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Pastors and the Other Faithful (1)

09/19/2018 5:54 AM | Anonymous

Author: Anselma Dolcich-Ashley, Assistant Professor of the Practice, Glynn Family Honors Program, University of Notre Dame.

I remember Patrick McSorley the most. Even after reading so many grim reports and heart-rending narratives for my doctoral research on the sexual abuse crisis, the news of his tragic death unsettled me mightily.  He was one of the first of the Boston survivors to speak out about being sexually molested by a priest.  He also protested angrily at revelations of the practice of transferring priest-abusers to other parishes. Even more, McSorley befriended other survivors and sought to be a “voice of the victims”(2). These recognized that by his example, McSorley “gave so many others the courage to come forward and to persevere.”(3)

If the “pilgrim church” survives this crisis, it will be because Patrick McSorley and others like him, in the “church in heaven,” intercede for us at the mercy seat of God.

On the surface, the Sixth Commandment appears simple: “you shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).  Conventionally understood, this commandment reinforces sexual fidelity, such as to one’s spouse in marriage or to a life of celibacy.  This understanding certainly was in play when the Catholic sexual abuse crisis in the US exploded into awareness in 2002.  As a result, however, the crisis became narrowly defined as a “delict against the Sixth”(4) , so the remedy became quick removal of “problem priests.”  Then, as now, bishops were summoned to Rome to meet with the Pope and devise solutions. To their credit, bishops also began to meet with and listen to survivors and their advocates, and most implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young Persons, calling for lay-majority review boards in each diocese, as well as a National Review Board. Fortunately, since 2000 the number of new allegations has fallen dramatically (as compared with, for example, allegations dating from the 1970s). Yet even with reforms in place and a reduction in new allegations involving minors, the sense of crisis has, in some ways, intensified. Why?

Contributions to a solution can come from diverse fields such as ecclesiology, moral theology, and even political philosophy and jurisprudence. However, the energy and orientation of any solution must always be grounded in remembering the Patrick McSorleys left along the side of the road (Luke 10: 30-33).

While recognizing the Sixth’s prohibition of the act of adultery narrowly construed, Thomas Aquinas also saw the Sixth, and its companion precepts of the Decalogue, as precepts of natural law and of the cardinal virtue of justice.(5)   To be sure, the Sixth prohibits adultery.   However, we should follow Aquinas’ insight that the harms manifested in adultery - or any action violating sexual vows and boundaries (for example, sexual harassment, or transferring pedophiles to other parishes which amounts to formal cooperation in the evil) - naturally ramify beyond the individual agents and their individual actions.  Yet Canon Law’s emphasis keeps the focus on individual violators rather than the direct victims and the damage done to the broader community.

The Sixth as a fundamental precept of justice governs relationships, mindsets, group interactions, institutions: in short, any structures making it possible for humans to live together in community.  From this perspective, the sexual abuse crisis reveals a deeper crisis of community. Why didn’t the Patrick McSorleys of the crisis count more in the bishops’ calculus on how to respond? Why does it take the force of civil law to make the bishops reveal what happened?  Recent revelations, such as the Pennsylvania grand jury report, have opened these wounds again, because this broader dimension of the Sixth is beginning to shape the debates over what to do.  One irony of our present situation is that civil society and so-called secular legal structures, utilized by Catholics who are also Americans, understand better this deeper meaning of the Sixth; both the civil structures and involved American Catholics are effectively calling the church to attend to its own moral commitments.

This perspective can help us understand why further apologies on the part of church hierarchy are not sufficient for this new stage of the crisis.  Apologies certainly indicated progress in contrast to the routine pre-2002 discounting of allegations and rebuffing of victims. However, today they ring hollow because they are unaccompanied by deep structural changes demanded by the Sixth. Examples could include anything from selection of seminary candidates, to involvement of laity and religious at all levels of ministry, to actively recognizing and working against the structural mindset of clericalism. Apologies as expressions of sympathy fail, because they displace the hard work of reforming structures and reorienting mindsets. It is no surprise, then, that yet more apologies engender anger rather than forgiveness on the part of survivors and other concerned Catholics.

