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From church’s suffering, healing can begin


As an adult, I became a Catholic and then embarked upon the study of theology. My conversion was a response to the actions of God within me, calling me out of my former Protestant faith and my former life as an attorney and into a new life as a Catholic theologian. I was often startled and dismayed when my fellow Catholics would look at me, in apparent puzzlement and disbelief, and ask me why I would voluntarily become a Roman Catholic.

Why would anyone willingly enter into a church that seems so often, especially in the decades after the Second Vatican Council, at odds with itself, seemingly unable to deal with the maturity of an increasingly educated faithful and unwilling to risk loss of control at any level.

Yet it is in the Catholic church that I found God. I recovered or discovered a God who was and had always been active in my life, leading me, prodding me, challenging me so that I could do no other but say yes to God’s call. God is the head of the church, but we, fallible human beings, make up the body of Christ. As such, we stumble, stutter and often fall but somehow, as the song goes, “we get back up again” with the help of God.

What is happening in our church today, as revelation after sordid revelation emerges of priests who abused the trust given to them, of bishops who have participated, surely without malice, in covering up these grievous sins year after year, this should remind us of Pope Paul VI’s acknowledgement that we are a pilgrim people seeking to find our way home to God. I do not say this to excuse anything that has occurred, nor to pass judgment on anyone, bishop, priest or religious. As human beings, we can and do make grievous mistakes, but that does not mean that the church has lost its holiness or its legitimacy. God’s grace still showers down upon us all. The Spirit abides in our midst.

However, there are still issues that need to be addressed more clearly. What about the children? Granted, they are mostly adults now but many of them, emotionally and mentally scarred by the acts of men they were taught to honor and obey without question, are in many ways still children; their passage into adulthood forever stunted. What about the children?

We know that the majority of priests are decent men who are being tarred by the brush painting the horrific details of the sins of too many of their fellow priests. We pray for them; we comfort them; we support them.

But what about the children? What about the grief and betrayal felt by their parents who placed their sons and daughters in the church’s care? The issue is not the thousands of priests who have never and would never commit such abomination. It is about ridding our church of those who have done so and who have been allowed to continue to do so for so long that the statute of limitations for prosecuting them, in many states, has run out. We pray for them but we also recognize their acts for what they are, sin in its deepest sense. Yet in the thousands of words in newspaper and magazine articles, on TV and radio programs and issuing from the chanceries, very little has been said about the children, past and present, and what the church plans to do to help them and their families to heal and to prevent these abuses from occurring again.

A second issue is the mixing of terminology, causes and cures that is going on. Pedophilia is not nor has it ever been a crime of homosexuality, nor is it the result of mandatory celibacy. Most pedophiles, as statistics reveal, have been and are married men. Honest, open discussions within the church on homosexuality, optional celibacy and married priesthood as well as women’s ordination are desperately needed, especially in light of the continuing decline in the numbers of priest and religious. But these discussions need to take place regardless of the outcome of the present scandal in an atmosphere removed from condemnation, anger, grief, hurt and denial. Certainly these events can and should serve as an opportunity for fuller dialogue, but not if the church, at any level, engages in a hysterical witch-hunt against gays or against those in the priesthood who love women and would like to marry them, certainly not an abnormal desire.

As a person of African descent, both in the United States and in our church, I have seen and at times experienced what happens when critical issues, terminology, motives and actions become confused with too often painful and unexpected results. The old adage is still true: “Haste makes waste.” Despite the trial and tribulations of being a mature, adult, female, celibate, lay, black Catholic, I won’t abandon my faith or my church but will fight to make it whole once again.

Jesus once said: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” He was welcoming the children into his presence when others, including his own disciples, would have turned them away. Today, with its contemporary meaning of going through painful indignity and humiliation, we should affirm the “suffering” that our church is going through in order to remind us yet again that without a people of faith, there can be no church. Without a body, the head cannot survive nor can the body without its head.

What about the children? What about their parents? What about all of us who are struggling to understand and asking why, how could this take place? This is not the time to hide behind platitudes, tradition or canon law. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said about the sin of racism: The boil must be cut open with all of its accompanying pain and ugliness so that the corruption within can be exposed to the healing and cleansing air. It is long past time that we burst the boil of sexual abuse of our children and exposed, painful as it may be, the corruption within to the cleansing air. A Band-aid will not do. Only then can true healing begin.

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington. Her e-mail address is hayesd@Georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002