As the Lenten journey moves to its conclusion with Good Friday, we are reminded in today's Sightings post that Lent is a time of repentance, and that while people of other faith traditions need not heep scorn upon the Roman Catholic Church for its recent scandals, it is appropriate to consider both the call to repentance that is part of our observance, and to attend to the legal questions that pertain to these matters.
William Schweiker, the Director of the Martin Marty Center, speaks to these questions that need to be addressed, not just in the Catholic Church, but in all religious communities.
Lent and the Sexual Abuse Scandal
-- William Schweiker
Sad and troubling news is spreading like wildfire around the world of the extent of the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church and the seeming failure of the Church leadership, possibly including the Pope, adequately to address the problem. Martin Marty in Monday’s Sightings column helpfully isolated several reasons why Protestants might not have spoken out on the scandal. Mindful of the dangers of speaking from the outside about matters internal to another church’s or religion’s life, more nevertheless can and must be said.
This story about sexual abuse breaks during Lent. The Lenten season for Christians is a time of repentance, self-examination, and the commitment to change one’s life and the life of the Church better to reflect the Gospel message. In this season, Christians engage in practices analogous to other religious traditions, which also set aside time for reflection, penitence, and renewed commitment to a life of faithfulness and purity. The confluence of these two facts—the season of Lent and the scandal in the Catholic Church—highlights two aspects, one distinctly religious and the other a question at the intersection of law and religion, both of which are being missed in the news coverage of this horrid scandal.
First, the religious issue. The papacy and the Church hierarchy have issued repeated apologies for the suffering caused to victims and in fact one bishop has resigned over the crisis. This seems to be an appropriate “Lenten” response of penitence. Pope Benedict has spoken honestly and movingly about the shame this has caused the church and also the depth of harm done to the victims. And it is clear that as Cardinal and as Pope, he worked to bring transparency and process to the Church. That said, it also seems the full meaning of Lent has been elided. During Lent, Christians are called to penitence but also to amend their ways of life. A full “Lenten” response must entail deep and radical changes in the culture of the Catholic Church so that sexually abusive priests cannot find haven within its walls or ecclesiastical courts. In the spirit of this season, it seems the Pope should order full and complete transparency of procedure and insist that sexual predators feel the full force of religious and secular law. To be sure, the Church rightly seeks forgiveness of sins, yet some sins are also the violations of civil law. Words of repentance, reassignments to different parishes, and psychological therapy are not sufficient evidence of the desire to amend the practices and culture of the institution so that it might reflect the Gospel. The Lenten season gives the opportunity—and in fact would seem to demand—strong action by the Church to amend the Church.
And, second, there is the legal issue. The Vatican has at times issued statements that the Papacy is under unfair attack from various quarters, especially the legal community in the Pope’s homeland of Germany. This is to miss the larger issue now besetting nations around the world. The question is whether or not any religion has the right to hold its own courts and legal system free from laws that pertain to citizens. Of course, there has been some acceptance of religious courts—at least Christian and Jewish courts—in European countries; that seems right and appropriate. Yet the question is whether or not actions that clearly endanger a nation’s people can and should be relegated to religious courts. That is not plausible. When actions are revealed that endanger the safety and welfare of individuals, they fall within the scope of secular courts. And on this point, the Pope has tried to be a genuine world-leader by insisting that the Church open its doors to secular law in cases like the sexual abuse of children. But more needs to be done. Leadership on this matter would not only enable him to align penitence with real steps towards amending the Church, but it could be an example for other religious communities as well. It is time for religious communities to preserve, protect, and to promote the lives of those who are vulnerable – especially children – rather than seeking to immunize themselves from laws that rightly bears on all citizen in democratic nations.
Christians believe that Lent is a prelude to Easter and thus the Good News of divine grace. Yet the Easter message is hollow and void of its meaning if Christians do not understand that this message only makes sense in light of penitence and the struggle to amend one’s life. The current sexual abuse scandal is denying the Catholic Church the opportunity to proclaim a word of Grace. The world’s religions can no longer imagine that their spiritual messages will resonate with people if there are on-going and systemic instances of egregious moral failure. It is time for the Church to enter the season of Lent.
William Schweiker is Director of the Martin Marty Center and Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Laura Lindenberger Wellen considers how illustrations in various editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) have contributed to a sense of that novel's place as what one scholar calls "the Summa Theologica of nineteenth-century America's religion of domesticity." Specifically she focuses on Miguel Covarrubias, who immigrated from Mexico during the 1920s and was active during the rich artistic and political era known as the Harlem Renaissance. Wellen argues that Covarrubias's visual representations in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which rely on a sensibility at play in Harlem of the 1930s, in effect "reanimate the religious and political tensions which made Stowe's text such a popular and controversial text in the 1850s." With invited responses forthcoming from John Howell (University of Chicago Divinity School), Amy Mooney (Columbia College Chicago), and Jo-Ann Morgan (Western Illinois University). http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/index.shtml
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.