“The devil, with the cooperation of lots of people inside the leadership of the Catholic Church, has produced a masterpiece, and many, many Catholics are angry and naturally tempted to give up on the operation,” writes Auxiliary Bishop Barron of Los Angeles in this timely book published by Word on Fire, currently on preorder, with proceeds going to organizations that support abuse victims. It is intended to be used by parishes.
But even as the author acknowledges the anguish of children targeted by predators, the corruption of the priesthood, and the resulting shame felt by every Catholic, he presents a strong case for staying put to confront and overcome the rot and evil on display.
“Fight by raising your voice in protest; fight by writing a letter of complaint; fight by insisting that protocols be followed; fight by reporting offenders; fight by pursuing the guilty until they are punished; fight by refusing to be mollified by pathetic excuses,” he writes. The strong language is consistent with Bishop Barron’s prior demand, during the U.S. bishops’ 2018 fall assembly in Baltimore, for a full investigation into the alleged cover-up that allowed Theodore McCarrick to be appointed archbishop of Washington, despite his record of sexual misconduct.
But Letter to a Suffering Church is not primarily concerned with debating reforms that will be voted on at the U.S. bishops’ upcoming June meeting. Rather, this short book offers pastoral and catechetical support for Catholics who feel ambushed by the scandals and yearn for a shepherd’s wise counsel.
The book celebrates the treasures of the Catholic faith, from Scripture to the sacraments, from Christian paradox to inconvenient moral truths that we cast off at our peril.
In one of the book’s most salient passages, Bishop Barron describes the abuse crisis as the “devil’s masterpiece” precisely because it repudiates Christ’s singular and groundbreaking teaching on the respect and protection due every child — and on the need for his apostles to mold themselves to the “Divine Child” (Matthew 18:4-5; Mark 9:35).
“The central tragedy of the sexual abuse scandal is that those who were ordained to act in the very person of Christ became … obstacles to Christ,” he writes, explaining that the abuse perpetrated by a priest and covered up by a bishop damages, in some cases irrevocably, the victim-survivor’s sense of his own innate dignity as a child made in the image of God and also his relationship with the Father. These insights serve to remind the faithful that clerical predators reject Christ’s explicit teaching on the special care due innocent human life and the path of humble service in priestly life.
Letter to a Suffering Church also spotlights the Church’s timeless teaching on the gift of human sexuality and the way it can be “twisted” through sin. Bishop Barron chronicles throughout sacred Scripture how a “distorted sexuality becomes a vivid countersign of the divine.” In the Old Testament, God hands over for “purification” those who pervert sex.
And yet, God’s clear revelation in these matters did not prevent scandals in the early Church. The book notes St. Paul in 1 Corinthians admonished one community that had become notorious for its sexual immorality: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take Christ’s members and make them the members of a prostitute?” Fast-forward to the 11th century, when St. Peter Damian pens a letter to Pope Leo IX, protesting the behavior of priests engaging in sodomy. Reflecting on the painful tone of the saint’s letter, Bishop Barron writes that he senses in many Catholics today “the same righteous anger, the same spiritual frustration, the same existential sadness.”
The sordid historical references may seem out of place in a book designed to encourage the faithful to remain in the Church. But the author wants to challenge the mistaken notion that the Church has not survived such scandals before and cannot now survive an “unprecedented” abuse crisis.
Truth be told, the Church is no stranger to scandal, and yet, it has endured because of the precious treasure it carries through time and space.
“We hold this treasure in earthen vessels,” writes Bishop Barron, citing 2 Corinthians 4:7. “The treasure is the grace of Christ, the new life made available through the dying and rising of Jesus, and the vessels are the deeply flawed, fragile, and morally suspect people who have been given that grace, and are endeavoring to live that new life.” The arc of Church history reveals that there is “something good, even indestructibly good about the Mystical Body of Christ.”
In Letter to a Suffering Church this mystery is not held up as an excuse for inaction, but to point the faithful toward the right kind of action and disposition in a time of crisis.
Bishop Barron wants to sharpen the faithful’s sense of gratitude and inspire reliance on the treasure received with the waters of baptism.
We stay in the Church because “we find the claims of Catholicism both compelling and beautiful,” he writes. “We stay because the Church speaks of the Trinitarian God whose very nature is love; of Jesus the Lord, crucified and risen from the dead; of the Holy Spirit, who inspires the followers of Christ up and down the ages; of the sacraments, which convey the Christ-life to us; and of the saints, who are our friends.”
Looking ahead, this seasoned former seminary rector yearns for a renewal of the priesthood. Like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, he believes that “moral relativism, especially in matters sexual,” infected priestly formation in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and has yet to be fully excised. At the same time, he dismissed a new campaign to open up priestly ordination to women and make celibacy optional.
Such proposals have been framed as antidotes to the problems that created the abuse crisis, but Bishop Barron describes such arguments as “naïve in the extreme. … The last time I checked, all human beings are fallen, and celibate males do not have a monopoly on selfishness, stupidity, and wickedness. Rather, what is needed is a reinvigoration of the priesthood.”
He is also quick to remind the laity that the reform of the priesthood requires a deepened life of faith within Catholic families, the sanctuary for future priests.
These challenges can seem daunting, even overwhelming. But Letter to a Suffering Church affirms the truth that Christ will not abandon the Barque of Peter and that he has given his disciples everything they need to assist in the urgent mission before them. Relying on the treasure it carries in “earthen vessels,” the Church “has within herself the seeds of renewal.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is a
Register senior editor.