In late 2018, the Church in the United States was reeling from the revelations of Theodore McCarrick’s decades of predatory behavior and serial deceptions. The fallout from those revelations, compounded by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and subsequent waves of new reports and allegations, both here and abroad, sparked a crisis of confidence in our bishops that has not yet fully abated.
This is not – to risk stating the obvious – a situation conducive to the proclamation of the Gospel and the care of souls.
It was with this in mind that, two years ago, I signed on to serve as executive director of The Catholic Project, an initiative begun by President John Garvey at The Catholic University of America. From the very beginning, we saw that the immediate and immense challenges posed by the abuse crisis – and all the pain and division attached to it – had to be understood in the context of the fundamental mission of the Church.
Understanding the causes of the crisis, working to heal the damage done, working to prevent further damage: all of this has been a part of our program from the beginning. While news of the abuse crisis is less in the headlines these days (supplanted by pandemics and politics and such) we have kept on with our work. Because the work that we are doing is not “merely” about “crisis management,” as important as that can be.
The fundamental evil of the abuse crisis is that it separates people from the God who loves them. It throws up obstacles to faith for those who are abused by clergy, causing pain and anguish instead of peace and healing. It erodes the trust that the people of God have in their own leaders, sowing anger and division. It saps Church energies and resources that would otherwise be used caring for people’s physical and spiritual well-being. It convinces men and women that the witness of the disciples of Jesus Christ is suspect.
And even if all of these evils miraculously disappeared tomorrow, the mere absence of such evil would not bring souls back to Christ.
Understood from this perspective, the abuse crisis that has been felt so acutely in recent years is deeply connected to many other challenges facing the Church today. The abuse crisis can’t be “fixed” in isolation. As Pope Francis is fond of saying, “everything is connected.”
The Catholic Project continues to focus on issues directly related to clergy sexual abuse. We produced a podcast, “Crisis: Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church,” to help explain what has been going on in the Church, how we got here, and where we might go from here. “Crisis” has been downloaded more than 180,000 times and was named by The Atlantic as one of the “50 Best Podcasts of 2020.”
We helped launch an online certificate in Child Protection and Safe Environments in conjunction with the National Catholic School of Social Service. The interdisciplinary offering gives students an understanding of the basic dynamics of sexual abuse and prevention, trauma-informed care, and the relevant legal and policy issues.
The Catholic Project is also working to help bishops who are grappling with the complex legal and pastoral challenges associated with diocesan bankruptcies, a problem that continues to grow and will shape many dioceses for decades to come. We’re also funding research into the state of the American presbyterate: gauging how the abuse crisis and the Church’s response to it has affected our clergy, in particular the relationship between bishops and their priests.
We are sponsoring the work of survivors’ groups like SpiritFire, which is broadcasting a series of presentations on abuse, and faith, and pastoral care. And we are co-hosting a virtual symposium this April with The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard to encourage public health professionals and religious leaders to work together to prevent the scourge of sexual abuse globally and provide healing for victims of abuse.
Each of these initiatives is important (biased though I may be), but the measure of our work is not how many initiatives we start, or how many conferences we host, or how many downloads we get. If our work is to prove fruitful, it is only insofar as it is His work, first and last.
And doing His work is hardly the exclusive province of The Catholic Project. It is the work and mission of all of us. The abuse crisis is, in some important ways, a unique challenge for the Church. In some ways, though, its remedy is the same as the remedy for all the challenges the Church faces: strive for holiness, cling to the Church, preach the Good News in word and deed.
In this regard, the laity are essential to the healing and recovery of the Church. Not simply because the bishops have been hamstrung by a loss of credibility, but because it has always been incumbent upon each one of us – all the baptized- to carry out the work of evangelization.
The abuse crisis has not created a greater need for lay responsibility in the work of the Church, but it has revealed it. The mission of the Church has always been the responsibility of all the baptized; not in exclusion to the work of our priests and bishops (without them, where is the Church?) and certainly not in competition with them for the authority that has been given to them.
Responding to the needs of the present moment requires an awareness of, and fidelity to, the fundamental mission of the Church. This is the ultimate measure of all the various works of The Catholic Project. And it is a work that extends far beyond the immediate crisis in which The Catholic Project was born.
Please keep us, and the work we are blessed to share, in your prayers.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.