek true reconciliation, in person and in a personal way-one by one. Offers of cash settlements and therapy are expedients appropriate to civil corporations, but are wholly inadequate for the Church. For Christ insists that we reconcile. Quite simply, it is necessary for us-members of the hierarchy-to seek the mercy of those whom we have offended.

Priests and bishops have failed to take seriously the lay faithful they serve and with whom they are called to collaborate in the mission of the Church. They have covered up the actions of certain priests, fearing that Christ's people would falter in their faith if they became aware of such transgressions. They did not trust that the laity were as capable of faithfulness as they themselves, and that their faith-a gift of God-does not depend upon the witness of the hierarchy.

Reconciliation does not mean inaugurating administrative reforms or democratizing the Church. Indeed, such measures presume that no reconciliation is possible and that therefore drastic steps are in order. Reconciliation means that we of the hierarchy must recognize the dignity of the laity's faith and apostolate and rely upon their support and judgment. It means trusting that they will respect our ordination and the role we have been given in the community, even as they insist upon the apostolic roles they possess for the sake of the mission of the Church to the world.

In the exercise of our pastoral judgment, we should also keep firmly before us that Jesus redeemed each man, each woman, without exception. This does not mean that men and women are incapable of serious sin or undeserving of punishment. A priest who has committed pedophilia deserves to be punished as the law stipulates. We must remember, however, that Christ has united himself to each of us-even to a pedophile-in such a way that there can be real contrition and even a real transformation of life. We are told that pedophilia is a sickness, one for which there is no cure, and certainly those who govern the Church should take into account the judgment of health professionals. We must not, however, limit the power of God. To pursue uncritically a "no tolerance" policy-sometimes in a manner that directly contradicts the sensibilities and judgment of the lay faithful-is to forget that He is with us always. As Gabriel insisted, "Nothing is impossible with God." We must exercise real pastoral judgment in each case. Christ himself forbids us to remedy situations within the Church, or even in civil society, in a way that disregards the power and the mercy of God.

The response of the laity

As a member of the laity, what is your role? What are you to remember? You must remember that the Church has one single end: "That each person will be able to find Christ, in order that Christ may walk with each person the path of life..." (John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 13). You must remember that you are members of the one Body that is Christ's Church; you may never speak of the Church as if you were not fully a member and fully responsible for her mission. You must keep "before your face" the fact that you have been personally called to Christ's work of redeeming the world through evangelizing and through healing social structures and relationships so that they may truly serve men and women. You must recall that you have been appointed to this apostolate by Christ himself, and therefore that you have apostolic dignity in your own right.

You must remember that you have been empowered by Christ himself for the sake of your mission, and that your spiritual gifts are no more merited than the graces bestowed in Holy Orders. The efficacy of your work in behalf of others does not, in the first instance, depend upon your holiness of life, but upon the power of Christ communicated to the Church through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. You must, therefore, also remember that you are as capable of betraying Christ as are members of the hierarchy.

At the same time, we must remember-every single one of us-that the first call we have received for our own sake is to holiness, and we must support each other in this call. As the lay faithful, your support and encouragement of the hierarchy is of inestimable importance. When you call me to be a priest, to be obedient to the Tradition, and to present Christ in word and sacrament to the community, and when you recognize that this is my path to holiness, you affirm and make possible the collaboration upon which the work of Christ depends. When I call you to be an apostle to the world, to remain faithful to Christ as he is revealed in the Church, and to bring his redemption to the world, and when I recognize that this is your path to holiness, the Church can be fully constituted in her life and mission. Then a wonderful thing happens: together we embody the promise of Christ that he will be with us always. We discover that we are not alone.

I firmly believe-and I altogether deny it is na´ve to believe it-that the vast majority of men and women secretly want to believe that the Catholic Church is truly the revelation of the authority and power of God. People seem unable to simply ignore the claims of the Church. They attack the Church because they recognize, deep down, that the Church really does speak from authority. And although they will never admit it, they are disappointed when Catholics do not live up to the faith that they profess. Indeed, those who are most scathing or sarcastic are likely the ones who are the most disappointed of all.

Using your charisms, especially for those hostile to the Church, invokes the power of the Holy Spirit; you will show to others that the power of God is truly manifested through his Church. The incontrovertible evidence that people are seeking, the evidence that alone can justify the claims the Church makes on Christ's behalf, is the power of God at work in the world. The present crisis confronts us not with heresy or apostasy-there has been no direct compromise to the teaching of the Church. Rather, it has compromised our witness of the Gospel. The remedy is within the authority and power of the laity: to make God known and to restore the Church's witness through discerning and using the gifts they have been given.

What to tell others

What immediately practical contributions can you make to renew the Church's witness in this country? You have received Christ's commission to teach, and whether or not you possess a specific charism for teaching, there are things that you can make clear to your families, friends, and co-workers about the Church and her mission. You can assure them that we are all of us sinners and that we are all of us unworthy of the life and vocation that we have received from God. To be a Catholic is not at all to assert that we are superior to others. It is, rather, to assert that we have received gifts and graces that are equally available to everyone else, through Christ.

You can explain to others that the revelation God has entrusted to us is to be trusted not because we proclaim it but because it comes from God. We can betray it, but we cannot falsify it or render it powerless. Similarly, Christ himself is the one who acts in the sacraments; the ordained are only his very imperfect instruments. For this reason, the sacraments remain efficacious, even if the priest who administers them is in a state of mortal sin. (Here I cannot help but remember the wisdom of my father. After every Mass in which the homily had been particularly dull or uninspiring, Dad would remind us, "No matter how out of touch the priest is, it's still the Eucharist!") You might share with others an insight of Humbert of Romans, the third Master General of the Dominican Order. Humbert insisted that God may permit a preacher to remain in a state of serious sin for a time in order that both the one who preaches and the congregation he addresses may remember that true preaching is from God, not from the preacher.