The power of listening to the Peripheries: A traumatized Church can truly embrace the Pope Francis vision and offer a witness that is more accountable to the Gospel — by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R.
When asked what I hope for from this week’s Rome summit on the Church’s global response to abuse, the answer for me is unmistakable. As bishops from around the globe gather with Pope Francis, they do so against a backdrop of soul trauma for the Body of Christ. And while this moment is in many ways unprecedented in the life of the Church, we can still learn from echoes of the past. Which is why I say that what the Church needs really needs is another “Nostra Aetate moment.”
At the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the bishops in the room all had one thing in common: They all had, in some way or another, survived World War II. That included Philip Hannan, later the archbishop of New Orleans, who had served as a chaplain to U.S. paratroopers. Even Pope John XXIII had, as a Vatican diplomat, issued blank baptismal certificates to Jewish families fleeing the Nazis. The Council Fathers found themselves in the wake of a conflict that had claimed 60 million lives (3 percent of the world population) and left Europe devastated, that had seen nuclear weapons deployed in war for the first and — God willing — only time. My own father lost a leg during the war. He was just one of a multitude in that generation who, even as they returned home and started families, would carry scars forever.
Humanity had glimpsed the depths of its potential for self-destruction, and this horrific vision demanded a deliberative response. The Church needed to proclaim prophetically and apply more urgently what the Gospel offers. We see this in John’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, which condemned nuclear weapons and outlined the necessary elements for building lasting global peace. But the council is an even fuller expression of the postwar Church putting the wisdom of Tradition into optimal, self-aware action. Witnessing to this trauma made them attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit in profound and surprising ways.
What we saw at the council was also a revolutionary flourishing of a Church of synodality, that is, one whose members move together with Christ, along a path guided by the Holy Spirit. I hope we will see this again at the abuse summit. And I believe we as a Church have entered an age in which we will live out, with increasing intentionality, this model — left by the Council Fathers and lifted up by Pope Francis — of a synodal Church. And a central characteristic of such a Church is that it has learned to listen to people who have, in one way or another, been pushed to the peripheries, in a way that is open to conversion and action.
The original ‘Nostra Aetate moment’
The most devastating trauma of World War II came in the form of the Shoah, the systematic, industrialized and institutionalized murder of over 6 million Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis. And in 1960, French Jewish historian Jules Isaac sought out Pope John and was received in an audience, a meeting that would have seismic implications for the council — then in its planning stages — and would in some ways provide a prototype for the vision of Church that Pope Francis calls us toward today. Isaac sought out Pope John in hopes that the upcoming ecumenical council would provide an opportunity for a course correction, to stave off the possibility of the horrors of the Holocaust horrors ever reoccurring. What he shared with the pope was his research on the roots of Christian anti-Semitism and how the Church, while never proclaiming them as articles of faith, had nonetheless proliferated a toxic “teaching of contempt” toward the Jewish people that metastasized through the centuries and directly enabled the Holocaust. Pope John would take Isaac’s call for accountability to heart, taking the step of changing the words of the Good Friday prayer that referred to the “blindness” of “perfidious Jews.”
But the ultimate fruit of that meeting would come after John’s death, in the form of Nostra Aetate, the council’s 1965 decree on the Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions. It affirmed that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures” and that “the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (No. 4). If Vatican II formally condemned a heresy, this was it.
In shifting the emphasis of our teaching from John’s Gospel and the Letter to the Hebrews, with their negative depiction of the Jewish people, to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which Paul struggles with the fate of his own Jewish people, the council affected a true paradigm shift. It required going all the way back to Scripture, but the Church was able to find a positive way forward.
In his 2013 interview with the world’s Jesuit publications, Pope Francis discussed this kind of development: “St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding.”
And driving these developments, particularly a precipitous course correction like Nostra Aetate, is the gift of dialogue. Pope Paul VI injected dialogue into the council discourse. In his landmark 1964 encyclical on the Church, Ecclesiam Suam, written during Vatican II, he reflected extensively on the need for dialogue as a method for the Church moving forward. Pope Francis doubled down on that prescription when he addressed the U.S. bishops in Washington during his 2015 visit to the United States: “The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly.”
But before either of these popes, we had the model lived out by John XXIII. There would never have even been an opening for Nostra Aetate to occur had John XXIII not been open to dialogue with Jules Isaac. The head of the Catholic Church opened himself up to a voice that had been marginalized from the Church. And the bishops of the whole Church followed his lead in allowing themselves to be challenged and affected by that voice, again with the horrors of recent decades fresh in their memories to spur them on and keep them accountable. The result was a white-hot flash of purification, like Saul getting knocked off his horse, or like a coal seam fire burning away nearly two millennia of toxicity that had festered deep within the Body of Christ.
Today’s paradigm shift
Today the Church grapples with another septic wound, one that has also been compounded by the perennial ignoring of the voices of people who have been wounded and pushed aside by the Church — whether those sexually victimized as children or as adults. In society, we have seen a paradigm shift in the rise of the #MeToo movement. That shift is one from disbelief to belief when it comes to the stories of survivors. The Church’s focus has shifted as well, from the actions of perpetrators to the harm their behaviors — and their enabling — have caused in so many lives. Something has been taken from victims of abuse that the Church can never repay on our own. The void of injustice that looms before us is deep and vast.
