Theologian Richard Lennan argues that the course forward for the Church must be charted by the cultivation of intentional discernment, memory, and Christian hope. Together they will ensure that the Church is moving according to the direction and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The renewal of integrity in the Church requires more than individual pieces of reform: it requires broad and deep cultural shifts. To achieve the latter, it will be necessary for the Church to embrace an overarching approach to change, one that can guide the integration of specific changes. Here, the key question is what might provide such an approach.
A principal aspect of a satisfactory answer to that question is that the ongoing discernment of God’s desires for God’s people must become the norm for the Christian community. Broadly speaking, the sole non-negotiable in the life of the Christian community is the obligation to be responsive to God’s Holy Spirit at the heart of the Church. The Spirit promotes only what is conducive to God’s reign and the good of God’s people. Every aspect of the Church’s life, from how we interpret the Scriptures and our forms of worship, to the goals we set for our structures and ministries at every level of the Christian community, must continually find its rationale in relation to discernment of the Spirit.
Discernment is the polar opposite of idolatry. As Pope Francis describes it, discernment “is not a solipsistic self-analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God” for the sake of our mission in the world (Gaudete et Exsultate, article 175).
In urging the members of the Church to cultivate practices of discernment, Pope Francis stresses that discernment “is not a matter of applying rules or repeating what was done in the past, since the same solutions are not valid in all circumstances and what was useful in one context may not prove so in another. The discernment of spirits liberates us from rigidity, which has no place before the perennial ‘today’ of the risen Lord. The Spirit alone can penetrate what is obscure and hidden in every situation, and grasp its every nuance, so that the newness of the Gospel can emerge in another light” (Gaudete et Exsultate, article 173).
Those of us who believe that God’s grace is inextricably linked to the Church, that it does sustain the Church’s mission in history, long for the community of faith to be a transparent witness to that grace, to be a community that reflects thoroughly and consistently the boundless compassion, justice, and reconciliation expressive of the God of Jesus Christ. Even more, we long for that to be true of all of us, every day, and in our every action. The reality of the Church is, of course, otherwise. Nor are the failures of the Church a new story. Nor have the Church’s sins remained only within its own community, but have, indisputably, brought about the sufferings of others. That truth is one that we must never seek to escape or deny.
Remembering, however, is insufficient on its own. We must remember with intent. Johann Baptist Metz, in the context of discussing the task of theology after Auschwitz, explains what “remembering with intent” implies: “Christian theology must be able to perceive history in its negativity, in its catastrophic essence … If this perception is not to turn tragic—that is, develop into a farewell to history—then these catastrophes must be remembered with practical and political intent (A Passion for God, 40). Our remembering, then, must drive a commitment to change, must not dissipate itself in either despair or a casual retreat into “business as usual.”
A future for the Church, a future that offers an alternative to self-deception, and a future in which the Christian community might become not perfect, but less equivocal in its witness to all that God enables, will not be the product simply of our will-power, or even our best desires. Rather, it can come only from recovering the hope we have in the crucified and risen Christ, the hope “that does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). This hope is not a soft option.
As a Church we must not turn away from the devastation that clerical sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance have caused; we must remember it with the intent to reform our community and its ministry. We must also, all of us without exception, open our own hearts and actions to the transformation that God’s Spirit seeks and empowers. What difference all of this will make, whether it will aid the healing of survivors of abuse, and whether it will enable some reconciliation with the Church for the many people who have walked away in understandable anger and sorrow, we cannot determine or control. Here, we see the radical nature of hope, indeed its poverty, in the face of all that it cannot control. Here too we understand why it is that Christian hope cries out for others and ourselves to the God who alone can heal what human beings have broken.
RICHARD LENNAN is a Professor of Systematic Theology in Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry and Professor Ordinarius.
This is an excerpt from a paper presented at an ecumenical conference, “Health and Integrity in Ministry,” in Melbourne, Australia, in August 2018. Reprinted with permission from the author.