Abbot John Klassen of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville opened the series of Catholic Studies talks with Reconciliation: A Scarred Church Faces a New Century. Quite a crowd gathered in Our Lady Queen of Peace Chapel for the presentation.
Abbot John unpacked the metaphor of scars and scarring – long after the original injury, even if the healing is functionally complete, the scar remains. With considerable openness and honesty, Abbot John proposed to look at episodes of recent history that are wounds in the Body of Christ, the Church. His perspective is a valuable one: he has dealt with many painful and difficult wounds in the decade since he was elected abbot in 2000.
The first wound was, of course, the sex abuse scandal and crisis. Going back to the initial discussion by the US bishops in 1985, he traced the slow – too slow – and painful process by which the bishops moved from treating cases of abuse as a moral issue (handled in the confessional) to a therapeutic one (handled in a treatment program) to a criminal one. I could hear the pain in his voice as he described his own awareness, as an abbot, of the scars left on the victims of sexual abuse. The healing is slow and never complete; new situations may re-open the old wounds, and new healing is needed.
A Culture of Safety. This gaping wound left a variety of other scars – broken relationships between priests and bishops, within religious communities where one member abused a child or teen, between priests and religious and the lay people they serve. What is needed most, said Abbot John, is constant on-going effort to build a culture of safety within the Church. He emphasized, too, that this was not something that could be done once and checked off: it requires constant effort, constant vigilance, and most of all, making sure that there is always someplace and someone to whom it is safe to talk. Listening especially to the voices of victims is at the heart of this culture of safety.
The wound of clericalism. Abbot John turned to the huge upsurge in lay ecclesial ministry, comparing its importance to the tremendous growth of monastic communities in the early middle ages or of apostolic communities in the 18th century. He named the richness and fruitfulness of their many ministries, but pointed also to the wound in the body of Christ in the tension of the as-yet unsettled meaning of lay ministry and the ordained clergy. Clerical culture, in a positive sense, could bear much fruit: developing a collegiality and esprit de corps, upholding each other in witness and ministry. Clericalism, in a negative sense, opened a chasm between the ordained clergy and lay ecclesial ministers. Abbot John described the 1999 meeting of Catholic bishops where several questions were addressed. Some pushed to resolve the questions strongly one way or the other; Avery Cardinal Dulles is reported to have spoken instead for defining only what was truly clear and agreed, and living into the answers – the approach adopted in Lay Ecclesial Ministry: The State Of The Questions. Listening – among all parties – is again the heart of healing and growing past this wound.
Sexuality. Close to the end of his time, Abbot John took up questions regarding sexuality, picking up the thread of the importance of a healthy and integrated sexuality from his discussion of the sex scandal crisis. He turned here to the many issues of sexuality dividing society and with it the Church. He described the tremendous anticipation among lay people while Pope Paul VI was writing his encyclical Humanae Vitae, followed by their tremendous disappointment when it upheld the Church’s traditional teaching against artificial contraception. Time constraints definitely shaped this part of the talk; I watched Abbot John set aside a page and so not develop this topic as fully as the others. It was clear that he was reporting with tremendous empathy the shock, the disappointment and ultimately the rejection of the teaching of Humanae Vitae by the majority of Catholics at the time. His own position on this, and issues such as same sex unions, was less clear. The wound was clear – the hopes and aspirations of some for changes in the teachings of the Church. The path forward, as described by Abbot John, required a deep listening to what was being said.
Scarred church. The talk left much to ponder. One friend was pretty disgusted at Abbot John’s empathetic description of the massive rejection of Humanae Vitae by Catholic lay people, and left. I shared some of his dismay, wishing I had also heard am empathetic discussion of the truth and beauty of its theology of marriage, and the accuracy of its social predictions. Abbot John’s overall message, though, was stronger and deeper. Drawing again on the image of the Body of Christ, he said, quite forecefully, that even when we disagree, we cannot say to each other, “I am the eye, and I don’t need YOU!” or “I am the ear and we only need hearing here!”
What bridge can there be when the disagreement is strong? It is not surprising that a Benedictine abbot would recommend that we “Listen — with the ears of our hearts.” From an Abbot who could tell of meeting with the sex abuse victims and families abused by monks of his community – and also with the monks – this is no pious prattle. He has learned and practiced this type of deep listening and learning as the path of wisdom when the body is wounded and nearly severed. When we are lucky enough to hear from one who dwells where the wounds are most visible and tends to them, it is worthwhile to take the message to heart.