The ‘Other’ Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church that No One is Talking About
How is it possible for bishops & priests to respect the bodies of the faithful, when some of them do not even respect the Body of the Lord?
It would not be an overstatement to say that 2018 was quite the rough year for the Catholic Church. Of course, as with any massive global organization, tensions typically run high. Pope Francis, suggested by some reporters that he will “enter history as the one who split the Catholic Church,” has been highly controversial since his ascent to the papacy in 2013. “Progressive” Catholics see Francis as “The Great Reformer”, while those of a more “traditional” bend suggest he is “The Dictator Pope”. While the ‘culture wars’ within the Church are neither new nor unique to the Church under Pope Francis, his papacy has emboldened liberals to take back control in the Church after suffering under two relatively conservative pontiffs — John Paul II (1978–2005) and Benedict XVI (2005–2013). Conservatives think that Francis is downplaying important doctrinal/moral issues, while liberals view Francis as a breath of fresh air. For these progressives, Francis is the “people’s pope”, who would rather serve the homeless than teach precise theological formulas. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Holy Father (and trust me, there are many of them out there!), it is clear that future papal biographers will see 2018 as a crucial year of his pontificate. The tensions in the Mystical Body of Christ have turned into full-blown ligament tears.
In July 2018, it was revealed that the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — a prominent figure in the ecclesiastical hierarchy — sexually assaulted minors & seminarians. This revelation sent shock-waves through the global Church. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, claimed that Pope Francis and other high-ranking prelates knew about McCarrick’s perverse crimes, but did nothing. In August, Pennsylvania released its grand jury report, listing over 300 priests who were accused of sexual abuse. That same month, I myself came forward with my own #MeToo testimony, revealing the abuse I experienced while as a Catholic seminarian studying for the priesthood. My story, which was confirmed and joined with others’, resulted in two seminary investigations in Philadelphia & Boston, where I experienced and witnessed serious misconduct. In December, the attorney general of Illinois revealed that the Catholic Church withheld the names of 500 priests accused of sexual abuse. Two U.S. provinces of the Society of Jesus (aka ‘Jesuits’) itself released 153 names of their own members accused of abuse, and more names are still on the way (UPDATE: On January 15, 2019, the US Eastern Province of the Society of Jesus released 50 names of Jesuit priests who committed abuse while serving on the East Coast) Bishops left and right are accused of covering clerical sex abuse. The issue is systemic, deep, and widespread. No ideology or ‘camp’ within the Church is safe from the crisis.
In many ways, we are experiencing the Abuse Crisis 2.0™.️ Many of the crimes by these accused clergy are decades-old, and the abuse crisis of 2018 has less of a ‘shocking’ effect (such as during 2002), and more of a numbing one. Catholics in 2018 know that the majority of these crimes are old, but they are still angry. Why? Because, in several cases, bishops & priests who knew about these predatory priests & covered their crimes were somehow able to enjoy very successful ecclesiastical careers. And, while the vast majority of these cases date back 20–40 years, there are still new and recent cases coming forward involving recently-ordained priests. Just two months ago, new research suggests that clergy sex abuse actually “declined much less than commonly thought.” To his credit, Francis, back in September, called for a worldwide summit at the Vatican to tackle clerical sexual abuse — the first of its kind, which actually begins today. However, as the U.S. Catholic bishops met a few weeks ago to pray and reflect upon the latest revelations of clerical sex abuse & cover-up, they most likely ignored another abuse scandal that has been present in the Church for over fifty years, and counting. This is an abuse scandal which has not only been ignored, but even encouraged by some members of the hierarchy. For far more common than clergy sex abuse is liturgical abuse — abuse of Christ’s Body, the Church, and the sacred mysteries which the Church celebrates. And almost no one is talking about it.
The Body and the ‘Warning’
Every practicing Catholic, whether in Brooklyn or Burma, experiences “the Church” most tangibly through their attendance & participation at Sunday Mass. The Mass is not a mere service, a gathering of a bunch of like-minded people to talk about Jesus and their lives. The Mass isn’t a history lesson or where a bunch of Catholics play “make-believe”. For Catholics, the Mass is the real re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. Catholics who walk into their local church for Mass are actually walking through a mystical veil, whereby heaven meets earth. For Catholics, the natural world is transfigured by the presence of God. Ordinary water, used for drinking and cleaning, becomes blessed and through it, a person becomes a partaker in God’s divine nature. In the world, a box with two seats is nothing too special. But when the box is divided by a screen, with a priest sitting on one side and a person with a weighty conscience on the other, the ‘box’ becomes a confessional — the place where a penitent may encounter God’s unfathomable mercy. The sacraments, as visible signs of Christ’s invisible grace, are the means by which Catholics most fully encounter the God whom they profess belief in. While all of the sacraments (Baptism, Confession, Eucharist, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick) are channels of God’s grace, the Eucharist contains Christ in a true, real, and substantial way — by containing the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. It is during the Mass whereby the Catholic encounters the Lord most tangibly and concretely. And it is the Mass that is the source & summit of the Christian life.
