Can the Catholic Church Change?

By Robert A. Orsi, PhD

Can the Catholic Church change?

Many survivors of clerical sexual abuse are confronting this question head-on today in the United States and around the Catholic world as they seek to act in faithfulness to what they have come to believe is their calling, specifically as victim/survivors of clergy sexual abuse, to reform the Church. Abused by the alter Christus (“another Christ,” as the priest is commonly referred to in Catholic theology), and struggling with the religious, as well as the psychological, consequences of the abuse, many survivors I know say they have been endowed with unique insight into Catholic tradition.

Having interviewed many survivors of Catholic clergy abuse since 2012, when I began my project on the religious consequences of clergy abuse, I find that one commonality among a great diversity of survivors is a sense of having something special to offer their fellow Catholics, a calling to share what they have experienced and what they have learned from their experience with the rest of the Church.

Most notably, survivors of clergy abuse have experienced how thoroughly evil may get entwined with holiness in the Church’s lived experience. “We’ve been dealt another reality,” one survivor told me. “We look at things differently. Our reality is a little different from other people’s [other Catholics’] reality.” This looking-at-things-differently is a terrible and demanding charism thrust upon survivors. But how effective can they be in changing the Church that “can and cannot change,” in jurist John Noonan’s phrase, if their charism is not acknowledged by the Church?

Survivors have worked for the past two decades helping to introduce programs to make parishes safer for people of all ages, especially children; educating fellow Catholics about protecting the vulnerable and identifying signs of abuse; and creating venues such as this newsletter in which survivors may witness to their lives as they together they create an historical record of this painful era in global Catholic history. This is all valuable and timely work, and it is ongoing.

But within the last year I have sensed a growing frustration among some of the survivors I know that such efforts are not leading to the deep and lasting change they want for the Church. The evidence for this concern includes the push back, if not outright hostility, they feel from Church leaders as well as from Catholics in the pews. One survivor I have gotten to know refers to this as the “leper feeling.” Her fellow Catholics seem to find her somehow morally contagious. The message seems to be: We’ve heard all this; the problem is fixed; get on with your life and let the Church get on with its work. There is an unseemly haste to move the clergy sexual abuse crisis into the past and declare it over, as the good will of the past decade curdles into resentment.

All this means that survivors of clergy abuse have entered a new moment in their relationship with the Catholic Church.

Looking back over the various programs instituted since Dallas (2002), many survivors are asking whether such efforts, necessary as they are, address the deeper theological and historical roots of the crisis. When the work of lawyers, therapists, advocacy organizations, church-appointed commissions, and so on is all done, will Catholics have, that is, will the Church have learned enough the causes and consequences of the crisis to act upon that knowledge? Or has all of this activity gone to preserve the very circumstances within the Church that contributed to creating a facilitating environment for abuse in the first place, as well as for its denial? When a diocese’s response to a survivor is to offer to pay for therapy, for example, does this not mean that the crisis is being framed as solely psychological, which lets the church off the theological and doctrinal hook?

Survivors of clergy abuse tend to agree that this was a Catholic scandal and remains a Catholic issue. As one survivor put it, everyone who was sexually abused by a priest was abused in “a Catholic way.” Have we all as Catholics sufficiently plumbed the depths of this crisis to be able to understand what this powerful phrase, “in a Catholic way,” means? If not, is it really possible to say that the Church has responded to the crisis?

Such questions affirm the need for publications such as Healing Voices that offer survivors the opportunity to recount their stories. The questions also underscore the particular importance of bishop-accountability.org, the major online archive of the crisis. Unless the clergy sexual abuse crisis is documented in these ways and others, and unless the documents preserved, the crisis will disappear beneath the waters of time without a trace, failing to teach the Church anything, or to inspire anything transformative.

Beyond the stories and the historical documentation, what next?

In his address on the opening day of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962, Pope John XXIII challenged those men in the Church who “act as if they have nothing to learn from history.” The Pope urged Catholics, instead, to pay close and disciplined attention to the evidence of history, which he referred to as “the teacher of life,” in order to learn about how the Christian witness has been lived in different times and places—and how at times it has failed. This commitment pervades the Council’s theology. The Pope was especially critical of those who contrasted the messiness of the present to the past, which they imagined as unequivocally good, “as if,” the Pope said, back then “everything went favorably and correctly with regard to Christian doctrine, morality, and the Church’s proper freedom.”

Pope John wanted Catholics to be filled with the courage necessary for the tasks that lay ahead of them in bringing the Church into full engagement with the modern age. While the world has much to learn from Catholic teaching and faithfulness, he tells them, the Church must be humble enough to listen to the world. The Church must listen especially closely to those moments when it has failed in its faithfulness. There was horror as well as glory, evil alongside holiness, in the Church’s long life. This was true of Christ’s years on earth, and it is true of the Catholic tradition. How can anything human be otherwise?

The sexual abuse crisis represents the one of the Church’s most profound failures, and survivors of clergy sexual abuse have had the most intimate experience of this failure on all levels, from the abuse to its denial and repression. Now, in conversation with theologians and historians they may begin to expand their witness outward, to raise fundamental theological questions about Catholic practice and doctrine. For example, in what way does the doctrine of the priest as being ontologically set apart and above all other human beings contribute to the impunity with which the alter Christus acted, and what are the alternatives for understanding priesthood in the Catholic tradition, going back to the earliest days of the Christian community? No question should be disallowed, and this necessary reexamination of the tradition in light of historical experience ought to be courageous and wide-ranging. Survivors can help lead the way.


Dr. Robert A. Orsi is Professor of Religious Studies and History and Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University. His award-winning 2006 Princeton University Press book, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, was followed by his 2015 Harvard University Press book entitled History and Presence, whose last chapter concerns survivors’ religious experiences and understandings. Since 2112, Bob has been researching the experience of survivors of abuse by Catholic clergy, interviewing hundreds of adults. A two-part interview about his preliminary observations of the depth of survivors’ faith may be found on YouTube as “What We Can Learn from Survivors” as Part 1and Part 2. Bob may be reached at r-orsi@northwestern.edu.

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