Two Churches and Abuse

This week, as much as any week in recent memory, our church needs healing.  We the church are hurting and unfortunately, The Catholic Church probably can’t fix itself without us.  We all would love the Catholic Church to get its act together and fix itself.  That attitude (which the author is very guilty of) is inherently a part of the problem.  At this moment, we have a couple options; we can pack our bags and leave, or we the “lowercase church” can demand and do our part in holding The Catholic Church to account.

In the text of the New Testament, the word “church” or “churches” is mentioned 108 times.  It’s never capitalized.  Why?  Because as Paul tells us in the second reading today in his letter to the Ephesians, the idea of “church” simply refers to us, the members of the body of Christ.  He calls us to love as Christ loves the church. He’s not talking about the bricks and mortar in which we go to Mass.  He’s talking about us.

When Pope Francis commented late last week on the horrific accounts of abuse and concealment in Pennsylvania, he referred to the “Church,” and its role.  In context, it’s clear, he’s talking about the institution and entity of the Catholic Church, consisting of the priests, bishops, assets, and heirachy.

Pope Francis rightly lays blame in many places, but none more so than when he blames the culture of “clericalism.”  It’s certainly not the first time he’s blamed clericalism, and before we tackle it, we should define it.

Clericalism is the idea of the Church hierarchy that exerts power, control, and supremacy.  Clericalism today is often accompanied by the kind of hypocrisy condemned by Christ in Matthew 23 as Christ denounces the Scribes and Pharisees.

They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.  Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing.’  (Matthew 23:4-7, 25-27 NAB)

Pope Francis says the following about it; “Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.”

When he blamed lay persons for any role in the culture of clericalism, my initial reaction was anger. We lay people certainly didn’t do this, and we surely didn’t build this culture.  Upon reflection, we may have a bigger role than we thought…

How many of us have ever thought something similar to, “the Church isn’t a democracy, we can’t really effect change.”  It’s been especially reinforced by top down doctrinal rules on things like marriage, annulments, and the Eucharist.  “Rules are rules,” and the end result is many times exclusion from the Church, and not communion with Christ for people who are otherwise seeking Him.



In the face of this, what are we, the church, called to do?  We must each ask ourselves this, and in light of the gravity of the situation, there’s not much out-of-bounds.  Some have suggested withholding money,  or simply leaving the Church.  The Catholic Church surely doesn’t have a lock on the only path to salvation.  As for me, I’m speaking.  I’m looking to Christ’s words in the Gospels and applying them to today and our Church.

Dallas Bishop Edward Burns is planning town halls  among other things, which is wonderful.  He asks us to pray for victims and for sanctification of priests.  Candidly, I have no problem praying for the sanctification of priests, but for priests who have abused anyone, young or old, there should be no place for them in ministry.  I’ll pray for them while they hopefully enter secular life or prison.  I believe Christ is clear on the topic as well.

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.  Matthew 18:6 NAB

In the Pontiff’s response to Pennsylvania, he mentions “implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.”  I see little distinction between perpetrators, and those who either by act or omission are part of the concealment and perpetuation by allowing these men to remain in ministry.



I imagine this will be ongoing, and as pervasive as the abuse was in Pennsylvania, and from past reports, we know this was not exclusive to any single particular geography.  We know from the Pennsylvania grand jury report that some of these priests were transferred to West Texas.  (Apparently Amarillo and Odessa are viewed as punishment.)

The Pope has been talking about elevating the laity for years now.  How many of us  accepted that challenge?  (Better question; how many of us even knew he’d been talking about clericalism and its evils for the past few years?)

For me and hopefully for others, that silence and hesitation ends here and now.  I heard the Pope.  His words are echoes of Christ’s, and they should be echoed to our local pastors and to our Bishops.  Only the “lowercase church” body can to put those words into action and accountability.

-John Bielamowicz

PS – I have no shortage of faith that Christ is still guiding us.  I took a peek at next week’s Gospel, and there’s plenty of reason for faith and hope.



One Reply to “Two Churches and Abuse”

  1. I was raised Catholic and I really appreciated reading John’s message. I agree – it is the “lowercase church” where Christ’s followers are called to faith in Him (Ephesians 2:8-9 and 4:16) and to love and do life together. It is in the church and not The Church where we grow in our discernment of His word and what it means to do life together as His church. And we are called to help others to understand this and follow Him as His church (Matthew 28:19–20).

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