"The Wounded Body of Christ" by Dr. Matthew Halbach: An Honest Review
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
This post is the fourth in a series providing reviews of the various resources available for small group discussion about the crisis in our Church. If you have not already read the previous posts, you can catch up here:
NB: My goal with these posts is to offer a fair assessment of the available small group resources so that parish leaders can make an informed decision about the best approach for their community. With this in mind, I think it’s important to point out both strengths and weaknesses of each resource. I do presume the good intentions of everyone involved in producing these materials, and I am grateful to anyone who is willing to commit to ongoing conversation about the heartbreaking crisis in our Church. These are simply the opinions of one Catholic laywoman who is deeply invested in this conversation; I encourage you to look at the resources yourself to make your own assessment as well.
Title: The Wounded Body of Christ: A Parish Group Discussion Guide on Abuse in the Catholic Church
Publisher: Twenty-Third Publications, a producer of “user-friendly resources for busy parish leaders and practical spirituality for daily Catholic living”
Author: Dr. Matthew Halbach, author, speaker, deacon, and Director of the St. Joseph Educational Center in the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa
Format: A simple booklet that outlines four small group sessions, each containing prayer, Scripture, reflection texts to read out loud, and discussion questions
Note: The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is promoting The Wounded Body of Christ as a tool for beginning discussions on the parish level. Today, they rolled out a new web page with a variety of resources for parish leaders who are considering facilitating a small group on this topic. There are many valuable materials there, including articles with information and reflection on the abuse crisis, explanations of our Archdiocesan response, and suggestions for talking with survivors of sexual assault. The web page also includes video of a training that the Archdiocese hosted for potential facilitators. I attended the training in person in May, and I thought it offered some excellent instruction for group facilitators. I would particularly recommend Video 2: Small Group Facilitation Concerns and How-Tos for some very pastorally-sensitive guidance from my wise friend Rich Harter and the first part of Video 3: Special Concerns and Closing for helpful advice on caring for survivors who might be present in a group. Most of the information in these videos is not specific to The Wounded Body of Christ, so I would highly recommend watching them, regardless of what resource you might be using.
At a time when many parish leaders were scrambling for guidance on how to discuss the abuse crisis in a thoughtful way, The Wounded Body of Christ was the first out of the gate, published in December 2018. I give Dr. Halbach credit for seeing the need and responding to it quickly with a low-cost resource for small group conversation. Compared to Healing Our Church, this is a more affordable option, and the simplicity of this resource would make it easy for facilitators to pick up and implement.
I think four sessions is a good length of time for a group on this subject - enough time to build community and a sense of trust, but not so long that the commitment sounds overwhelming to parishioners.
The introduction includes a clear explanation of the goals of this resource: “1) to engage, through education and faith sharing, adult Catholics whose faith has been challenged by the presence and effect of clergy abuse in the Church; 2) to provide an opportunity for the Church (at all levels) to discuss clergy abuse in a constructive, reflective, and prayerful manner; 3) to highlight the call for justice and mercy-making as necessary agents in healing; 4) to solicit new ideas and means of protecting the body of Christ from future abuse and to share this feedback with appropriate local and national leadership.”
The decision to approach this topic through the lens of “the wounded body” is a wise pastoral choice, and the guide touches on many important themes, including sharing of concerns, maintaining unity, seeking healing, offering forgiveness, and taking action. The four sessions are titled: The Church is the Body of Christ, Being a Wounded Body, Healing a Wounded Body, and Anticipating a Glorified Body. Carrying the wounded body metaphor through the entire text offers a unity to the approach, and returning to this image repeatedly over the course of four sessions has the potential to really shape the theological perspective of participants.
The final session does offer an invitation to continued action, and the final group discussion question asks participants what “next steps” the group could take to share their insights and suggestions with the wider Church. A committed leader could use this question as a launching point for continued conversation and action, so that the small group is seen not as an end, but as a beginning.
While there is much that is valuable in this small group guide, I have serious concerns about the tone and content of this resource. I certainly presume the good intentions of Dr. Halbach, but I don’t see a strong pastoral sensibility in the way the sessions are arranged, and I think there is potential to create more anger and frustration among participants who are already feeling upset and hurt.
