Are you hurting? Do you know someone who is? Has institutional religion — or people representing it — only made matters worse? If any of these sound familiar, a new book by Father Thomas Berg might be for you.
I first met Father Berg back when he was a member of the Legionaries of Christ, a religious order founded by Father Marcial Maciel, who was uncovered to have been a serial abuser; today Father Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. His new book, Hurting in the Church, tells some of that story. But it is even more an invitation for healing to anyone who has had a close encounter with abuse, sin, and shortcomings in the institution of the Church or people in it.
Every time he is standing at a pulpit, he looks out and sees “hurting individuals,” he writes.
“We hurt first and foremost because life hurts: hurting is part of the human condition.” He adds, “When pain experienced in and through the Church is layered on what life itself already deals us the suffering can be all the more acute.” Fr. Berg, who currently teaches moral theology and is vice rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, writes as someone with experience on both ends of the pain. We talk about the book and the way forward for a hurting people and a Church that has not always been an exemplar of loving one another as made in the image of Christ.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: There were allegations against the founder of the Legionaries as early as 1997, and we were among those who were wrong to believe the denials. What’s the best way to think about those days? What is the best approach to such memories? Should we think “maybe I could have done something”? Now that we know there was abuse and we know we were wrong to believe there wasn’t, are we unintentionally complicit? But there’s nothing we can do now.
Father Thomas Berg: We need to invite our Lord to show us how to approach those memories and how to understand that time of our lives. In his light, we might, on the one hand come to serenely understand that, sure — objectively — there were things we might have done differently. In my case, there were questions I might have asked. I might have been more insistent. As I explore in my book, regarding my own case, in hindsight, my initial period of discernment with the Legionaries was far too precipitated, too forced.
On the other hand, Christ can help us to see that what “might have been” and what I “could have and should have done” are often two different things. I can only do and carry out as a requirement of conscience what I am able to understand as a true option and am in a position psychologically to carry out with freedom. I think few if any of us — inside or outside of the Legion and Regnum Christi [the lay apostolic movement affiliated with the Legion], so deeply caught up as we were in the morass of deceptions — were ever in a position of such clarity and independence of judgment for the most part that there were things we clearly “should” have done and did not do.
So, yes, we, perhaps even the vast majority of Legionary superiors, were unintentionally complicit in those deceptions, errors, and in the cult of personality of Maciel. But while in some sense there is “no way back” to correct those errors (outside of recognizing them and renouncing them now), Christ can also help us to see how, notwithstanding the shadows, errors, and deceptions, he nonetheless used all these events to draw good from them, for ourselves and for the Church. As Megan — a remarkable woman I interview in the book — puts it, God can “make beautiful out of it.” Based on the feedback I am getting on my book, I’ve come to understand that my book itself would not have been possible had I not gone through what I went through; it’s part of the great good he has willed to bring forth from the darkness.
Lopez: There are people who look at the Catholic Church and are repulsed by the idea that we would continue on as if nothing evil has happened. The Church is supposed to be a safe haven, a sanctuary, and yet children and teens were abused! This is straight from hell. What does the Church offer in the face of this? This is so obviously a stumbling block to reentry to so many.
Berg: We can’t speak, unfortunately, of a uniform response to the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. The Church mystically throughout the world is always at prayer for her hurting members. But institutionally, at the level of each diocese, there is not a uniform response. If there is anything close to uniformity, it is to be found in the programs that have been established to ensure that all persons, clergy and laity alike, who work with minors in Church contexts receive some degree of training in the protection of minors and the creation of safe environments. That’s been a start.
The problem is that so many think these programs are the be all end all, and that the crisis has therefore been contained. The crisis is not over for the victims of abuse. But as a Church, broadly speaking, we want to forget this chapter as fast as we can; the wounds will never heal that way. We must accompany the survivors of abuse, and we as local Churches are still often failing to do that. Some bishops are very good in terms of outreach to victims; others still don’t get it. Whether from the Vatican or from the diocese, victims cannot be treated with bureaucratic responses. Persons in leadership in the Church, principally the bishops, have to be tirelessly solicitous of the needs of victims.
