Saturday, March 13, 2010

An Offering of Ashes

If the current climate in the Church says anything,
it’s that the gates of hell have prevailed for a long, long time.
It’s time Catholics took Jesus out of the confines of the
clerical tabernacle and reclaimed our baptismal rights
by exercising our baptismal responsibilities - like adults.

– Colleen Kochivar-Baker
Enlightened Catholicism
March 12, 2010

At Mass this evening, as we sung the Tom Conry-penned hymn “Ashes,” I couldn’t help but think of the terrible state of the Church - in particular, the clergy sex abuse scandal.

We rise again from ashes,
from the good we’ve failed to do.
We rise again from ashes,
to create ourselves anew.
If all our world is ashes,
then must our lives be true,
An offering of ashes,
An offering to You.

I see the “ashes” in this hymn as symbolic of the devastation and pain that individuals and institutions inflict on themselves and others whenever they fail to live up to the Gospel call of compassion and justice. Without doubt, and in many ways, the clergy sex abuse scandal signifies just such a failure on the part of the clerical leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. And, yes, that includes Pope Benedict XVI, as the following highlight.

ABC News, 2005.

Note: The reporter who is slapped by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the above video was inquiring about details described in this 2005 article by The Guardian of London.

More recently . . .

A widening child sexual abuse inquiry in Europe has landed at the doorstep of Pope Benedict XVI, as a senior church official acknowledged Friday that a German archdiocese made “serious mistakes” in handling an abuse case while the pope served as its archbishop.

The archdiocese said that a priest accused of molesting boys was given therapy in 1980 and later allowed to resume pastoral duties, before committing further abuses and being prosecuted. Pope Benedict, who at the time headed the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, approved the priest’s transfer for therapy. A subordinate took full responsibility for allowing the priest to later resume pastoral work, the archdiocese said in a statement.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he had no comment beyond the statement by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, which he said showed the “non-responsibility” of the pope in the matter.

The expanding abuse inquiry had come ever closer to Benedict as new accusations in Germany surfaced almost daily since the first reports in January. . . .

The New York Times
March 12, 2010

The Pope was drawn directly into the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal last night as news emerged of his part in a decision to send a paedophile priest for therapy. The cleric went on to reoffend and was convicted of child abuse but continues to work as a priest in Upper Bavaria.

The priest was sent from Essen to Munich for therapy in 1980 when he was accused of forcing an 11-year-old boy to perform oral sex. The archdiocese confirmed that the Pope, who was then a cardinal, had approved a decision to accommodate the priest in a rectory while the therapy took place.

The priest, identified only as H, was subsequently convicted of sexually abusing minors after he was moved to pastoral work in nearby Grafing. In 1986 he was given an 18-month suspended jail sentence and fined DM 4,000 (£1,800 today). There have been no formal charges against him since.

London Times
March 13, 2010

The Vatican rallied around Pope Benedict Saturday, dismissing suggestions he had tried to cover up priestly child abuse in Germany.

“It’s rather clear that in recent days there have been people who have searched - with notable tenacity in Regensburg and Munich - for elements to personally involve the Holy Father in the question of the abuses,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio.

“To any objective observer, it’s clear that these attempts have failed.”

March 13, 2010

As I continue to reflect upon the words of “Ashes” in light of all of the above, I find myself wondering what it will take for the clerical leadership of the Church to acknowledge the actual extent of its role in the horrendous crime that is the clergy sex abuse scandal. It’s a role that has clearly seen individuals and elements within this leadership enable and cover-up (again and again) the actions of perpetrators.

How can any of us “rise again from ashes,” from the harm and pain we’ve caused, when we can’t even acknowledge the full extent of our wrongdoing?

How can our Church be reformed and renewed if its office holders consistently fail to take responsibility for the ways that individuals, institutions, attitudes, and structures enabled and perpetuated the sexual abuse of children, young people, and even adults?

A fellow Catholic blogger recently took umbrage at my previous post, “The Roman Catholic Pyramid is Crumbling.” He apparently thinks it’s a lie; that there’s nothing wrong with the clerical leadership, and that therefore no reform is necessary. After all, he reminds us, “the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church.”

Of course, he’s reducing “the Church” to the Vatican, to that clerical caste system modeled on the structures of imperial power - relative, I should add, to a specific time and place. Many recognize that these structures - and the attitudes and practices that underlie them - have
over the centuries contributed greatly to not only the scandal of sexual abuse, but to other issues of injustice and abuse within the Church (the treatment of women and gay people, for instance). No, ultimately, evil will not triumph. But as Colleen Kochivar-Baker notes (and as David LaChapelle’s disturbing opening image symbolically conveys), “If the current climate in the Church says anything, it’s that the gates of hell have prevailed for a long, long time.”

