The Pope made some important comments on his trip to Portugal last week which have a fairly direct bearing on the abuse scandals so much in the news these days. Benedict’s response, as we might expect, touches on the spiritual aspects of the scandal and has some pretty deep implications for all of us. Here’s what the Holy Father said:
[A]ttacks against the Pope or the Church do not only come from outside; rather the sufferings of the Church come from within, from the sins that exist in the Church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way: the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from enemies on the outside, but is born from the sin within the church, the Church therefore has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the need for justice. Forgiveness is not a substitute for justice. In one word we have to re-learn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That is how we respond, and we need to be realistic in expecting that evil will always attack, from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil and the Virgin Mary is for us the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history.
In earlier comments, too, Benedict talked about the need for doing penance, something fundamental to our identities as Catholics but which, I have to admit, I don’t normally give much thought to. Among my generation of Catholics I’m probably not alone in being a little clueless about what penance is or why we do it.
On one level, of course, penance is a way of demonstrating the sincerity of our repentance from sin. This isn’t the same thing as trying to “prove” to God that we’re sorry; it has more to do with making the transformation in our lives real, translating our feelings of contrition into some sort of concrete action. On this level, we need our penance more than God does.
Penance can help repair the damage done by sin, but this reason only goes so far. After all, we can repent of our sins, change our ways, and receive God’s forgiveness, but we can’t change the past. Some things are simply beyond our human powers to make right.
The Church is facing this reality right now. In our American Catholic institutions we have put into place stringent policies to protect children from harm. We’ve paid out millions of dollars in damages. But, as much as has been done to ensure that such abuse will never happen again and that victims will be compensated, we can’t change the fact that the abuse happened. And that is a terrifying reality.
It’s terrifying because it represents an evil over which we are powerless. We’re confronted by other such evils in the world, our own sins but also “social sins” which we might oppose but in the end are not able to defeat. In the face of such massive evil, and our own powerlessness before it, we have three options: despair; delusion (either pretending the problem doesn’t exist or it’s not that bad); or, finally, turning to a power greater than ourselves.
Only God’s mercy and justice can right past wrongs. Only he can defeat the evil that would otherwise overwhelm our efforts. It’s out of the realization that we ourselves are powerless—but God is not—that a second, perhaps deeper, level of understanding penance emerges.
Christ defeats evil definitively on the Cross, but we still struggle to carry that victory into every place in our lives and in the world. Penance is a way of bringing Christ’s suffering, bringing his Cross, into our lives. Understanding this helps to make sense of what might, on the surface, seem to be Paul’s very strange remark in the Letter to the Colossians that “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24).
Pope Benedict is pointing toward a spirit of penance as the way to bring Christ’s healing victory on the Cross into those places in the Church where evil has overwhelmed us.
Over the past few weeks I have read plenty of commentaries telling the Pope or the bishops or the Vatican what they should or shouldn’t do right now. Some of this advice is genuine, some blustery self-righteousness. But the sort of healing that is needed is not something that the Pope or the bishops can provide for us because it’s not the sort of thing that any human power can provide. We, the Church, right now need God’s help. We need the Cross.
The Cross is not something that a better Vatican PR operation will provide; nor will legal settlements; nor even better policies, as necessary as those things are. It’s a grace that can come from God alone. But the Cross is also a sign of hope—the sign of hope—precisely because it is not dependent on any earthly power. My brothers and sisters, forgive me for preaching just now, but we can do penance too. We can pray for the Church’s healing. We can fast. We can go without luxuries, and even necessities, and we can give alms.
Penance is not just about “making up” for our own sins. It’s not something we only have to do for ourselves. Jesus suffered for everyone’s sins, and it is the job of all of us in the Church to do penance for each other and for the world. These moments of crisis, of sin and suffering within the Church, should make us feel more acutely the wisdom behind John Donne’s great line: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”
In all the other times of her sometimes painful—but still wonderful and graced—history the Church has found healing and renewal in the prayers and penances of the saints. And now is the time for us—for all of us—to rise to that call.