True Reform Will Come — If You and I Remain Steadfast

As the U.S. Bishops’ June meeting draws near, it’s time for faithful Catholics to regain our focus

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Triumph of the Church over Fury, Discord and Hatred,” 1625
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Triumph of the Church over Fury, Discord and Hatred,” 1625 (photo: Public Domain)

Bishop Robert Barron recently published Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis. It is an excellent book — a meditation, really. It gives a sobering summary of the sexual-abuse crisis and a historical perspective and offers encouragement to believers in the aftermath of the recent and horrific events.

It also comes at an opportune time. I say this because my concerns that the issue would eventually fade from the focus of Catholics have largely come to pass. Mention of the topic is somewhat rare lately, and mentioned more often in passing. This is problematic for at least two reasons.

First, our diverted attention is precisely what the evil one desires and uses. True reform is going to happen only if we remain steadfast and insist upon it. Bishop Barron calls attention to something that I have also suspected — namely, that this crisis is more devious than clerical malfeasance, cover-up and mismanagement. It is far more: It is diabolical. Bishop Barron, an auxiliary of Los Angeles, writes:

When I was going through the seminary, it was fashionable to conceive of the devil as a symbol for the evil in the world, a sort of colorful literary device. But the storm of wickedness that has compromised the work of the Church in every way and that has left countless lives in ruins is just too ingenious to have been the result of impersonal forces alone or merely human contrivance. It seems so thoroughly thought through, so comprehensively intentional. Certainly, in the ordinary run of history, bad things happen, but this scandal is just too exquisitely designed.

Yes, it is a Satanic attack, coordinated and cunning. To be sure, neither Bishop Barron nor I would deny human and clerical connivance. There has been a dreadful lack of moral teaching and resolve from our bishops and priests, horrifying misbehavior and a strange reticence to confront an obvious homosexual subculture among many clergy. Bishop Barron spends a whole chapter detailing the frightful lack of moral leadership in the Church from our times going all the way back to biblical times. But this current corruption is so worldwide, and so present at every level of the clergy, and so widespread in its damage, that no mere human cause — or even a collection of human causes — can simply explain it. Add to this the huge falling away of the faithful from the practice of the faith and the astonishing and careless dissent of many bishops (and even bishops’ conferences) over the central teachings on marriage, family and sexuality.

Simply put, we are under attack, and this is no time for Catholics to allow their attention to drift from this crisis. We have to stay sober-minded. We have to pray and insist on reform as never before. Nothing would delight Satan more than to have us distracted by other things.

I am mindful of a critical moment in the life of Our Lord. It was at the Last Supper, and Our Lord announced a horrifying thing: “One of you will betray me.” The attention of all Twelve Apostles was riveted on the Lord. “Who is it, Lord?” But no sooner were the words out of their mouths than they diverted their attention to a foolish debate about which of them was the greatest (see Luke 22:24). It was in the context of this debate and distraction that Judas was able to slip away unhindered. Later that evening the Lord asked Peter, James and John to stay awake and pray with him. But they dozed off. Consider that the pivotal battle between good and evil, light and darkness is about to unfold, and the leaders of the Church are sound asleep.

At this moment, fellow Catholics, we cannot allow ourselves to be diverted or distracted. We must stay awake, pray, fast and abstain. We must be sober-minded and continue to insist on reform. We are under attack — Satanic attack. All the devil needs is for us to be distracted and diverted. This is a critical moment for us to do so, and it leads to the next point.

A second reason that our dismissed attention is troublesome is that this is now a critical hour when substantial reforms will either sink or swim. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is set to meet in general assembly June 11-14. This meeting takes place in the wake of the release by Pope Francis of the motu proprio Vos Estis Lux Mundi. At the June meeting, our bishops will discuss these new norms and laws. Catholics will do well to be attentive and insist on the application of the new norms in a prompt and orderly way.

In fact, the motu proprio is surprisingly thorough and has some very vigorous norms and binding precepts. Many of us were angered at the Vatican intervention at the November meeting of the USCCB. We were also discouraged at the February summit, which seemed so incomplete and uncertain in its outcome. But the motu proprio goes a long way to address our wider concerns of protecting not only minors but also adults in subordinate or vulnerable positions. It also mandates procedures to help people report abuses and requires policies to follow up swiftly.

From the Holy See Press Office, here is a brief summary of key points:

  • Every diocese in the world is to set up, by June 2020, “one or more public, stable and easily accessible systems for submission of reports” concerning sexual abuse committed by clerics and religious, the use of child pornography and cover-ups of the same abuse. Hence, anyone who has suffered abuse can have recourse to the local Church and be assured they will be well-received, protected from retaliation, and that their reports will be treated with the utmost seriousness.
  • All clerics, and all men and women religious, are bound by precept to “report promptly” all accusations of abuse of which they become aware, as well as any omissions and cover-ups in the management of cases of abuse, to ecclesiastical authorities. This was formerly left up to individual consciences, but now becomes a universally established legal precept. 
  • The document covers not only violence and abuse against minors, but also vulnerable adults, and those in subordinate relationships who are harassed or abused by those in authority over them. This includes cases of violence against religious by clerics, as well as abuse committed against adult seminarians or novices.
  • The norms stress the important contribution of the laity and indicate that the diocese, or metropolitan (in the case of an investigation of a bishop), can seek the help of “qualified persons,” according to “the needs of the individual case and, in particular, taking into account the cooperation that can be offered by the lay faithful.” Bishops’ conferences and dioceses may prepare lists of qualified persons willing to collaborate, but the ultimate responsibility for investigations remains with the metropolitan.

The USCCB meeting that is swiftly approaching is a critical moment, and Catholics everywhere should ask and insist that our bishops move decisively toward enacting these norms and precepts. While I think the bishops will be supportive, at least collectively, we ought not to forget that it has been the focus of the faithful, in their righteous anger, that has moved things this far.

Stay focused, fellow Catholics. Let your bishop know that it is important to you that they attend to the tasks laid out in the motu proprio and that it is an essential step in the long road to rebuilding credibility. There may also be additional provisions unique to the American experience that also need consideration.

At the end of his book, Bishop Barron issues a similar call to stay focused and urgent. He speaks of “the fight.” Recall that this is not merely some fight against resistant or somnolent bishops — it is really a fight against Satan and his cunning attack on the Church. We need to stay engaged in the battle. Bishop Barron writes:

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.

But above all, fight by your very holiness of life; fight by becoming the saint that God wants you to be; fight by encouraging a decent young man to become a priest; fight by doing a Holy Hour every day for the sanctification of the Church; fight by coming to Mass regularly; fight by evangelizing; fight by doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

So the battle is still engaged. Fight on. Continue to insist on real reforms. As the USCCB June conference draws near, I pray that fellow Catholics — to include journalists, bloggers and all the faithful — will pray, fast, speak out and insist on the structural changes required to protect all of God’s faithful from sexual predation of any sort and to prevent the kind of cover-up and refusal to confront a sinful problem that has festered too long.

Stay focused; be sober-minded and alert!

Bishop Robert Barron’s Book is available here.

Edward Reginald Frampton, “The Voyage of St. Brendan,” 1908, Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin.

Which Way Is Heaven?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s mystic west was inspired by the legendary voyage of St. Brendan, who sailed on a quest for a Paradise in the midst and mists of the ocean.