“There is only one means of salvation, take yourself and make yourself responsible for all men’s sins”. These words from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, “The Brothers Karamazov”, are placed within the farewell discourse of the saintly Father Zossima. The personal challenge of Dostoevsky’s Christian vision is spoken on every page of this novel, but Zossima’s farewell is particularly persistent in relating itself to my mind in these troubled times.
As the scandal surrounding the sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy rises once again, now implicating prelates as elevated as Cardinal McCarrick, many commentators have highlighted clericalism as a serious enabler of the abuse. If these commentators were to quote Dostoevsky, one might expect them to cite the equally challenging Grand Inquisitor. This focus on clericalism particularly appeals to laymen and women, because it is one of the few things that lie within our power to effect. We cannot force the hierarchy to change its relationship to us, but we have every ability to change our own relationship to those set above us in the Church.
If what follows takes it lead from Father Zossima, that is not to discredit the application of Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor. There is a systemic corruption of Christianity among those Bishops that placed the prestige of the Church over the person of Christ that is to be found in each and every victim of sexual abuse. This systemic corruption must be dealt with systemically, but I would caution that our interrogation of institutional clericalism must be couched in a real effort to understand and adhere to the teaching of Zossima. Only if we take personal responsibility for the abuse and the cover up will we be able to work toward a reform of the Church.
The key to understanding Father Zossima’s doctrine of mutual responsibility, each to each, is this passage, also from the farewell discourse: “You might have been a light to the evil-doers, even as the one man sinless, and you were not a light to them. If you had been a light, you would have lightened the path for others too, and the evil-doer might perhaps have been saved by your light from his sin.”
Applying this admonition to the McCarrick situation, we come to see an aspect of clericalism that is more foundational than functional. We lay persons are susceptible to an assumption that expects the clergy to be our models of Christian virtue. This stems from the ancient and persistent exhortations of Saintly bishops and priests to their brother in the clergy, instructing them to be models of Christian virtue for their flocks. Added to these exhortations are the socioeconomic realities of the last two thousand years that mean written material on lay piety is a very recent addition to the Church. The mere weight of books written exclusively by and to clerics must impart a clerical flavor to our modern ideas of Christian witness.
Of course, Prelates do have a responsibility to be a “light to the evil-doers”, but this responsibility stems from their baptism, not from their ordination. Broadly speaking, Holy Orders exists as an institution for two main purposes. First and foremost is their sacred role as transmitters of sacramental grace, especially the graces of Penance and the Eucharist. Secondly is their corporate role as guarantors of the Deposit of Faith. Neither of these functions require any particular sanctity. The ecclesial institution that contains models of virtue is Sainthood, and that way lies open to each an everyone of us regardless of vocation.
I must look at my life with open eyes and find those places where my own witness failed the victims of abuse. When have I held power as a tool to be used against others, rather than as a means to serve? When have I seen others as objects of use, rather than as persons of divine dignity? When have I succumbed to my own disordered appetites, rather than being a model of temperance? When have I placed a higher premium on my own prestige than truth? I must ask myself these and a dozen similar questions each and everyday until I see the truth of Zossima’s assertion that I am responsible for all men’s sins. Nota bene: This must not be a mere thought experiment. This examination of conscience must include real contrition for my own guilt in the abuse and cover up, and it must include real penance for my sins.
Pope Benedict wrote these words concerning the abuse scandal to the Curia at Christmas time in 2010: “We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen.” The Holy Father was right to speak thus to his brother Bishops, but that cannot not prevent us from applying those same words to ourselves.