Yet it’s important to remember what Colleen goes on to say, and what it was that I presented as the main point in my previous post: This great and terrible crisis can and should serve as an opportunity for much-needed reform and renewal of our Church - at all levels. And such reform and renewal means we all need to start thinking and acting like adults.

I have little time for those who express the opinion that there are some levels of the Church beyond reproach (and thus potential reform). That’s not as “adult” way of thinking about our Church. Furthermore, and more disturbingly, viewing certain institutions and people as if they can do no wrong, turns them into idols - a sure sign that the “gates of Hell” have prevailed.

I think a more Christ-centered way of responding when we find ourselves in the midst of the devastation and pain brought about by our failures, mistakes, missteps, and sins, is to turn back to our loving God; acknowledge our limitations and failings; seek to comfort, compensate, and heal those afflicted by such failings; and do our utmost to identify and change those things - be they attitudes, structures, or practices - that lend themselves to the dynamics of domination, dehumanization, and abuse.

All of which reminds me of Rosemary Radford Ruether’s powerful articulation of the mission of the Church, from her book Catholic Does Not Equal the Vatican.

The mission of the church is to follow Christ in proclaiming the good news, to be the place where truth is told, where the unseeing have their eyes opened to reality, and where oppression and injustice are overcome and a reign of peace and justice is established among humans and with the earth. The church’s mission is to be a community of liberation, a redemptive community where one has a taste of what the world would be like if all forms of evil were overcome. This mission can never be complete and final within the finite conditions of history, but the church must be a place where humanity is moving in the direction of redeemed and redemptive living. Above all, the church should not be a place where new evils are constructed, perpetuated, and justified.

We offer You our failures,
we offer You attempts;
The gifts not fully given,
the dreams not fully dreamt.
Give our stumblings direction,
give our visions wider view,
An offering of ashes,
An offering to You.

Then rise again from ashes,
let healing come to pain;
Though spring has turned to winter,
and sunshine turned to rain.
The rain we’ll use for growing,
and create the world anew,
From an offering of ashes,
An offering to You.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Roman Catholic Pyramid is Crumbling
Rome Falling
Eugene Kennedy on Roman Catholicism’s “Post-Hierarchical Blues”
The Holarichal Church: Not a Pyramid but a Web of Relationships
It’s a Great Time to Be Catholic


Mareczku said...

I think the Pope may be slowly getting the message. I think at this point priests are going to be told if they misbehave that they will be turned over to the authorities. Already, many priests are being defrocked, something that was rare in the past. I wonder what makes Cardinal Law so special that he was criminally negligent and enabled predator priests to abuse even more innocent young people and still he ends up with a high position in the Vatican. Have they bought his silence?

kevin57 said...

Mareczku, the point is not about priests being turned over to authorities. Priests have been thrown under the bus in this whole scandal. Not one bishop, save Cardinal Law, resigned over protecting and even enabling these troubled and perhaps twisted souls. Where was the accountability there?

colkoch said...

There had to have been a deal worked out between Bernie Law and the Vatican. Bernie must have held the better cards.

Kevin, I'm not sure the intent is to throw priests under the bus. The intent is to throw our notions of priestly and hierarchical constructs under the bus. Those contructs have demonstrably failed the laity both in general and in specifics. The price for a spiritually elite parental priesthood is a spiritually stunted child laity. It's too high a price and in many respects antithetical to what Jesus actually taught.

Mareczku said...

Kevin, one gets the impression that Cardinal Law and others are not being held accountable because they were just following orders. It seems that according to the Vatican, Cardinal Law and the bishops were "loyal" so if some kids got hurt, so what? They slowly seem to be seeing a little light but it sure is taking a long time.

Anonymous said...

I'll forgo comment on the sexual abuse issues as I think we all can agree on its devastation.

Two points that bother me though...First, the quote from Colleen Kochivar-Baker. Did she really say that the gates of hell have prevailed against the Church? So, then, Jesus lied to the Apostles? A statement like that would, I belive, constitute outright heresy.

Second, the song "Ashes" just makes me shake my head...especially the Pelagian lyric of "we create ourselves anew". Um, no, WE don't create ourselves anew...God does, through His Son Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Michael J. Bayly said...


Thanks for sharing your concerns.

I think I address the first one in the body of my post.

As to the second, I guess I've always assumed that "We create ourselves anew" means working with God. I don't see it as saying or implying that we're mini-gods.

I mean, can God work through and with us without first our response to his call/invitation? Are we not, on some level, active participants with God in transforming ourselves and our world?

I think our role in "creating ourselves anew" is our turning and opening ourselves to God and allowing God's love to touch and transform us.



crystal said...

Good post. I have this awful feeling that even with the pope being at least somewhat involved in moving bad priests around and counseling obstruction, that nothing will change and no one of substance will be held accountable. The church hierarchy really seem to be the untouchables :(

brian gerard said...

Great post Michael

Where is the picture from It is amazing