“Letter to a Suffering Church" by Bishop Robert Barron: An Honest Review
Updated: Dec 19, 2019
This post is the second in a series reviewing the various resources available for small group discussion about the crisis in our Church. My introductory post - explaining why I believe that creating space for honest conversation about this topic is so important - can be found here: Should My Parish Offer a Small Group Discussion about the Abuse Crisis? Thoughts for Parish Leaders.
My first review, evaluating the small group discussion guide produced by RENEW International, can be found here: "Healing Our Church" Small Group Resource: An Honest Review. I also used that post to offer several caveats about these reviews. Basically, I’m not an expert, and I have only been engaged with these issues for a short period of time, since August 2018. However, I have learned a lot since then, I have quite a few years of experience facilitating small groups, and most importantly, I have had many, many conversations with lay Catholics about this issue (almost seventy one-on-one meetings, at my last count). So, I do have some sense of the broad range of thoughts, feelings, and reactions that might come up in a small group conversation. Still, I am trying to write in a spirit of humility, and I would suggest that you take everything I write with a grain of salt and read the resources yourself to form your own opinion.
If you have not read the previous two posts in this series, I would recommend you check those out before continuing with this post. Also, buckle up - this is a long one!
Title: Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis
Publisher: Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, “a nonprofit global media apostolate that supports the work of Bishop Robert Barron and reaches millions of people to draw them into— or back to— the Catholic faith”
Author: Bishop Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; a prominent, intellectually-grounded, media-savvy rising star of the United States Catholic Church
Format: One short book divided into five chapters (the letter is technically 105 pages long, but large print and lots of white space make it short enough to read in one or two sittings); many parish resources are available online at www.sufferingchurchbook.com, including a group discussion guide designed for facilitating a single two-hour-long conversation about the book.
More Information: Available on the Suffering Church website, including sexual abuse FAQs, videos and other articles on this topic from Bishop Barron, and a really helpful timeline of the key moments in the abuse crisis from 1985 to 2019
Release Date: July 2019.
Full disclosure: I have been watching Bishop Barron’s videos and reading his reflections for years, since long before he was made a bishop. I don’t agree with every word he says, but I find his work balanced, intelligent, compassionate, and pastoral, and I have learned a lot from listening to him. So, I have a certain affection for and trust in him, and you should be aware that I approach this letter with that bias.
However, I also have this bias: I follow a lot of Catholic blogs, podcasts, and news sources these days (trying to have a sense of what all sorts of people are saying about the abuse crisis), and I have encountered maybe a dozen reviews of Letter to a Suffering Church in the past month or so. Every single one of them has been unconditionally complimentary, often using language that lauds the arrival of this book as if it were the perfect response, the words that all Catholics have been waiting for. To be honest, I find this near-universal acclaim rather disconcerting. As noted above, I really respect Bishop Barron, and I do not doubt that he has a deep love for the Catholic Church and a commitment to seeking truth. I am also grateful that Barron is stepping up as a leader on this issue, when so few bishops have done so in a meaningful way; I know that it took guts to write this book and put it out into the world. All that said, I believe his book deserves a careful, critical reading, just like every other resource being written on this topic. From what I know about Bishop Barron, I don’t think he would expect anything less.
Also, it should be noted that Letter to a Suffering Church is not a traditional small group resource like Healing Our Church or Wounded Body of Christ, which are written specifically for this type of in-person discussion. However, Word on Fire is clearly promoting this book as a resource for small group conversation at a parish, and they are offering extensive resources for implementing this on a parish level. The question of whether this book is a worthwhile read for individual Catholics is very different from the question of whether this is a good resource for initiating a small group conversation. My answer to the first question is a resounding yes; because Bishop Barron is such a prominent voice among American Catholics today and because this is the most extensive reflection offered by any bishop in the United States thus far, I think it is important reading for anyone who cares about this issue. My answer to the second question, about using this letter as a small group resource, is a bit more complicated, which is what I will explore below.
The most obvious strength of this text is that it was written by a smart, thoughtful communicator with a pastoral heart, a leader who cares deeply about the Church and has obviously been paying close attention to the reactions of lay Catholics. For some people who already know the work of Bishop Barron, the fact that he is the author of this text will create an instant sense of trust and openness to whatever he has to say. Those who don’t already know Barron but appreciate a thoughtful, intellectual approach to complex issues will likely appreciate the balanced, rational treatment of this topic; those who are feeling anger, frustration, and even disgust at what has happened in the Church will find their feelings echoed in this text as well.
