Let me begin by offering my opinion that Bishop Barron’s book, Letter to a Suffering Church, has offered a service to the Church inasmuch as it attempts to assuage the concerns of a large number of people – who take the time to read and consider Bishop Barron’s remarks. In an effort to heal, he has brought forth a number of points offering some perspective on the present ecclesiastical catastrophe. Yes, such scandals have occurred before because of the frailty of men who turn from the truth to embrace evil. This is part of the fallen condition of man, but that can never excuse the sins. It is corruption, pure and simple, and it must be dealt with decisively. St. Paul admonishes believers, in no uncertain terms, to act decisively to “put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry” (Col 3:5 NABRE). Can we imagine then that anything less is demanded of those who represent the governance, teaching, and administration of God’s grace to the faithful?
To this, Bishop Baron points out that such corruption has at times been pervasive, involving many clergy and well placed laymen in the Church’s machinery of governance and ministry. Though there have also been heroic lights and calls for reform, still, we can contemplate a sad history of moral laxity and abuse of power in the Roman Church. The fact that evil has existed in this Church, as well as other ecclesial bodies, and this evil has been allowed to exist does not mitigate present malfeasance (a point strongly and rightly urged by Mr. Nerval). So if the bishop’s book lessens outrage at insidious evils rising to the highest levels of the Vatican, it will be counterproductive. Mr. Nerval seems to see this as an intentional minimizing of the crisis, a superficial treatment too lightly treating the depth of corruption in the Body of Christ.
This is where a number of critical minds, like Mr. Nerval’s, will see Bishop Barron falling short. Certain concerns should not be assuaged. Put in proper historical perspective, of course, but never mitigating our godly outrage against what is so outrageous. That, however, Bishop Baron might argue, is not a cause to fundamentally alter his book and its concern to offer some solace and healing to those who desperately need it. It may be an argument for another book that is more sharply critical. Interestingly, both the bishop and Mr. Nerval come to the same end of praying for the Church.
Undoubtedly we must pray, but those so inclined must also act. We need a louder and more insistent voice for thorough reform and spiritual renewal in the Church, and a purging out of malefactors presently entrenched in the system. Those of us who have this concern must not be deflected from their drive to see justice and reform carried out expeditiously.
Down through the centuries, Christian reformers both in and outside the Catholic Church have pointed a finger at our evils, so often obfuscated by bad theology and in the end covered up. Of course this has damaged the Church’s image! For Roman Catholicism makes the highest claims, and its laxity, corruption, cover-up and abuse of power have again and again rendered these claims ridiculous in the eyes of the world. They have lost us souls and led to schisms.
The chief issue with Bishop Barron’s letter is whether or not in attempting to assuage concerns, he may be acting to mute the criticisms and lull the rank and file back into complacency. He leaves much unstated and unaddressed. This is where Mr. Nerval’s review is of real value. Nerval’s language is sharp, but his arguments are almost all to the point, my only concern being with some accusations of papal complicity which seem to take insufficient account of conditions. On these points I would not exonerate, neither would I go too far in condemnation. On complex issues it behooves us to tread carefully – not to avoid problems, not to avoid speaking clearly and pointedly to the problems, but to avoid inflaming anger and despair injudiciously and undercutting confidence in holy offices. But that is not Nerval’s intention. Far from it! It is the very opposite.
Among the most important concerns raised by Bishop Barron is the perduring effectiveness of the sacraments, which obtain God’s grace by the Church’s invocation of a dominical promise, which can never fail. No unworthy prelate, no matter how highly placed, can ever stand between Jesus Christ and his faithful people, or block the grace that flows to the believer. Good point! Bishop Baron is right on this crucial matter. However, unfaithful clergy do cast a dark shadow over the sacraments, offend many souls, and even lose souls to the Church. Nerval is absolutely correct in underscoring this great scandal.
At times Barron will seem glib and evasive to the critical mind so deeply scandalized, not only by the existence of evil in the Church but at the great effort to cover it up. This greatly intensifies the damage being done. The unwillingness of the proper authorities to act quickly and decisively to protect the flock strikes at the integrity of the institutional Church. Although it does not sweep all of it away, because there are good men, saints, martyrs, and legions of the faithful, all striving to keep conscience and protect the flock. But look how many times down through the ages their best efforts have been thwarted by persons in power. Here we must grieve and repent.
So I am left agreeing with the substance of Gaston Nerval’s argument. I only draw back from certain language and an account of the state of the Church which perhaps does not give full credit to good efforts of catholic reformers, clergy and laity alike, or the failed efforts of some good men.