Since the time following Christ’s Resurrection, the Church gathered to commemorate and participate in the Lord’s Supper, whereby they received the same Body and Blood of Christ that was offered upon Golgotha. Christians then, just like today, would gather on Sunday — the day of the Lord’s Resurrection. Now, let it be known that the liturgy was never a casual free-for-all. Just like their Jewish brothers and sisters, the first Christians recognized the need for a ‘sacred time’ and a ‘sacred place’. They would follow a similar structure: introductory penitential rites, the chanting of the Word of God (psalms, other readings from the Old and New Testament) culminating in the proclamation of the Gospel, and the homily. After the homily, the catechumens (those preparing to convert to Christianity) would depart, as the Eucharist would be offered. The offering of the Eucharist was considered so sacred, that early Christian liturgies would not allow the unbaptized to witness it!
Certainly, the early Christians did not regard the Eucharist as a mere symbol (that is, as merely bread and wine, symbolic of the Last Supper). As early as Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, we see warnings regarding the unworthy reception of the Eucharist:
So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world. (1 Cor 11:27–32)
But what does it mean to “discern the body of Christ”? The early Church saw this command as twofold — first, it meant to affirm the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (thus, discerning that it is no longer bread and wine but changed substantially into Christ’s Body and Blood); second, it was a command to live a life of faith & proper moral conduct (thus, discerning one’s own worthiness to receive Christ’s divine food). The Didache, one of the first documents from the early Church, warned, “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.” Justin Martyr, the famous 2nd-century Christian apologist, echoed similar concerns:
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has commanded.
Countless of other examples confirm that, from her earliest times, the Church regarded the Eucharist to be the most sacred gift of God, because it contained Christ Himself. Even when Christians, facing persecution, were forced to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in houses, the prayers & ritual actions always remained formal, solemn, and purposeful. Without a doubt, the Body and Blood of the Lord was to be respected and treated with the utmost reverence. Anything less would be considered abuse.
The importance of the Eucharist — and the Sacred Liturgy in which it is offered — cannot be overstated. Christianity is not a collection of ethical codes, or simply about one’s personal relationship with Jesus. Christianity is about an encounter with God in Jesus Christ — true God and true man — who calls us into communion with the Trinity, as well as with each other as a graced community. Nowhere else is this encounter found more intimately than in the Mass, where we are brought into communion with Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church. During the Mass, we join the angels and saints in adoration and thanksgiving to God, who alone is worth our praise.
Given its sacred and mysterious reality, we can see why the Church, time and time again, emphasizes the need for the Christian faithful to recognize how important the Mass is. As the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states,
The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s supper.
The liturgy in its turn moves the faithful, filled with “the paschal sacraments,” to be “one in holiness”; it prays that “they may hold fast in their lives to what they have grasped by their faith”; the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way.
In an attempt to help the Christian faithful recognize and understand the liturgy, the Catholic Church called for what is commonly-known as “liturgical reform”. Throughout the centuries, the Church’s liturgy was changed in certain ways, albeit much more slowly and organically than it was in the 1960's! For example, the Nicene Creed was added in the Mass by the sixth century. While monophonic chant was the norm for 1,500 years, the Church (after some hesitation) allowed for polyphony — that is, musical settings featuring several voices & different voice lines. These and other changes in the Mass appeared slowly, but surely. By the 16th-century, the Roman Catholic Mass was codified at the Council of Trent, and remained largely unchanged up until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's.
Remember when I mentioned the importance for the early Christians to “discern the body” and understand what is being done during the Lord’s Supper? One of the aims of the Second Vatican Council was to do exactly that. As the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy elsewhere states (#11),
But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain. Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.
For non-Catholics, the question of validity may seem confusing. Put simply, the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, recognizes that which is necessary for a valid (that is, true) and licit (that is, legal) sacramental action. For example, if a Roman Catholic priest elevates a bowl of rice — instead of unleavened bread — and says the sacramental formula (“This is My Body…”), the bowl of rice suddenly does not become the Body of Christ. That would be an invalid Eucharist. As another example, if a priest ‘baptizes’ someone “…in the name of the Mother, Sister, and Sanctifier”, it would not be a valid baptism, because the formula needed for validity is the classic Trinitarian formula as proclaimed in Matthew 28:19 (“…in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”). Valid sacraments are channels of grace — invalid sacraments are merely façades. To celebrate a sacrament “licitly” is to celebrate it in a lawful manner, according to the norms, rules, and customs authorized by the Church.