I greatly value Bishop Barron’s willingness to speak honestly about the breadth and depth of the problems in our Church. While so many bishops continue to minimize the impact of this crisis, Barron recognizes that “the hurt and alienation felt by Catholics goes so far and deep that it is scarcely possible to gauge.” Even more importantly, he takes the time in Chapter One to tell several horrific abuse stories in detail, making sure the reader faces the awfulness of this reality before moving on. Bishop Barron’s disgust and outrage is palpable in these pages, and that is exactly what many hurting Catholics need to see from their leaders.
As a lover of Scripture, I really appreciated Chapter Two of the letter, when Bishop Barron walks through a multitude of Scripture stories that highlight the horrors and far-reaching consequences of sexual sin. The reflection on the high priest Eli and his failure to properly respond to the sexual misconduct of his sons feels particularly timely.
Similarly, Chapter Three offers a long litany of stories of deep corruption throughout the history of the Catholic Church, and so much of this evil past may also feel strikingly familiar to today’s Catholics. In a strange way, I find it somehow comforting to remember that the Church has been through very dark times before and to hear a bishop acknowledge that we are living through a similarly dark time in our Church today.
Believe it or not, my original passion - the passion that led to all of the work I am doing today - is evangelization: sharing the good news of God’s love and calling, forming, and sending intentional disciples of Jesus Christ into our broken world. So, I have to love the fact that Bishop Barron, never one to miss a chance to share the Gospel, slips the whole kerygma into Chapter Four, along with a beautiful litany of reasons to stay in the Church. Most importantly, he draws upon the Biblical metaphor of a treasure held in earthen vessels to remind readers that the corruption of Church leaders cannot take away the beauty of the Church. He reminds all believers that “We don’t stay because of the vessels. We stay because of the treasure.” I am not sure if this metaphor will resonate with all Catholics, but personally, I found the image helpful.
My favorite part of Letter to a Suffering Church came near the end, when Bishop Barron begins to describe the reform and renewal needed for our Church to move forward. Chapter Five includes a demand for “serious institutional reforms” (no pretending that all of the work has already been done!), as well as a call for “deep and abiding spiritual reform.” Barron briefly touches on the problem of clericalism and places the blame for this crisis squarely on the shoulders of priests, asking “Can anyone doubt at this point that there has been a serious rot in the Catholic priesthood?” However, he’s not afraid to call the laity to renewal as well, asserting that ”a better and stronger laity shapes a better and stronger (and less clerical) priesthood.” Ultimately, he ends the chapter by calling every Catholic to grow in holiness, asserting that at this moment in the Church, “above all, we need saints.” But don’t worry that Bishop Barron wants to see lay people relegated to a quiet, passive role in addressing this crisis. His rousing conclusion includes some thoughts about what it might look like to “stay and fight” - “Fight by raising your voice in protest; fight by writing a letter of complaint; fight by insisting that protocols be followed; fight by reporting offenders; fight by pursuing the guilty until they are punished; fight by refusing to be mollified by pathetic excuses.” (That last one is my favorite and seems like a particularly pointed indictment of his brother bishops.) While I wish more time had been devoted to explaining how lay people can engage in this fight, I am personally grateful that at least one bishop seems to honestly believe that my actions might be part of the solution to this crisis.
As a side note: I found the online timeline of the abuse crisis really unique and valuable, and I would encourage everyone to check it out by scrolling about halfway down this page. By clicking through the timeline, you can read about events from 1985 up until the present day. I haven’t seen anything this comprehensive in all of my reading on the topic, and even after months of research, I still learned a few new things from this timeline. (For example, check out the damning statement made on August 7, 2018 by the former president of Ireland!). While one could certainly argue about what was included on the timeline and what was not, I don’t see an attempt to sanitize the history or even the present moment in the Church. In fact, the timeline draws attention to many messy details which could have been excluded, like the current scandal in the Diocese of Buffalo, Pope Francis’ plummeting approval ratings, and the police raid of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Chancery in November 2018. The timeline even includes an extensive quote from Damon Linker’s heart-wrenching opinion piece about why he decided to leave the Catholic Church (a section in which Linker describes the Catholic Church as “a repulsive institution,” no less). I only wish the timeline was available in some kind of printable PDF format so that it could be a more versatile tool.
