Only a listening church can address the sex abuse crisis
Institutions are not bloodless entities. They are formed by, and composed of, real people, and they are meant to serve real people. This becomes dramatically evident when institutions fail in their purpose. Clearly, the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has revealed immense personal, emotional and spiritual damage wrought by institutional failure. Inside that failure and its consequences, however, are real people—including victims/survivors, perpetrators, those responsible for guiding the church community and those who simply belong to the community of faith.
All too often, well-intended prescriptions for resolving the crisis miss the personal dimension. People are absent from the equation, whether the people directly affected by the crisis or the people called to lead us out of it. The default perspective is objective, not personal.
By inviting the presidents of national conferences of bishops to meet with him, Pope Francis is signaling how the church must address this crisis in a personal way.
Certainly, objective proposals have their place. New programs, realigned structures and clear protocols are necessary, but they cannot be the frontline path of resolution of the abuse crisis. Something needs prior attention—the personal. First, we must look at the people who are affected, the people who are responsible and all the people who belong to the community of faith.
This intuition about the personal dimension, it seems, is guiding Pope Francis as he directs a response to the abuse crisis. For some critics, he is moving too slowly and too hesitantly. Understandably, everyone wants this painful and debilitating situation to be resolved as quickly as possible. More important, we should hope that it will be resolved well. By inviting the presidents of national conferences of bishops to meet with him later this month, Pope Francis is signaling howthe church must address this crisis in a personal way. It is the path of synodality—that is, a way of being church that enables the people of God to move together.
Synodality means people in dialogue, listening to all the voices. It draws from the collaborative style of collegiality, as the Second Vatican Council described it. It also sets us clearly on a journey as a pilgrim people, and that journey establishes the church as a dynamic reality meeting the challenges of history and willing to change accordingly. It picks up the striking words of St. John Paul II in his 2002 apostolic letter “Novo Millennio Ineunte”: “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we wish to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings” (43). Finally, it has everything to do with the mission and identity of the church as the evangelizing people of God bringing Jesus Christ to the world.
When we put these elements of synodality together—dialogue, collegiality, pilgrimage, communion and mission—we find ourselves in a church that is centered in people, not structures.
When we put these elements of synodality together—dialogue, collegiality, pilgrimage, communion and mission—we find ourselves in a church that is centered in people, not structures, and ever-alert to God’s call in this moment. That is the church, as I see it, that Pope Francis wants to have address the abuse crisis.
The meeting of the presidents of the episcopal conferences is just one initial step of this synodal church’s response. The way of synodality for this crisis, as well as for the fuller direction of the church’s life, must then shape and define the regional, national, local diocesan and even parochial experiences of the church. In other words, synodality implicates all of us in every dimension of our church’s life.
When a synodal church addresses the sexual abuse crisis, a number of concrete and practical directions will clearly emerge. Because a synodal church is radically dialogical, listening to everyone is of paramount importance. No voice can be ignored, no voice minimized. We will learn to be fully attentive and fully present to all who speak. Because a synodal church is collegial, it faces the abuse crisis by drawing on worldwide experience and wisdom. It fosters mutual accountability, fraternal correction and the establishment of structures to prevent abuse and to heal victims/survivors.
Because a synodal church is on a pilgrimage, it must be a community of continuous repentance for whatever missteps it has taken. It must also be in a permanent state of watchfulness and attention, because its task of vigilance is never finished. Because a synodal church is in communion, it must be a sign and instrument of reconciliation and healing whenever and wherever unity has been damaged, as it most certainly has in the abuse crisis. Because a synodal church is in mission, it must eliminate whatever is a scandalum, a stumbling block that makes the church incredible. It can do so by fostering transparency, accountability and continuous rededication to its purpose.
In drawing from the Spirit-led vision of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis holds up a synodal church before us. In synodality—being on the road together—we are most certainly and truly the people God calls us to be. It should not be surprising, then, that the best and probably only way to address the abuse crisis effectively will be rooted in synodality.