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What to say of the crisis in the Church?

The sexual abuse crisis that has in recent months come to light in the Chilean Church has left many questioning. Earlier this week the New York Times exposed how popular former archbishop of Washington DC, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, preyed on young men who wanted to be priests. Miguel Jesús Pedreros, a Chilean Jesuit, reflects on his own reactions to the crisis facing the Church in his country.

For a few weeks now I have been asking myself: “What to say of the crisis in the Chilean Church?”. I have been trapped between a desire to keep quiet, feeling that “all has already been said”, and a feeling that the people expect Religious to speak of what is happening in our church. I felt that the already spoken words were enough, that I had nothing new to add to a theme that has already been discussed from all angles. I asked myself: “What to say?”, “Why say anything?”

After days of thinking and debating between my tendencies, either to shut-up or to try and say something brilliant about that which we are living, I realised the trap. It is this same dynamic that has left our Church sick. It is the inclination to silence all that which we cannot say with finesse or in a clear and explanatory manner. It is the self-created fantasy that if we speak it needs to be with moral authority, almost without fault, spoken from the heights of the pulpit with unaccustomed clarity. It is the trap of the ego that hides a fragile and broken inner life.

For this reason, I understood that I simply had to speak… we should all speak and let out that which we feel and think. Almost as if it were a psychoanalytic exercise. We must speak without wanting to explain, let alone to be “prophetic” (or some caricature of that, with tough condemnations, assigning blame and having a clear horizon with a solution in mind), but rather to speak with sincerity. We need to give a name to the crisis.

We need to say that this has struck us all. That for laypeople as well as religious, this has dealt a blow to their confidence in the hierarchical church. And that we have resented the public fall of confidence in the role of the priest within our Christian community. That we have learned that the sexual abuses are only the result of a way of proceeding where power is exercised, often in an insane and violent way. A way that, in the end, only feeds the ego and damages the life of the people who, in the message of Jesus, seek their healing.

We do not have all the answers. Even though we try to explain how we got here, we have missed a number of issues that, today, we cannot avoid. It would be pretentious to say that that we have a complete diagnosis, for that would mean that we have the recipe for the solution, but we are far from that. We are far from having the situation under control. That kind of thinking is what has made us ill, what has kept us from changing, transforming our ways, correcting our faults and righting our wrongs. We do not have anything under control, and that undoubtedly scares us.

We are, obviously, angry. How not to be angry, when we find ourselves impotent to understand, let alone to solve our crisis. It hurts and infuriates us to see so many forgotten victims, such great abuses of power, such indolence, and so little power to end the bad practices among distorted figures of the faith. It angers us that we cannot transform the image of the priest into one of service and of close and kind Christian witness. It enrages us that the image of the layperson is still described as the one “who is not”, that is to say, that “the layperson is the one who is not a priest or a nun”. Which is also a shame, because it means that we find it difficult to understand that the abuses of power and of sex are a consequence of a structure and a culture that not only leaves out women or the LGBTI+ community (a real situation, that is repudiated by many, including the pope), but the people of God, the many faithful that see themselves downplayed in the clericalism, the machismo and even the classism so common among our ranks.

We know, and it scares us to accept, that a change of names in the episcopate is not enough, and that the issue is far more serious. That it requires a profound transformation in how we do Church. That it requires a change, that spans from the language we use to the structures of governance that we have. That this implies an understanding of a world that is too big for us, and that we cannot control because our institution has long since held the criteria on right–wrong, appropriate–inappropriate, good–bad. And that disarms us.

We have the duty to act, at the high level of standards that today’s society demands of any institution, and more. We cannot lack transparency, truth, nor audacity to face the conflict and our own mistakes. We cannot fail in our help to victims: to denounce their abusers, to give real guarantees in the canonical process, to adjust the process of compliance with the punishment and to act decisively before the civilian justice system, so that criminal and economic responsibilities can be demanded of us by the courts of justice.

But, above all,  we know that this has us all up against the corner, attempting to recompose ourselves from a right-hand jab to the jaw. Struggling, to find our legs to continue with the fight. A fight that has left us gasping for breath, stitching the cut caused by a direct and devastating blow, and doubting whether we can ever return to the ring to finish the fight.

We are beaten; so is our confidence. For some, their faith falters; for others, their indignation wins and there is a decided desire never to look back. “An institutional crisis”, say some. “A crisis of faith”, say others. The truth, I suppose, is that both are true. We find it difficult to believe that Jesus is with us when we believe that the solution is in our hands.

We have to talk about the crisis; we cannot keep silent invoking prudence.  But, also, we must say that our hope has not died, that it is incorruptible. That the greatest crisis is behind us: that Jesus died nailed to a cross that we, God’s very children, forged in injustice and violence. And our hope is not an empty one. We believe because we are prepared to fight for a horizontal and inclusive Church, as it already is in many places, and for which many have worked all their life.

The invitation from God is to start from the ground up. We need to rethink the way that we exercise power, end clericalism (for this we need more action from the lay faithful), and to advance in transparency and truth. We need to denounce abuse; but for this, we need to believe those who denounce. We need to talk about this issue in our societies. We need to question our way of thinking of the Church, the power and authority within her. We need to rethink our ways: those that keep women out, those that set the priest above all the rest, and those that hold the secret and the reserved above transparency and truth.

* Published in Territorio Abierto an online journal of the Chilean Jesuits. It was written in Spanish by Miguel Jesús Pedreros, a Chilean Jesuit working at San Ignacio de Concepción, a Jesuit College in Chile. It is translated here to English by Ricardo da Silva SJ.

Images: Vatican Media

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.