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quality of religious education upon youth and adults alike over the past several generations, the author’s Biblical and historical references may be lost despite his best efforts to set them in meaningful context.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.
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