Bishop Robert Barron is clear from the onset that Letter to a Suffering Church is his own statement: “I am not speaking in the name of my brother bishops, or of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or the Vatican. I have no authority whatsoever to do so.” [p. ii.] It is a happy prospect to see a widely respected clergyman, a bishop no less, shed his cuffs and talk from the heart. It is a disappointing reality that the other 200 bishops of the USCCB did not line up to his desk and plead to be cosigners of this honest assessment of the pain of the Church and the changes needed in the leadership and membership of the Body of Christ.
Because he addresses the abuse crisis—its causes and healing--in a multidimensional way, the text can bring perspective and healing to multiple populations, including his brother clergy, mourning lay faithful Catholics, and angry Catholics seriously contemplating leaving the practice of the church altogether. Although Barron is solicitous of the “Nones” who have left the Church, his points of reference may be less compelling to this population. It is worth noting that given the generally poor quality of religious education upon youth and adults alike over the past several generations, the author’s Biblical and historical references may be lost despite his best efforts to set them in meaningful context.
In his opening chapter, “The Devil’s Masterpiece,” Barron draws from his own experiences as episcopal parish visitor in Los Angeles to gauge the impact of last year’s revelations from the State of Pennsylvania and the Cardinal McCarrick revelations. He reports a wide range of emotions from parishioners who spoke to him; “What was particularly galling about the McCarrick situation was that Catholics had heard, since 2002, that protocols and reforms were in place that would prevent abuse going forward.” [p. 13] His bluntness about McCarrick’s years of promotions and the superiors responsible is refreshing. Catholics indeed have the right to be angry, though Barron does not comment on the continuing lack of transparency on this case.
“Light from Scripture” examines sexual abuses of power in the Old Testament, including instances where overseeing fathers and holy men sinned by allowing abuse to continue. Barron cites the story of Lot, who offered his virginal daughters to a rapacious mob in Sodom, and the ultimate abuse of religious power, King David’s adultery with Bathsheba while her husband was dispatched to a military suicide mission. Turning to the New Testament, the author examines the simple, guileless life of children and cites Jesus’ chilling words of judgment against those who would pervert children, that they [the perpetrators] have a millstone hung around the neck and be cast into the sea.
“We Have Been Here Before” surveys samples of the worst historical deviations of official Church conduct. The roots of Western monasticism are traced to Christian refugees from the sinful cities of Rome and elsewhere. The author notes that clerical sinfulness plays major roles in such classics as The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, and In Praise of Folly. In 1049 St. Peter Damian wrote to Pope Leo IX condemning the widespread practice of what we might call today the McCarrick Problem. Given his age’s belief that abbots and bishops were spiritual fathers to new young members, St. Peter called the sexual abuse of novices by superiors a form of “spiritual incest.”
Turning to the present, “Why Should We Stay?” summarizes Bishop Barron’s belief that for all of its sinfulness the Church remains the fullness of the Kingdom of God on earth, as Vatican II puts it, and cautions that separation from the Real Presence of the Eucharist is a loss that nothing else can fill. This defense of ecclesial fidelity is neither pedantic nor scolding, but a reminder of the saving grace that brought the Church member to sacramental initiation in the first place.
Bishop Barron concludes with “The Way Forward.” I found this a brief but powerful blueprint for what he believes must take place—a reform of the Church in capite et membris, “in head and members.” His ideas about priestly life and sanctity are very close to my own—that priests would do well to live more in the fashion of vowed religious in community rather than as independent contractors. But he goes on to address the need of reform of the laity as well, as it is his contention that a general laxity of moral observance in church and society generated a dropping of the guard, so to speak, a theory seconded by the American bishops’ John Jay Study of 2010]. “A better and stronger laity,” he concludes, “shapes a better and stronger [and less clerical] priesthood.” [p. 93]
At its modest price, Letter to a Suffering Church is the best pastoral comfort one can pass along to troubled family and friends. My hope would be that this text, as it stands, becomes the comforting voice of the full body of American bishops.
Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introduction to The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve  that the creation account in the Judeo-Christian Bible’s Genesis 2:4ff is so outlandish that one marvels at how many people over a long period of time believed the narrative to be factual in its details. In the American Catholic Church, in the days following Vatican II [1962-1965] many parish adult education meetings were thrown into turmoil by those learning for the first time that Adam and Eve might not be real people. Contemporary biblical scholarship triggered literal terror, articulated along the lines of “if you can’t believe in Adam and Eve, what can you believe in the Bible?” Nothing in this work should shake anyone’s faith; in fact, Greenblatt’s interdisciplinary approach to the Garden narrative opens the door to a greater understanding and curiosity about the Bible we think we know so well.