This kind of dialogue requires an abundance of courage, because authentically listening has real implications. It is not something we should expect to be easy or pleasant. As with the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, we find ourselves confronted by our blind spots, our prejudices and real carnage. But we have already witnessed the undeniable ways in which listening to the voices of abuse survivors has forever changed our Church. As these changes take hold, we will see that, strangely enough, we have been transformed to a far greater degree into the Church that Pope Francis has challenged us to become.
For instance, we are called to humility. Authentic humility is not a lofty idea or aesthetic choice. It is living with the crushing weight of the knowledge and reality of your failures. We are called to be a merciful Church, and mercy isn’t merely a beautiful, benevolent concept. Authentic mercy is something that, like love, is reflected to others once we ourselves have been shown it. The Church of the future will have little choice but to be humbler and more merciful in its treatment of others, because our only hope is to be shown mercy, by our own people and the rest of the world, for our failures.
We are also called to synodality. The Council Fathers envisioned a Church with an active laity helping to lead the way. A strange blessing of the past year has been the overwhelming evidence that laypeople haven’t given up on the Church, but are in fact willing to dig in and be a part of the rebuilding. The importance of including lay voices is captured in the 2014 document from the International Theological Commission on “Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church.” In the history of the Church, it notes, “In certain areas, the teaching of the Church has developed as a result of lay people discovering the imperatives arising from new situations” (Nos. 72, 73).
I am genuinely hopeful as the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences, informed by the voices of their faithful, gather with Pope Francis to address this problem. Francis himself has offered prescriptions for rooting out the scourge of abuse. At the opening of last October’s synod, he noted that clericalism “leads us to believe that we belong to a group that has all the answers and no longer needs to listen or learn anything – or it just pretends to listen.” And from this attitude springs so many ills: the inclination to treat laypeople as second-class citizens, the decision to protect not our children but the reputation of the institution, ignorant of the reality that, as Ben Bradlee once put it, “The truth, no matter how bad, is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run.” My prayer is that the next flash of purification experienced by the Church will have its fuse lit at this month’s summit and that it will be the purging of structures and attitudes that foster clericalism and the abuse of God’s children.
Listening, solidarity, conversion
When Benedict XVI shocked the world with his resignation in February of 2013, he cited among his reasons a world “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith.” Pope Francis realizes that, faced with these realities, a younger, more energetic pope is a mere Band Aid on the problem. For the Church to engage nimbly and effectively in the 21st century, he knows a revitalized sense of synodality — particularly the process of the Synod of Bishops established by Paul VI in 1965 as way of carrying forward the fruits of Vatican II — is essential.
This also puts the Church back in touch with a tradition of collaborative decision-making, reaching all the way back to the early disputes recorded in Scripture. For the first Christians, the late San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn wrote, “the plan of God for the Church was discerned only after long, arduous search and controversy. The path was not self-evident.” But neither was the path just any path. As the International Theological Commission’s 2018 document on synodality notes, “The consultation that takes place in synodal assemblies is actually different, because the members of the People of God who take part in them are responding to the summons of the Lord, listening as a community to what the Spirit is saying to the Church through the Word of God which resonates in their situation, and interpreting the signs of the times with the eyes of faith.” (No. 68).
Ideally, the Synod strives to include marginalized voices in the calculus of the Church’s thinking and decision-making, even at the level of the Vatican. Pope Francis himself embodies this as someone from a hemisphere so often in the economic and ecological footprint of globalization. Francis recognizes the power of this model and has expressed his dissatisfaction with consultation he finds too filtered. He recognizes that bishops should not limit their input to safe voices who are only going to affirm only what we want to hear. The ultimate fruit of this process is conversion, particularly conversion away from attitudes and behaviors that dehumanize others — whether attitudes towards those outside the Church (as with anti-Semitism), actions that harm our most vulnerable people (as with abuse and clericalism) or both. As Nostra Aetate itself says, “We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God” (No. 5).
Many young people today already subscribe to a model of empowering marginalized voices. This has driven much of the societal change of recent years. Some might grumble about “social justice warriors,” but the Church has much more to offer here than complaining. We have the institutional foundation to engage and listen to the marginalized and remain true to our teaching and Tradition. We already have in Nostra Aetate a profound model of this. The embrace of complexity that this entails is a gift we can model and share with young people who hunger and thirst for righteousness in the world.
The paradigm being pursued by Pope Francis has great potential to unlock the ongoing renewal of the Church in a fast-changing world, and we know that new crises and questions continue to compound at an accelerating rate: the widespread abandonment of faith and religious practice; the greatest global refugee crisis since the end of World War II; vast economic inequality that guts solidarity and destabilizes societies; questions about the role of women and entire communities of people alienated from the Church. What might a “Nostra Aetate moment” — of a bold, transformed witness by the Church— look like for any one of these, or other, issues?
In the wake of massive cultural shifts and led by a pope who insists on the primacy of God’s mercy, the Church should respond to the call to synodality with confidence that the Holy Spirit guides and speaks to us, through our Tradition, through Scripture and through each other. That is how we can be truly present to the world today. By answering this call, we transform our hearts, ourselves and the entire Body of Christ into something that ever more closely resembles what Jesus Christ wants us to be.