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Pope Francis Praying Sml

Pope Calls Roman Catholicism an “Ecclesial Community” because of Abuse

Pope Francis Praying

Last week, the report from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury described the abuse by hundreds of Roman Catholic priests of well over a thousand victims, and the systematic ecclesial covering up of the abuse. This week Pope Francis has responded with a Letter to the People of God (full text).

The systemic issue will need more than words. Many, many Christians, including clergy, must feel, as I do, sickened beyond words at this abuse.

As I read Pope Francis’ letter, one term he uses leaped out from the page:

With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.

Pope Francis referred to Roman Catholicism as “an ecclesial community”. This is a term that has rankled, as a put-down, Christians and churches not in full communion with the Bishop of Rome.

An ecclesial community is, in the terminology used by the Catholic Church, a Christian religious group that does not meet the Catholic definition of a “Church”.

For those who have ears to hear, Pope Francis is saying that this abuse is such that Roman Catholicism is hereby not being Church. To me, that makes sense. Having the legal pipeline of apostolic succession, nicely-interconnecting doctrinal teaching, valid sacraments, and pretty liturgy – this is all forfeited through injustice, oppression, and abuse.

Jesus’ care for the little ones is well known (eg. Mt 18:6), as are Jesus’ attacks on religious hypocrites (eg. Lk 11:37–54; Mt 23:1–39).

As, years ago now, the extent of abuse by priests and religious began to be known, Vatican responses initially were more focused on lamenting the loss of holiness of the abusers than on the suffering of the victims. At least that is no longer the case. There are still, astonishingly, those like Archbishop Paul Coakley, who blame the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and young people on the sexual revolution and on lay people not heeding Humanae Vitae and separating sexual intimacy in marriage from fertility.

Prior to Pope Francis, a Vatican response was to bar homosexuals from being ordained. Regularly, some make such illogical leaps when debating committed same-sex couples. A tweet recently put it simply:

When someone sees a slippery slope between same-sex marriage and beastiality or pedophilia, that’s a pretty good indication that they view marriage as a pairing between a man and his sex-object, not a loving bond between two consenting adults of sound mind.

Thankfully, the Vatican appears to be starting to get it – this isn’t about wholesome sex; this is about power and its abuse. Pope Francis gets that this is about clericalism:

Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.

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19 thoughts on “Pope Calls Roman Catholicism an “Ecclesial Community” because of Abuse”

  1. This report creates a difficult situation. It has given ammo to the anti-gay mob among conservative Roman Catholics in the US. They are screaming it from the rooftops in every comments section of every article that I have read online about the report.

    In their minds male priest + male minor = homosexuality. Period. Get rid of the gays in the priesthood, now and forever more, and get rid of the majority of the problem.

    I will be the first to admit that when the relationship was with late teenaged or young adult males, that the priest is likely gay. But regarding prepubescent boys, just because the abuser is male, doesn’t necessarily mean that he is gay. Research details that the majority of abusers of prepubescent children don’t usually identify as either gay or straight because they often don’t have mature adult attractions. So male priest + male child doesn’t always = gay relationship.

    But these conservatives won’t be persuaded or convinced.

    1. Yes, David, I understand your concern. Your point is amplified by Bishop Morlino who sees a ‘homosexual subculture’ as the source of ‘devastation’ in the Church. Part of the problem, I think, is binary thinking: the ignorance that divides people into either gay or straight. The reality is, of course, far more complex. Ignorance is fine when there is a willingness to listen and an openness to change. The problem increases when this is absent and when it is combined with power. Blessings.

    2. I don’t think this is primarily an issue of sex at all. It’s a problem of power and abuse, manifested through sex.

      If you enforce priestly celibacy then you tend to get a priesthood with a large proportion of men who are not attracted to heterosexual marriage, that will include the various types of sexual attractions we are seeing at play here.

