When Pope Francis wrote to the American bishops concerning the abuse crisis, he observed that “many actions can be helpful, good and necessary, and may even seem correct, but not all of them have the ‘flavor’ of the Gospel.”
By recommending a return to the Gospel as an essential reference point, Francis is on to something. The horror of the abuse cases, the sheer numbers of victims, the longevity of the crisis, its scope, and the fact that it has proved so hard to change the institutional patterns and habits that abet it—all this has been, for many of the faithful, a profoundly shocking and disorienting experience. It has eroded the trust we used to give to our church leaders and structures. It has shamed us in the eyes of the world. We do not taste the Gospel here. Yet we long for it, even when that longing goes unnamed.
Metaphors of taste and smell have a long history in Christian discourse. The psalmist enjoins the faithful to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The gift of God’s law is perfect and refreshing, “sweeter than syrup, or honey from the comb.” Evil, in contrast, is something that sets one’s teeth on edge. Sour and bitter fruit come forth from wickedness.
In the New Testament, followers of Jesus are urged to be “salt for the earth” and not to lose their savor. Because the sense of taste is allied with smell, we also find olfactory images in the Scripture. Paul refers to Christians as those who bear “the aroma of Christ.” In the ancient church, catechumens were given salt on the tongue as part of their admission to the catechumenate. Ritual expresses in the body what is believed in faith: Christian life is not bland or flavorless. It tastes like something.
What does the Gospel taste like? Francis doesn’t say. Perhaps this is because he thinks the bishops already know. Maybe, as in an old television commercial for a certain pasta sauce (“Now, that’s Italian!”), the assumption is that anybody who has tasted the Gospel will be able to recognize it when they encounter it again.
Yet I wonder. For all the emphasis that has been placed on Scripture in the postconciliar church, for all the readings we have access to in our lectionaries, for all the renewal in biblical studies that has taken place in the church during our lifetime, it nevertheless seems that the categories our church leaders are most sensitive to are legal and doctrinal, rather than scriptural.
The Second Vatican Council wanted the sacred page to be the very soul of theology, yet there is still a certain suspicion that if we rely too much on Scripture we’ll neglect the precise formulations of doctrine, and forget the accumulated tradition of church teaching. If Francis had recommended “the taste of the catechism” our bishops would be right there. The “taste of the Gospel” is more elusive.
Yet this Gospel flavor is actually quite a powerful thing. The Scriptures may not always be as precise as one might like (there are multiple sources, they don’t always agree, and so on), but no one can deny that they are packed with flavor. The narratives and imagery they contain, as well as their poetry and wisdom, have sustained the life of the church through hardship, trial, and crises throughout the centuries. Their flavor can remind us of who we are, and help the church emerge from the present crisis both more deeply chastened and stronger.
The chastening is an important feature. Consider a New Testament example. Anyone in our society can say that the sexual abuse of minors is a crime. It is. But how much time have we spent reflecting on Jesus’ words in Luke 17:1–2:
Occasions of stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
This saying appears in all three synoptic gospels. Matthew and Mark don’t say just a millstone, but “a great millstone.” It’s astonishing that so many of our shepherds (those who treated accusations of child abuse lightly) seem to have failed to take this word in. How can anyone who enabled abusers not tremble when they read this? If we take this seriously, the prospect of laicization or tangles with law enforcement seem mild penalties compared with the future that awaits those who destroyed someone’s childhood and shattered her faith.
Frankly, it’s a terrifying saying. Does the Gospel taste bitter, therefore? For malefactors, perhaps it does. Yet these words also testify to God’s eternal justice and to his partiality to the poor and the vulnerable: the “little ones.” These are words that bear listening to. “We know that, given the seriousness of the situation, no response or approach seems adequate,” Francis wrote. “Nonetheless, we as pastors must have the ability, and above all the wisdom, to speak a word born of heartfelt, prayerful and collective listening to the Word of God and to the pain of our people.” Amen to that.
What sort of actions might the bishops take that would convey the flavor of the Gospel? Surely there must be actions of justice and compassion, and actions that breathe the humility of Christ. Yet above all there must be actions that kindle hope for the future to which the Holy Spirit is leading the church through this crisis.