Once we understand what the Sixth Commandment entails, then we must turn to defining the church, so we can apply the Sixth more broadly understood there. The great ecclesiologist Avery Dulles made a good start in his well-known Models of the Church,(6)  but we should remember that these descriptors are models (analogues), not definitions. Thus, “sacrament,” “servant,” and “institution” all describe something inherent about the church but presume, rather than provide, a fundamental definition. Only in the expanded edition did Dulles specify this definition: the church is a community of disciples.(7)   A community, I might add, of human disciples, thus prone to sin in all the ways that humans are.  Moreover, understanding this community of disciples as “church” does not immunize it from structural sin.

As a human community, the church requires some kind of governance to keep order and prevent harm. This governance also needs to enable the community to flourish, and this aspect involves the broader dimension of the Sixth.  For the Catholic Church, the focal point in this order is the bishop who holds the fullness of the triple munera of teaching, sanctifying, and governing. But what are bishops, fundamentally? Michael Buckley approaches this question by identifying the episcopacy fundamentally as a relation.(8)  However, it is a relation with dual telos: unity of the college of bishops (including the Bishop of Rome), and the vitality of faith among the people of the bishop’s own diocese. Insofar as the Sixth demands structural justice, however, we can see where conceptions of governance are going awry. The crisis is still being handled ‘at the top,’ in discussions and decisions among bishops, cardinals, and Pope - closed to “the other faithful,” who from their perspective experience bishops’ telos of unity among fellow bishops absorbing energy and attention at the expense of the other telos.  Meanwhile, the vitality of faith is taking a beating, with “the other faithful” getting angry, protesting, gathering in talking sessions, and  - not waiting for the bishops to act - asking civil authorities to open investigations.  And who remembers Patrick McSorley and other survivors? In short, the laity are pressing to restore a better balance of the teloi of the episcopal relation, and in so doing are moving the church itself toward a better observance of the Sixth Commandment.

It may have been his age – 29 – that upset me so much. At his death he was not much older than my own son at the time. Unlike my son, McSorley had suffered from torture by a priest, and almost two decades of post-traumatic stress. One night he may have overdone the medications that helped him manage, and did not wake up the next day. Let us never forget.

  1. Lumen gentium, no. 32.
  2. Belluck, Pam. “A Prominent Accuser in Boston Abuse Scandal Is Found Dead,” The New York Times, February 24, 2004.   (Retrieved 9/16/2018)
  3. MacQuarrie, Brian. “Vocal Critic of Abuse by Clergy Found Dead.” The Boston Globe, February 24, 2004. (Retrieved 9/16/2018)
  4. Cf., Canon 1395, Code of Canon Law.
  5. Porter, Jean. (2005). Nature as reason : A Thomistic theory of the natural law. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
  6. Dulles, Avery. (1987). Models of the church (Expanded ed.). Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books.
  7. Cf., Komonchak, Joseph. (2008). Who are the church? (Père Marquette lecture in theology ; 2008). Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.
  8. Buckley, M. (1998). Papal primacy and the episcopate : Towards a relational understanding. New York: Crossroad Pub.


  • 10/13/2018 12:54 PM | Paul Ungar
    As Anselma Dolcich-Ashley notes the church is a community "of of human disciples, thus prone to sin in all the ways that humans are. Moreover, understanding this community of disciples as “church” does not immunize it from structural sin." I would add: we are not immunized neither from sin nor from the other aspect of Adam and Eve's inheritance; that of sickness. Sin and sickness are often intricately tied like a chicken and egg. For example, a sinful behaviour in the "Pennsylvania case" (i.e. child abuse), would be not committed without an existing sickness (pedophilia). If I may paraphrase Anselma's words: understanding (and healing) this community of disciples that the “church” is, would be hard without taking also the intricate ties of sin and sickness into consideration. Doesn't this fact open some new perspectives in the Church's self- assessment?
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