      In my opinion, the traditions and practices of our Anglican sisters and brothers have much to offer the Catholic Church in terms of the desperately urgent reforms required eg non-mandatory celibacy, allowing priests to marry, ordaining women, and substantial lay input by way of regular synods etc.

      The Catholic Church simply cannot continue to go on the way we are.

      Many Blessings

  2. Thank you, Bosco. This is a powerful remark, suggesting that the Catholic Church has lost the *esse* of a true church because of this. But doesn’t this language bring into question the validity of sacraments? Ecclesial communities are deemed not to possess valid sacraments. On the other hand, the moral status of a priest or bishop does not make sacraments invalid.

    1. Thanks, Gareth. I think your points don’t necessarily follow. Firstly, ecclesial communities generally are understood as having valid baptism. And hence the valid sacrament of marriage. Secondly, I think it is the other way around: they are often called “ecclesial communities” because some of their sacraments may not be valid – you, in your comment, have reversed the direction of the reasoning. We all (I hope) do not see the validity of the sacraments as being dependent on the holiness of the minister. Blessings.

  3. The mythology surrounding who commits child abuse merely serves to obfuscate and protect abusers.

    The child abuser is overwhelmingly likely to be heterosexual ( and statistically married as far as I can see from studies so far) and known well to the victim ( ie not a stranger ) -yet the myths persist.

    I hear Pope Francis’ words with approval, just for having dared to speak them; may he also be moved to see the light regarding adult sexuality and the concept of what is truly sinful, ie. not a mis-matched jumble of hypocritical traditions where people are being taught to perpetuate and hide the worst of abuses whilst considering to do so holy.

    That is what I take from Pope Francis’ words and ecclesial community.

    ‘Whatever is hidden away will be brought out into the open, and whatever is covered up will be found and brought to light.

    Therefore consider carefully HOW you listen.’

    Over and over the words of Jesus say it is not the image or received social order or majority opinion which matters, but the underlying truth, and for those who have traditionally been rendered powerless: ‘it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’

    Humanity looks down on people unfairly in ignorance, and at peril.

    1. Your comments are irrelevant to the calamity in the Roman Catholic church. The statistics from America show that 80% of the abuse was of pubescent or teenage boys. If a third or quarter of Catholic priests in the US are gay (as some researchers believe, according to First Things), it is clear that the homosexual minority is responsible for the great majority of the abuse. The conduct is not paedophilia,it is homosexual abuse. Thè media has striven to obfuscate this but the stats are clear.

      1. Thanks, Alan.

        Actually, Alan, even if all your ‘facts’ are correct, your conclusion does not follow. It is not clear from your points that, simply because ‘80% of the abuse was of pubescent or teenage boys’ that the abusers are homosexual in orientation.


        1. Adults- of whatever sexuality or gender- who seek to have sexual relationships with minors are criminals, pedophiles.

          That has nothing to do with homosexuality or heterosexuality.

        2. What Alan M says is true and the facts have been in the public domain for years. “The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct a comprehensive study based on surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. The product of the study, titled the John Jay Report indicated that some 11,000 allegations had been made against 4,392 priests in the USA. This number constituted approximately 4% of the priests who had served during the period covered by the survey (1950–2002).[34] Of the abused, 81% were male, and 19% were female, 22% were younger than age 11, 51% were between the ages of 11 and 14, and 27% were between the ages of 15 and 17 years when first abused. Within the youngest age group, 64% of abused children were male, while within the older age groups, 85% were male. [34] 2,411 of the priests had a single allegation made against them, while 149 priests had 10 or more allegations made against them.

          A further analysis by the John Jay College found that, among clerics with a single accusation of abuse, the victims were more evenly divided between male and female and were more likely to be older. Abusers with greater numbers of victims abused a higher proportion of boys. [35] The report also identified some subsets of abusive behaviour: pedophilia (96 priests) and homosexual ephebophilia (474 priests).” (quoted in Wikipedia)

          Males abusing pubescent and teenage boys isn’t pedophilia, it’s homosexual ephebophilia. Pedophilia is a pretty rare condition. The vast majority of victims were teenage boys. The self-reported incidence of homosexuality among Catholic priests is very high, very much higher than in the population at large. Yo ucan find the figures easily by googling. Added to this is the sexual abuse of seminarians by persons like the ex-cardinal McCarrick. The RCC has an immense problem here.

