Regardless of one’s attitude toward the Catholic Church, interested or disinterested, family, friend or foe, there are questions which come to mind these days: “Why such a storm of protest or critique and directed so insistently against our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI? Why so many awful revelations from different countries, lots of them (as in the case of the United States) raked up from the past and not without rancor? Why now, why in Holy Week, why at Easter?
I have read some explanations by authors of a scientific bent who attribute the whole stir to a phenomenon they classify as “moral panic”, which they say occurs more often in our media-driven age and is fed by the machinations and hatred of God’s enemies, the traditional enemies of His Church. Others would say that things are finally coming to a head and they would blame this mess on an unprecedented level of corruption in the Church. This corruption stems mostly from a bunch of folks who have held The Second Vatican Council and the Church hostage for over 40 years with all their “spin” on what they call the “spirit of Vatican II”. I won’t throw my lot entirely with either one of these hypotheses, but the atmosphere does seem to be poisoned and something is radically wrong. There are days when one even wonders if we don’t find ourselves again in a period comparable to that on the eve of the appearance of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, where by the mercy of our God reaching out and touching these two young men in particular the Church was pulled from the jaws of Hell almost by itinerant bands of poor, mendicant friars.
Why so much anger and emotion these days? Obviously we are too close to the situation to be able to do other than hazard a guess and, given the rapid evolution of some situations, perhaps we might be the wiser within a generation. That is to say, I may or may not live to see better times. I may or may not live to read the historian who offers a definitive interpretive key to the ambiguity all around. I do not think just anyone today has the words either to explain away the crisis or to cast light in all of the dark corners which still might need to be swept clean, not by, but after the storm.
Why were so many atrocious things shoved under the rug, if you will, up until not all that long ago? My closest attempt at an explanation comes from a look at modern warfare and its consequences for the lives of the returning veterans of the various conflicts. World War I is probably the best example for the point I would like to make, but it is too far in the past. Distant as it is, perhaps more folks remember the phenomenon of the suffering Vietnam veterans. Apart from physical damage done by “agent orange” or other chemical weapons, countless veterans of that conflict were scarred psychologically or spiritually because of what they witnessed or because of the role they were forced to play in the atrocities of that war. I can remember in the midst of a nation’s soul-searching asking myself why so much of this was coming out, seemingly for the very first time in the history of armed conflict. We didn’t have to wait long for an answer to a question which was not to the point, as the process of working through Vietnam empowered veterans of the Korean War to speak of their desolation in the face of moral quandaries and more, which had been churning within them without release for decades. Subsequently, we learned that veterans of World War II were carrying more than their battle scars as well.
Did all these youngsters and young adults now grown up, old and older only discover their problems with soldiering in retrospect? Did they really come home serene from battle and only subsequently suffer from memories of things which have brought them nightmares over the course of a lifetime? Did they truly feel absolved as young returnees from war by the reassurance that they were only following orders? I think that most of them had their inner conflicts and unresolved issues from day one, but felt alone and somehow ashamed. More than anything else, even when they had the courage to ask why, I think they were confounded by the inadequacy of the responses from their elders to their questions, both hypothetical and personal. Most of those who were Catholic either distanced themselves from the institutional Church or carved out a niche for themselves with the help of folk on the fringe, even priests and nuns, who sought to level the playing field, to be morally non-intrusive or “open” in the sense of anything goes. In the case of WWII and Korea, nobody seemed ready to deal with them, least of all Father in his blue jeans and flannel shirt who insisted you call him Jimmy. Most of these veterans got their “hug-for-the-day” but precious little else to free them from their anguish and despair.
Whether we are talking about the consequences of armed conflict, of various forms of domestic violence or of the abuse of minors by members of the clergy, it is clear that these are hurts which do not go away like that skinned knee which Mommy could kiss and make all better. Another world which is long since history knew that too and seemingly sought refuge in silence and in turning away. Are we any better today for wading into these problems instead of saying I don’t have an answer and I don’t know how to make the nightmare go away? Neither approach yields much this side of Heaven.
