Feeling Helpless, but not Hopeless
Though we hurt, Christ keeps us from falling into despair
Not so long ago, a priest friend of mine who knew of my interest in the early Church asked me if I could think of anything from Christian antiquity that might be as scandalous as what we have been experiencing in the Church of 2018 — battered by allegations of depravity and mendacity at the highest levels. I managed to come up with the election of Pope Damasus, who became bishop of Rome in 366.
While Damasus was being elevated to the papacy by his partisans in one Roman basilica, a certain Ursinus was being elected to the same office by his partisans in another. The riots that ensued, which were said to have been engineered by Damasus, killed 137 people. Ursinus eventually was hustled out of Rome, and history has declared him an antipope, but Damasus’ reputation — not enhanced by allegations of adultery — permanently was damaged.
I think, though, that what has happened in the past few months has been worse for the institutional Church than the election of Damasus and its tumultuous aftermath, or than the so-called pornocracy of the 10th-century papacy, or than the flagrantly immoral activities of several Renaissance popes, to cite some of the more appalling moments in Church history — and to say nothing of some of the many misguided but nonsalacious policies and practices that the institution espoused to its detriment. None of that involved the sexual abuse of children. And none of that involved me.
Blowing the Whistle
As many who have been following the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick over the past several months, I am the whistleblower who, in the early summer of this year, succeeded in finally exposing Archbishop McCarrick’s extremely inappropriate behavior with his seminarians during the time he was archbishop of Newark, New Jersey. As outrageous as his behavior was — and, at the time, I knew nothing of his alleged abuse of minors — equally outrageous, if not more so, was the fact that it was an open secret in the seminary (where I taught) and evidently was quite well-known outside the seminary, even among many of McCarrick’s fellow bishops. None of this seemed to have had a negative effect on McCarrick’s ascent within the hierarchy, all the way to a red hat.
It would be incorrect to say that from the late 1980s to the present I was courageous in bringing up McCarrick’s bad behavior to people who could have done something about it. In fact, I never really felt threatened, and so it can’t be said that I was courageous in the face of perceived danger. I acted out of anger and disgust at McCarrick’s hypocrisy, but also out of bewilderment at the fact that so many knew that, at the very least, he was engaging in some kind of sexual harassment of his seminarians and no one did anything. As I write this, the anger and disgust and bewilderment return. For refusing to confront the well-known scandalous activities of one of its most prestigious members, I am tempted to say that the Church finally received the humiliation that it deserved.
The Bride of Christ
Still, I love the Church, and in my mind the beautiful New Testament image of the Bride of Christ is what most comes to the fore when I think of the Church that I love. And so I was deeply touched when I listened to Rick Warren, the noted evangelical pastor, talk to the clergy of the New York archdiocese this past June, just two weeks before McCarrick’s sins were exposed. He spoke with tears in his eyes of loving and never wanting to hurt the Bride of Christ by committing the very sorts of sins that McCarrick was alleged to have committed. It was reassuring to me that an evangelical pastor could invoke so emotionally an image that I had thought of as particularly Catholic.
|A Prayer for Brother Priests|
O Jesus, eternal Priest,
Keep your priests within the shelter of your Sacred Heart,
where none may touch them.
Keep unstained their anointed hands, which daily touch
your Sacred Body.
Keep unsullied their lips, daily purpled with your Precious Blood.
Keep pure and unearthly their hearts, sealed with the sublime
mark of the priesthood.
Let your holy love surround them and shield them from the
Bless their labors with abundant fruit and may the souls to whom
they minister be their joy and consolation here and in heaven,
their beautiful and everlasting crown. Amen.
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Of course, I am someone who has hurt the Bride of Christ both secretly and openly. That has to be faced up to, and there is no escaping from it. Notwithstanding the hurts inflicted upon the Bride by the members of the Church, she still points truly and accurately to the beauty of the Bridegroom, who had hurts inflicted upon him as well.
Catholic theology often has tended to make a distinction between accidentals and essentials — in other words, between the things that come and go and the things that stay. This has allowed us to be able to say that the evil which mars the Church is, after all, only an accidental — a passing thing, not a permanent blemish. I could try to make that case to my parishioners, but I’m not sure I could be persuasive, and I wouldn’t so much as even attempt to make it to people at large; they would see it as far too clever an excuse, and meaningless. Much, much less would I dare to tell the abused to seek to discern the Church’s innocent beauty concealed under the filthiness of their abusers’ sins. The distinction is a real one for me, though. I can’t imagine how else I would make it through the current upheaval if I didn’t believe that the ugliness was passing and the beauty was permanent.
Struggling with How to Help
I don’t know of anyone in my parish who has been abused by a member of the clergy, although I have been in contact with several others from outside the parish who have been victimized. The best I can do is say “I’m sorry” in the same way one does at wakes, and listen and perhaps ask a nonintrusive question or two. I don’t offer unsolicited advice unless it seems absolutely necessary. I can’t plead with anyone not to leave the Church over this issue; I can’t say, “Give it another chance.” I can’t say that reforms are on the way and that we all have to wait for them to be implemented, even though maybe they are on the way and maybe they will be implemented. I can’t say anything spiritual to anyone who doesn’t already have the profoundest trust in the Church and for whom something spiritual would seem entirely appropriate, and even then I hesitate.
I wonder if I can add anything new and useful to the conversation. In the interviews I willingly have given to the media when asked to give them, I find that I have gone over the same ground time and time again. I wonder if I will say something, whether to the media or in some other context, that will be interpreted in a way that I would not want it to be and that will sweep me into a maelstrom of recrimination that will debase me and others for years to come. No one who says much more than “I’m sorry” ever seems to say the right thing, and hardly anyone who has not been abused seems to be able to understand fully what a disaster being abused has been for the victims.
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As a priest, I represent not only the beautiful Bride of Christ but also the institutional Church, which in this world, for all intents and purposes, are inseparable. There is no getting away from the institutional Church, whether I’m in vestments at the altar and certainly not when I’m in a Roman collar on the street or at a function (the collar seems to me much more “institutional” than a chasuble). My responsibility before the world, I’m afraid, is to deny neither that the Bride is beautiful nor that I belong to the institution.
FATHER BONIFACE RAMSEY is the administrator of St. Joseph Church-Yorkville in Manhattan and also the general editor of “The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century” (New City Press, $49).