What the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (quoted above) means by “something more is required…” is this: it not enough that the Eucharist is ‘performed’ validly & licitly. The Council Fathers, in writing this document, did not want priests to merely do bare minimum — say the words, just to “get it done”. That is not the meaning of the liturgy. Otherwise, we could gather in my basement, smoke a bunch of weed while blasting Nirvana, then invite a priest in to say the sacramental formula while elevating an unconsecrated host. To treat the Eucharist as a sort of plaything is to objectify it, to treat it as something you or I have ‘control’ of. It is to take something profoundly sacred, and to tease it with profanity. In short, it is abuse — plain and simple. And such liturgical abuse is what many Catholics today witness on a weekly basis.
The ‘Other’ Abuse Crisis
If I say “Church abuse crisis”, you will most likely think about child-molesting priests, and the bishops who simply moved them to another parish. That is certainly expected, especially given the numerous headlines filling newspapers since the 1980’s. But beyond these atrocities is a more widespread infection in the Catholic Church — the destruction of the Sacred Liturgy. The Mass, which is supposed to be an intimate encounter with the Lord, has largely turned into an irreverent, banal, ordinary ‘service’ in which the priest and ministers shape it according to their personalities and preferences.
The Church has clearly outlined what is appropriate and inappropriate in the Sacred Liturgy. In many cases, such instructions have largely been ignored. Catholics come to a church looking to worship God as their ancestors have, and what they often find is anything but purposeful worship, even by what Vatican II called for! “Liturgical abuse” is one of those things which a number of Catholics talk about behind closed doors, but it rarely is handled on a parish or diocesan level. There is no way to count the amount of times “liturgical abuse” has occurred throughout history, and it was certainly present before Vatican II, though arguably not as commonplace and institutionalized.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, priests and bishops began to “experiment” with the liturgy. Freed from the chains of Latin, ritual, and tradition, they saw themselves as the great innovators. It was a “new springtime” for the Church, and by stripping the Mass of how it looked for the past 1,500 years, they sought to create a new liturgy for the mythical “modern man”. Beautiful churches? Destroy them. Ornate vestments? Throw them out. Beautiful Gregorian chant? Replace it with pop/folk music.
The common anti-Vatican II critiques (those condemning the infamous “clown Mass, Protestants receiving Holy Communion, etc.) have presumably ended, at least to my knowledge. To their credit, Popes John Paul II & Benedict XVI largely cleaned up much of the nonsense going on, at least on a surface level. Through the Congregation for Divine Worship & the Discipline of the Sacraments, they published norms and correctives for many of the liturgical questions following the Second Vatican Council. Just as the clergy sex abuse crisis was largely concentrated during the 1960’s & 70’s, so too was that the era of the worst cases of liturgical abuse recorded. For Catholics attending the Novus Ordo Mass in 2019, things may seem more stable than they were for our parents and grandparents. So, we’re all good now, right? Not quite.
Let’s go back to the clergy sex abuse scandal. Ex-Cardinal McCarrick was ordained in 1958, was first named a bishop in 1977, was named a cardinal in 2001. During those years, he molested minors and vulnerable adults. During those years, he consecrated bishops. During those years (and up until this past July), he had enormous influence on the Church worldwide. His proteges include many prominent priests, bishops, and even cardinals. Put simply, even if McCarrick dies tomorrow, we do not have a guarantee that there will not be another one next week. Even to this day, cardinals are lying to the faces of the faithful about their knowledge and involvement in clergy sex abuse & cover-up. And, while sex abuse allegations are largely seen as “a thing of the past” for American Catholics, the accounts of seminarians in Honduras, nuns in India, and clergy sex abuse in Uganda reveal that sex abuse in the Church exists today, too.
Now, back to the issue of liturgy. You see, just as with the case of McCarrick, claiming that liturgical abuse is “a thing of the past” is incredibly misleading and harmful. It gives the illusion that we are somehow beyond the days of abuse, when in fact, there is nothing in place preventing it from happening again. Look at a few recent examples. In his effort to “decentralize” the Church, Pope Francis has now placed questions of liturgical translations into the hands of bishops’ conferences. In response to this, progressive-wing cardinals, such as Cardinal Blaise Cupich & Reinhard Marx, applauded this gesture by Francis, because it gives them power in crafting the liturgy to their ideals. Francis’ repeated jabs against those youth who love the traditional Latin Mass has given liberal Catholics one last round of ammunition to besiege those simple Catholics who want to attend the Latin Mass in peace. Already, we are hearing of bishops who refuse to ordain more traditional-minded men in vocation-dried lands, such as Germany. Francis’ revision of the Ratio Fundamentalis (the norms which guide seminary formation) now has a startling passage (#42):
“Seminarians will be helped to recognize and correct ‘spiritual worldliness’: obsession with personal appearances, a presumed theological or disciplinary certainty, narcissism and authoritarianism, the attempt to dominate others, a merely external and ostentatious preoccupation with the liturgy…”
What does this even mean? What is a “presumed theological certainty”? Am I wrong for going to bed tonight professing that there is one God in three Persons — aka the Trinity — when I may wake up and find out that — oops — a fourth ‘person’ was added to the Godhead overnight? Certainly, theological certainty is vital when we’re dealing with God’s revelation. Also, what does it mean to have a “preoccupation with the liturgy”? St. Benedict wrote, “Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God” and Vatican II even called the liturgy the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; [and] it is the font from which all her power flows.” If anything, we should be preoccupied with the liturgy because it is the most important thing in the world. Then again, Francis himself said that the Vatican II “liturgical reform is irreversible”, and given his presiding at Masses where the liturgy was turned into a silly show, one might wonder what sort of vision Francis has for the Church’s liturgy. That liturgical abuse is a thing of the past is a fact; that it may also be a thing of the future is a distinct possibility.