      2. Speaking as a licensed industrial psychologist in my home country of Mexico, I can safely say that your lack of education in the field of human sexuality is sorely lacking.

        If you are speaking about pubescent or teenaged boys, then you are not speaking about pedophilia. Pedophilia is abuse of pre-pubescent children.

        However, you make an extreme leap of understanding with regard to the facts. Pubescent/teenaged boys + male priests does not = homosexuality 100% of the time. A huge contributor to sexual abuse is access and not attraction. Male priests have much more access and easier access to boys than to girls.

        An orientation towards sexual relationships with children of any age is an aberration, a paraphilia, not an orientation regarding mature/adult sexual attraction. Statistics, especially from criminal information sources, bear out that the majority of child sex abusers identify as heterosexual with regard to their sexual relationships with adults, regardless if their child victims are male.

        Any attention from the media isn’t likely obfuscation, but journalists working with the facts about child abuse, rather than the uneducated/ignorant/biased assertions on the part of folks such as yourself.

        1. Absolutely David Allen. And pubescent victim or not- it is still legally and morally sexual abuse.

          It’s especially deviant, cruel and appalling when a priest or nun abuses anyone having committed their life to compassion and celibacy- when children, beloved of Jesus, should be the most safe with them – and I am thankful that the Pope is finally acknowledging and accepting the full responsibility of Catholicism towards all those who have been harmed.

          It is a long journey, but it feels like finally the Church is stepping onto the right path of defining what is sinful and evil. I hope he bravely goes further in that.

          The calamity is it has taken so long and too many people have wanted to perpetuate the cover-up of serious crimes and the stereotypes scapegoating those who have committed no offence.

  4. Dear Bosco, I think you may be reading a just a little but too much into Pope Francis’ use of the term “ecclesial community”. It is the official understanding of the Catholic Church, and long before the current papacy, the the Catholic church is herself well short of what it means to be fully Church.

    All the Churches are in the same boat here, ie ecclesial communities. The Catholic understanding is that the other Churches lack one or more essential features. But we also lack essential features.

    Many Blessings

    1. Thanks, Chris. In conversations beyond this site, I have been trying to find/challenging others to find any other occasion of a pope or Vatican document referring to Roman Catholicism as an “ecclesial community”. So far – no success. Your turn 🙂 Blessings.

    2. If you google site:www.vatican.va “ecclesial community” you will find lots of them Bosco.

      There is not really anything new here.

        1. Thanks, Chris. This discussion is playing out in social media associated with this site also.

          I cannot now work out whether 1) the Vatican simply has a sloppy, incoherent theology of church, or 2) all the fuss about the Vatican calling other churches “ecclesial communities” was about nothing because the Vatican simply meant “churches” but its public-relations department was on holiday that week.

          The insistence that this is simply a synonym has only emerged when Roman Catholicism itself experiences what it is like to be called an “ecclesial community”. This may help people realise how that felt/feels for members of other churches.


  5. ‘The insistence that this is simply a synonym has only emerged when Roman Catholicism itself experiences what it is like to be called an “ecclesial community”. This may help people realise how that felt/feels for members of other churches.’

    People always readily recognize and acknowledge flaws in ‘other’ syllogisms!

    Religion has its own inbuilt existential fallacies.

    More than once I have heard a conclusion meant to be logical and sound: ‘it must be true, otherwise why would I choose to believe it…’

    Still I think I will attend the local Catholic community this week, see what Christian community is represented as there; I would love to be in a Church which has been able to retain its good traditions and cast out the bad!

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