A pope for hard seasons


'Pope smoke' by Chris JohnstonBenedict's announcement that he would resign from the papacy came two days before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and a day on which many Catholics go to mass to be anointed with ashes as a sign of repentance. How providential that the new pope will be elected in the midst of this Lenten season, born in ashes but looking forward to resurrection.

And there are plenty of ashes to go around, not least of which are the 'ashes' of the pain and humiliation of the survivors of clergy sexual abuse. While the Church is currently in the midst of a sexual abuse 'crisis', the issue is decades old. It will be one of the major challenges for the new pope to find creative and compassionate ways of addressing this issue.

We saw some of this creativity at work with the move by Pope John Paul II to publicly seek forgiveness for the sins of the Church, including sins against 'minors who are victims of abuse'. Many local bishops conferences echoed this act of repentance. But words are cheap, and actions speak louder.

There is a world of difference between a global apology to 'victims' and how an individual cleric faces the pain of a survivor standing in front of him. The entrance into that world is through conversion, a change in heart and mind, to begin to see the world through the eyes of the poor, the suffering, the humiliated.

This should not be unfamiliar territory for any priest or bishop. A regular reading in the priest's breviary is taken from St Paul's Letter to the Philippians. Paul reminds his readers that Christ did not cling to his equality to God, but emptied himself to become a slave, to the point of accepting a humiliating death on the cross. To begin to see the world through the eyes of its victims is to take on the heart and mind of Christ.

Can we expect this from the next pope? Can we expect anything less?

One of those considered papabile, Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines, has called for greater humility, respectfulness and silence on the part of the Church so that it can become more credible among its followers. Perhaps there is some wisdom in Benedict's humble decision to resign and to withdraw into a life of monastic silence and prayer.

Think how different the response of the Church would have been to survivors of clergy sexual abuse if it had been based on humility, respectfulness and silence.

The humility to accept that the Church has failed, without the knee-jerk response of seeking to protect the Church's interests. The respectfulness of listening to the survivor, without contradiction or blame. The silence of sitting with a survivor in his or her suffering without making excuses or offering trite pious words of 'comfort'.

Of course there are those who will say the problem in the Church is no worse than it is in the rest of society, and that its handling is mirrored by that of other similar institutions like the Boy Scouts or the BBC. This may well be true but it vitiates any claim the Church may make to being a source of healing grace or an expert in humanity.

I also acknowledge that most sexual abuse occurs in the hallowed walls of the family. But the Church can have no credible response to this larger and often hidden problem while its own failures are so patent.

Others seem to think I have some axe to grind on this issue. Indeed my life has been touched not directly but indirectly by both clergy abuse and incest. I have witnessed the damage close up and personal. It has affected the way I do my theology, but in fact my direct output on this matter is relatively small.

However, when I venture outside the cloistered walls of Church journals and magazines into the secular media I know that there are few issues as disempowering when attempting to project a Catholic profile into a public arena as the Church's handling of this matter. It must do better.

Can the next pope make a difference? Can he take the spirit of Lenten penance into the heart of the Church, taking it in the direction of greater humility, respectfulness and silence? We wait in prayerful anticipation.

Neil Ormerod headshotNeil Ormerod is Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University. His latest book, with Cynthia Crysdale, is Creator God, Evolving World (Fortress Press, 2013). 

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod, Pope Benedict, pope resignation, Conclave, child sex abuse, Royal Commission



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We wait indeed, Neil. We wait indeed. Powerful, brave and prophetic voice. Thank you. Is anyone really listening? Are ArchBishops and Bishops and individual clerics really listening? Where are their actions? For those who think you have an axe to grind, I say to them you clearly have not been the raw and new wood cut down by other axes so sharp, so penetrating, that only those who survive those cuts, know the depth, the humiliation and the pain they cause lifelong. So Neil, if you are an axe then I say grind away, and be an axe for the future, an axe that cuts out corruption, cuts out blindness, cuts self preservation. Cut away.

Jennifer Anne Herrick | 15 February 2013  

I don't really get what Dr O wants here from the next Pope but it's a hard act to follow. Pope Benedict apologised everywhere he went, met victims and listened in silence and respectfully to their stories ... or so they say. He's already as humble a person as one could meet. He (as Card. Ratzinger) publicly protested against the "filth" in the Church. I haven't heard one statement of his where he contradicted abuse survivors. He put the investigation against Fr Maciel back on the rails against enormous pressure from allies of that creep and of Pope John Paul II to keep it covered up. It is very hard to see how this good, kind and principled Pope could have done better, short of being a saint (assuming he isn't). But then, I'm not a saint, either, so don't feel I have a right to knock him on that score. By the way, don't worry about trying to win over the secular media. They're not interested in ending sex abuse anyway - they're only interested in bashing the Church. Proof 1. The massively disproportionate focus on the misdeeds of Catholic priests as opposed to clergy of other religions and organisations. 2. The sanguine reaction - or none at all - to the 15 yo topless Kate Moss photo in the NSW Art Gallery, when, had it been discovered in the possession of a priest he would be hounded (rightly) till he was sentenced.