Greenblatt assumes that the reader is not an intractable literalist: even Christian readers without introduction to the Biblical principles of interpretation will respect the obvious ground of high school science and the fatal road of inbreeding, which the Genesis author(s) accept with nary a worry. [Who bore Cain’s children? His mother, by the logic of the text.] Greenblatt walks us through the interpretations of the happenings in paradise, drawing from Jewish thinkers shortly before Christ to early Christian thinkers—notably St. Augustine: through the medium of art, notably Albrecht Durer of the Renaissance: the poetic epic of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; the discovery of new worlds and new peoples in America; the research of Charles Darwin; and the implications of “Lucy” and our predecessors of hundreds of thousands of years ago.
If Genesis 2 is not to be summarized as a “Neil Armstrong moment in time,” we are now free to speculate on the creators of the creation, so to speak, and ask how and why they composed this story as they did. The ancient world was awash in tales of how “the divine” initially “created men” and set their affairs in order with ground rules for how the divine and the human would interact. Greenblatt—focusing exclusively on the Jewish creation account--attempts to identify key intentions of these thinkers behind the Garden narrative; he concludes in the first instance that Adam is a holotype for future humanity, a template of a species along the lines of Linnaeus’ later cataloging of living species. Animals intrigue the author: he observes that while man is created as superior to the beasts and names them, “humans seem to be the only animals on earth that ask themselves how they came to be and why they are the way they are.” [p. 17]
We humans can take this as a philosophical complement, but the author observes that we are the only species that remains “lost”—disoriented, uncomfortable in our own skin, in need of an explanation. Given that Biblical scholars place the date of Genesis’ composition as late the fifth century B.C., very late in Jewish history and after the tragedy of the Babylonian Captivity, it is not difficult to imagine that thoughtful believers entertained many questions about themselves and their God.
Of the many creation myths of ancient times, Genesis 2 is one of few to consider relationships at some depth, human and divine, human and human. Adam and Eve’s relationship with God is confusing; Enlightenment figures in the modern era such as Voltaire would wonder aloud [though not too loudly] how God could seemingly set up his creation for failure. Why would the Lord tell Adam, “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil? From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.” Why would God withhold the best of his gifts, and why would one of his own animals, i.e., the cunning serpent, facilitate the crushing punishments of the couple’s disobedience?
The author does not have an answer, but he is not satisfied with later Christian attempts to put the garden disobedience at the center of Christian anthropology, either. He is certainly not alone in his critique of St. Augustine’s theory of the original sin of the garden as the cause of a basic human contamination with its roots in the seductive power of women. Most readers will be familiar with the traditional Catholic understanding of Adam and Eve’s sin and its biological/moral transmission in sexual intercourse. Several Catholic doctrines—the efficacy and necessity of infant baptism, and later the Immaculate Conception—would depend upon St. Augustine’s reading of Genesis. What is less appreciated is that for these Church formulations to hold sway, the biblical account of the garden sin must be read as literally true.
The historicity of Genesis was enforced by church teaching, but also through the many artistic portrayals of Adam and Eve in the Renaissance era and the exquisite telling of the tale in Paradise Lost. The author highlights the centuries-long efforts to establish with precision every detail in the Garden—including many not found in the biblical texts. By the time Christopher Columbus set sail for the Indies in 1492, the Garden narrative reached its zenith as a bedrock of history and Christian anthropology.
The irony of history is that “the fall” of Adam and Eve as a hard data pillar was touched off by Columbus and thinkers who followed. Columbus believed that he had landed in the paradisiac garden of Genesis, whose fifteenth century natives demonstrated no shame in their nakedness. [p. 233] Were these peoples unsullied brothers of Adam, still living a prelapsarian existence? Columbus was merely the tip of the iceberg as more information about the universe and the human species became accessible down through the present day. As late as 1950 Pope Pius XII labored to salvage a marriage of evolution and Adam in his encyclical Humani Generis [see para. 37].
Greenblatt’s effort is a rewarding reading exercise on multiple fronts.  It is a well-documented and eminently readable historical narrative of a familiar scriptural bedrock we have perhaps taken for granted;  It demonstrates the risks of undertaking theological study without a healthy communion with the full breadth of cultural wisdom.  It draws attention to the importance of art in theological expression.  It reminds us that Adam and Eve are more valuable to us as historical sacraments than as historical persons. In ending, the author declares that the garden couple “hold open the dream of a return, somehow, to a bliss that has been lost. They have the life—the peculiar, intense, magical reality—of literature.” [p. 284]
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything