The Abuse Crisis as Prophecy & Pascha

Flavor of the Gospel
Ugolino da Siena, The Last Supper, ca. 1325–30 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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.

 

We taste the Gospel in both the refusal to accept the situation as it is, and in demonstrations of genuine compassion and hope.

The Abuse Crisis as Prophecy

Jesus stands squarely in the tradition of the prophets of Israel; the people to whom he came received him as a prophet. He was not a member of the priestly class. Jesus himself is the Word of God, but, lest we forget, he also spoke the Word of God—both in its comforting and liberating assurances to the poor and the simple and in its roaring condemnations of “blind guides” and those who prey upon the weak.

Perhaps we have forgotten this today, as so many of the implicit messages we receive about the church’s ministry suggest that the voice of prophecy has been fully absorbed into our institutionalized charisms and offices. But the prophetic edge of the Gospel remains a cutting edge—as any serious student of the New Testament can tell you. A “flavor” too irenic to admit to the sharp sword of the Gospel does not capture its character.

When we call something a crisis, we mean it causes a division in time. A crisis moment in interpersonal relationships occurs when a conflict no longer simmers in the background but has come to a head. In an illness, a crisis is a moment of intensity after which the patient will either recover or go into decline. A political crisis occurs when a former way of governing does not work anymore and everyone knows that something new must take its place. A social crisis arises when customary ways of being together in society are challenged by events or by changing conceptions of social roles and relationships. In a crisis, there is always a “before” and an “after.”

We say that we are going through “the abuse crisis.” But the interesting thing is that the crisis—the thing that causes the disjuncture between past and future—isn’t the abuse. It’s the revelation of the abuse (and the revelation of the unjust and inadequate responses to such abuse by church authorities). The abuse itself was going on for decades, probably generations, yet was never called out for what it was. It’s the revelation of this heinous, global, hidden cancer that makes this a crisis, because it demands a response; it signals a moment of change.

A prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God, and frequently in the Scriptures a prophetic oracle begins: “Thus says the Lord.” Who is saying “Thus says the Lord” in the church today? If we look at the witness of abuse survivors, we discover that in many instances they seek not only to come to terms with their wounds and painful history, nor simply to seek their own compensation. They are working for justice to overcome corruption and they are longing for the return of hope for others who are hurting. Theirs is, at least implicitly, a prophetic mission.

The prophetic word condemns corruption and calls out sin, demanding change. Isn’t this what is being asked of the church today?

When we are at our lowest ebb, the prophetic word also comes to offer comfort and consolation, as it did to Israel during the exile. The prophetic word is heard not only in denunciations, but also in the promise of a return to the homeland that God alone can provide. We taste the Gospel in both the refusal to accept the situation as it is, and in demonstrations of genuine compassion and hope.

 

True respect for baptism requires structures that support the mutual trust and respectful collaboration that ought always to exist between pastors and their people.

The Abuse Crisis as Pascha

There is a fond imagining among some church people that once we “get past” the abuse crisis, things will go back to the way they were. The clerical system won’t change. The role of church authorities won’t change. Our hearts won’t change, either. Like an accident on the highway, the wreckage of the clergy sex-abuse crisis will someday be cleared away, the insurance companies will settle the debts, and we’ll go on our way the same as before, as if nothing had ever happened. Yes, there may be new guidelines to assure that such “accidents” don’t happen with the frequency they once did: like putting up signs to better mark a dangerous section of road, or implementing seatbelt laws, we’ll put safe environment regulations in place. But roles and relationships within the church will not change, because what happened is seen as, essentially, an accident rather than the expression of a sickness in the body itself.

There is another way to look at this crisis, however, and some wise observers—Pope Francis among them—have realized that a deeper reckoning is required. As Francis said to the bishops of Chile, “It would be irresponsible on our part not to delve into a search for the roots and structures that allowed these concrete events to happen and to continue.” By this he does not mean a search for scapegoats. Such an approach, which he calls “the Jonah syndrome,” seeks to blame the storm on one or another person and throw them out of the boat. This is a false solution and one that he condemns.

Instead, Francis’s diagnosis cuts straight to the essential issue of whether the clergy are “with,” or removed from, their people. “Messianism, elites, [and] clericalisms, are all synonymous with perversion in the ecclesial being,” he says. He describes the resulting malaise as “the loss of a healthy consciousness [formed by] knowing we belong to the holy faithful people of God who precedes us and who—thanks be to God—will succeed us.” He concludes this line of thought with a powerful statement: “Do not let us ever lose the awareness of that exalted gift that is our baptism.”

A solid grasp of the dignity of the baptized is, in fact, essential to reform. It grounds both laity and clergy. But getting to the point where this is truly grasped involves more than a cosmetic change. It actually entails dying to one vision of church and rising to another.

We have heard many times in the press that Francis denounces clericalism. Fair enough. Yet this assertion is strangely incomplete without noting the corresponding and reciprocal attention he gives to the dignity of the baptized, their holiness and mission. It is the sacred reality of the people of God that illuminates the real calling of pastors to adopt a model of humility and service so that the church as a whole may thrive. The goal of meaningful reform is not merely to take the clergy down a peg. It’s a call for a different model, leading to a new and more fruitful relationship.

The Pascha, or Passover, described in Exodus, is the passage of God’s people from slavery to freedom. The Pascha in the New Testament is the passing over of Jesus from this life to the Father. The paschal mystery for the church—death to sin and resurrection to new life in Christ—is the central mystery the liturgy celebrates. It is the preeminent taste of the Gospel.

What does this have to do with the abuse crisis? I would go so far as to say that the only adequate response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis is a paschal response: death to one way of being and resurrection to a truly new way of life. The abuse crisis requires the death of an old model of insularity and arrogance in clerical culture. It declares as a failure the model of accountability that defers only to one’s hierarchical superiors while disregarding those below. It proposes instead an organic, sacramental relationship of sharing in the one mission of the church—for which we all must hold one another accountable. You don’t get to a state in the church where no one is exploited without a robust respect for the dignity of all. It takes a paschal journey to bring us to the new life and freedom the Gospel promises.

The good news is this: if the dignity of all the baptized is genuinely and deeply respected, this rules out every one of the predatory behaviors we have seen in the abuse crisis. It calls forth transparency and accountability as the natural state of affairs in the church rather than as some holy grail that remains always just out of reach. And, finally, true respect for baptism requires structures that support the mutual trust and respectful collaboration that ought always to exist between pastors and their people.

The Pascha has many flavors in the Scriptures. It includes the unleavened bread of the journey, the bitter herbs of slavery, and the lamb—still eaten at the Passover Seder. Yet the taste of the Pascha is also found in the milk and honey of the Promised Land. And in the Christian liturgy, the taste of the Pascha is ever present in the bread and wine of Eucharist.

Published in the April 12, 2019 issue: 

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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