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Truth Coming from the Well

On the divine call to purification.

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Truth Coming From the Well Armed With Her Whip to Chastise Humanity is, beyond doubt, my favorite piece of fine art. I have come to appreciate it even more since realizing that I interpret it differently to almost every other reasonably minded person I know. For me, the look on the woman Truth’s face as she emerges from the well (the painting’s title, for context, is as straightforwardly descriptive as one might hope and expect) is a look of joyful, passionate determination. Yet almost everyone else I have shown it to has found the woman Truth to be an intimidating and almost frightening figure. One sister physically recoiled from my phone-screen when I showed it to her, saying, "Gosh—doesn't Truth look alarming?"

I’m not entirely averse to this point of view. But I can’t help but feel sorry for anybody who sees the woman Truth first and foremost as an aggressor. After all, oil-on-canvas being the medium it is, there’s no escape from Truth’s emergence from the well. It goes on forever. There is no resolution, no ending, to a painting; even when we look away Truth will still be staring us down, whip in hand. If Truth Coming From the Well were a short film or a poem there would be a point at which her journey into the light of day would be over and done with. But thanks to Gérôme’s work, Truth will remain charging towards us out of that well until the end of time.

I think of the woman Truth and her perpetual journey out of the well every time I hear or read someone use the phrase Catholic sex abuse crisis, with crisis in the monolithic singular. It is a phrase I have come to strongly dislike. In everyday English the word "crisis" implies something acute and time-constrained: the sort of thing which prompts us to write a report, implement a policy, apologize to the victims (perhaps even more than once, if we feel so inclined), and then move on. Truth waves her whip about a few times and then disappears back into the darkness, leaving only the monomaniacs and conspiracy theorists jabbering about her visit.

But I do not think that modern Church history—viewed fairly, dispassionately, and (this is crucial) with a global eye—is interested in the increasingly artificial-seeming lines we draw around the scourge of clerical abuse, and nor are the bodies and souls of its victim-survivors.

The Church, as the Second Vatican Council reminds us, is "always in need of being purified" and "always follow[ing] the way of penance and renewal." 2024 is nearly three months old, and already it has given us enough stories of allegations, investigations, Slovenian mosaicists, and spiritual directors to keep this basic fact of ecclesial life ever-present in our minds. A crisis has a clear end in sight; a divine call to purification, penance and renewal does not. At least, not until the Second Coming.

I do not think we reflect enough on the spiritual significance of the fact that, in the Church, the authority to prosecute sexual crimes against children is held by the same Vatican Dicastery which prosecutes crimes against the deepest truths of our Faith—including, and above all, crimes against the Holy Eucharist. Here, the Church is telling us, is where to look to find the origins of clerical sexual abuse. We are called to go down and down, down through the psychological and legal and procedural factors, right to the level of the interior purity of Christ’s priests and their commitment to the faith of the Church.

When Father Hans Zollner, S.J., repeatedly asks us to develop a "theology of vulnerability," when Pope Francis himself calls for a "spirituality of reparation," this is not merely an exercise in ecclesial navel-gazing designed to keep theology postgrads in something approximating employment, or to buy the D.D.F. time to formulate another vademecum. We are called to view clerical sexual abuse through the eyes of faith because, as mature Christians, that is the only truthful and effective way for us to understand it, to remain vigilant against it, and to stay on that path of purification and renewal to which Christ has called us. Whether we see her as friend or aggressor, whether we want to look at her or not, Truth is coming out of her well from now until the end of time, and she will not be putting down her whip any time soon.