Although the U.S. bishops' spring assembly in Baltimore was mostly devoted to responding to the…
Bishop Barron’s letter on the abuse crisis is a gift to the Church
Bishop Robert Barron’s new book, “Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis,” is a gift to the Church.
Inspired by the 2018 resurgence of the clergy abuse scandal — a time that has left many Catholics angry and frustrated, and which has seen many others head for the exit — Bishop Barron clearly and honestly contextualizes the fallout from the crisis in a manner that has been sorely lacking from Church leadership.
At the same time, he manages to write heart to heart — Catholic to Catholic — with no agenda other than the good and unity of the Church. Free of defensive posture and rich in understanding, the document is like a spring of water in a desert for those who have been waiting for a Church leader who can both clearly identify the Church’s problems and empathize with the frustration of those who both love and have been hurt by it.
At just over 100 pages, “Letter for a Suffering Church” is an accessible five-chapter volume that makes the case for why Catholics not only shouldn’t leave the Church, but why they should stay and fight for it. The text is both measured and balanced, while also managing to be bold, challenging and refreshingly clear in its orthodoxy.
In his summation of the current state of the Church, Bishop Barron does not shy away from painful truths, including the scandal’s financial cost of $4 billion, the sources of that money and the ways it could have been used instead; how it’s hard to completely blame those who speak ill of the Church; and that many laity now feel a “practically bottomless disillusionment with the Church.” But he also reminds readers of the Church’s rich treasures — the reasons to stay — that define the Faith and give life to the faithful.
“In the end, we are not Catholics because our leaders are flawless, but because we find the claims of Catholicism both compelling and beautiful. We are Catholics because the Church speaks of the Trinitarian God whose very nature is love; of Jesus the Lord, crucified and risen from the dead; of the Holy Spirit, who inspires the followers of Christ up and down the ages; of the sacraments, which convey the Christ-life to us; and of the saints, who are our friends in the spiritual order. This is the treasure; this is why we stay.”
“… The Eucharist is the single most important reason for staying faithful to the Church,” he writes. “You can’t find it anywhere else; and no wickedness on the part of priests or bishops can affect it.”
The heart of the document is devoted to a much-needed contextualization of the crisis — what he calls “the devil’s masterpiece.” While Bishop Barron does not use this contextualization to excuse the present scandal, he does cite scriptural examples of sexual perversion and misconduct, damage to children, failure of action and abuse of power that serve as a reminder that humanity is, in a word, fallen — especially when it comes to sexuality. “On the biblical reading, trouble arises when sex is wrenched out of the context of love and used as a tool of domination or manipulation,” he writes. “In accord with the ancient adage corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst), distorted sexuality becomes a vivid countersign of the divine.”
Through a historical review, Bishop Barron also reminds us that the Church’s current scandal is not unique, but rather that the Church, from its inception, “has been marked to varying degrees by sin, scandal, stupidity, misbehavior, misfortune, and wickedness.” To these points, he adds an important caveat.
“Not one bit of this historical survey is meant as an excuse, much less a justification, for the wickedness on display in the Church today,” he writes. “But it is indeed meant to place in a wider context what we might be tempted to see as uniquely horrific. We have been here before; and we’ve survived.”
This reason for hope is arguably the best gift that Bishop Barron offers the faithful, especially when blended with his proposals for Church healing and renewal. He called on the Church to make “serious institutional reforms,” while also recognizing how far it has come since its initial reforms in 2002. And he repeated the many calls for a formal investigation — both in the United States and at the Vatican — to determine how sexual predator and laicized former cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose so high in the ranks of the Church.
“… [T]here is simply never a good reason to leave the Church. Never. Good reasons to criticize Church people? Plenty. Legitimate reasons to be angry with corruption, stupidity, careerism, cruelty, greed, and sexual misconduct on the part of leaders of the Church? You bet. But grounds for turning away from the grace of Christ in which eternal life is found? No. Never, under any circumstances.”
But, rightly, Bishop Barron’s recommendations extend beyond investigation, processes and procedures, and pierce the heart of the scandal — the need for a renewed focus on holiness, beginning with a “reinvigoration of the priesthood (and) a rededication to its ideals.”
“A priest must be devoted to Christ, conformed to him at all levels of his being. His mind, his will, his passions, his body, his private life, his public life, and his friendships must all belong to the Lord. Period,” he writes. “A priest whose central preoccupation is money or pleasure or power or career advancement or fame will, sooner or later, fall apart and wreak havoc around him.”
But this does not mean that laity have no role to play. On the contrary. The laity, too, are called to holiness.
“Priests do not arise from a vacuum,” he writes. “They come, in the overwhelming majority of cases, from Catholic families and they are (or at least ought to be) shaped by a Catholic culture. Therefore, fellow Catholics, this scandal is our problem. All of us Catholics ought to appreciate this painful time, therefore, as an invitation to rediscover and to deepen our own baptismal identity as priests, prophets, and kings.”
Bishop Barron is perhaps the only member of the U.S. hierarchy who could have written or made an impact with such an epistle. He manages to create a document that isn’t polemical but also that doesn’t pull any punches. And he and his Word on Fire team want it to be utilized. For this reason, they wrap this much-needed gift with an appealing bow: a parish price tag of $1 per copy with free shipping, and, for individuals, the cost of shipping only.
Gretchen R. Crowe is editorial director for periodicals at Our Sunday Visitor. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenOSV.