Take the punch

Anthony Towey & Theodora Hawksley CJ

At the beginning of the liturgical year on the First Sunday of Advent, Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark rather daringly circulated a pastoral letter on the issues of abuse and the need for safeguarding which have haunted the Church in recent times. Emboldened by his example, at the turn of this calendar year, I submit for your consideration a reflection by Sr Theodora Hawksley on the same theme.

‘I first saw the film Spotlight (Tom McCarthy), about the ground-breaking Boston Globe investigation of the clerical sexual abuse crisis, shortly after it came out in 2015. As the audience left the cinema in silence and I walked home through the quiet evening streets, a single thought kept turning over in my mind: sometimes you just have to take the punch.

A couple of years earlier, my academic research had turned towards the abuse crisis, and I had spent months immersed in official reports and all the psychological and theological scholarly literature I could find. I knew the field pretty well, and my reaction on hearing some of the popular misconceptions about the crisis was usually to offer balance or a correction –pointing out, for example, that the percentage of priests in the Catholic Church who had abused children was roughly the same as the percentage of men in the population at large who had done so. But something about Spotlight left me uncomfortable with this habitual reaction, balanced and factual as it was: I felt that I had unintentionally aligned myself with those whose first instinct was to defend the reputation of the Church, and who had explained, minimised or excused to that end. I began to see that sometimes, even when the blows directed at the Church were unjust or untrue, there was something to be said for just taking the punch.

The same feeling has arisen in me again in recent months, in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, but this time in relation to our own responses within the Church. Amid the assorted commentary on the crisis, from bishops, priests and journalists alike, and very frequently on Catholic Twitter, one hears calls for a ‘purge’ or ‘cleansing’ of the Church, variously directed towards rooting out abusers, or anyone perceived as being part of the problem, including a ‘gay subculture’ or gay priests tout court. Such calls go beyond the need to establish solid safeguarding procedures or pursue justice and accountability: in effect, they are saying, ‘These people do not belong in the Church and we must remove them.’ This kind of talk makes me deeply uneasy, for several reasons. First, the ‘few bad apples’ narrative tends to forestall more searching questions about the way in which clerical sexual abuse and its concealment were bound up with enduring systemic and cultural factors. Secondly, a preoccupation with the purity and good name of the Church is what got us into this mess, and ramping it up a notch will not get us out of it: oxygen and honesty, not denial and repression, are the way forwards. My most profound unease, though, is ecclesiological. If in some way we are saying, ‘These people do not belong in the Church and we must remove them,’ then what are we saying about our own primary belonging? Who is the ‘we’ in this kind of call for action?

The fact is that sinners of every stripe do belong to the Church and cannot be removed from it. Priests can be laicised, people can be excommunicated, but nobody can be ‘debaptised’. This is what Paul is getting at when he says that one part of the body cannot say to another, ‘I do not need you.’ (1 Cor. 12.21) This whole is an unavoidable fact, no more deniable than the integrity of our own bodies. So what happens when we divide ourselves into ‘we’ who do the purging and ‘they’ who must be removed? I managed a few months ago to cut my left thumb such that it needed stitches: the cut was sufficiently deep that the part of my thumb above the cut did not feel anything at all, and it was the rest of my body that registered the pain of what I had done. Just so with the Church: if we try to cut off a part that we do not like, we do so in defiance of its wholeness, and the part most wounded is the part that wields the knife. Why? Because if we wield a knife in this way, we are in effect saying that we belong not to the real Church, with its unavoidable sin, but to a group within it or above it, to ‘the pure’ or to ‘the innocent’. This becomes our primary identity, the ‘we’ we see when we look around us. So taunts against the Church do not fall on me, because I am not the sinners they are talking about, I have cut them off. But the wound I have inflicted is fatal, and fatal to me: I cannot cut ‘them’ off without cutting myself off from the real Church, and inhabiting instead a pure and painless fiction, which cannot bear my sin.

In this sense, to ‘take the punch’ means to admit the solidarity that can feel pain. Being whole is a precondition for feeling pain: I cannot feel a part that does not belong to me. If when I hear people criticising the Church, I say, ‘This doesn’t hurt me – after all, they are not talking about me,’ then perhaps I have withdrawn myself into belonging to ‘the innocent’. But if when I hear people railing against the Church, I can say, ‘This hurts because they are talking about me,’ then I have admitted my membership of this hurting body, which bears my sin as well as theirs. To take the punch is to refuse the temptation to occupy the seat of judgement, and to remain, steadfast and hurting, in the only place where I can hope to receive mercy.’   
Theodora Hawksley CJ is a theologian and writer based in London