Why are the bishops praying about the abuse crisis instead of doing something about it?
Catholics are angry. They have every right to be: They have been failed by their priests, their bishops, even their popes. The clergy sexual abuse crisis that many wishfully thought was behind us has come roaring back. While reforms instituted in 2002 seem to have been effective in preventing new cases of abuse, the ongoing revelations about sexual abuse cases going back decades and cover-ups by church leaders underscore that the church has never properly atoned, to say the least. And the wound cuts deeper with every new story of a government investigation, every previously hidden list of accused priests that is released, every survivor’s story of trauma.
Anger quickly becomes toxic when it is compounded by the feeling that no leader is doing anything to rectify the situation. In the case of the sexual abuse crisis, it is a recipe for ecclesial nihilism.
The U.S. bishops are gathered this week for a retreat near Chicago to pray and reflect on the sexual abuse crisis. The retreat comes ahead of a February summit on the sexual abuse crisis in the Vatican, with leading bishops from around the world. Despite the cries for change, organizers of the retreat have insisted it will be about prayer, and not policy change.
Anger quickly becomes toxic when it is compounded by the feeling that no leader is doing anything to rectify the situation.
But Americans in particular are primed for a distrust of announcements of prayer in the face of tragedy. For example, “thoughts and prayers” are routinely trotted out by politicians and pundits in the face of mass shootings and then followed up with little or no action to reduce gun violence.
With the crisis still unfolding, and now nearly 20 years since it entered the public consciousness, it is reasonable to ask: If the bishops are going to spend a week together, shouldn’t they be doing something instead of spending the entire time on prayer?
There is a long tradition in the Catholic Church regarding the necessary relationship between prayer and action, and the importance of prayer preceding action. In the “see, judge, act” formulation in Catholic social teaching, judging is positioned after observing an injustice and before acting upon it. In Ignatian spirituality, there is a great emphasis on discernment and prayer before making decisions. It goes back to Jesus himself, who is regularly depicted in the Gospels as taking time away from the crowds and away from direct ministry for silence and prayer.
In Ignatian spirituality, there is a great emphasis on discernment and prayer before making decisions. It goes back to Jesus himself.
Even when prayer is not the focus, the need for taking a pause before enacting reforms and responses is well-recognized. The best managers in the corporate world set aside time and space from day-to-day business for strategic thinking. This becomes even more important when companies are facing a crisis. Tim Johnson, the author of “Crisis Leadership,” writes, “Resist the urge to do anything immediately.” Leading through a crisis requires, as Daniel McGinn summarizes Johnson’s work in the Harvard Business Review, “avoiding these impulses [to overreach or eschew responsibility] and instead figuring out what’s really happening, thinking hard about stakeholders’ needs, and creating a purposeful mission to guide the response.”
David Allen, the consultant who created the time-management method “Getting Things Done” has said “You don’t need time to have a good idea, you need space…. It takes zero time to have an innovative idea or to make a decision, but if you don’t have psychic space, those things are not necessarily impossible, but they’re suboptimal.”
A lasting conversion for the church, what Francis in his letter calls “a new ecclesial season,” will not come without prayer.
The church is not a Fortune 500 company. Pope Francis acknowledged as much in his letter to the U.S. bishops on retreat, writing, “Loss of credibility calls for a specific approach, since it cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.” The Gospel demands more of that. It requires of our bishops (as it requires of us all) a change of heart, a metanoia. As much as they need the “psychic space” to undertake necessary reforms, they even more need the grace, courage and freedom to reform themselves and the church. That only comes from God, and that is why time for silence, prayer and penance is so necessary.
A lasting conversion for the church, what Francis in his letter calls “a new ecclesial season,” will not come without prayer. Francis inviting the bishops to make this retreat ahead of the Vatican summit, and also offering the services of the official preacher to the papal household for the retreat, shows that he wants space and time for bishops to “judge” before they “act.” “Judging,” in this case, means not only reaching a decision but “judging rightly,” in accordance with God’s will.
Trying to institute reforms without taking sufficient time to understand and discern a path forward has already failed once. A letter from the Vatican that the Associated Press reported on earlier this week showed that the U.S. bishops sent Rome their proposed reforms to address the sexual abuse crisis only four days before they were scheduled to vote on them at their November annual meeting. The Vatican objected to the hurried vote, and it was cancelled.
This week’s retreat cannot be the end. Anyone who has spent transformative time on a retreat knows how difficult it is to translate the graces received during one into daily life. Catholics should pray that their bishops have the grace to understand where God is leading the church, but also that they will have the courage to enact change when they leave the retreat center and return to their dioceses.
St. John XXIII wrote in “Mater et Magistra” that knowledge acquired by the “see, judge, act,” method of Catholic social teaching “does not remain merely abstract, but is seen as something that must be translated into action” (No. 237, emphasis mine).
Put another way, as Jesus said, every tree is known by its fruit. And people will be demanding good fruit. Soon.