I don’t know if this counts as a strength, but it is something to keep in mind: When Bishop Barron wrote this book, he had to have known that it would be read by his fellow bishops (and perhaps right before they all see each other in Baltimore this week). While lay Catholics are certainly his broadest audience, I can’t help but wonder if the audience he is most trying to reach is the rest of the United States episcopacy. In that case, it is even more laudable that Barron is so vehement in calling out the leadership failures in this country. Note this sentence: “Just as bishop after bishop around the country quietly reshuffled abusive clergy from parish to parish, so it seems numerous bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, both in this country and in the Vatican, knew all about McCarrick’s outrageous behavior and did nothing in response to it.” Now remember that those Church leaders he criticizes are the very men he’ll be sitting with at the USCCB meeting this week. (Note: While Bishop Barron might be seen as a national leader by many lay people, we should keep in mind that in the community of bishops, he’s still a young auxiliary with less than four years of episcopal experience under his belt. During the USCCB General Assembly in November, I was watching the livestream for any words by Bishop Barron, because he was one of the few bishops I recognized at that time. Barron spoke only once over the course of the three days - offering a very short comment about the need for a thorough investigation into the question of which Church leaders had known about McCarrick’s behavior. I draw two inferences from this: First, Bishop Barron is particularly troubled by the idea that some of his fellow bishops knew about McCarrick and have not been held accountable for their inaction. Second, Barron is still a junior bishop, and his best opportunity to influence fellow bishops might not be through speaking at the General Assembly, but through some other vehicle - like a pastoral letter to the whole American Church.)
I respect Bishop Barron’s forthrightness about the goal of Letter to a Suffering Church. In the preface to the book, Barron states clearly that his ultimate end is to urge fellow Catholics not to leave the Church but instead to “stay and fight.” I appreciate that there’s no bait-and-switch here, and for some people, in a particular frame of mind, I think Barron’s argument might prove convincing. However, I’m not sure that a book with such a clear persuasive purpose would be the right fit for beginning this conversation on the parish level. I can’t help but think about people I have encountered who are carrying deep pain because of the abuse in our Church. If they were brave enough to show up for a discussion group at their parish, I don’t think what they would need to hear is an argument, even a very well-reasoned one. While the discussion guide outlines a broader goal for the small group conversation (“to openly discuss the scandal and try to find a way forward personally”), the persuasive purpose of the book is still what a participant would encounter when reading the text at home, and for most people, that’s just not where I would begin.
As I said above, having Bishop Barron’s name attached to this book could be a real asset in some contexts. However, the authorship could fall under the “limitations” heading as well. For some Catholics right now, the words of any bishop are immediately suspect and just the name on the cover could be a turn off. If a parish chooses to promote this book to their members, I can almost guarantee that at least some percentage of parishioners will be disgruntled and unwilling to engage, simply because the book comes from a bishop. That might not be fair, but that’s the reality we are living in today, and I think parishes would be wise to recognize that.
Even if readers can get past the bishop’s name on the front of the book, many are likely to have an extremely negative reaction to the initial pages of Chapter One, which describe the abuse crisis as a “diabolical masterpiece” planned by the devil, the “enemy of the human race.” Of course, Bishop Barron always seems to be aware of possible objections to his arguments, so he moves quickly to reassure the reader that recognizing diabolical involvement in this scandal in no way reduces the responsibility of the human actors who have chosen to cooperate with this evil. My issue with this immediate focus on the devil is not that I disagree with Barron’s assertions (I do not), but that I don’t think this is the best way to begin a discussion on this issue, if you’re hoping to create an open, healing dialogue with people from a variety of perspectives. Based on the conversations I have had about this topic, I would predict that some people will be immediately turned off by these opening paragraphs, assume that any reference to the devil is a way of abdicating responsibility, and give up after the first few pages. Again, that might not be fair, but if we are trying to reach those on the margins, we need to pay close attention to what will draw them in and what might drive them away.
Another challenge in using this as a resource for small group conversation is that the discussion guide suggests planning only one meeting to discuss the book. My experience has been that the first time a person has an opportunity to talk about the abuse crisis in an honest way, they often need to begin by simply sharing their own feelings and reactions in an open, unstructured manner; I can’t imagine any way that a single meeting could leave enough space for that necessary first step while also addressing such an extensive text. I also believe that faith conversations, especially those addressing difficult issues, are most valuable after a level of comfort and trust has been established among the members of the group. I could be wrong about this, but I just don’t see how meeting only once with a group could create enough trust to allow for a really meaningful conversation about these complex issues. The small group model I created includes three meetings, and I think that is really the bare minimum needed to establish a sense of community in a group and give enough time for real transformation. You could divide Letter to a Suffering Church into three to five segments to create a more extended group experience, but you would be on your own for creating a meeting format and discussion questions.
