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Sacred rage and rebuilding the church


One evening last June, I was searching the TV channels for the NBA championship playoff game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Jersey Nets when I stumbled across “Catholic Church in Crisis,” a 60 Minutes II special on CBS. It was a Wednesday evening, the night before the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas to vote on a proposed national policy to protect children and young people from sexual abuse by clergy and church personnel.

I watched for several moments as Ed Bradley interviewed persons associated with the church’s recent pedophilia scandal. Pretty soon I had forgotten about the Lakers and Nets. Here was a documented report on the worst tragedy in American church history. I sat back to watch.

In utter disbelief, I saw a 29-year-old woman tell Bradley how a priest raped her in her bedroom following her first Communion. I observed years of emotional turmoil in the eyes of a young man who, as an 8-year-old altar boy in the early 1980s, had been sexually violated repeatedly by his parish priest. I could not believe my eyes as news clips showed the official church arrogantly dismissing the desperate pleas for help from parents whose young sons and daughters had been sexually molested by priests. “Those bastards!” I shouted at the TV at the end of the hourlong program. “Look what they have done to the church!”

My anger startled me. Never had I called bishops or fellow priests that before. The last time I can remember being so angry was 50 years ago when I was a teenager. Since then I have been uncomfortable with anger. I’ve been afraid if I let my anger out I would lose control of myself as I did one night during halftime at a high school basketball game when I nearly put my fist through the locker-room door. I might kill someone. I might do or say something I would later regret or have held against me. I might become irrational and lose my train of thought and look foolish in the eyes of others. But that night last June was different. My rage felt pure and holy, like a welcome gift from God.

I deliberately fed my anger by slowly imagining the horrid details of a trusted young priest violating an innocent child in her own bedroom. I pictured the blasphemy of his whispering in her ears as he abused her that she is pleasing God and will go to hell if she ever tells anyone. I felt her pain and terror as she prayed desperately for her parents to come into the room and stop him. I let my disgust seethe as I imagined the hypocrisy of a bishop, sitting securely in his wood-paneled office, a golden chain hanging vertically across his black vest with the attached image of Jesus crucified hidden in an inside pocket, listening to lawyers advise him on how to protect the financial assets of his diocese. In my blood I could feel the heat of God’s wrath at Israel’s ancient leaders when they betrayed the people they were anointed to serve.

I remembered Jesus driving the animal merchants and moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem. He had gone to the temple to worship his Father at Passover. He undoubtedly expected to exchange secular money for temple coins to purchase an animal to sacrifice in worship. But when he discovered that the religious leaders had allowed the moneychangers and animal merchants to make a marketplace of the temple area, he became violent. Jesus quickly made a crude whip from flax and lashed out at the offenders. He drove them and the animals from the temple area. He overturned the moneychangers’ tables, scattering coins across the floor. Luke 19:46 says he screamed at them: “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” The disciples were astounded at his zeal for the temple. I pictured Jesus similarly reprimanding the American bishops in Dallas: “My house of prayer! You have let it become a den of sexual predators!”

Cleansing the temple was not the first time Jesus’ emotions moved him to act for others. Earlier, in Galilee, he observed the people abandoned in their spiritual needs by the religious leaders, like sheep without a shepherd. His compassion for them moved him to teach them about the Father and to proclaim God’s enduring love for them. At other times, seeing a leper or a mother grieving for her dead son moved him to heal illness and to restore life. One day, in a deserted place where he was teaching, he realized his listeners were hungry. The sight moved him to feed more than 4,000 people.

God’s words through the prophet Ezekiel likely stirred Jesus’ emotions. “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. … Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally”(Ezekiel 34:1-4). Now, seeing what the neglect of the religious leaders had done to the holy temple where the people came to offer sacrifice to God, Jesus’ anger moved him to begin restoring God’s house.

