Like many of you, like many Catholics all over the world, I have been reeling since the newest revelations of sex abuse among the Catholic hierarchy and clergy. To be totally honest, it’s taken some time to get in touch with my truest feelings in the wake of the horror that’s been uncovered, to acknowledge the fire that burns in my belly, the anger. At first, in the shock of it, I almost emotionally rolled my eyes—duh. We already know this is a problem (Boston, Ireland, Australia, etc. etc.). As far as I can tell, nothing substantial was done to curb the abuse then—why should we be shocked by the current revelations? Why should we be overwhelmed at the extent of abuse, at the utter depravity that has happened, that still happens, that was and is covered up because of power, because of pride, because of, under it all, the threat of scandal?
You hear this again and again in the reports through the years—the hierarchy not revealing critical information because they didn’t want to cause “scandal” among the faithful. It’s a familiar word, as a member of said faithful. I remember hearing it as a new teacher in a Catholic elementary school— the refrain of “you have to teach what the Church teaches, no matter what you think” so as not to cause “scandal”. When I wanted to teach my college students yoga and meditation I was told, “be careful”—you might cause “scandal.” Again as a campus minister functioning as a pseudo director/ priest I was told to keep my head down, to not ask for more, to “do it for the kids”—so as not to cause “scandal.”
Scandal seems to be the code word not so much for protecting the faithful, but for silencing them. For keeping us in line, in check, not asking too many questions, not pushing the status quo too much. Under the all-too paternal guise of caring for us, protecting us, thinking of our well-being, the hierarchy through its own officially sanctioned church ‘teaching’ on scandal has only succeeding in infantilizing us, in numbing us, in making us think we’re helpless victims while in truth, we are a people with great autonomy, great individual and collective power, and great agency.
And this is what the Church of the Christ, Jesus, truly teaches us. In the Second Vatican Council there were two key concepts that came forth, after much collective and diverse deliberation and dialogue. One is called the “sensus fidelum” and it’s linked to the other, “primacy of conscience.” The teaching around the sensus fidelum reads like this:
“The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One,(111) cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” (8*) they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.” (Lumen Gentium, paragraph 12)
Primacy of conscience is connected, and put in simple terms comes down to—you can trust yourself, as a vital part of a community of believers. You can trust yourself and your relationship with God. It means something. It guides you, forms you, IS you, at the heart of you, whispering guidance at all times. You can trust this still, small voice at the center of your heart, your being, your life. As I was taught—if you’ve wrestled with a Church teaching, learned about it, and in your heart, you still discern it to be wrong, your conscience is paramount in the matter, NOT the teaching. God trusts you, because you are the very place where God dwells, and therefore, at its best, the Church trusts you.
Except, of course, when it doesn’t. This, to me, seems to be the real scandal of what’s happening now. The revelations of sexual abuse by those thought to hold ultimate spiritual authority is simply the most obvious outer layer of a deeply entrenched system of abuse, exposing the total falsehood of said power. It is abuse that so many of us, myself included, have experienced, working in a system that is so top-heavy it forgets easily that the priests, bishops, cardinals and Pope do not constitute “the Church.” We all do, ALL of us, every baptized person, in equal measure. What I feel in the depths of my being is AS IMPORTANT as a cardinal in Rome with a fancy red hat and a canon law degree. The Jesus I know in my heart is just as real as the Jesus I read about in a Church document written by the Pope. My discernment of right and wrong is as accurate as anyone else in this Church baptized in the waters of unconditional love that is the person of the Christ.
So the real scandal, it seems, to me, right now, is the lack of deep listening, the lack of transparency, the totally false notions of power that have so imprisoned the clergy of the Catholic Church for centuries. They have thought themselves the whole church when in truth, they are a small portion of the entire Body. They have tried, for so long, to function with just a small part of the whole, and it is desperately failing. The failure, and the inevitable death that comes, is reflected in their stubborn refusal to ordain women called and chosen by God and open equal positions of real power to them. It is reflected in the failure of the hierarchy to enact real change and truly prevent child abuse from ever happening again, not just talking about it and promising pleasant platitudes. It is reflected, I think most acutely in the epidemic instruction that “Mother Church knows best”, subtly removing power from the people of God, silencing the faithful into insecurity and nagging doubts about our own minds, our own hearts, our own bodies and our own voice. The real scandal is failing to teach what Jesus lived and embodied to the end—WE are the body of God, WE are the Church, WE, all of us, are valued and loved and good and of great, great value in the eyes and arms and heart of the Living God.
Each person has value—each victim of abuse, each woman refused the recognition of her gifts, each priest so lost in the privilege of their power and so unhealthy in their sexual life force that they could ever even think of abusing a child, much less systematically and repeatedly act on that thought. Jesus, the Christ, the Embodied One, showed us this with his life again and again and again—deeply listening to, welcoming and healing us all—women, the sick, the lost, the poor, the rich, the ostracized, the holy and the utterly un-whole.
Imagine if, in the Church of today, every member of the Body felt free and safe to share their experience, their questions, their thoughts, their relationship with God, their ideas about how to progress into the future with faith and love? Imagine if we could, together, voice our lament, cry out to God, get real and honest about our anger AND our joys, loves, ecstasies and moments of communion? Imagine if all this wisdom was collected, heard, felt, and if we all truly worked together to implement action steps such wisdom calls for? What life there would be in the Church, what healing!
Not only is this what the Christ lived, this IS, at its heart, what the Church, His Church, teaches, when we look at the gospels and the most official, authoritative teachings of the Church. The inherent dignity and value of every human person is at the very heart of it. A Living God who constantly flings open the doors and windows of liberation and love is the God at the heart of the Catholic Church. A God who wants to hear and see and embrace and love every one of Her children IS the God we say we believe in. The participation of ALL—in the liturgy, in actions toward justice, in the leadership structures of the Church, is written right into the documents of the Second Vatican Council, which spring directly from the gospels and centuries of wrestling with the Word and Life of God.
How this gets so blurred and disfigured and abused by human beings I am often at a loss to understand. But it is so. We live in a world where the perfect is not yet, the ideal not reached. We live with one foot in the hope of heaven and one foot in the mess. Yet we are ALL a part of it, and it is time for all of us to rise. It is time for us to say—yes, we are scandalized! We are scandalized by your failure to live up to the vision of the Christ. We are scandalized by your failure to listen to us—mothers and sisters and brothers and fathers and sons and daughters—your own body! You have failed to listen to our pain, our lament, our calls for help and healing, our NO– and now it is time for a reckoning. For a reckoning that will, in the redemption of the Christ, lead to reconciliation, and to, hope of all hopes, resurrection. But like with any rising, it cannot happen without death. And so much must die right now—egos and agendas and further attempts at protection of pride and power. All the false power must die, the false hierarchies, the lies. Most importantly, the lie that Church is somehow ‘out there,’ that power is ‘somewhere else.’ It is here, now– in you, in me, the Christ in here, dwelling within each of us, fanning us into flame. Perhaps that is the ‘scandal’ those holding false power most fear—all of us, stepping into our true fire, our true power, the flame at the core of us that is the Presence of the Living God. Then, truly, would we step into Jesus’ call for us, as Church, blazing our way into love and freedom for all: “I have come to set fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49)