One of the significant stories about the second Vatican Council conspicuously ignored by many contemporary "traditionalists" was the way in which it rehabilitated theologians who had previously been silenced by the leaders of the Catholic church. Some of the leading lights of European Catholic theology in the period prior to Vatican II--these included Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, and Henri de Lubac among others--were at various points prior to the council forbidden to write about a number of topics. Only to find themselves rehabilitated by the council and, in the case of most of the preceding theologians, invited to the council as theological periti or experts, whose theology laid the foundation for the council . . . .
This history is in my mind today as I think about Benedict's resignation, and as I note how frequently people (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) commenting on Benedict's resignation are referring to the abuse crisis in the Catholic church as they talk about the resignation. Whether the abuse crisis is directly responsible for Benedict's choice to resign the office of the papacy, it looms large in the background of that choice, and has to have been a huge weight on Benedict's shoulders throughout his papacy.
As I think about this, it strikes me that, at this point in the history of the Catholic church, survivors of childhood abuse by priests are playing a role similar to the role played at Vatican II by theologians who were condemned and marginalized prior to the second Vatican Council. These theologians were treated as enemies of the church, only to be recognized at a later point as prophetic thinkers whose theology was absolutely indispensable to the fruitful engagement between Catholic ideas and values and the modern world.
In a similar way, survivors of childhood clerical abuse have been revictimized, blamed, condemned, even spat upon by members of the Catholic community (see Kristine Ward's recent NSAC editorial about survivor John Wojnowski) solely because they have dared to tell myth-shattering truths about what was done to them as children. But as much as some members of the Catholic community hasve sought to deny these truths and pretend that abuse survivors do not exist, their testimony has reframed how all of us think about Catholicism today.
Above all, it has led to a growing recognition that the Catholic church needs to be reformed in a top-to-bottom, unsparing way that confronts the roots of abuse of minors by priests within the Catholic system itself. I don't know what will happen with the conclave that elects the next pope. I have no privileged hotlines to the Vatican.
I can only speak as one among many other Catholics who long for profound systemic reform of my church, because I care about what the Catholic church has to contribute to the important dialogues and movements that promise to build a better world today. And so I wholeheartedly agree with Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's prophetic statement in his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (Dublin: Columba, 2007), regarding the critically important role that courageous abuse survivors are playing today in calling the church to top-to-bottom reform and the rebuilding process:
There is another forgiveness that is essential. Communities must forgive, in the literal sense of "give themselves for", victims who have disturbed their comfort and meaning-making by speaking out about their abuse. Within the Catholic Church I must accept that, if no victims had come forward, nothing would have changed. We must learn to be positively grateful to victims for disturbing us. If we feel that we have lost some meaning, it was a false meaning, and their revelation has opened the way to a fuller and more rewarding meaning. . . . If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they alone who must take the credit for creating it (p. 225)
I don't know if the relentless refusal of abuse survivors to stop demanding justice and healing from the Catholic church is directly responsible for Benedict's choice to resign the papacy. I am not buoyantly optimistic about the determination of those who elect the next pope to face the abuse crisis head-on and transparently.
But this I do know: if there's a chance for a better church to be built from this moment forward, what abuse survivors have to teach the Catholic community has been and will continue to be absolutely indispensable to that movement to a better church. As with the theology of Rahner, de Lubac, Chenu, Congar and others prior to Vatican II, the voices of abuse survivors are prophetic for the Catholic church today.
And they need to be heard.