In general, Bishop Barron is a very careful writer, with not a word out of place. However, I do want to mention one specific moment when he makes a mistake that could be particularly problematic for survivors of abuse. In a section about David and Bathsheba, Barron casually mentions that “The biblical author is likely aware of Bathsheba’s own cooperation with the affair,” then poses the rhetorical question, “Does she just happen to be bathing within easy eyeshot of the king?” For many people, the problem with this sentence is obvious, but just to be clear - This sure sounds like blaming the victim for a sexual affair that, at the very least, takes place in the context of a clear power differential and at most, is a clear-cut case of rape. The question about where Bathsheba was bathing sure sounds like today’s questions about what a woman was wearing when she was assaulted. Personally, I don't assume poor intentions on the part of Bishop Barron (and I did not notice any other indications of a victim-blaming mentality in the rest of the book), but it’s important to be aware of how words like this might be heard by readers, especially those who have experienced sexual assault. (Thank you to the smart, faithful women in the FemCatholic Facebook Forum for the thoughtful conversation about this particular passage.)
One final concern I would mention: The publicity for Letter to a Suffering Church has been very careful to mention that “Any and all profits from the sale of this book will go to trusted charities that support the victims of sexual abuse.” This is a good thing. However, I have not been able to find any information about what those “trusted charities” will be. I haven’t yet received a reply to my email, and I have not been the only person asking this question on social media to no avail. (Perhaps it has been answered somewhere - I just haven’t been able to find it.) In the interest of transparency, I hope Word on Fire will provide the names of specific charities that will be funded, so buyers can decide for themselves if these are charities they are comfortable supporting. The choice of charities will certainly send a message, so I hope that these organizations are selected thoughtfully. ** Update 12/19/19: I finally received a response from Word on Fire to my question: "Since the campaign is still ongoing (due to continued strong interest in the book) we have not done a full accounting of all the income and expenses related to the campaign. When the campaign does conclude, we'll move forward with that process and selecting deserving charities to receive the funds. **
Bishop Robert Barron’s Letter to a Suffering Church is the best statement about the abuse crisis that I have seen from any United States bishop, but honestly, there’s not a lot of competition. I have tremendous respect for Bishop Barron’s intelligence and his passion for the Church, and I am grateful he had the courage to write this letter. Anyone who wants to keep up with the national dialogue about these issues would do well to read this book. However, I do see some serious limitations in this text, especially if it were to be used for small group discussion on the parish level. I just don’t think this resource is the best place to begin the conversation, especially if a parish hopes to reach those who are in deep pain or are thinking about walking away.
That said, if you do decide to use Letter to a Suffering Church as a resource for small group discussion, I would recommend spreading the conversation out over at least three sessions so that you can provide plenty of time for building trust and sharing individual experiences, especially during the first gathering. It would be helpful to offer some kind of initial communication to participants when they receive the books, acknowledging that they might not agree with everything Bishop Barron says, but that the letter should make for some great conversations. As a facilitator, you could let potential participants know right away that all viewpoints are welcome and that you are looking forward to hearing diverse perspectives.
During group meetings, I would also suggest that you place some distance between yourself as a facilitator and the written text, so that participants feel free to question and criticize the contents. Be prepared to gracefully receive some negative reactions to the “diabolical masterpiece” section (and possibly to the author himself, from those who think all bishops are part of the problem), but also encourage participants to look for what they do find helpful in the book and prayerfully discern how God might be calling them to respond. As with Healing Our Church, I think you’ll be most successful in facilitating a fruitful group if you treat this book not as an authoritative document, but as a starting point for some really interesting conversations.
If you made it to the end of this post - Congratulations! Sorry for the length - There was just so much to say about this one!
Next Up: The Wounded Body of Christ by Dr. Matthew Halbach, followed by some information about the small group model I created and have been using here in Milwaukee. Please do let me know if you are aware of any other resources I should be looking at!
In light of Bishop Barron’s reflection on the powers of darkness at work within our Church, let’s pray:
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host,
by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
PS: If you're new to In Spirit and Truth, I invite you to encounter the heart of one abuse survivor by reading Jessica's Story: "How Could I Say No?". Then please consider making a gesture of support and solidarity with all survivors by reading and signing An Open Letter to Survivors.