Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Post have something important to say about ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of the Church’s mission.
Two recent award-winning films had something to say to me about the Australian Catholic Church in the wake of the Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The first was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a dramatic black comedy about Mildred Hayes, a woman who rents three billboards to draw attention to her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder. Mildred receives a pastoral visit from her parish priest who is sympathetic to Mildred’s loss but critical of her justice-seeking methods. He reminds her that she’d have more community sympathy for her cause if she hadn’t stopped attending church. Mildred turns on the priest and in a tirade accuses him of complicity in sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The scene is powerful and gripping. However, it was the response of the packed theatre that I found most sobering.
Some in the audience didn’t hold back with their comments, murmurings and sneers. The disdain for the Catholic Church was palpable. A friend who saw the movie elsewhere said that he experienced a similar audience response.
The second movie was The Post, a political thriller depicting the true story of The Washington Post’s attempt to publish secret classified documents, the Pentagon Papers, regarding US involvement in the Vietnam War. These documents revealed unreported facts about the escalation of troops and serious setbacks to the US offensive. The key motivation for concealing this information by four consecutive administrations was that the United States could not be seen to have failed. In the face of this hubris and misinformation, more troops were marshalled and more young American lives were lost. The film follows the Government’s litigation and heavy-handed attempts to suppress publication of the Pentagon Papers. In a concluding dramatic scene, the ruling from the Supreme Court is handed down: The Washington Post is vindicated because “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors”.
Both films have something important to say about ‘the what’ and ‘the how’ of the Church’s mission. The Church’s mission is to serve the people of God, not any clerical “commander-in-chief”. It is a church of the baptised not the ordained. It is a church whose focus of care should be those most in need in society. And a church whose priests should be, in Pope Francis’ memorable image, “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”.
Just as the US continued to send young soldiers to the Vietnam War in a vain attempt to bolster its international dominance, the Church’s concern for the reputation of the institution trumped the care and safety of innocent children.
Irish theologian Dr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, in his evidence to the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, stated that “It was as if the Church, wishing to be seen as that beacon of holiness… could not quite face up to the grievous failure” (p. 632). It was as though those in positions of power – all of whom were ordained clerics – could not see the abused children; nor could they, or would they, listen to them. They failed to understand the depth of the pain and the extent of the tragedy of child sexual abuse.
How different from Jesus’ response: “Let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). Let the little children be seen; let them be heard and let them be believed. Above all, let them be healed and let them be safe.
The Royal Commission Report notes that there were multiple individual and systemic failures that contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but, quoting from a leading expert, Rev Dr Thomas Doyle OP, “If one had to isolate one single factor that has contributed to the toxic response of Catholic Church leaders to victims of sexual abuse it would be clericalism” (p. 613). The Report defines clericalism as “the idealisation of the Catholic priesthood and, by extension, the idealisation of the Institutional Catholic Church” (p. 613).
Many commentators have said that it just can’t be “business as usual” within the Australian Catholic Church, which is now so distrusted and diminished. Popular culture, as evidenced in the films Three Billboards and The Post, is offering a necessary and timely critique.
It occurred to me that the audience’s response to Three Billboards is positive. It rejects an arrogant, hypocritical, entitled institution. I hear a hidden call for a more humble and transparent institution; a less powerful Church without the status it once demanded and enjoyed. A more wounded Church may have a more compelling message for the very people it is called to serve. The first and ongoing priority of the Church must be the care for the victims and survivors of its own abuse.
Mildred Hayes believes her pastor was complicit in child sexual abuse, merely by being a member of the “clerical club”. But aren’t we all personally complicit when we collude with any system – that of the Church and other organisations to which we belong – which puts some on pedestals? (I include myself as a religious sister and congregational leader.) Where not only children, but also women, are invisible in structures, decision-making, language and ritual? And where a sense of entitlement occurs because of the position one holds?
A culture of clericalism not only damages children, it damages everyone within the system. While not exploring the contentious issue of celibacy here, I concur with the Royal Commission’s finding that certain stressors in the lives of the perpetrators of abuse have had a role to play – stressors such as social isolation, lack of positive adult relationships and low self-esteem (p. 592).
We get a volatile brew when this is mixed with a seminary formation, described as “tridentine” by Rev Dr David Ranson, Vicar General for the Broken Bay Diocese, which promotes “theological literacy but not sexual or emotional literacy” (p. 610) and the curious belief that an ordained minister is somehow “ontologically” different from those to whom he ministers. The ministered to, and the ministers, deserve better.
A holistic initial and ongoing formation program needs to embrace an incarnational theology and spirituality where there is no false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the human. The starting point for any theology is human experience – the actual flesh, blood, sweat and tears of human experience – that of those ministered to and those doing the ministering.
My experience is that many of the laity want to support their priests and want to work with them, not necessarily for them. Lay women and men want to contribute their skills and nurture a culture of mutuality for the sake of the Church’s mission – which is Jesus’ mission.
The calls for change within the Church are currently loud and strident. They will, I believe, be the salvation of the Church, only if we have but ears to hear and a humbled contrite heart committed to respond.
Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. In September 2017, Patty was elected as Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan at their 26th Chapter Gathering.
First published in Good Oil, February 2018.