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“Don’t Dodge It”—Theology in the Face of the Abuse Crisis

Report on the meeting in Würzburg on February 9, 2019. A discussion between theological experts. By Gottfried Ugolini.

A one-day meeting considering the theological import of the abuse crisis in the Church was held in Würzburg on February 9, 2019. Interventions were given by Dr. Christiane Florin, Dr. Harald Dressing, Prof. Dr. Hans Joachim Salize, Prof. Dr. Dr. Thomas Shärtl, Prof. Dr. Godehard Brüntrup, SJ, Doris Reisinger, Klaus Pfeffer, Dr. Wunibald Müller, Prof. Dr. Sabine Demel, and Prof. Dr. Matthias Reméyi. The question which guided the meeting was: In view of the sexual abuses and other forms of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults in the Church, are there any theological consequences regarding content, ecclesiastic structures, or faith habitudes? The central message of this meeting was: Theology cannot refrain from dealing with the abuse crises in the Church. The following are some of the ideas that were shared:

Theology has to focus on the concrete aspects of life and the human person in reflecting on revelation. Theology proclaims that the dignity of the human person is given by God. That is true for the victims and survivors, but it is also true for those who abuse and for those who did not act in an adequate and responsible way. Theology has to guarantee a message of life and of the dignity of each human person. One of the main questions of the victims regards: Where was God? Why did he not intervene? Why did he not protect or save? Theology has to start its work from this reality and from concrete situations, in this case, from that of abuse.

God reveals himself in the face of the other. This must be true even for the victims and survivors. Abuse makes a person speechless.

Doris Reisinger gave a talk entitled “Power abuse and sexual violence in the Church, what does theology have to do with it”. An important point was raised: the victims want to be seen and heard. Theology is asked to listen willingly and attentively to victims and survivors, even to the abuser, and to those who did not fulfill their responsibility. This helps even theologians to take their position, recognizing where they cannot or no longer want to participate. Which theological ideas are behind the actions of the abusers, of those who looked away or covered up, of those who did not take up their responsibility? We have to admit that theological ideas have contributed to the fact that abuse happened in the Church. Theology also contributed in ways in which the faithful were seen as “subjects” and not taken seriously. The abuse crises also triggers faith crises in the faithful. How can theology cope with this challenge and what are the possibilities from which to elaborate and to offer acceptable solutions together?

The topic of abuse has to become a subject of theology in all its aspects. After the revelations of abuses in the Church, theology can’t be the same anymore. It calls for a shift of paradigm like that in theology after the Holocaust. Theology will only have a chance to overcome and to learn from the abuse crises if it is ready to wrestle in partnership for a solution and if theologians are ready for an honest inventory. In this sense theology has to be understandable and to use a language which reflects the real experiences of the people. What is the chance of theologians to learn from survivors in order that they can discover again the faith, not only to survive, but to have a good life, to thrive? Why was it possible to develop such a culture of clericalism which has spread not only among priests and religious but also among the laity? This is only possible if theology enters into a dialogue on the same level with victims and survivors. They should have the word now because God is speaking through them to us. Theologians can learn from the faith of the victims and survivors, and both benefit from the dialogue.

Theology has to ask itself if it does, in some ways, favor risk factors of sexual abuse and other forms of violence. It has to prove how much theological ideas stabilize the ecclesiastical system keeping it from facing the reality of abuse, from coping with the abuse crises and from elaborating a response. In all these areas, victims and survivors, and those involved directly and indirectly, should be included with equal rights. On the other hand, you can’t delegate to theologians alone what is the responsibility of the entire Church. Theologians find themselves in the position of a double bind: they are part of the system of the Church and they are those who request and promote the examination of abuse crises in the Church. Therefore, they have to endure this tension and to find a way to cope with it personally. The same kind of tensions are experienced also among those who are not theological experts. Even this tension should be subject to theological reflection.

The abuse crises affect both conservatives and liberals in the Church. Abuse is always built on an imbalance of power that is exploited to the advantage of the abuser. The roots and dynamic of the abuse are present in both, even in different forms and interpretations. In both, theology and ecclesiastical structures play a crucial role in permitting, supporting and denying abuse in all its forms. In particular, the sophisticated theological conception of priesthood as alter Christus could request or favor an overidentification with Christ. This does not allow any space for the real humanity of the priest and could exclude, principally, sexuality. The ideal of an angel-like purity doesn’t permit a psycho-affective and sexual maturity. If then celibacy is not integrated in the self, becoming an internal source of motivation and strength with which to realize one’s own vocation, the result is an immature and weak basis for a celibate commitment.

It is assumed that celibacy is not the cause of sexual abuse and other forms of abuse, but it is intertwined. Priests with an immature sexuality and poor psycho-affective maturity, together with a latent homosexual orientation which is repressed, become more at risk for abuse in a context of fear regarding homosexuality. The search for or seeking to meet with young people who are in a psycho-sexual development of the same stage poses a risk that the youth become prey for them, and if they get an occasion, will lead to abuse.

The role and position of the priest can set him apart from and even superior to the people, making him seem inviolable and sacrosanct. This puts a distance between the priest and the laity which makes him unassailable. Therefore even canon law has to provide rights for the faithful to protect victims and to guarantee a transparent processing of abuse cases, offering just outcomes. Through the terrible and incredible acts of abuses revealed in the Church, canon law has to undergo necessary changes in the present-day unilateral leadership to become more participative. Furthermore, it should guarantee the implementation of complaint structures and rules in order to empower the people to share their suffering and criticism. Power is always a temptation to be abused. Supervisory boards should be implemented with external experts.

Every abuse in the Church is also a spiritual abuse. In the domain of community life there are also intellectual abuses: the violation of intellectual self-determination in forbidding persons to ask certain questions, to read, to listen, and to be interested in topics other than those presented by the superiors, to openly discuss theological issues, to accept determined theological positions and imposed spiritual guidelines. If theology is the search for God and talk about God, then fundamentalism should be a topic that should be discussed in an open way. Theology is not meant to rescue the Church, but to contribute to the building up of a Church in which no one has to suffer unnecessarily. Theology should strive to prevent triggering secondary and tertiary re-traumatization.

The Church, especially church leadership, needs to take up responsibility with readiness and courage, and with the contribution of theology, to cope with the abuse crises. Theology can promote and challenge the undertakings of the Church and can realize, according to its mission and the option for those who are poor, weak, marginalized, abused, exploited, and losing their dignity. To take up its original mission is to enter into a dialogue with those who are wounded and with those who are engaged in preventing people from being wounded—eliminating those matters, structures of power, and habits which generate violence, especially toward minors and vulnerable adults.