Click here if you don’t see subscription options

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.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Nancy Dallavalle
12 years 11 months ago

Thanks for these observations. If you click on my name below, you'll see that I have some similar insights on this parable posted on my blog.

And, while I would not presume to tell you what to do, this humble blogger would like to encourage you to offer the insights you've posted in this space from the pulpit, for all of us for whom that is not, and may never be, a possibility.

In Christ,

Joseph Farrell
12 years 11 months ago
Yes, it is a bit provacative to suggest that Christ missed an opportunity by giving us an incomplete parable.
Molly Roach
12 years 11 months ago
It's a sign of how far things have gone awry that the men are pulling out of their hats the notion that the presence of women might have made a difference.  It's too bloody late for this.   Back in 1977, when I felt a strong attraction to priestly ministry, I remember walking out of a Sunday Mass at Villanova university when the following thought struck me like a thunderbolt-and it was about as welcome as a thunderbolt.  The thought was, Men will ruin the priesthood before they will let women be ordained.   I was horrified at this, hated it, wrestled against it.  All for nought: men, by their abuse, their silence about and/or complicity with the sexual abuse of children have trashed the priesthood.  You're welcome to it boys.  I can't think of one bishop I would make a promise of obedience to.  There is no evidence of judgement in this generation of bishops.
michael iwanowicz
12 years 11 months ago
Fr. Clooney,

I think you should include the 'revised' Lukan parable in your homily on Sunday. I'll be listening.

Carolyn Disco
12 years 11 months ago
If by some wondrous, wondrous miracle, Fr. Clooney or someone like him, ever did from the altar
''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 ... listen, ...(and) share with women the power to make the changes needed in a time of crisis''
then after recovering from the shock that I did hear what I just heard, I would stand and applaud, and stay standing until either the majority of the congregation joined me in thunderous acclaim, or the ushers escorted me out.
Devon Zenu
12 years 11 months ago
Interestingly, L'Osservatore Romano ran an article the other day advocating exactly what you are talking about (although they did not connect it to Luke 15).
Rocco has the translation:
12 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Fr. Clooney, for your shared insight about the role women so sadly are not playing in our Church. Ironic, isn't it, that we name this Church Mother Church but fail to embrace her maternity unlike Christ who longed to be for us the protective Mother Hen.
Once on the Marian Feast of the Assumption as I listened at Mass to the haunting hymn "Gentle Woman, " I was struck by the words, "Teach us wisdom. Teach us love." What impressed itself upon my spirit was Mary's sadness that this wisdom and love were going unheard in a Church which ignores the voices of her mothers and daughters.
It seems this recognition is only now being given voice as not just the local churches but the Church Universal is found wanting in the feminine virtues  and grounding that might have checked male clerical excesses that led to clerical abuses of power and authority. One wonders. What might a woman have saved if, injected into the Gospel story Fr. Clooney references, she was allowed to have influenced the Father's prodigality and the Son's excesses and waste? Would we then have a new Gospel story with the Prudent Mother its wise and loving heroine?
12 years 11 months ago
Thanks, Fr. Clooney - a good post for Mothering Sunday  :)
michael iwanowicz
12 years 11 months ago
Indeed, Fr. Clooney preached on the Lukan Gospel (Chapter 15 - the 'Lost and Found Section'). He offered two approaches to an understanding of the text - adhering strictly to the story with its positive message of reconciliation and hope balanced with a probing into the omissions about the family life of the father/sons.

There is always more to the story than we at first comprehend.

12 years 11 months ago
Great insight into the Gospel and its application to the sexual abuse scandal is so true.  We know that women religious also abused children.  However, the greater majority didn't.  I have always believed that the sexual abuse of children would not have been so widespread if women had equal power as men in church decisions.  It is also true that a married clergy would not have allowed children to be abused, since married men and women would have understood the effect it could have on their children and others’.  Molly Roach’s comments about the bishops are very accurate.  The present generation of bishops is unworthy of any trust.  Many of our present day bishops were the middlemen (read: chancellors, vicars general, and vicars of priests) who co-operated with enabling bishops in covering up for abusive priests.   
If women had equal power in the church, they could not possibly mess things up any worse than we men have!
Mark Sheriff
12 years 11 months ago
Fr. Clooney,

I'm sure God is quite relieved that he has you to correct His gospel for Him!
Jim McCrea
12 years 11 months ago
"I'm sure God is quite relieved that he has you to correct His gospel for Him!"
If you can prove that this gospel is presented to us in the manner, shape or form that God intended, I might accept your remark.
Good luck on that!

The latest from america

Richard Nixon called McLaughlin one of the only good Jesuits among “all-out, barn-burning radicals” in a conversation with Billy Graham.
James T. KeaneFebruary 07, 2023
A public policy solution to homelessness may sound good but actually make the problem worse. Who pays for that mistake? (iStock/Dejan Marjanovic)
Anyone involved in choosing public policy, directly or indirectly, must consider the possibility that the wrong option will actually make a problem worse.
Mark PiperFebruary 07, 2023
This week on The Gloria Purvis Podcast, Gloria speaks with Dr. Meg Chisolm, a Catholic psychiatrist, about mental illness and how should people of faith treat it.
The Gloria Purvis PodcastFebruary 07, 2023
A man wearing a cardinals cap speaks into a microphone
In the report made public Friday, Bishop Robert McManus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester said he felt releasing the names “will not accurately reflect the various concerns and outcomes.”