Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles recently wrote a Letter to a Suffering Church. Though written like letters from Saint Paul and other patriarchs in the fledgling church, or papal letters through the centuries, it holds no official value; he writes simply as a bishop who wants to express compassion to fellow church members agonizing over the church’s sexual abuse crisis and scandals of leadership. It is a wonderful effort in addressing critical issues by one who holds much clout over a wide Catholic audience.
He acknowledges that from the Garden of Eden until the here and now, good and evil are embattled in our relationships and, sometimes, demonic forces overpower us as individuals, communities, institutions, or nations. He gives biblical, papal, and other historical examples of when God’s people were targeted by the devil and defeated in the skirmishes. He attests to numerous incidents when ecclesial leaders made embarrassing and shameful decisions that took God’s people down dark and destructive paths. And he notes good people—reformers like Peter Damien, Catherine of Siena, Ignatius of Loyola, and Teresa of Avila—who had courage and faith to speak out against the corruption in their time so that the church would not be seized by nefarious actors. Aware that many wise, wonderful, wholesome, and holy people choose to leave the church, he weighs the impact of leaving or staying. And probably most importantly, he calls for serious institutional reform to take place now.
It’s a bit more profound than when The Clash in the early 80s sang “Should I stay or should I go now…If I stay it will be trouble—but if I go it would be double…” Yet it reiterates that we benefit from internal reform much more than from abandonment. If we stay and fight it will be difficult, but if we go it will diminish us and hurt the church even more. In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, many disciples decided to leave Jesus because following Him became too difficult. He asked the Apostles if they also want to go. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It is difficult for many of us to be in the Catholic Church right now. Similar to how Jesus viewed the Pharisees and other church leaders of His time to be hypocrites, so do we view some of our leaders. The ecclesial institute sometimes gets in the way of God; evil forces may even take hold. That is not new. But as Bishop Barron suggests, when serious collapse occurs, serious response must counter. We can counter by embracing the Word of Eternal Life.
In our own country, we know of similar responses: from patriots of the American Revolution who fought for freedom against British Imperialism to brave heroes of The Greatest Generation who made sacrifices from the shores of Normandy or local factories, defying the Nazi regime of terror. If something is worth fighting for, we ought to stay and fight. That’s what Barron suggests; and admitting that the refinement of protocol is not enough, he calls for spiritual reform. Though he does not mention reform of structure, accountability, or formation, these things must also be on the horizon if we are to witness a response that is sustaining. As an aging celibate man, I know that the structure of decision-making must expand beyond aging celibate men. Similarly, the accountability of clerics needs to be in sync with the people and the formation of priests and other leaders needs to focus more upon bringing Christ to the world and less upon indoctrination that promotes the self and protects the institute.
In every age there exists what our Hebrew ancestors call anawim, those whom Jesus lifted up as heroes in His Sermon on the Mount. Anawim are the poor who depend upon the Lord for deliverance, who are not guided by desire for power or material riches; they are God’s faithful remnant existing within the masses, faces in the crowd who never abandon God’s mission but merely do what they are here to do: reform, renew, and revitalize the world by their acts of goodness. They were plentiful during the American Revolution, among The Greatest Generation, and throughout the church’s sordid history. Let us be them now. The future of Catholicism may depend on it.