Let me return to those couple hypotheses mentioned at the beginning. There is something to be said for the “moral panic” theory. Why all of a sudden now are we coming out in the open with some of these atrocities, especially those committed by priests? Forms of abuse have been around for most of the Church’s history. Our church furnishings, most notably the confessional in its traditional form, tell us this. For almost as long as individual confessions have been heard in the form popularized by the missionary monks from Ireland, who brought the faith back to continental Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the devastation of the civilized world by the various barbarian invasions, confessionals with a grate to separate the priest from female penitents have been in use. Men’s confessions normally were heard up front in church and in the open where all could see the priest and the penitent. Caution is always born of prudence and the hard lessons won from unfortunate experiences. Have we simply failed to use the precautions of a bygone era? In part we certainly have, but the death-dealing fruit borne by the rancor and the angry sense of betrayal also draw sap from a major faith crisis in our day and time.
The people are not sustained by what often amounts to no more than a caricature of the great Ecumenical Council and seeks to pass itself off as its “spirit” and continuation. Even yet today you’ll find faith-filled lay people embarrassed by the Church’s refusal to regulate precisely their penitential practice. You are more apt to run into nominal Catholics, who don’t go to Mass with any regularity, who observe fasts and fish days which haven’t been on the official calendar for fifty years. The Sunday Mass goers, on the other hand, have been deprived of their penances with vague exhortations to do something constructive for the poor. This year during Lent I heard all sorts of talk about “carbon fasting”, which sounds weird, has nothing to do with a voluntarily assumed penance, and certainly cannot be limited to just healthy adults.
I am convinced that the rancor and the angry sense of betrayal over the abuse of minors in particular also have roots in a major faith crisis in our day and time. While a great ignorance of the faith is evident straight across the board in people less than fifty years of age and the various catechumenal programs have rightly intuited that the issue is not purely intellectual, I would insist that the scandal which feeds this faith crisis is crass disregard yes for God’s Law starting with the Ten Commandments and the Precepts of the Church, but perhaps even more experientially stemming from the de facto elimination of the Divine from worship. If we do not quickly reform the “renewed liturgy” and bring it back into continuity with the Mass of all times, we will be guilty of depriving the storm-tossed faithful of a port in the storm. Arbitrariness and frivolity, informality and continuing experimentation with new forms and expressions expose what must be a construct and which cannot come from God. Victims of pre-Conciliar times, both of the devastation of war or abuse at the hands of those to whose care we are entrusted, could indeed turn to God. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was not something “made up”; it was handed down to us. Where do you turn today when your parish church and Sunday Mass seem to have been delivered into the hands of frustrated artistes looking for a stage? “Moral panic” also sets in when you feel very much abandoned.
Those are brutal, fighting words really. I think they strike at the heart of the problem. If every priest and bishop would sit down quietly with the missal, make an examination of conscience concerning the liberties he has taken with the liturgy, and proceed to learn the rubrics and put them conscientiously into practice, the recovery through an act of humility on his part would already be begun. In those churches where the return to ad Orientem worship can be done without another round of iconoclastic interventions (capricious in the 1970’s and not to be repeated simply out of willfulness), the priest himself would be liberated from a goodly part of the temptation he feels to perform on the altar.
Turning to the Lord in worship will not solve the abuse problem. The abuse problem and its history must be dealt with in other ways. I think that we need to give back to people in the Church their home with God. We need to give people a place to turn with weighty problems not easily resolved or healed. Counselors and psychiatrists can only do so much.
Within the community of the Church, I think we have to respond to God’s invitation to St. Francis: “Francis, rebuild my Church!” The multipurpose building fad passed as quickly as it appeared on the scene. Space for God is space for me amidst all my joys, hopes, sorrows and pains. A new age of temple builders, not in brick and mortar, but after the heart of St. Francis is needed to draw people back to God or to enable them to gain access to His footstool. Sobriety in worship in conformity with the priceless tradition handed down within the community of the Church is more than a start.
Go figure, but this year on Easter Sunday the prophet Joel comes to mind:
“Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing as he passes, oblation and libation for the Lord your God?”