Bishop Barron to a Suffering Church: The Church’s Reformation Depends on You Becoming a Saint

The Los Angeles auxiliary bishops discusses his new book on the sex-abuse scandal, Letter to a Suffering Church, with the Register.

Bishop Robert Barron
Bishop Robert Barron (photo: Word on Fire media handout)

LOS ANGELES — While debates continue about how to address the Church’s governance and policies with regard to sexual and financial abuse, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles brings into focus the spiritual dimension of the scandal with his new book, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis. He identifies that the Church’s downfall in the present crisis is nothing short of a “diabolical masterpiece.”

But as Bishop Barron discusses in this interview with the Register, the way Catholics must fight the devil and his slaves in the Church, as both revealed in the Bible and the lives of the Church’s saints, is to recommit themselves to the call to holiness, following Jesus Christ and fighting for his Church.

You wrote this book, Letter to a Suffering Church, before the bishops’ conference meeting in June. Does your experience at that meeting change your effect any or even bear out the observations that you made in the book?

There was a lot more energy, passion and rancor at the November bishops’ meeting, but by the time we got to June, people were saying, “Good. We kind of get it. Here are three very practical, concrete things that we can do.” So I think there was this greater clarity about it. My book was less about protocols and all that — I figured we said a lot about that, which we have to. I wanted to put things in a much broader theological, biblical and spiritual perspective. So, in a way, my book, I think, it’s a context; I hope for all that, but what I said in the book wasn’t so much about what we did at the meeting.


What, in particular, prompted this book?

The purpose of the book, I would say, was really prompted by a survey I read that said that 37% of Catholics were thinking of leaving the Church because of this [sex-abuse scandal]. What prompted it, I’d say, is a desire to respond pastorally to that crisis.

As I argue, there’s never really a good reason to leave the Church. There’s good reason to protest, be angry, raise your voice and call for reforms. There’s good reason for all of that. But to absent oneself from the source of spiritual life and from Christ, I mean, there’s never a good reason for that. So I wanted to address Catholics who maybe felt tempted in that regard.


Why did you think that it was important to give Catholics angry about the sexual and financial abuse crisis and cover-up a kind of a biblical context and a spiritual context to what is going on?

Because that’s the most important interpretive lens that we have. It is not an either-or. It is never “Oh, let’s look away from practical legal and cultural issues and now look at the Bible.” The Bible is always the most encompassing perspective. So it contains the other ones. But I think as a Church our great interpretive lens is the Scripture and the theological tradition. And so if we don’t bring that to bear, we’re not seeing the thing with the clearest eyes; with the most illuminating light. So that’s what I wanted to do, because I felt it was missing a bit in the conversation. Again, that’s not to gainsay for a moment what we have been doing and the importance of that. But I just thought there is a wider, broader perspective, and the one that we know as the Church and think is the most important perspective on anything is seeing it from the standpoint of the word of God.


From what you found in Scripture, what is the Lord trying to tell us through these stories that you mention in the book?

The Hophni and Phineas and Eli story, I think, is the most accurate distant mirror of our current situation. I think we can see the dynamics of it so clearly. [Hophni and Phineas are priests in the First Book of Samuel who sexually prey on the devout women serving in the Temple. The high priest Eli, their father, admonishes them privately but takes no public disciplinary action against his sons. The Lord then vows to put an end to their evil by allowing Eli’s entire immediate family to be destroyed.] The Bible is remarkably clear-eyed about that — it sees human dysfunction and sees this particular type of it. In other words, the corruption that is religious is abuse of power and sexual abuse. It’s taking place in the temple, in the sacred place.

So, in a way, there’s nothing new about now. This has been going on for an awfully long time, and the Bible is very clear-eyed about it. It’s saying to keep reading that story, that what ensued was a disaster for Israel. So, because Eli didn’t act, the implication of the story is that Israel is punished in this remarkably brutal way. The Philistines conquer the army, they steal the Ark of the Covenant, etc. We look at our own time, where the Church has gone through a very painful period. And we read it perhaps as “God never punishes arbitrarily, but God allows us to feel sometimes the effects of our sin.” So I think we just see very clearly in that story what God does.


