A Catholic friend of mine and I were discussing the act of excommunication recently. He believes that the Church ought to exercise its right to excommunicate people more often, not for punishment’s sake alone, but as a necessary act to call for repentance and reconciliation. He believes the Church should be able to say when someone has stepped out of bounds so that the person can be lovingly called back into community.
When described in this way, I can understand excommunication as a step in the process of reconciliation. We are required to speak the truth in love to one another, not to punish, but to restore. This is particularly poignant during the season of Lent, when frankly, we spend six weeks similarly excommunicating ourselves by recognizing our own need for repentance and reconciliation. My problem, as it relates to my Catholic friend’s Church structure, is that excommunication only goes one way. What happens when the Pope needs to be excommunicated?
I didn’t ask this question in abstraction. Quite seriously, I feel that as a fellow Jesus follower, I could have provided ample reason to have excommunicated Pope John Paul II (as beloved as he was, for a good many reasons). His utter lack of responsibility and accountability in dealing with the issues of clergy sexual abuse is worthy of every form of excommunication we could imagine. If as Pope his job is to uphold the values and theology of the Church, then he failed in every possible way. There is nothing about his actions that show a value for the sanctity of human life for which the Catholic Church is so honorably known.
With a heavy heart, I fear I may have to say the same about Pope Benedict. As you may have heard, the same scandals that made headlines in the US are surfacing in Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the Pope’s home country of Germany. News articles like this one and this one raise these questions once again- WHY is the Catholic Church turning a blind eye to these victims? WHY are these priests being moved from one diocese to another, where they repeat the same crimes upon a new batch of innocent child victims? WHY are our Catholic brothers and sisters not doing something to hold their religious authority figures accountable?
HOW MANY VICTIMS OF CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE MUST COME FORWARD BEFORE THE CHURCH RESPONDS?
Or, consider this: when a car company was recently faced with the mounting evidence of a threat to human life, despite their initial lack of thoroughness, they have now responded far more than the Catholic Church has, with far less evidence. If Toyota can respond in such a manner (at no small financial cost to the company at what could be the worst possible economic moment), what does this say about the Church’s lethargic, even defiant reluctance? Does Toyota have a higher moral code than the Vatican? Does a for-profit global corporation have a structure more capable of responding to the endangerment of human life than all of Rome?
Sunday night I attended a candlelight vigil to stand with victims of clergy sexual abuse whose stories are surfacing around the world. Many in attendance had suffered abuse at the hands of American clergy, and I was humbled by their bravery to give voice to their experience even as their own Church so vehemently denies it. (Read this article from just yesterday.) I was also deeply saddened, as I witnessed the eyes of those who fear that history will keep on repeating itself because no one seems willing to call for change.
As if the devastating effects of clergy sexual abuse are not enough, will we make them stand isolated in their suffering, with no intention toward justice or reconciliation in sight? Who in the Church will call these priests and authority figures out of bounds by their actions (and unwillingness to act) so that they can be called back into rightful Christian community?
I was fortunate to meet Lisa Kendzior, the DFW leader for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) on Sunday night. If you know of anyone who has suffered clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic church or elsewhere, Lisa and SNAP are fantastic resources for healing and grace. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and find out monthly meeting information.