The (Liturgical) Abuse Crisis, Today
Psychologists have identified several traits common to abusers, whether they be of a sexual, emotional, or verbal manner. Abusers are typically narcissistic: the whole world revolves around them. They think quite highly of themselves, and will stop at nothing to use others for their pleasure. Abusers are also manipulative — they know what to say, when to say it. They know the things that will get under your skin, open your heart, and bend you to their will. Abusers are controlling; they do not want you outside of their reach, nor to exercise your freedom in a way which limits theirs absolute control.
Liturgical abusers are no different. They turn the Mass into a show that is all about them & their preferences. They will crack jokes at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. They will omit mandatory prayers out of convenience. They will change the words of the Mass to fit their tastes. They won’t let you kneel to receive Holy Communion, because that’s “so pre-Vatican II”. Sometimes, they will dress up as a dog to symbolize the local football team’s “underdog” status in the NFL playoffs.
Other times, they will wait until after Mass is over, and before people can even leave their pews, they recess down the aisle chanting “Who Dat?!”
Sometimes, they even glide around the church on a hoverboard:
And so on.
Because liturgical abuse is a thing that many people experience, but do not necessarily know how to articulate, I asked the Twitter community to send me their stories of liturgical abuse, which I defined as “a willful act of disobedience to Church liturgical law and mandate.” Therefore, I did not want to hear about an 87 year-old priest who forgot to recite the Gloria on a Sunday. Honest mistakes happen, and no one should be condemned for stumbling over a word or forgetting something minor. That is not “liturgical abuse”. Instead, I wanted to hear about people’s experiences at Mass, especially when they felt that — by the actions of the priest or assisting ministers — they could not pray & worship Christ according to the liturgical law of the Church. I also wanted to limit the scope of the abuse dating from 2011-onward, because 2011 was the year when Catholics in the United States were given a new, more faithful translation of the Latin texts into English. I also chose 2011 because, as I mentioned before, the past two decades have largely been spared of the liturgical craziness of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Also, I did not want this to turn into a “trash the Novus Ordo/Vatican II” marathon, and so I asked for examples from either form of the Roman Rite. I have seen liturgical abuse first-hand at both the Ordinary Form and the Traditional Latin Mass, though I must admit that I find many more cases in the former than the latter. But lest anyone accuse me of trying to attack the Second Vatican Council, I set the parameters of this survey quite strongly — submissions must constitute actual liturgical abuse, date from 2011-onward, and such actions need to be contrary to Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy & the official reforms following the Council.
The responses were staggering. Two hours after I posted my tweet asking for submissions, I received over 20 messages. Four hours later, the number went up to 60. By the end of the night, I received over 120 messages from Catholics who witnessed something which would qualify as “liturgical abuse”. I had to shut the whole thing down because I could not keep up with the messages. My initial reaction was sadness, followed by disgust. Some of these are ‘mild’; some of these are egregious — but all of these examples are legitimate cases of liturgical abuse. For the sake of brevity, I will simply share some of the submissions below, without much elaboration. They speak for themselves.
These are but a few of the messages I received after asking to hear about people’s experiences of the Catholic liturgy since 2011. My argument is clear: I am not surprised that priests and bishops abused the bodies of the faithful when they themselves are complicit with the abuse of the sacramental Body of Our Lord. Of course, to non-Catholics, criticizing such liturgical abuse is seen as silly and distracting from the real issue. But for Catholics, we understand that the Body of Christ is present both in the parish pews and upon the altar. Abuse to one dimension of Christ’s Body will ultimately lead to abuse to the other. I’m sure that at this Vatican abuse summit, there will be no mentioning of the connection between liturgical and clergy sex abuse. But the connection is there. And the fact that I received over 100 messages in a few short hours shows that clergy abusing minors & vulnerable adults isn’t the only systemic abuse crisis our Church is facing right now.
Just go to your local parish.