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Bad Breath

On spiritual corruption.

Once a month our community observes a day of silent recollection, and I have spent the last two of these days meditating on Corruption and Sin, an essay written in 2005 by Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires. It is a text that deserves revisiting often, not only because it is well-written, but also because its teaching on corruption remains soberingly relevant. The archbishop wrote it in response to an Argentinian political scandal. The essay’s deliberately apocalyptic view of corruption, defining it not as a social phenomenon, but as a spiritual malaise rooted in the interior life of individual believers, sheds necessary light on the pilgrim Church’s persistent inability to deal justly with the most visible and harmful of its corrupt members: sexually abusive clerics.

“Corruption,” says the archbishop, “needs to be cured, rather than forgiven.” It might seem a strange claim—as Christians, shouldn’t we be willing to forgive anything and everything?—but it is perfectly sensible in its context. Corruption, after all, is not the same as sin; nor is not merely what happens when our sins reach a certain number. It is, instead, what happens when we come to view sin with the self-serving indifference which forbids us from recognizing it as sin at all. Corruption, like bad breath, is seldom if ever known to the people inflicting it on others; therefore, the archbishop writes, the Lord saves these people “through means of trials,” which “pierce the armor of corruption and allow grace to enter.” Once corruption has been stripped away by this external trial, the ground has been laid for honesty, humility, and forgiveness. But until that has happened, the sin will remain unknown and unnoticed, no matter how often it is talked about or even directly experienced.

The Church has become very adept in last few years at urging its members to listen to victim-survivors of clerical sexual abuse. One of the most recent of these exhortations is found in the Synod on Synodality’s Letter to the People of God. But if Archbishop Bergoglio is right in his diagnosis, then what good does it do to be listened to by a community, or even an individual, whose moral sense has been blunted by corruption? What point is there in offering one’s deepest pain to them, if they cannot understand the sin that caused it? I am sure I am not the only person who has discovered that no matter how much procedural law the Church promulgates, no matter how many mechanisms for reporting and investigation are established, the success or failure of a misconduct complaint hangs, to an almost terrifying extent, on the disposition of the person who receives it. The more I read Corruption and Sin, the more I recognize that this disposition is, ultimately, nothing more than the ability to recognize and to name sin—and it is this ability that is lost through corruption.

Many people have offered their opinions on what it means to be a synodal Church. I would like to suggest that a necessary part of being a synodal Church, a Church where laity and hierarchy listen to each other and journey together, is understanding what it means to be a Church wounded by corruption. The more we commit ourselves to listening to the Body of Christ, the more we will discover that there are vast sections of that Body whose moral sense has been blunted, if not entirely obliterated, by corruption—defined in the precise, theological sense offered by Archbishop Bergoglio nearly twenty years ago.

Cardinal Robert Prevost, Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, late last month in a press conference described sexual abuse as something which was “not meant to be the central topic of the synod,” and thus not “the focus of the synod.” I appreciate that nobody is operating at their best when answering questions off-the-cuff in a press conference, and so do not want to labor too long on the Cardinal’s words—especially since people far more baffled and offended and, crucially, articulate than me have already done so. All I will say is that, to me, this is an excellent example of a corrupt understanding of clerical abuse: one that views abuse simply as tragic events that happened to some people back in their childhoods, rather than a devastating, ongoing blow to the heart of ecclesial communion made by men who, by virtue of their clerical state, had supposedly given their lives to strengthen it. If that is not a topic of central concern to a synodal Church, then I am afraid I have profoundly misunderstood not only synodality, but the very nature and mission of the Church itself.

“All corruption at the social level,” Corruption and Sin tells us, “is simply the result of a corrupt heart.” In its original context, this thought was not intended to be any sort of explanation or solution for the Church’s abuse crisis. But its echoes can be seen, I suggest, in the magisterial writings of the man whom Archbishop Bergoglio became ten years ago, on his election to the See of Peter. “The crimes of sexual abuse,” writes Pope Francis in his apostolic letter Vos estis lux mundi, “offend our Lord” and “harm the community of the faithful,” and if they are to “never happen again, a continuous and profound conversion of hearts is needed.”

There are many, necessary layers that make up the ecclesial response to clerical abuse: the legal, the pastoral, the psychotherapeutic, the financial. But underlying them all is the need for each member of the faithful to guard their souls against interior corruption, knowing the great and fearful significance that each one of those souls carries in the plan of God. For my part, I am fairly sure I will return to Corruption and Sin for next month’s day of silence—in the hope, perhaps, that by then it will seem a little less painfully relevant to the life of the Church.