Bishop Barron's 'Letter to a Suffering Church' is the exhortation to stay and fight that many Catholics need
Bishop Barron has just published the fatherly letter on the sexual abuse crisis I’ve been longing to read. He begins with an arresting image of the clerical abuse crisis as a “diabolical masterpiece,” a devilish strategy of seduction and temptation to win the cooperation of priests and bishops in a darkly designed plan to destroy Christ’s Church.
Letter to a Suffering Church is the kind of book-length letter I’d be happy to have my son, as well as my students, read. It’s also a letter I wish more priests and bishops could write because it provides a sort of pastoral key for defeating the smoke of Satan that’s engulfed so many entrusted with Christ’s Church and corrupted the very love that the Father gives to the Son for the salvation of the world.
Bishop Barron begins his book with the Word of God which, as he notes, has much to say about human sexuality — about its fundamental goodness in the covenant of love, and its corruption in the hands of domination and manipulation. From the outset, he treats biblical passages that portray the all-male gang rape once proposed in the City of Sodom — showing how sexual abuse is always “violent, impersonal, self-interested, and infertile.” Men raping boys and men, almost completely destroying the image of God, is a striking biblical analogy for understanding our present crisis. Like so many sad, foolish solutions offered today, Lot begs the men to rape his virgin daughters instead, but the gang want none of it. They want what they want. God strikes the men blind — and the wages of their sin are fire and brimstone. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s eldest daughter proposes incest as a way to begin anew. As Barron notes, we see here the sad logic of how sexual abuse begets sexual abuse, in the end begetting the Ammonites and Moabites who become Israel’s gravest threats.
That’s an arresting way to begin thinking about the abuse crisis, isn’t it? Why hasn’t the biblical story of Sodom, or even the scriptural narrative in general, been more prominent among priestly and episcopal attempts to illumine our crisis? It’s another reason to take Bishop Barron’s letter seriously. Not only does he not shy away from “the elephant in the sacristy,” as Mary Eberstadt once put it: he grounds our understanding of the crisis in the Scriptures. He “absorbs” our crisis into the Word of God, thereby allowing us to see the crisis by a better light.
The whole letter is a meditation on scripture, but he also advances through the history of the Church, the many scandals and trials it has faced. As everyone from Cardinal Consalvi to Newman, Belloc and Chesterton have noted, there is a kind of “proof” of the Church’s indestructibility as the Mystical Body of Christ in facing squarely the failings of priests and bishops — which is also to say that even the greatest diabolical design to destroy Christ’s Church will eventually fail.
Bishop Barron also covers with depth and sensitivity the importance of St Peter Damian, who in 1049 complained to Pope Leo IX of “the befouling cancer of sodomy” which had spread like “a savage beast” among the clergy of the 11th century. Letter to a Suffering Church sometimes reads like Peter Damian’s own cri de coeur, which sees the crisis as a kind of “spiritual incest,” with fathers befouling sons, and some daughters too.
In the fourth chapter of his letter, “Why Should We Stay”, Barron meditates extensively on Jesus Christ. While so much fevered analysis of the abuse crisis fails to spend even one hour looking at the crisis by the light of the Lord, Barron places Christ at the heart of his Letter. This is critical for many of us who are tempted to rush to practical protocols and procedures, thinking we have all the human solutions, or those of us who may be tempted to depart the Church quietly in righteous anger and despair. Barron reverses this: we must not flee from the Church; rather, the Church needs us to flee to Christ.
Barron is also tough-minded about the successes and failures of past reforms. The psychological and therapeutic approach to the crisis which dominated in the 1970s and 80s doesn’t work; Barron argues they actually made the problem worse. The 2002 Dallas Charter showed that the “one strike and you’re out” policy did work. National Review Boards composed mostly of lay people have also worked to audit each diocese and archdiocese, holding them accountable to the Church’s norms. More of this accountability is needed, Barron writes. When something goes deeply wrong in the priesthood, it’s time to recognize that the laity have an important contribution to make. For the most serious work of reform is that which leads to greater holiness for all of us.
Letter to a Suffering Church concludes with assessments similar to Benedict XVI’s recent letter on the crisis. Moral relativism and sexual dysfunction raged like a beast throughout the clergy over thirty years. That has had devastating effects on the spiritual paternity of many priests and bishops. It has blinded too many. Even so, Bishop Barron has not written us a counsel of despair; quite the opposite. He has given us in this letter what he calls “the Lincoln Option,” which can be summed up by President Lincoln’s words to Northerners who were debilitated and demoralized by the losses on the battlefields: “stay and fight!”
For whom do we stay? Christ Himself. Without being united to Him through the sacraments of the Church, we are lost. And for what do we fight? We fight for the sanctification and purification of Christ’s Church. Our fidelity to Jesus Christ, our union with Him, is the key to holiness, in ourselves, in the clergy, in every person. Rather than flee, Bishop Barron calls each of us to double-down on our devotion. He teaches us in this letter that the Church does not belong to the men of Sodom. It belongs to Jesus Christ who has won for us victory over sin and death. In clinging to Him, all the Devil’s plans are thwarted.