Contending with a Corrosive Ecclesial Culture: An Ecclesiological Analysis

By: Gerard Mannion

September 25, 2019

The Role of Theology and Organizational Structure in Addressing Clergy Sexual Abuse

The clerical abuse crisis has to be understood in its wider ecclesial context. The key problem here is not the actual prevalence of clerical and religious abuse throughout the Church in and of itself—shocking and horrific as those crimes are. It continues to be the same problem that allowed abuse to continue and to remain covered up during such a long period. The abuse crisis has to be understood as an acute symptom of a much deeper malaise in the church.

There are deep-seated problems and fault-lines in the ecclesial culture of the Church that need urgent reform. Many, if not most, of these fault-lines are linked to issues of authority, governance, and participation. Above all else, that culture was shaped by the understanding and exercise of magisterium that prevailed in the church. It is a culture that has, in many significant instances, proved morally and ecclesially corrosive and has helped perpetuate cover-ups and secrecy, allowing abusive priests and religious to go unpunished for far too long, just as bishops complicit in hiding their crimes have remained unaccountable. 

Pope Francis has publicly acknowledged that something is seriously wrong with Church culture and has called for the involvement of the laity in helping the Church to tackle and eradicate that culture as far as possible, most notably in his August 2018 “Letter to the People of God.” He denounced the moral failings of the cover-ups once again and pledged solidarity in taking the side of the victims. What the Pope says there and elsewhere about transforming ecclesial culture is essentially a call—in effect—for a dismantling of the centralized hierarchical system of Church authority and governance and for greater participation of all the faithful in transforming the Church for the better. So many in the Church have been calling for such across many decades now. In particular, he denounced the culture of clericalism as especially corrosive for the church.

The problem is not simply individual moral failings—it is a crisis embedded in the morality of an institution. The church has suffered moral corrosion and corruption in many places. This had led to a culture developing, as happens in any institution suffering such moral decline, whereby values and virtues become suppressed. The irony is all the great here because the church, of course, is in the business of teaching and promoting values and virtues, particularly social ones and most especially justice. It is not enough for church leaders to point to serious moral failings in other institutions, among political and business leaders and the like. The church needs to be exemplary because being so is its very business. Ethically speaking, it is one thing, no matter how outrageous, for a narcissistic demagogue or a politician to betray trust, to shun truthfulness by default, and to resist even the slightest pretense to lead by moral principles. But for a Church and its ministers and leaders to do the same is of a different scale on the moral continuum altogether.

It would be futile simply to throw stones at all Church leaders or to deny that there are so many good and virtuous leaders in the Church at every level. But sometimes good people become embroiled in an institutional culture that diminishes their own moral capital and eventually their own powers of moral discernment. They become swept up in the culture and, before too long, find themselves doing things and supporting policies and actions that they know to be morally wrong. Those in positions of Church leadership and authority have a constant obligation to appreciate and remind themselves of the dangers of institutional morality taking on a direction of its own.

It is time for the defensive and expedient mindset to be jettisoned once and for all. Within the Church, things can and must be different. At various points of its history, the Church has succumbed very much to the negative spirit of the age, when it comes to which models of governance and authority to adopt and which methods to employ to shun all models of accountability, transparency, and truthfulness.

Busy leaders sometimes allow themselves to be content with the letter of the law, but the New Testament tells us that doing so is never enough. Covering the institution’s legal hide is never enough. The Church has no option but to go the extra mile, for such was the teaching of Christ himself.

The questions that need to be answered and the issues that must be resolved obviously stretch back several decades. But a number of core issues remain unresolved, and it is only relatively recently that even the slightest hope that things might change for the better has genuinely emerged. 

What is beyond question is that the self-image of the Church among too many of its leaders, clerics, and religious was not just triumphalistic; it was one that perceived the Church to be untouchable, beyond reproach and beyond criticism.

It is beyond question that so much progress has been made. Rome has begun to try and get its house in order, as so many other dioceses have around the world. Pope Francis has tried so much more than most to confront this issue—but too many bishops and that lingering institutional culture among too many parts of the church still place the institution's reputation above the welfare of its members and the victims of some of its ministers.

The Church will and should be judged by its own standards within as much as by what it does to promote justice without. The time has come for the Church to honestly and openly lay bare the institutional fault-lines that have contributed to the extent and prolongation of the abuse. It should explore how prevailing ecclesial cultures and ecclesiological attitudes actually worsened the crisis and compounded the misery of victims, preventing them from receiving justice, compassion, and due care. By treating the crisis in this wider ecclesial context, as a very serious and acute symptom of a much deeper ecclesial malaise, constructive ways forward might emerge to enable the Church to engage in a long-overdue process of honest self-reflection and healing into the future.

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