One of the most fascinating and startling things regarding the teaching on the Church in Matthew 18, the Ecclesial Discourse, is how much of it focuses on the nature of Christian leadership as modeled on the child and the treatment of children by the apostles, called "disciples" by Matthew. Chapter 18, one of the “five speeches that changed the world,” as Ben F. Meyer named Matthew’s discourses, spends 14 of its 35 verses discussing the need for leadership in the Church to be like a child and for children to be guarded and protected by this same leadership. It is rather remarkable when you think about it, that children should be the model for leadership and the model by which one is judged a worthy leader. It is also remarkable that this discussion should occur in the Ecclesial Discourse, which places childlikeness and the treatment of children at the heart of the Church’s mission and leadership structure.
Why do I bring this up? Once again the issue of the sexual abuse of children and the role of the Church hierarchy in maintaining or not bringing this abuse to an end has come to the fore. Recently, the Republican House majority leader in New Hampshire D. J. Bettencourt lashed out at Bishop John McCormack of New Hampshire, as Kevin Clarke wrote in America,
“Mocking the bishop's comment that the budget was a moral concern because "the vulnerable take priority in any society," Bettencourt, a Catholic, wrote, "Would the Bishop like to discuss his history of protecting the 'vulnerable'? This man is a pedophile pimp who should have been led away from the State House in handcuffs with a rain coat over his head in disgrace. He has absolutely no moral credibility to lecture anyone.”
From within the Church comes the report by Fr. Jim Martin on the admission of the Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin in a lecture at Marquette University that,
“Without wishing to be unduly harsh, I feel that I can honestly say that with perhaps two exceptions I have not encountered a real and unconditional admission of guilt and responsibility on the part of priest offenders in my diocese. Survivors have repeatedly told me that one of the greatest insults and hurts they have experienced is to see the lack of real remorse on the part of offenders even when they plead guilty in court. It is very hard to speak of meaningful forgiveness of an offender when the offender refuses to recognise the facts and the full significance of the facts.”
There are so many issues at play in these comments and the fuller discussions of them in the articles and in the readers’ comments. Was Bettencourt imprudent in his use of language? Do Bishops who have failed in protecting children from sexual abuse forfeit their moral authority in all other areas? What if Bishops have not been found guilty of any crime with respect to sexual abuse, though they might be considered morally culpable, do they still maintain their moral authority to speak out on other issues? Are Jesus’ comments on the Pharisees a good comparison for how we ought to consider the words and actions of the offending Priests and Bishops? What of forgiveness? What role should that play in the restoration of offenders or their enablers? Is the problem that we unjustly accuse the hierarchy or that the hierarchy has not modeled the leadership Jesus set for them?
In the comments for both of these articles linked to above, passages from the Bible have been utilized and, it seems to me, usually fairly and reasonably. Commenters on both articles have pointed to passages which seem to support a particular position, such as Juan Lino Lopez, who states that “While Jesus did rail against the hypocrites of his day, let’s not forget that He also said: "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you — but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:1-2). Or Chris Sullivan, who writes, "Interesting in the light of the recent Sunday gospel passage where Jesus sends the Samaritan women, a known public sinner, back to evangelize her entire village. If we are not going to listen to our pope, bishops, and priests just because they are all sinners like the rest of us, then what we're really doing is allowing human sinfulness to keep us from hearing Christ.” These two comments draw on Jesus’ model of forgiveness of sinners and, in the case of the Pharisees, the proper role that even those who are not perfect have in expounding Torah, even if they do not, Jesus says, practice what they preach. There are clearly lines of continuity with these passages and current Catholic leadership, but there are also lines of discontinuity. The Samaritan woman has repented, is forgiven and is sent out to evangelize, but she is not a successor to an apostle nor do we know whether her behavior was a scandal to the community or whether she left numerous victims hungry for forgiveness. Likewise, the Pharisees, authorities with respect to the Mosaic Law and teachers of it, whose authority Jesus acknowledges, are not successors to the apostles and it is their teaching which Jesus has come to fulfill and whose righteousness the follower of Jesus is asked to go beyond. Hypocrisy ought not be a mark of divine teaching amongst Jesus' followers:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
That is, the follower of Jesus, let alone the apostles, or successors to the apostles, are being called to a higher standard: "whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." This is made abundantly clear in the Sermon on the Mount which follows: Jesus paints a picture of morality in the new order as one that transcends the merely acceptable and conventional to one in which the disciple must strain every sinew to meet the standards of the Kingdom. As Archbishop Martin says, “I still cannot accept a situation that no-one need assume accountability in the face of the terrible damage that was done to children in the Church of Christ in Dublin and in the face of how that damage was addressed. The responses seemed to be saying that it was all due to others or at most it was due to some sort of systems fault in the diocesan administration.”