Do you think we’ve done enough toward real authentic healing and reconciliation? Have we really committed to the restorative justice needed to heal victims and reintegrate them in the life of the Church?

Certainly, there have been innumerable formal apologies. We paid out, now, billions of dollars. The protocols have been, I think, in place and are continuing to be in place. So all of that, I think, is very real and should never be underestimated.

Can we do more? Of course, always. As I say in the book, every one of these cases has a tremendous ripple effect throughout the Church. So, I mean, for every one young person sexually abused think of all the families and networks of relationships that are affected. So this is going to be the rest of my life, certainly — and beyond — a major preoccupation with the Church to keep healing these wounds.


What have the scandals done to our ability to share the Gospel and to witness to Jesus Christ?

They undermine it in every way. As I said, this part of my idea of the “diabolical masterpiece”: If you’re trying to think of a way to undermine the work of the Catholic Church in every way, I can’t think of a better way to do it than this. It completely and radically compromises our work at every level, which includes evangelization. I wouldn’t want to underplay that for a moment.


In your book, you identify that the vital piece of renewal, more than changes to Church structure or policy, is authentic holiness following Jesus Christ. How will men and women responding to the call to holiness be able to challenge and drive out this evil from the Church?

That seems to me the right spiritual way to approach this or any issue. What the Church is finally about is making saints — trying to cultivate friendship with God. Everything else will flow from it: If you really are friends with God, then it’ll have an impact at every level of your life. If you’re fundamentally alienated from God, then that will have a negative impact across every aspect of your life. So that is always the No. 1 focus of the Church. Again, it’s not an either-or, like “we’re just into spiritual things, not into economics and family and sexuality.” No, the spiritual encompasses all of that. So when you address the spiritual issue: “How do we become more holy people?” That will then redound to every aspect of life.


Do you think that recommitment to holiness makes people, both laity and clergy, less tolerant of the worldliness in the Church — seen in those corrupted by the love of money, love of power, love of fame, love of sex, etc. — and empowers them as faithful followers of Jesus to really risk a kind of martyrdom in order to drive this evil out of the Church?

Well, one drives out the other. Fulton Sheen talked about the expulsive power of grace. You let grace into your life, which means the divine friendship, and that grace will tend to expel all these idols and rivals [to Christ]. So you’re right: As Thomas Aquinas said, it’s wealth, pleasure, honor and power — those are the four great things that preoccupy us. And so, if you’re preoccupied first of all with the will of God, then those things will be expelled as preoccupations. So, yeah, you’re right in suggesting that’s across the whole life of the Church — not just at the highest levels of hierarchical organization, but across the whole Church. All the baptized are called to be holy people. And that means following the will of God in all things. And it’s only that renovation that will finally effect the institutional renovation that we need.


In your book you highlight examples of enormous depravity in the Church’s life, but also examples of enormous holiness. What is the message you want Catholics to take away?

Being a saint is the key to the reformation of the Church. It always has been. And every single baptized person can begin right now, this minute, to be a saint, to do the will of God. And so that’s the key to all restoration and reform. Any restoring of the life of the Church is following the divine will. And so that’s true for all the baptized.

I hope it’s clear in that book that I’m seeing with clear eyes what has gone on and how devastating it has been. But the solution has got to be something that we all do together. And if we simply fall into different camps and bicker with each other, we’re not going to solve this problem in the long run. But all of us must be recommitted to the Vatican II vision of the universal call to holiness, which reaches across all aspects of the Church’s life and of civil, economic and political life. That vision is the key to addressing this issue.

If we can find our common rootedness in Christ, and following his will, that’s the key to restoring the Church.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.