They addressed this letter to Fordham graduate students, but it speaks well to the experiences of many people today.
As this new academic year begins, it is impossible to be unaware of the momentous challenges and tensions within the Roman Catholic faith community. The unprecedented resignation of Theodore McCarrick from the ranks of the church’s cardinals because of his documented abuses of seminarians and priests under his authority and alleged abuses of children. The release of a Pennsylvania grand jury’s massive report on clerics’ stomach-turning sexual exploitation of children and church authorities’ horrifying callousness toward their plight. The current investigations of alleged sexual harassment at several Catholic seminaries. The recent accusations of a former Vatican ambassador about what he labels as Pope Francis’ complicity in McCarrick’s abuses, along with subsequent calls for Francis’ resignation from the papacy.
Any one of these events would represent a major crisis. Taken together, they constitute what the president of the U.S. Catholic episcopal conference called a “moral catastrophe” of a magnitude that, while not entirely without analogue in the church’s history, none of us living has ever experienced or witnessed.
These events move us to write to you for several reasons. First, regardless of your faith traditions or commitments, our identity as a theology department at a Jesuit Catholic university renders it impossible for us to be unaffected by the broader currents at work in the Catholic church. Many of you are teaching students who are curious, concerned, and perhaps even angry at the events that are transpiring. Others will find yourself being asked about your reaction to these events by peers and colleagues. Second, many of you are members of the Catholic faith and have shared with us your heartbreak, fury, confusion, and profound unease at what is happening. Third, we recognize that such feelings are not limited to those who are Catholics. Many among us mourn with those who suffer, share in the grief of this moment, and long to work for justice.
Finally, we write with particular concern for two groups among us, namely, those who identify with the LGBTQ community and those who are survivors of sexual abuse, especially abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy. While all of us feel in some way the stresses of this time, members of these groups may perhaps be the most acutely distressed and vulnerable. The constant – at times graphic – discussions of childhood abuse can be difficult for survivors to bear, reminding them of wounds that never completely heal. The efforts by some influential persons to lay responsibility for the church’s situation upon gay priests and our society’s growing acceptance of same-sex orientations and relationships can occasion feelings of anger, betrayal, and perhaps even shame.
We write not only as professors in our department, but also as people of faith who are deeply committed to and critical of the life of the church writ large. There is much that is uncertain about this moment, but these things are clear to us:
First, we categorically condemn the vile slander that the crisis in the Catholic church is due to the presence of gay men. It reflects one of the most pernicious and deeply rooted stereotypes of gay persons, that of the sexual molester and child predator. It is a prejudice rooted in ignorance, fear, and/or hate. It negates the witness of many gay men who serve as priests with dedication and even distinction. It minimizes or even ignores the pain endured by female survivors of clerical abuse. Moreover, the alleged connection between pedophilia and homosexuality is unsupported by the Catholic church’s own commissioned research. The crisis facing the Catholic church is not one of sexual orientation. It is instead a crisis of sexual violence, systemic dishonesty, and episcopal malfeasance.
Second, we value the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions present in our faculty and student body. Our stance of open embrace and hospitality is a feature which distinguishes us in the Catholic academy. We reaffirm this openness and welcome, especially in a climate where some vociferously challenge it.
Third, we reject cynical attempts to exploit the suffering of victims and the outrage caused by the exposure of abuse and its concealment for the purpose of settling intra-ecclesial disputes and engaging in struggles for power. As advocate and abuse survivor Peter Isley has rightly stated, “The sexual abuse crisis is not about whether a bishop is a liberal or a conservative. It is about protecting children.”
Fourth, we reaffirm the freedom of theological research that has long characterized our department. Arguably, fear of the truth has played a major role in the genesis of this crisis. We serve all of our publics, including faith communities, best by doing the most disciplined, rigorous, and responsible theological exploration that we are capable of. We believe that our work is more important and necessary than ever before. Whatever may be our personal relationship to the unfolding crisis, the worst in the church calls upon the best that we can offer.
Fifth, we invite everyone to respect each other’s spiritual journeys. This difficult time is moving some among us to reevaluate, reconsider, and renegotiate their ecclesial commitments and membership. Some who identify as Catholic honestly wonder if they can, or should, remain a part of the church. These are profoundly sacred questions that no one can presume to answer for another. What we can offer one another is a space of spiritual safety where such discernments are honored as legitimate quests and their consequent decisions are respected.
Finally, we offer open doors and open hearts. The crisis in the Catholic church will not be resolved quickly, nor will its resolution be without major institutional unrest and personal pain. Those who are inclined to use the language of Christian faith may choose to see this crisis time in the light of the Paschal Mystery, as a dying that is a gateway to the rising of a new way of being church. But dying can be a protracted, difficult, and even ugly process.
Yet what we know for certain is that, as an academic community, we still have one another. Each of us brings to the table our own histories, intellectual and spiritual resources, personal and professional relationships, and conceptions of what justice in the church and in society might look like. We are stronger for all these multiplicities of identities, commitments, and experiences, and in these uncertain times, we make our way forward facing each day together, as colleagues, scholars, and friends.
James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics
James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics