The abuse crisis: Sacrificing ourselves for the Church?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 07, 2018

In the second of his interviews with Thomas V. Mirus on the abuse crisis, Fr. Roger Landry explains how we can all contribute to a solution, even those who are not guilty. Perhaps especially those of us who are not guilty: The guilty, after all, are far less likely to contribute to the solution.

This is not the end of the lesson but the beginning. Reflecting on what we call the economy of salvation, Fr. Landry points out that sacrifices in union with the sufferings of Christ bring grace, and that this grace not only helps the one who sacrifices, but also animates the whole Church.

As an aside, he mentions that he himself decided to give up sweets and wine until the abuse crisis is resolved. He regards these as minor sacrifices, but not without value, for, when he thinks about it, he realizes that he might not be able to enjoy a piece of candy or a sip of wine for the rest of his life. That seems a little more daunting: Our sacrifices for the Church can be like the very small and very simple steps it takes to climb a mountain.

This same principle of sacrifice applies to both laity and clergy. Of course, the higher the ecclesiastical office, the higher the stakes. For example, we all know the difficulties so many bishops have in applying effective discipline in their local churches. In addition to their own potential cowardice (which frequently masquerades as prudence), bishops may be reluctant to precipitate a greater shift in public opinion against the Church by opposing the moral errors prevalent in the culture. Similarly, they do not wish to alienate laity who may already be strongly influenced by the biases of the larger secular culture.

For their part, as Fr. Landry explains, the laity may be more concerned about getting the Mass times they want in a convenient location than about renewal. The convenient practice of the Faith is a possibility which rapidly diminishes when priests are suspended or defrocked. In some dioceses, he notes, up to a third of the clergy may well be unfaithful to the promises they made to their bishop at ordination.

At the episcopal level, then, duty requires a very strong willingness to sacrifice.

Sacrifice for the Church

The need for sacrifice also seems to ratchet higher as power and responsibility increase. In his new and definitive biography of Pope Benedict XVI (just out in English from Ignatius), Elio Guerriero recounts an anecdote in the life of the Pope when he was merely Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The background here is that both Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II thought it very important for the Congregation to go beyond the traditional duties of the old Holy Office. They saw the modern necessity of not just condemning error but of listening carefully and then using the CDF’s resources to address challenging theological questions in ways which led to authentically Catholic solutions.

Some readers will remember that Ratzinger had to deal extensively with the problem of liberation theology, which was extraordinarily influential in the last quarter of the twentieth century, especially in Latin America. In doing so, he first issued a restrictive document which outlined the impermissible errors of liberation theology, and then issued a more expansive document which explored the revealed sources and principles of human liberation which ought to animate the Church within every human culture—in her doctrinal and social teaching, in her theological and social action.

But of course no matter what Ratzinger said or did, the world press always painted him as a dark authoritarian figure whose only interest was to use ecclesiastical power to suppress the honest, open, charitable and evangelical thrust of those who challenged the ecclesiastical status quo. It was difficult in the 1980s to follow any of these conflicts without becoming convinced of the evil intransigence of Church authority, even sometimes for good Catholics who did not understand the real issues at stake. Therefore, to explain the truth patiently and to identify the limits of theological speculation meant abandoning normal concerns about one’s own image, about the public perception of the Church, and about the risks of alienating even further not only the secularized theologians around the world but the universities and the media.

The case of the Franciscan liberation theologian Leonardo Boff leads to the anecdote I promised. Boff had written a book entitled Church: Charism and Power which amounted to a frontal attack on the institutional nature of the Church. In 1984, Ratzinger invited Boff to Rome to discuss his seemingly reckless opinions, and the Franciscan arrived with two cardinals in tow, one of whom insisted on the incredibly ignorant claim that “liberation theology is not imbued with Marxist principles; that is a biased critique of the conservative circles” (Guerriero, p. 330). Nonetheless, in 1985 Boff was told to observe a year of silence. Unfortunately, he later continued to defend his problematic positions, and in the early 1990s was asked to resign from his teaching post. After that—rather predictably in those days for clergy who lost the Catholic sinecure from which to disseminate their errors—Boff left the Franciscan Order and the priesthood.