The Archbishop goes on to put the abuse in proper perspective,
“Statistics are too often offender-focussed. We have to set out from the standpoint that the person who was at the epicentre of abuse was not the priest, but the victim, a child. A restorative justice approach would have to re-orient the way we draw up not just our statistics but our pastoral care. One victim constantly reminds me that the stern words of Jesus in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 18:6) about the “great millstone” to be fastened around the neck of anyone who becomes a stumbling block for the “little ones”, are quickly followed (Mt 18:12) by the teaching on the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who has been lost.
This victim reminds me that it is the lost child, the molested child who should be at the centre of our attention. The Church should be actively seeking out victims to embrace them with the healing power of Jesus Christ. Certainly so many victims are left with the impression that they are being “dealt with” rather than being sought after and reached out to with priority care. Victims rarely feel that they are been given priority over the ninety-nine.”
The proper perspective here is the suffering child and the proper context for assessing such behavior amongst the leadership of the Church is Matthew 18, which Archbishop Martin notes twice in this excerpt. My purpose here is to draw out, once again, the implications of Matthew 18 for Church leadership especially as it relates to abuse of children. I will post only the first 14 verses of the chapter; click on the passage to see all of chapter 18:
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. 6 "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! 8 "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 "Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. 11 12 What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
The context in Matthew for this passage, parts of which are found in different forms and contexts in Mark and Luke also, is the preparation of the Apostles for their ministry and the treatment of the most vulnerable amongst them. It also notes the heavy punishment for those who mistreat children and the notice that these “little ones” will not be abandoned by God. (See Cornelia Horn’s and my fuller discussion of Jesus’ teachings on children in “Let the Little Children Come to Me” on pages 252-262.) First, it is important that leaders in the Church be “humble like this child,” a term that could encompass the weakness, vulnerability, dependence, trust and faith of the child, amongst other characteristics. The focus of leadership amongst the followers of Jesus, clearly, is not “greatness,” seen as power, might and authority, but “humility,” envisioned as the characteristics of the child. Yet, it is not that the characteristics of the child are adopted as a sort of mask, such as hypocrites wore in ancient dramatic productions, but that the true humility of Church leaders was to manifest itself in the manner in which the weakest were accepted and cared for in the community. Note that Jesus does not give vague examples of the “weak” and “lowly,” but challenges his apostles to care for real children, to accept them and not to harm them. Why does he warn against harming children? The tendency of those in power to take advantage of those without power is a real one, with sexual abuse being the far end of a continuum in which trust, innocence, vulnerability and dependence are used as weapons against those who are the weakest amongst us. It is not that only Christians harm children, or that the Church is the only institution in which such heinous acts take place, it is that the Church makes claim to the authority of Jesus Christ, truth itself, and Jesus asks his followers to become like children and not to harm children as a part of its mission statement, its charter for ecclesial leadership. Jesus himself warns that if you harm one of the “little ones,” “it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6), a passage Archbishop Martin cites in his talk at Marquette University. How can Christians then complain when people say, even if in crude terms, that when you do not live up to your standards, when those in authority not only do not behave with the humility of children and either harm or allow harm of children to continue, you lack moral authority?
It is the case that what is true is true, whatever the moral probity of the person who states it, and so it is incumbent on those in authority in the Church to name and root out evil wherever and whenever it occurs so that the truth might be heard. Archbishop Martin is an example of someone who is doing this very thing. If, however, Jesus’ teachings on the character of humble leaders and the care that ought to be lavished on the children continues to take second place to protecting power and prestige, why should we expect people to listen to the leaders of the Church?
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens