The clerical church in search of its soul

This story appears in the Crisis in the Church feature series. View the full series.

It is difficult to find the words to capture what I feel as the report of the 18-month investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Pennsylvania is revealed. The number of priests — more than 300 — and the number of children abused — over 1,000 — is staggering.

In the victims' testimonies, one feels the pain and the shame even these many years later. The magnitude of the violation is hard to imagine when the victim sees the abuser as a representative of God.

The abuse is horrific. I felt I wanted to bring the victims to prayer and chose the contemplative practice of Tonglen so beautifully taught by Pema Chodron. Engaging in this practice, I tried to breathe in the feeling of their pain. I experienced the heaviness of a boulder pressed against my chest; darkness all around; tightness of my body; cornered with no escape. Then I imagined gifts I sensed they needed. I breathed out the image of a mother cradling her infant child with unconditional love; a field full of wildflowers creating a safe space for them to play; and a gentle healing embrace of Divine Mystery. Breathe in the pain. Breathe out the gifts.

The tragedy is that the abuse continues, with the ongoing investigations and the new reports of abuse in Chile and Australia, and new accusations of abuse of seminarians and young priests by older men often in positions of power — bishops and cardinals. The abuse of women by the ordained clergy in countries throughout the world is now coming to light, creating what Mary Hunt calls "a Catholic trifecta of disgrace."

As I reflected on all this, something else kept trying to emerge within me and wouldn't leave me. At first, it was anger over the abuse of power in the church. Power when exercised through the lens of a hierarchical system classifies people according to relative importance. Those deemed more important often dominate those considered lesser, requiring them to do things they would not choose to do.

Those dominated know they will be punished or suffer serious consequences if they don't comply. For too many centuries, the complement to such a worldview has been the belief that men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it and are to be submissive to men. Both of these are operative in the Catholic Church.

Then my anger deepened as I thought about how these assumptions about the inferiority of women have been dangerously coupled within the official church in terms of its teaching about sexuality.

The Catholic Church's teaching on sexuality was framed within a theology and a psychology of dualism that saw the human body as dangerous and therefore in need of being brought under control.

The primary purpose of sexual intercourse always understood within marriage was to insure the continuation of the species and male lineage. The woman was to submit to her husband's sexual demands without question. This integration of conscious and unconscious assumptions, values, beliefs and behaviors created an untenable position for many Catholics, and especially women.

Given the insights of contemporary psychology, theology, science and spirituality, many women refuse to be seen as inferior to men or submissive to male power. They understand the beauty of one's sexuality and know they are equally as capable as men for making decisions and acting as moral agents, especially when it comes to decisions relating to their sexuality. These women understand the power of being in relationship and acting within a community, especially when making critical decisions.

At first, these thoughts seemed so tangled, and yet as I read once again about the abuse of children by priests, I know it is all related. Unhealthy understanding of one's body, one's sexuality; power over and male superiority; and the belief that women are less than men are all interlocked.

And so I asked myself how can I embrace all of this in a contemplative way. Surprisingly, the whole hierarchy of pope, cardinal, bishop, monsignor, priest, deacon ... appeared in my mind. I felt it was a challenge but also an invitation.

I recognized that although certain policies and procedures have been put in place to prevent such horrific abuse from happening again, that doesn't necessarily transform the worldview or the consciousness that permits and allows such behavior. That only comes with grace and prayer.

I decided to bring the whole hierarchical male clergy as a collective to my Tonglen practice.

At first, it was difficult seeing them as victims. But then I saw them as victims of a different order.

They become victims by continuing to consent to the privileges of a historical worldview that has sanctioned a theology and a clerical structure that is now destroying the credibility of the church as a moral leader. Tears welled up within me feeling the betrayal, as I believe some of the clerics do as well, of the power of the church's teachings regarding peace, justice, right relationships, care of our Earth home, and the preferential option for the poor — no longer heard or taken seriously.

I pictured the male clerics and tried to breathe in the pain that such a worldview inflicts on its victims. I felt the tight constriction of my throat; the weight of centuries pressing down; stomach cramps fighting inner fears; darkness enveloping me.

I then tried to imagine what gifts were needed. I breathed out the images of chains falling away that have bound this worldview to them; Pentecost fire opening minds and hearts to see in new ways; a humility that invites a profound prostration asking forgiveness and signaling transformation; and a courage to let go of all the privileged trappings. Breathe in the pain. Breathe out the gifts.

I sense I will do this practice more than once. I believe that by doing this practice and sending gifts of transformation to the clerical members of our church, something will be transformed in them and in me as well.

I believe the clerical church is in search of its soul. I also recall something that is always said: The church is human. Perhaps this scandal will help us to claim our humanity as the church, the people of God, inviting us all to reimagine how to live into our future.

[Nancy Sylvester is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of Network, the Catholic social justice lobby.]