And we’re just not there yet. We still need a cultural revolution in our chanceries as to how we think about victims and about how we prioritize the protection of children and the prevention of other forms of abuse, beyond merely bureaucratized remedies. We have to really love the victims of abuse. And until we do, the Church’s response to this crisis will not only be perceived as lacking, it will be lacking. That said, we have made some strides, and Catholics in the pew remain largely unaware of this, or of the sharp drop-off in abuse allegations. We need to do a better job of spreading that bit of good news. We need to talk about what we are doing. We need to show that we are repentant. We need to talk about what we’ve learned in the past 15 years since the crisis was unleashed, and we need to humbly recognize that there is still much, much more to be done.
Lopez: Knowing what we know about sins in the Church, why should anyone be Christian? Why would American culture want or need Christians, especially Catholics?
Berg: True — a lot of people hold the Church up to ridicule and derision. What they have known about the Church are the failures of many of her members. They know the scandals and the profound contradictions that are part of her history. But all that notwithstanding, no less than in the first days after the Resurrection, the Church still has this to offer the world: Christ. What we can offer American culture is the witness of hearts that have been amazed at Jesus Christ, risen and alive, Lord of life and the giver of life’s meaning and truth; hearts amazed at the possibility and reality of Jesus Christ, who have known him, who have been dazzled by his love, amazed by truth, and overcome with the joy of friendship with him, so much so that “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
That is what American culture desperately needs today, and that is what committed Catholic disciples can and do offer. One of our greatest challenges remains, however, that we must at the same time share this amazement within the Church itself: with our many brothers, sisters, and indeed, with many a priest and even bishops who in reality are not living as disciples, who have not yet in their lives formed a personal relationship with Jesus.
Lopez: Why is it important to know that every saint had “shortcomings and failures and quirks,” as you write?
Berg: It’s just Christian realism. Before and after baptism — we’re messy. We are a complex, amazing amalgam of flesh and spirit, animals endowed with rational souls, beings, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, caught in the in-between: not simply material beings, not angelic spirits. We’re amazing, beautiful, a mystery unto ourselves, infinitely loved by the God who created us — but also a real mess at times. That is the human material we bring to God’s project of making us holy. Holiness has to be rooted in that kind of realism. If not, it is simply a farce and an exercise in vanity and pride.
Lopez: Should holiness be a struggle?
Berg: Always has been and always will be. It’s true, of course, that virtue is an acquired habit, which over time makes acts of virtue easier and almost “second nature” to us as the scholastics would say. But it never stops being a challenge because holiness is “yes” one day after another to the Beloved. Holiness is fidelity. Holiness is giving beyond what we think we can give, then giving some more. There will always be struggle, because holiness will ultimately find us nailed to a crucifix next to Jesus.
Lopez: You write about the “art” of “healthy solitude.” Could we all benefit from it? How can we practice it?
Berg: Oh absolutely. The onslaught of gadgets and new communications and entertainment technology — as useful as it all can be — also opens up some potentially devastating and lasting impacts on our humanity. We are already seeing this in young people who, because of their absorption in gadgets and social media, are losing the very ability to interact; we now have younger generations who often fail to pick up on the kind of non-verbal cues and body language that for older generations were simply intuitive and absorbed into our psyches by continual exposure to the human face and gesticulations. Today we actually have to offer courses on “soft-skills” — human interaction 101, how to looks someone in the eye and shake hands, how to sustain a conversation, how to make small talk, and so on.
So, yes, we all can benefit from a healthy solitude: turning off our gadgets, fasting from social media, relishing the beauty of quiet and silence, enjoying good reading that will nurture our imagination and stimulate our ability to think and to reflect on the big questions. When millions of Americans no longer ask the big questions about life — not simply because they don’t care, but now because they have actually forgotten or never learned what those questions are in the first place — we know we have an enormous problem on our hands. Christians have always valued solitude, for these and many other reasons. It’s one of the gems we have to offer to American culture.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.