The bishop's letter is what we've been waiting for, says Fr Thomas Berg
Letter to a Suffering Church
By Bishop Robert Barron
Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, 57pp, 99p/$1.25 (kindle)
A priest for 33 years and a bishop for four, Bishop Robert Barron is one of the Catholic Church’s foremost teachers of the faith. His clear, no-nonsense, accessible approach to explaining Catholicism has drawn countless Catholics to a more intentional practice of the faith. Now he wants to keep them from walking away.
A 2019 Gallup Poll found that 37 per cent of Catholics said that news of the abuse crisis had led them to question whether they would remain in the Church. Barron’s message to them is blunt and urgent: don’t leave; stay and fight. Stay and contribute to the reform and renewal our Church desperately needs.
Barron’s Letter is, from start to finish, as he himself notes from the outset, a cry from the heart. He writes as a brother who, like all of us, has felt lacerated by the sexual abuse crisis.
The small book is easily readable in a couple of hours. But Barron’s preference, it seems, is that the book be read prayerfully, and where possible by groups of Catholics coming together to use it as a vehicle for parish-based discussion groups. In fact, Barron has deployed all the resources of his Word on Fire Catholic Ministries to make the Letter the centrepiece of a more ambitious project.
The book can be bought in bulk for parish-based discussion groups. The Word on Fire website offers a starter kit for pastors who wish to avail themselves of this resource, including a parish launch plan, sample parish announcements, an FAQ sheet on the abuse crisis, a group study guide, and access to a five-part companion video series pastors can make available to their parishioners via the messaging tool Flocknote.
Like anyone preferring to avoid painful news, Catholics tend to keep the abuse crisis at arm’s length – now more than ever. Barron, on the contrary, wants to bring Catholics together to face the crisis head on, prayerfully, thoughtfully and in dialogue with each other. That direct confrontation with the crisis – as I have insisted in my own book addressed to a hurting Church – is essential if we are to heal. Barron’s Letter will no doubt contribute greatly to that process.
While disillusioned lay Catholics are his intended audience, one cannot help sense there is another audience to whom the Letter is directed, albeit surreptitiously. Barron is a bishop, and that should be lost on no one. His Letter, intentionally or not, is a blowhorn to the ears of his brother bishops.
In referencing the bishops and their mishandling of the abuse crisis, Barron pulls no punches and his language is blunt. In urging lay Catholics to “stay and fight”, he insists they refuse “to be mollified by pathetic excuses”. (The pathetic excuses of bishops, we are led to infer.) That “a not inconsiderable number of bishops felt that it was permissible to shuffle offending priests from parish to parish, without even a word of warning to the people, clearly putting children in acute danger,” an angry Barron says, “beggars belief”.
In elucidating the ingredients of a “clerical culture that made this kind of abuse and its cover-up possible”, Barron is scathing: “How many priests and bishops acted like David, striding on the roof of his palace and ordering that Bathsheba come to them?” The sexual predation of children by clerics and the malfeasance of bishops who failed to stop them, Barron fumes, “is more than a moral problem; it is a rot, a disease, a threat to the great principles of the Church that we hold dear”.
In the wake of the summer from hell of 2018, Catholics often wondered where was the outrage – from bishops. Real outrage. Catholics stood aghast at a clueless Cardinal Wuerl who assured them that this was not “some massive, massive crisis”; at bishops who could at best muster a pathetically subdued lament (“I am deeply saddened by all this – really.”)
What I love about the Letter is that there is real outrage here: rightly channelled and pastorally packaged outrage, but outrage nonetheless. And it is wonderful.
To be sure, Barron understands all too well that Catholics want and need a new kind of bishop: bishops who, by their own holiness of life, become vessels through which the Holy Spirit can engender a spiritual renewal of the clergy in their dioceses; bishops who are shepherds and not mere managers of the flock; bishops who think and act far outside the box in their pastoral methods; bishops who show genuine outrage at this crisis, and endless compassion and solicitude for victims.
There are such bishops, thank God. Barron is one of them. His Letter is a clarion call to those bishops to act, and act now: to ferret out sexually active priests among their clergy, to exercise fraternal correction – publicly if necessary – of malfeasant brother bishops, to work to expunge a sickly internal culture among bishops that was the fertile breeding ground for this crisis.
In a word, it is a call to lead. And when these good bishops lead, committed Catholics – the Catholics who stay and fight – will follow.
Fr Thomas Berg is professor of moral theology at St Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, New York. He is author of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017)