HH | 15 February 2013  

An excellent, thoroughly perceptive and genuinely humble article, Neil. You are insightful when you say that mouthing sympathetic words by rote is no help to anyone, including victims of sexual abuse. I am reminded of the story that the late Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when confronted with a bereavement, listened and stayed silently with the bereaved person for as long as was necessary. There were no trite formulae; no meaningless words and no sanctimonious nonsense trotted out. I think that should be taught in Pastoral Care 101. Too many inexperienced clergy have heard and read too much on counselling with not enough life experience. If words come they need to come from that quiet place within. Sometimes we are so busy and "concerned" we do not focus on the quiet place within where the Christian mystics felt you met God, who speaks in a still, small voice, not necessarily one of thunder with lightning flashes as a backdrop. I think Benedict knows this place well. He, like many mystics, including St John of the Cross, who, I suspect, was similar in mental make up, suffered agonies over his ministry. One of the things I think clerics - all clerics, not just Catholic ones - need to have uppermost in their minds is that, if they really do their jobs, they are acting in the place of Christ. The healing comes through him. They also need to be aware that healing is both spiritual and psychological. To think otherwise would be to be a type of Manichean: denying the solace and healing which can come through the work of medicine. There are temptations at this time for the Church to retreat once again into its laager. I think that would be counterproductive. The Church desperately needs to draw upon a whole range of resources well beyond those of theology. The Church can become an insensitive bureaucracy ruled by a fairly remote and insensitive hierarchy. It is the function of the Spirit to soften the hierarchy if they are willing to be open to its Grace. Grace, openness are where it's at. Perhaps it is time that Grace will manifest.

Edward F | 17 February 2013  

Boston. That is the placename that haunts the minds of Catholic bishops and financiers everywhere. Royal Commissions may be called and the Pope may resign and so on, but it's about Boston Diocese being bankrupted. Why? Because it followed its conscience and faced the reality of the sex abuse scandals and paid up. This is something that your average capitalist in Australia understands all too well, the Church is going to lose its money. This is a much more serious challenge to the bishops than the evil sexual behaviour of a minority of its clergy, past and present. What will they do when they have no funds? One can even reach for the Gospels. Why was Christ crucified? One reason has to be that he threatened the cash economy of the Temple in Jerusalem. The more you pay people out, the worse it gets. One alternative is Christ's, face your own sins and repent.

FOLLOW THE MONEY | 17 February 2013  

The next pope will not be Cardinal Tagle. As the next pope will oppose, abortion the ordination of women and strictly agree on priestly celibacy.

Myra | 18 February 2013  

HH, Good answer.We must all return to the Traditional Church where we should all have a personal hatred of sins against God, especially in sexual matters, which have been allowed to run wild throughout the Modern Church and return to modesty, purity and the correct dispositions about all sexual matters.

Trent | 18 February 2013  

A great article Neil. Interesting that having been touched by clergy sexual abuse, directly or indirectly, is seen as an axe to grind by some. This itself is an attitude that needs to change. We need many who stand in the space of the abused to be leading the Church in its conversion. Thank you for the article.

Vivienne | 18 February 2013  

As long as the church is centred in Rome with all it's grandeur and spectacled tradition I wonder if it will ever be possible to get beyond the problems of clericalism and centralising power. I just wonder if it is possible to be that humble church again from that seat of power that is called the Vatican. The place is glorious and so privileged and by its very man made nature so removed from the humble village table and the cross of everyday. Yet in saying that I know that every so often a truly humble pope comes forward unexpectedly and overturns all the expectations of those that elected him. I just pray that is pope is one of them. This pope will need unusual wisdom and humility.

john | 18 February 2013  

'Greater humility, respectfulness and silence". Yes, yes, yes.