The first and most glaring example of this lack of pastoral awareness is in the approach offered by Session One. The session begins with introductions before the opening prayer (“facilitator should encourage people to introduce themselves and to share what brought them to this gathering”), so this could be expanded and extended to give people an opportunity for deeper sharing. However, that doesn’t seem to be emphasis, and there is little opportunity in this session to build any sense of community or feeling of trust. Instead, the prayer is followed by a Scripture reading and then immediately a reflection to be read out loud. To me, these reflection paragraphs come across as tone deaf, and I would be seriously concerned about using them in a diverse group of participants who may already be frustrated by the tone of what they have been hearing from Church leaders. I found this passage particularly problematic: “Healing begins with humility. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, all of us carry the potential for great evil within ourselves. This is the unfortunate effect of original sin. We all have the potential to be demonic or divine, satanic or saintly. The violence and shame caused by clergy abuse and its cover-up have led to division, the fruit of which is mistrust and, ultimately, separation. Opposing all division is the Spirit of God, who creates, renews, and unites.” I do value both humility and unity, so I understand where the author is coming from, but this is just not the first thing that should be emphasized in this small group setting. I don’t think that the author intends to label those who asking hard questions as divisive, but I could also envision this exact quote coming out of the mouth of a corrupt bishop who is trying to silence concerns.
Even more troubling is the first discussion question posed for the group in Session One - “How might the Spirit use your voice, your gifts to bring about greater peace and understanding during this difficult time in the Church?” Asking participants to listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit and commit to meaningful action is a valuable idea, but this absolutely cannot be the first thing you ask a newly-formed group. In my experience engaging in conversations about this topic, I have found that, almost universally, people need an opportunity to honestly share their emotions and experiences before they can even begin to discern how God might calling them to respond. (In the small group format I created, I do ask a similar question at the final session, as a way for people who have spent several weeks wrestling with these issues to think about their next steps.) Even with better timing, this is a seriously flawed way to phrase the question. Narrowing the query to only solicit ways that participants can “bring about greater peace and understanding” is deeply problematic. What about ways that we can bring about greater justice and accountability? Honesty and transparency? Reform and renewal? I’m a big fan of peace, but I also know that an overemphasis on peace has sometimes been used to silence voices calling for important change. I try to be pretty tolerant of unfortunate choices of words (I’m sure I have made many myself), but honestly, after reading the wording of this question, I had trouble trusting the intentions of the author, and I don’t think I would be the only one to react that way.
Another problem that I noticed in this resource is that survivors of sexual abuse are really only mentioned in passing. Unlike the other resources I have reviewed, survivors’ stories are not told in any significant way. I agree with Sister Terry Richard that the first step towards healing has to be facing the truth of the problem; we will never be able to heal these wounds if we aren’t willing to honestly accept the horror of what has happened and the life-shattering impact clergy abuse has had on victims and their families. While Wounded Body of Christ offers a few brief mentions of this pain, I just don’t think it’s enough, and I am afraid that any survivor who showed up at one of these groups would feel like their experience was simply passed over.
Similarly, the issue of bishops mishandling and covering up abuse is also only mentioned in passing, which I think represents a fundamental lack of understanding of the concerns of many lay people at this moment in the Church. For many concerned Catholics, the current feeling of anger and betrayal has been triggered particularly by the realization that many of our leaders, including some still in power, have been complicit in abuse, corruption, and inaction. For some, their trust in Church leaders is completely shattered. There is just not enough in this guide that would allow participants to wrestle with the difficult question of how they can remain in this Church while feeling so betrayed by its leaders. Any honest conversation about the abuse crisis has to make space for this struggle to be openly discussed.
I could go on with other concerns and objections, but I think you probably get the point by now. For what it’s worth, I have only spoken to one person who already led a group using this resource. She was glad she had hosted a group, but said that participants found the guide “off-putting” and “alienating.” I would be very interested to hear if any readers had a different, more positive reaction to this resource. Also, keep in mind that everything depends on who shows up to your group. I think there are some people who might not object to the contents of this resource, but if we are trying to reach people who are really hurting and struggling, I think we need to be very cautious not to cause more harm or alienation.
Unfortunately, I have to say that I would not recommend using The Wounded Body of Christ as a small group guide. While this resource is simple and affordable, there are elements within that are seriously problematic and could trigger negative reactions from group participants. If you are looking for a guide of this type, I would instead consider Healing Our Church, which offers a much more pastorally-sensitive approach. You might also want to view a summary of the model I created and have been using for small groups here in Milwaukee.
If you do choose to use The Wounded Body of Christ, I would recommend not providing participants with the printed guide and instead presenting the material in your own words, revising to fit your group, and omitting sections that are unhelpful. I would also advise that you completely change Session One, to offer more time for open conversation and building trust. Of course, even with all of the limitations of this small group guide, I know that a skilled, compassionate facilitator makes all the difference. So, if you are attentive to the needs of your group and flexible with the way you approach the material, I believe you could still have a positive experience of fruitful group discussion.
As always, please feel free to reach out with any feedback or questions. If you are thinking about facilitating a small group sometime, be not afraid! These are hard topics, but if you place your trust in Jesus and rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, God will do good things. Also, I would be happy to connect with you and support you in any way I can - just ask!
Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us.