Guerriero recounts his participation in a meeting in Basel in 1985, around the time Boff was disciplined. This was a gathering of the editorial staff of Communio, a journal Ratzinger had helped to found, held at the home of the brilliant theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar. (Along with men such as de Lubac, Congar and the younger Ratzinger, von Balthasar had separated at the Council from the increasingly Modernist theologians who founded the initial post-conciliar journal, Concilium.) At this meeting, the younger editors, alarmed by the news of the growing rift between the Church and the liberation theologians, expressed their dismay over how Rome was handling the situation in Latin America.

Von Balthasar heard these comments and called everyone together: “You do not understand,” he said. “Ratzinger is sacrificing himself for the Church.”

As Guerriero concludes:

Von Balthasar, according to an affectionate description by de Lubac, called to mind a Father of the Church among the Helvetians. So he appeared to us on that occasion, and his appeal managed to correct a judgment that was too dependent on current events and the passions of the moment. [330]


As we know, Ratzinger was vilified by the Western media throughout his career, yet he continued to sacrifice himself for the Church in the service of Divine Revelation and the authentic voice of Christ. This sacrificial service was rooted in the Gospel, of which the Church must be both the custodian and the means by which it comes to fruition, so that she is the font of life in a wayward world. I might mention as well that Joseph Ratzinger prepared himself for such a sacrifice through a simple life of prayer, study and service in accordance with God’s will, denying himself many good things in the years before he was brought to Rome.

It is for the same reasons that Fr. Landry speaks of the economy of salvation, of the one body of the Church, of sins that harm the whole body, and of sacrifices that strengthen and renew it. We may not be guilty in the matter of the abuse crisis, but neither are we without responsibility. The Catholic understanding of sacrifice is to sacrifice ourselves. Each of us has a responsibility in Christ to sacrifice himself for the Church.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 10, 2018 12:56 PM ET USA

    Thank you for illustrating the greatness in Pope Benedict's lifetime of service to the Church in humility. Truly a saint among us. You quoted Von Balthasar: "Ratzinger is sacrificing himself for the Church." Not meaning to cast any aspersions, but would the Church not be better off if more of the Church hierarchy would take on Benedict's humble example and decide to sacrifice themselves for the Church? As you rightly point out, the fact of our baptism as laymen binds us to making this sacrifice.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 10, 2018 10:37 AM ET USA

    Leopardi: Three points in response. First, I certainly never suggested that the practical administrative measures that ought to be taken should be dispensed with. Second, realistically, there is not a lot most of us can do on that front, except keep demanding it insofar as we have any platform at all. Third, where does the strength come from which enables weak human persons, including bishops and popes, to do good? It comes from grace. And where does the grace come from that animates the Body of Christ as a whole? It comes from Christ--and from all the members of the Body who join themselves to Christ in their own bodies, to make up what is lacking in His sufferings for the sake of His Body the Church (as Paul explains in Colossians 1:24). Sometimes even the orthodox tend toward Pelagianism in our day; the Church cannot be renewed "by us" without that deep sacrificial union which causes grace to abound--not by us, then, unless we join ourselves to Him.

  • Posted by: Leopardi - Dec. 09, 2018 4:39 PM ET USA

    I fail to see any meaningful parallel between the false notions of 'liberation theology' and the abuse crisis in the church which as you have so aptly pointed out is more related to an insidious infiltration of homosexuality in the clergy to the extent that this faction has established a real power base that makes eradication very difficult. I doubt that giving up wine and sweets will have an impact here! What's needed here is an authoritative and conspicuous backlash from a "high office"

  • Posted by: FredC - Dec. 07, 2018 9:19 PM ET USA

    As the Psalms amply recount, moral wars are won by God's doing, not by man's. (Think Gideon.) So we should call on God for a remedy. However, we must also avoid Quietism -- assuming God will do everything. God usually works through human beings.