Loving the Church means loving your enemies

by Adam J. DeVille

Starting last fall, I re-designed my ecclesiology class. Doing so as the sex abuse crisis was and is in high gear required me regularly to remind myself of the sober counsel of Evagrius of Pontus on the logismoi or disordered thoughts, including anger. The fourth-century monastic Evagrius, whom I regularly teach to my students, gave us that diagnostic system of eight disordered thoughts which eventually makes its way, in modified form, into the West as the “seven deadly sins.” For Evagrius, anger – even righteous anger at abuse and evil – is the most dangerous of the eight disordered thoughts he describes in detail for it is the fastest route to wrecking the inner stillness (hesychia) you need to pray and to live in community. 

That stillness is of course hugely important to monastic communities in the traditional sense, but – and here I follow Paul Evdokimov on the universal call to monasticism – it is no less important to all other communities of home and parish and university where we try to pray and to live in self-giving chastity and charity with one another in obedience to the Lord. Is it possible to have peace in those communities today, and charity towards their leaders – priests and especially bishops? 

Not only is it possible, it is more necessary than ever. What good is it to love clerics and hierarchs when they do good, but not when they commit or cover up acts of evil? How can we reconcile the Lord’s command to love our enemies if we treat bishops as the enemy in the Church today and hate them for their manifold sins against children, seminarians, nuns, and others? 

And yet, we are not loving them if we fail to find ways to hold them accountable. Love without change, love without amendment, love without repentance and renewal is no love at all. Love of the Church today in the abstract, without implementing new structures to cement into place local accountability, is no love at all. 

In these pages late last year, Liborius Lumma argued for several new reforms to bring about such accountability, saying that the Church today is facing the “abysmally destructive consequences of the connection between power and uncontrolled, unreflective, irresponsible forms of sexuality.” That connection between abuses of power and of sex is more recently treated, and in even greater detail, in my newly published Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power. There I argue that love for the Body of Christ cannot remain an abstraction or a pious sentiment, but must be shown in concrete local practices and reforms in which we all hold each other accountable starting at the parish level, proceeding to diocesan structures, and including reforms to national episcopal conferences so that they can finally function as real and proper synods with electoral, legislative, and disciplinary functions.

But before many of us can begin to think about such reforms, we have to get control of what, following Evagrius, I would call the ninth disordered thought that afflicts Catholics more than anybody else: the elevation of clerics, and the pope above all, into celebrities and oracles, one consequence of which is that we assume they alone can exercise power in the Church; the rest of us are unworthy to do so.

It is natural that those Catholic hierarchs who have power, and who have squandered it so wickedly in the on-going sex abuse crisis, should fear any attempts to reconfigure its exercise. The natural fear is that – as Benedetto Croce is reported to have said about the progress of history – victims and executioners will merely swap roles. But proposals for reform in the Church are not ginned up by mobs coming to push prelates off purple thrones and mount their heads on Traitor’s Gate. 

Rather, my proposals – which follow Congar and Afanasiev especially by being deeply grounded in history and tradition, including that of the Christian East – are aimed at showing love for bishops and priests, and for the whole Church, by denying to anybody what, using the language of the moral manuals, we must call near-occasions of sin. A monopoly on power, such as bishops have in their dioceses and priests in parishes, is always one such near-occasion, and leaving such occasions open for manifestly weak men to fall into is not a loving thing for the Church to do.

Hard though it may be to believe in the heat of the moment, when so many people are justly angry at the abuse and myriad betrayals, the desire for what Lumma calls a “paradigm shift in its system of power” must never be feared as some scheme concocted by some Comité de salut public looking to subject bishops to a reign of terror. The reforms I propose in Everything Hidden are born out of love for the Church, a theme treated with powerful eloquence in Christoph Schönborn’s 1998 book Loving the Church, which I have included as one of several in my newly redesigned ecclesiology class – as much a reminder to me as to my students of this most difficult of challenges in this dark and dolorous hour which love alone can redeem.

Dr. Adam J. Deville is Associate Professor and Director of Humanities at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, IN, and editor of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies.

4 comments

    1. I agree. Thank you for this. I hope you’ll share some illustrations of what systems of accountability, born of love, would look like.

  1. What does love look like? The crucifix that transfigured the vexilla of the Roman legions. Love is hard, at least in the short run (but in the long run, less hard than its alternatives).

    I think one problem our culture has it that it rarely engages genuine forgiveness well, and because of that it doesn’t engage genuine love well. Our culture prefers to primarily understand harms as either excusable or justifiable – forgiveness is for when a harm is neither excusable nor justifiable, and we will tend to move mountains to shoehorn some dimension of a harm into the excusable or justifiable category to avoid what forgiveness can entail in psychological and spiritual terms.

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