Liturgy in a Time of Ecclesial Crisis: Addressing Trauma, Shame, and Abuse

At the recent CTSA annual convention (Pittsburgh, June 6-9, 2019), the Sacraments & Liturgy topic session featured three papers grappling with suffering due to ecclesial and civic irresponsibility, probing how liturgical and ministerial polity can prove of help or hindrance to reform and recovery for individuals and social bodies. Here follow a précis of each presentation:

“The Body of Christ Given Up for the Ashamed: Rethinking Shame after the Sinking of the Ferry Sewol with Edward Schillebeeckx’s Sacramental Theology,” Min-Ah Cho, PhD (Emory University), Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College. This paper focused on shame, a collective emotion experienced by many Koreans after the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster claimed 304 lives. While the tragedy triggered shame and additional traumas, it also pushed Koreans to recognize that all were responsible for society’s failed leadership and the suffering of the victims’ families. Based on Edward Schillebeeckx’s account of the Eucharistic fellowship of Jesus which led the ashamed disciples into conversion, Cho suggested the Eucharist serves as a symbol for a constructive process of transforming shame into remembrance of one’s own suffering in order to engage in solidarity with the suffering of others.

The other two papers were in response to the CTSA Board of Director’s Statement on Clerical Sexual Abuse which, acknowledging “both personal and structural failures in our ecclesial life,” called on the membership “to put our scholarly expertise to work to explore why what has happened in the church has happened” so as to contribute to efforts of prevention and reform:

“Clericalism in the Liturgy: False Sacrality, Clerical Hegemony, and Lay Passivity,” Bruce T. Morrill, S.J., PhD (Emory University), Edward A. Malloy Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, Vanderbilt University. Ordered ministries in service to the liturgy have origins in early Christian traditions and continue to be vital to ecclesial life. Yet in recent years charges of clericalism have been leveled against understandings and practices of not only ordained but also lay ministries (e.g., Redemptionis sacramentum, 2004). In addition to the rhetoric of clericalism , the ordinary magisterium has employed the language of abuse concerning improper execution of the church’s rites, most specifically, the Mass. Abuse, of course, is a powerful symbol. This presentation critically examined Vatican documents issued around the time that reporting and reaction to the abuse-and-cover-up exploded, evaluating how clericalism in the teaching and practice of liturgy has affected the crisis in the church. He concluded with a constructive theological correction drawing upon insights about (true) mysterion and (false) mystique by Thomas Pott (San’ Anselmo, Rome) and Susan Roll (St. Paul’s, Ottowa).

“Intra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus: A Liturgical Analysis of ‘Leaving the Church,’” David F. Turnbloom, PhD (Boston College), Assistant Professor of Theology, University of Portland. This paper argued that, in the context of moral injury inflicted by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, “leaving the Church” is a salvific ritual action. By inflicting physical trauma and moral injury on people, clerics have (1) corrupted the predisposition necessary to receive the sacraments effectively and (2) corrupted their own ability to embody the sacraments effectively. Within this context of moral injury, the sacramental life of the Church is not only made ineffective, it becomes a form of violence that jeopardizes those it touches. As such, insofar as “the Church” is identified with the sacramental life of the community, there is a real experience of “intra ecclesiam nulla salus.” The theological task entails careful questioning of widespread rhetoric valorizing the “courage to stay” by compassionately recognizing the sacramental sign those grappling with this decision are to a church in full crisis.


3 responses to “Liturgy in a Time of Ecclesial Crisis: Addressing Trauma, Shame, and Abuse”

  1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    Bruce, thank you for this brief summary of the papers at this panel.

    I am interested in the question of how we grapple theologically with the crisis. Most of the public discussion has turned on legal and administrative questions, almost nothing on theology.

    The litanies of repentance and prostrations are not cutting it. Invoking “sacrilege” and a “Copernican revolution” is not cutting it. Calling out “the mystery of evil” is not cutting it either.

    Did you have any thoughts along these lines?

    1. Bruce Morrill Avatar

      Rita, yes, the presentation I recently gave at the CTSA session analyzes the practical, practiced theology (lex orandi, if you will) that Redemptionis Sacaramentum put in motion (reinforced by third edition of IGRM and Missal). Dave Turnbloom’s paper also was profoundly theological in relation to this epochal crisis for the RC Church. Dave and I are in discussion about how to get our work published (not yet clear).

      Jamie Manson’s lengthy report of the CTSA meeting, newly posted on the NCR site, summarizes several of the theological arguments advanced by moral theologians at the meeting:

      There was much “buzz” about Brian Flanagan’s recent book, Stumbling in Holiness, which to my reading makes a good theological contribution for thinking fundamentally about the dire state of the hierarchically-clerically controlled RC Church.

  2. Fr. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Fr. Jack Feehily

    I may be a voice crying in the wilderness, but am I the only one who has noticed that all the handwringing, mea culpas, and prostrations before the altar is hardly a fulsome expression of what the church–the People of God and most of its clerical leaders–actually does from day to day. People are gathering for prayer and worship; offering their time, talent, and treasure; and striving to live more intentionally as disciples of Jesus with the full knowledge that sin and failure permeate their lives and the lives of all who persevere because of God’s amazing grace and mercy. The sensational elements of the abuse and coverup have attracted a lot of attention at the expense of noticing that so many lives are full of goodness. Why aren’t we praying more that people who have done grave wrongs even against innocent children may repent so as to seek redemption. Ordinary people experience that though they may fall greatly from God’s grace, they are still capable of loving and caring actions. This doesn’t mean individuals who have committed grave wrongs should not have to be accountable, but what of the prayer of Jesus from the cross–“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. Is Theodore McCarrick only to be portrayed as some kind of monster. Did he never confess his sins, do penance, and made attempts to amend his life? When people confess grave sins to me, do I stress how awful this has made them? I encourage and exhort them to repent and to give thanks to God for his love, patience, mercy, and kindness. In all of the countless articles written over these past many years regarding “the crisis”, I see almost noting to indicate that the church still retains and expresses the power to be a sacrament of redemption even when some of its members have done horrible things.

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