The Abuse Crisis, Prodigal Sons — and the Missing Mother
Cambridge, MA. Saturday, March 13. As you know, I generally leave to others the hottest issues of the day, preferring to offer for your reflections comments on less noticed topics that captivate me at least, most recently the relevance of the medieval Hindu poet saints Antal and Tirumalisai Piran to Catholic piety and spiritual theology. But as you also know, I preach most Sundays, and keep more or less current on what is going on in the Church and world. So I was struck, on this very rainy Saturday afternoon, by a coincidence that is either irrelevant, or actually very illuminating: on the one side, the latest headlines about sex abuse cases now surfacing in the Church in Germany, even Munich; on the other, this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke 15.11-32, the story famously known as the “Prodigal Son” Gospel.
The latest abuse headlines seem to be pointing up the same issues that arose in the United States and Ireland, and will surely arise elsewhere: horrific instances of the abuse of children by priests, and repugnant serial crimes by repeat abusers, crimes once-too-often covered over by neglectful or careless or naïve superiors in the Church; our general awareness that in 2010 we are far more sensitized to the obligation to face up to the abusers directly and not neglect to protect the innocent, but that this new awareness, however tinged with deep regret, does not entirely excuse crimes and cover-ups committed even decades ago; the ever returning debate over sexual orientation as a factor (or not) in such crimes, and as a factor, acknowledged or not, in clerical culture; the debate about whether we’d be better off giving priests the option to marry; the debate over accountability at even the highest levels of the Church. The media is doing its job and more revelations will follow in Germany and elsewhere, but the media can also be sensationalist and at times hostile to the Church. All of these things recur over and again, even if we need to keep refining how we talk about them.
And the Gospel? Perhaps you expect my point to be that the Prodigal Son Gospel gives us the opportunity to reflect on sin, tragic loss of dignity and direction in life — and yet too the possibility of repentance, change of life, and forgiveness. All this is true: at every level of the abuse scandal, there are sinners in desperate need of a change of life and of hope that forgiveness is possible, there are people who have suffered and been wronged who are nonetheless astonishingly willing to allow God’s grace to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation, and there are some of us who refuse to forgive or to believe that sinners can repent. All this is true, even if we have to be careful not to make things worse by clumsy allegories, as if to say: In the abuse scandal, the prodigal son is a) the abuser and/or b) the neglectful or clueless superior; the loving father who forgives is a) others in the Church and/or b) those who had been victimized; the older brother is a) everyone of us who judges from afar and refuses to forgive because we are burdened by our own self-righteousness, and/or b) those who are so embittered that they cannot imagine joy in the Church ever again.
But as the title of this piece suggests, I have another point in mind: Luke 15 is just a parable, and parables need not be comprehensive — but in this Gospel, where is the mother? missing? in the kitchen? watching but not speaking? are there no sisters to these brothers? and doesn’t it matter whether these women exist or not? For worthy rhetorical purposes, Luke puts before us a very limited group, a father and two sons, but in 2010 (and as scholars and preachers have been noticing for decades if not longer) we can wonder whether the whole situation wouldn’t have been better off had the mother been present — to get the prodigal’s mind off the inheritance, to remind him that home is not merely an economic thing, to tell the father that the family’s wealth is not merely his to give away, and to work in advance, before the crisis, to get the brothers to be a bit more sensitive and forgiving — along with their sisters. Surely every defender of family values will agree that all three men would have been better off if the women were noticed, present, and speaking: “A man had two sons. But he also had a wife, and she was the mother of their sons and daughters. One day the younger son came to his parents seeking his share of the wealth that he, his brother, and sisters shared…”
And so (at long last) to my point: in the midst of this abuse crisis and all its ramifications for our thinking about sexuality and power, the priesthood and hierarchy, forgiveness and accountability in the Church — in the midst of all this, we will be far better off if women — mothers, sisters, daughters — have a full and active role in correcting and healing the Church. Yes, of course, even now there would be not much of a Church at all were it not for the energy, love, and wisdom of so many women. But read the media accounts: almost all the abusers are men, the rectors and bishops are men, the Vatican spokesman is a man — as if we can work all this out among ourselves.
If we can leave aside the issue of women’s ordination as a separable issue — we really can, for the moment — we still need to see the blindingly obvious point that we men are not doing a great job in governing the Church on our own, particularly when crises such as sexual abuse reveal in so raw and terrible a fashion the dangers of power, lust, and selfishness in a Church that speaks widely and boldly about sexuality, has deep problems with it, and also largely excludes women from roles of real leadership, voice, collaboration, even in times of dire need.
As in (my revised vision of) Luke 15, it would be SO refreshing if all the men involved in responding to the abuse crisis would just stop talking and stop making (good and bad) decisions on their own, and ask women — our mothers, sisters, daughters — what they think we should be doing in our search for true honesty, forgiveness, reconciliation, power transformed into service, in a better Church. And we can do more than listen, we can even share with women the power to make the changes needed in a time of crisis.
Come on, guys - we can do better if we are not on our own.
Added comment/s based on your comments: 1. Read Nancy Dallavalle's blog on this topic. (Prof. Dallavalle is Chair of Religious Studies at Fairfield University). 2. Check out the remarkable article in L'Osservatore Romano recommended by David Tenney - I didn't know of it when I wrote my piece! 3. Mr Farrell: Quite right, in an absolute sense we cannot improve upon the words of Jesus in any way, but I do think we can receive them, and hear them differently in light of the issues confronting us today: we retell the parable for our time. 4. As Deacon Mike Iwanowicz can testify, I did bring the theme of the 'missing mother' into my homily today, but did not develop it explicitly in the way I did in this blog. Thanks to everyone for your comments! FXC
Francis X. Clooney, S.J.