Joan Seymour | 18 February 2013  

It's time to dig up Pope Joan and give her another fling if you want any change to the ossified thinking from Rome. You're kidding yourselves, for sure. Trent, as always, has it in one. Why should the Greeks inherit the Earth? I'm with Myra, and the need for Pope Joan again.

janice wallace | 18 February 2013  

Like Trent I don't get Ormerod's beef. I doubt any action will meet his "prayerful anticipation". Unlike Trent I believe all this situation was spawned by the "Traditional" Church and I say that as one brought up in the T. C. and as one who through a fortuitous intervention found themselves outside of a religious teaching order, that now looking back if I had stayed within that environment I could have become an abuser.

Ignatius | 18 February 2013  

Her! Hear!

Theo Verbeek | 18 February 2013  

The problem the church has is not about sex, it's about abuse - the abuse of trust and power. Please get over your obsession with sex and see it as it is. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Ginger Meggs | 18 February 2013  

So now the Pope's resignation is being linked to sexual abuse? Seems that this only exposes nothing more than complete moral breakdown: a church so ill at ease with itself that it has lost faith in its ability to make sense of the everyday problems it faces. Instead of discussing and clarifying the issues at stake, now we must look for answers and signals from some future pope. Very sad.

DavidSt | 18 February 2013  

Trent, If by "traditional church" you mean a Church of disciples in which we are like our Teacher, Jesus, then Hear! Hear! If, however, you mean a church of pomposity and arrogance trading on fear, fire and brimstone then, please, God save us. Unfortunately, you seem to think that the worst sins are sexual. You mention nothing about justice etc.

Francis | 18 February 2013  

This article by Prof. Ormerod speaks of the 'pain and humiliation of the survivors of clergy sexual abuse' in a heartfelt and sensitive manner. If faith is a way of 'being' in the world, then any church that does not address this issue with the interests of victims first and foremost really needs to do some deep reflection. Stating that a female pope will change things, stating that victims have been met and listened to avoids dealing with a human tragedy (both victims and perpetrators)in a meaningful and respectful way. People who have been sexually abused are scarred for life, and those abused within a church setting very often lose their religious faith as well. Perhaps this time of Lent can be a time for believers to think deeply about this issue.

Pam | 18 February 2013  

Regarding Boston (Follow the Money, above): the Archdiocese arrived at a settlement agreement and funded it through the sale of a property. Which was, as they say, the right thing to do. Boston. An example for other damaged communities to follow?

Peter S | 18 February 2013  

"It [indirect experiene of clergy abuse and incest] has affected the way I do my theology. Please clarify.

Thomas | 19 February 2013  

A Pope for Hard Seasons needs to credibly address clerical sexual abuse but this is not the major problem facing the Church in the world today. The following quotes make my point: “There are two great challenges in the 21st century: overcoming poverty and managing climate change, not separate acts but linked in interdependence.” (‘Special Report on Ecology, Healing a Broken World’, Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat, Society of Jesus. pages 36, 37.) “The multidimensional nature of climate change, far beyond the environmental impacts, shows how it hits the most vulnerable, especially the poor in the developing world, not only because they are dependent on the very resources impacted, but also they have far less capacity to protect or adapt themselves.” (Nicholas Stern, 2010.) Our next Pope needs to continue the ecological vision of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The latter pointed out that if we want peace we must care for the environment. John Paul II stated, "There is a growing awareness that world peace in threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts, and continued injustice among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature...The ecologicial crisis is a moral issue."

Grant Allen | 19 February 2013  

G.A., the really good news is that eliminating world poverty has nothing to do with tackling "global warming" and maybe, the contrary is true (see below). Here's the lowdown. Remember the Millenium Development Goal of halving the 1990 level of World Poverty by 2015? It's already been achieved, some time around 2008. At least according to the (left-leaning) Brookings Institute report of 2011, that showed world poverty fell by half a billion between 2005 and 2010. The report says "Whereas it took 25 years to reduce poverty by half a billion people up to 2005, the same feat was likely achieved in the six years between then and now. Poverty reduction of this magnitude is UNPARALLELED IN HISTORY." And to the utter disillusionment of the left, foreign aid and big government initiatives weren't the cause: eg, foreign aid didn't increase per capita over that period. Rather, it was globalization and increased trade (capitalism!) that did the heavy lifting. No wonder this report was greeted with deafening silence by the MSM, ABC, E.S., Caritas, etc! Note that this unprecedented reduction of poverty occurred during what was allegedly the warmest decade for thousands of years! So, GA, does that mean global warming helps ELIMINATE poverty? Warmists might observe (correctly) that "Correlation doesn't mean causation." But that would surely stick in their craw, since they're forever rounding on "deniers" who point this out re. rising CO2 levels and warming.