Anger in Christ’s body

The anger that moved Jesus to protest the failures of the religious leaders to maintain a true house of worship for God’s people continues to move Jesus’ risen body today. You can feel the divine outrage in public demonstrations, talk shows, letters to the editor in newspapers -- wherever American Roman Catholics protest the sinful and criminal behavior of bishops and priests who have served their own needs to the harm of their people.

This anger in Christ’s body has finally shaken bishops out of their indifference to the suffering that clerical sexual abuse of the young has caused their flock. It led them to approve a policy in Dallas intended, in the words of Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “to end the scourge of sexual abuse within the Catholic church in America.” This anger will now be necessary to move the whole body of Christ -- bishops and priests, laity and religious -- to rebuild God’s house in the United States, so badly damaged by the neglect of the clerical system.

There is much work to do. In fact, as Gregory candidly reminded the national media at the Dallas meeting, much has been done since 1985 when NCR published Jason Berry’s investigative reporting on the alarming extent of clerical sexual abuse in the United States. Some dioceses have already enacted and enforced sexual abuse policies for clergy and church personnel. The understanding and treatment of pedophilia have grown within church. Seminaries have tightened their screening procedures and promoted programs for healthy sexual development. But many other issues remain to be faced.

The national policy passed in Dallas must be continually refined until it reassures parents that their children are safe in Catholic institutions and guarantees due process and the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration to church ministry for those accused of sexual misconduct. Bishops, too, must be held accountable for their actions that have protected criminal behavior in their dioceses.

We must honestly reevaluate mandatory celibacy as a requirement for priestly ordination in the Roman rite. Has it indeed fostered a pedophile subculture in the American Catholic priesthood? Does it really ensure the best pastoral care of God’s people?

We have to look openly at homosexuality in the priesthood. We must recognize and affirm celibate homosexual bishops and priests and their faithful and effective ministry in the church; at the same time, we must examine to what extent the gay subculture in the American Catholic priesthood contributed to the present pedophilia crisis.

We must continue to remove the abuses of clericalism -- privilege, exemption, secrecy, a cushy lifestyle, the exclusion of women -- so that the person of Jesus might be more visible in the everyday lives of bishops and priests. And we all, but especially bishops and priests, must rededicate ourselves to answering Jesus’ call to holiness by living daily in union with his life, passion, death and resurrection.

Energy for church reform

Will our anger give us the strength necessary to tackle these and other complex and interrelated issues arising from the pedophilia crisis as we rebuild the church in this country? It will if we have the courage to imagine a different kind of church.

If our imagination enables us to realize the horror of the blasphemous and hypocritical behavior of some priests and bishops, so it can also point us in the direction of needed church reform. For example, we have been conditioned for centuries to see the Roman Catholic presbyterate only as male, celibate and clerical, with mandatory celibacy as the essential entrance requirement. But imagine a Roman Catholic priesthood that is open to all God’s people -- men and women, single and married, gay and straight -- whose conditions for entry are a chaste Christian life, a spirituality centered in Jesus’ paschal mystery, and an established competency for serving God’s people in teaching, preaching, healing and worship. Would this presbyterate be immune from sin and crime? No. Would it provide new possibilities for a church more responsive to people’s deepest needs? I think so.

Our emotions are another source of energy for church renewal. Unfortunately, many current spiritualities regard strong emotion -- fear, joy, anger, sadness, hope, pity -- as obstacles to spiritual growth. Jesus exemplifies the opposite. His emotions moved him to fulfill his vocation as Yahweh’s faithful servant to an abandoned and neglected people -- teaching, preaching, healing, exorcising, building community, celebrating life, even purifying the temple. Our emotions, too -- our rage as well as our compassion -- are sacred. They are God’s gifts that enable us, the risen body of Jesus, to continue his work on earth, especially rebuilding his church.

Kevin Culligan is a Discalced Carmelite friar who writes from the Edith Stein House of Studies in Chicago. A priest and licensed psychologist, he was formerly both formation director and provincial for his religious community. Currently he coordinates ministry planning for the order’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Province.

National Catholic Reporter, September 13, 2002