Bernard Law’s Funeral and An Honest Proposal
By Sally Vance-Trembath
January 01, 2018
Many found Bernard Law’s Roman funeral deeply upsetting. There have been various responses to that Catholic funeral protocol: condemnation, explanation, justification. I suspect that actual victims of molestation and rape are not satisfied by details that describe who gets what kind of funeral. I worked with “The Voice of the Faithful” early on so I know something of victims and their families. The last thing they need or want to hear about is Catholic protocol. In many ways, such protocols acted as accelerants for their destruction. It must be harrowing to see any display of honor given to the person who destroyed your life. Clerical collars and vestments that should mark sacramental authority instead provided camouflage. And the camouflage was brilliant. The trappings of office and authority as instruments for the disturbing larceny of this Catholic Crisis. That is what I saw as I listened to victims during those years. Their capacity for intimacy had been stolen. That is how I think about the predators. They were thieves. In treating their victims’ bodies as things, those villains robbed those young people of experiencing those same bodies as locations of tenderness and delight in physical love. So if we are going to talk about Catholic protocol, let’s talk. Let us honestly bring the best of our protocol, in this case, our liturgical system to this persistent sorrow. Signs and symbols were used to spread this contagion; it is long past time that we used our symbolic, ritual tradition to promote healing on a massive scale. The damage is widespread; the repair must be so.
As a theologian I must champion the deep truth that animated the funeral for Bernard Law: Catholic sacraments display an essential truth-claim that the Judeo-Christian tradition makes about reality: God’s presence saturates all of our experience. We mark that truth in many ways; for Catholics the Sacraments are among our richest expressions. We need Sacraments; we are constitutively communitarian creatures.
Our array of languages, both in word and symbol, points to this feature of who we are—how we are. Augustine’s ancient description still carries the day. Sacraments are visible signs of an invisible reality. Death displays more than a worn out body; it also discloses the mystery of personhood. Are we simply sophisticated animals whose complex brains generate the kind of desires that cannot be reduced to biological need? These desires: for love; for beauty; for the power of goodness; for the call of excellence; and for the most foundational: the desire to know more, to learn, to question, are they the meaningless detritus of self-consciousness? The presence of the Living God says, “No.” Those desires presuppose fulfillment; the final fulfillment happens at death which is not the end but a transformation. So yes, Bernard Law has been transformed. If anyone is transformed, every one is.
Godspeed Bernard Law and all those who have died. There is no human action that is more decisive than human-personhood. The Church marks your death and celebrates the fulfillment of God’s promises. No human failure can undermine those promises. That is the invisible reality that a funeral illuminates. But it is also true that the symbolism of his funeral functions for his victims; for many it roused the damage and loss. Such pain needs sacramental action precisely because it is a visible sign of an invisible reality. A balm is required; spiritual ointment is essential because the injury is spiritual.
The abused need another one of the Church’s Sacraments: Reconciliation, formerly known as Confession. The Church needs to go to “confession” for what it did to the abused. Mocked, and oversimplified in popular culture, especially films, this Sacrament is the ritual expression of the how ordinary life is saturated with the presence of the Living God. It can provide profound healing and wisdom. That is its intention. It provides its own language for expressing another deeply human truth: forgiveness is more powerful than damage, gratitude is more powerful than resentment. It transforms shame into humility. Shame paralyzes and poisons; humility is the beginning of transformation. When we have done harm, we must repair it. Every time we fail to do so, our own humanity shrinks. J. K. Rowling captures what happens as the power of shame is destroyed in a person when humility is mistaken for weakness. The first time we meet Tom Riddle is so terrifying because he is already so far gone in his journey out of personhood.
When I was involved in “Voice of the Faithful,” more than once I was in the company of a local advocate who tried to publicly humiliate a bishop, an archbishop, a pastor, a diocesan bureaucrat, and even once, a Cardinal. I distanced myself thinking, “‘Voice of the Faithful’ will not change anything by humiliating this powerful person; we need this powerful person on our side.” How naive. We should not humiliate; we can ask the Church to express humility.
Law’s passing affords me another opportunity to insist that the proper name for the crisis in the institutional Catholic Church is “The Crisis of Deceit.” Calling it “The Sex Abuse Crisis” names it improperly. Yes, sex was used to do staggering harm. But dishonesty provided the enormous superstructure that turned physical assaults into enduring spiritual torture. Many abused people describe Law’s funeral as a further abuse because it honors the man who provided cover for predation. The abused are haunted by The Complicit who remain cloaked in the trappings of authority. However, can this crisis lead to transformation? For all the good and important work that so many individuals and groups have done, we are still doing triage. We may have stopped some of the bleeding; when shall we begin the work of actual healing?
Since, this “Crisis of Deceit” is the worst crisis since The Reformation, let’s look to Martin Luther. He is variously described as rigid, arrogant, determined, prophetic, as an ideologue, as a hero, as a heretic, as a saint. I leave the judgment to skilled biographers. The one thing I do know about Luther: he was right. Power was being abused. This “Crisis of Deceit” rises to the same level as the Reformation. Luther understood that the Church needed to re-learn humility.
It took us centuries but in our time Reformation Day has become a celebration of Christian diversity. So let’s name a Reformation Day to mark this contemporary abuse of power. Let us add a memorial to the Liturgical Year; let us mark the institutional sorrow for the Church’s own scandalous failure to answer to Jesus’ Gospel.
What day shall we name? The Church should consult the victims in their quest for an appropriate anniversary. Shall it be January 6, the day The Boston Globe opened the flood gates in their reporting? Or June 9 when Thomas Doyle’s report was issued to the USCCB? The day is less important than naming a day that will function as an actual and honest naming of the failure. On that day, the Church should drape itself in the trappings of shame. Until the Church aggressively admits and laments its shame, Catholic rituals, its sacramental signs, will not speak God’s goodness to those whose spirits were crippled when their bodies were abused.
We do have models for such ceremonies. An early initiative of “Voice of the Faithful” was to request that dioceses hold healing services. One was offered at my parish. I took my place in a middle pew early as people gathered. St. Ignatius is a large church; the service was mid-day, not a time when you expect a large group to attend. Just before the service began, I watched as a family of women came in from a side entrance. It looked to be three generations of Catholic women ranging in age from late twenties to early seventies. I felt my breathing constrict. “These must be a victim’s grandma, mother and sisters.” I was an official in “Voice of the Faithful” then so I made my way over to greet those women. I confess it took not a little bit of willpower to approach them. When approaching such pain one is often met with rage. The rage is of course legitimate however misdirected it is. In VOTF I came to see that often the only comfort we can give the abused: be the vessel to receive their rage. I introduced myself saying that I wondered if there was a victim in their family for whom I could pray during the service. “No,” said the matriarch of this lovely family. “We are here to pray for all those our Church has harmed.” Time stopped for a small moment as I took that in. What conversations took place among these Catholic women as they decided to attend this service? I will never know the details but I do know this: those women knew the true relationship between the institution and the Gospel.
Might we take their wisdom and craft a day in the “ordered time” of our Liturgical Year? On that day, we would memorialize the victims. We would name the harm. We would ask for forgiveness. In other words, we would codify what those women knew. The Church has done harm. The Church must seek transformation by way of the ancient process of turning shame into humility. I say it again, the Church needs to go to confession; not as a one-off or an occasional service. The harm was institutionalized; so must be the confession.