HH | 19 February 2013  

praise to you with you in prayer and actioni

Clare Nolan | 19 February 2013  

HH, Mitigating climate change is vital to reducing world poverty. This quote from the World Bank is food for thought: "November 18, 2012 – Like summer’s satellite image of the melting Greenland ice sheet, a new report suggests time may be running out to temper the rising risks of climate change. "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided," (pdf) (eBook version) warns we’re on track for a 4°C warmer world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise. Moreover, adverse effects of a warming climate are “tilted against many of the world's poorest regions” and likely to undermine development efforts and global development goals, says the study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, on behalf of the World Bank." HH, I suggest you reflect firstly on the poverty of those Australians who have lost their uninsured homes in extreme weather events, and secondly on the estimated 200 million climate refugees expected by 2050. That's poverty! Climate change deniers who resist action on mitigating climate change are unconconsciale. If you don't think so, I suggest you move to Kiribati or Bangladesh!

Grant Allen | 21 February 2013  

GA, Ragendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC and no "denier", now admits the earth hasn't warmed in the last 17 years, and that it will be at least 30 or 40 years before we know whether the long term trend is or is not continuing. Two points. 1. That long term trend, such as it is, is clearly not totally attributable to anthropogenic greenhouse gases, since it started around the mid-nineteenth century. 2. The last 17 years of no significant atmospheric warming covers a period when atmospheric CO2 increased by a whopping 9%, exceeding, I understand, the most pessimistic projections of the models. So the models you are relying on which predict a 4 degree increase over 100 yeas are clearly dodgy. So, too, are all the projections in AR1,2,4 and 4, which, AR5(draft) shows, have grossly overestimated the warming response to CO2 increases. As I said, it's all good news, except that a warming of a degree or two from here would do wonders for the vast lands of Southern Siberia.

HH | 27 February 2013  

HH, I suggest you read Andrew Glickson's article, (26 Feb. 'The Conversation'.) "Test check. Has global warming paused?", from which I quote, "Following a sharp El Niño peak in 1998, since about 2000 a slowing down of the mean rate of global warming was related to a sharp increase in SO2 emission from coal mainly in China ..., strong La Niña events and a low in the 11 years sun-spot cycle... As some 90% of the global heat rise is trapped in the oceans ..., the ocean heat level reflects global warming more accurately than land and atmosphere warming. The heat content of the ocean has risen since about 2000 by about 4x1022 joules... Peak temperatures at around 2006 exceed any measured in the instrumental record. To summarise, claims that warming has paused over the last 16 years (1997-2012) take no account of ocean heating... At the root of the issue is the non-acceptance by some of the reality of the greenhouse effect, known since the 19th century and consistent with the basic laws of greenhouse gas radiative forcing and black body radiation." HH, I also suggest you research the potential for greenhouse gas emissions from already thawing tundra permafrost!

Grant Allen | 27 February 2013  

I'm across the Glikson piece already, GA. Deeply unimpressed. Perhaps you can explain why Glikson fails to mention that the top 700m of ocean has not been warming over the past 10 years? Then you can explain in language that I can understand, the mechanism whereby atmospheric CO2, via the greenhouse effect, has over the last decade or so, been surreptitiously warming the deep ocean WITHOUT in any way warming the upper ocean and the atmosphere first. For extra credit, you can show me where the models predict this phenomenon of zero atmospheric warming, but deep ocean warming. There's none I can find in the IPCC reports. And it doesn't seem to be a meme I've heard from the lips of Flannery, Gore, Mann, Hansen et al. Seems an awful lot like shifting goalposts to me.

HH | 28 February 2013  

HH,please refer to Glickson's graph of ocean warming, showing that the top 700 metres of ocean continues to warm since 2000, and at a faster rate than the lower 700 to 2000 metres section. I again quote Glickson: "As some 90% of the global heat rise is trapped in the oceans (since 1950, more than 20x1022 joules), the ocean heat level reflects global warming more accurately than land and atmosphere warming. The heat content of the ocean has risen since about 2000 by about 4x1022 joules." I suggest readers download and read, "Let the Son Shine An Australian Catholic Response to Climate Change" by Charles Rue. This 38-page document, published by the Columban Mission Institute, may help readers: better understand climate change and the severity of its impact, learn about Catholic environmental ethical principles, respond to climate change, and be fearless truth-tellers in combating the lies and distortions presented by those who deny, distort or downplay the science. Pope John Paul II asked, 'How can one prevent disasters that destroy the environment and threaten all forms of life?' This article helps us to see, judge and act to mitigate climate change, which is already killing over 150 000 people annually.

Grant Allen | 01 March 2013  

I agree with HH. It is one of the only sensible comment.

Ron Cini | 11 March 2013  

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