What Did Pope Francis Mean to Say with His Strange Abuse Crisis Letter?

I was received into the Roman Catholic Church exactly one calendar year before Pope Francis published his letter in response to the most recent paroxysm over the Church’s sexual abuse scandal and its cover up.[1] I have been a Christian my entire life, at once nurtured in the Gospel message that “the Kingdom of God is at hand” and recurrently disappointed by the faithlessness and callous immorality of Christians. About a decade of appropriating the Catholic intellectual tradition finally folded me into the Roman flock (though marrying a Latina Catholic from Texas played a role as well). The small boat of Pietist Evangelicalism in which I was raised welcomed philosophy and theological speculation, but the broader Evangelical sea by which it was tossed contained an aged Leviathan of anti-intellectualism. Along the way, I learned from Catholic thinkers about intellectual persistence, hermeneutical charity, patience of judgment, and how to distinguish reflections that are exciting in implication from those that are reliable in their conclusions.

In light of recent revelations and accusations, I have felt a terrible pressure to justify myself. I have been gripped by the sense that I must have some “take” on how the Church should respond adequately, responsibly, and faithfully. I still do not know known what to say on that front. Of course, there are others better situated, better trained to weigh in. Many others have evidently felt this pressure and so there has seeped through my world the opinions of friends and acquaintances, of commentators and academics, of the semi-anonymous social media class. This has been, at turns, thought provoking, annoying, maddening, convicting, and edifying. Feeling the pressure myself to make sense and to attest to what fragments of sense appear at hand, I do not want to judge to harshly.

Pope Francis’s recent letter has been a center of gravity around which much of this response has revolved. It took me a while to read the letter, I confess. But when I did, it occurred to me that what at first blush seemed reasonable criticisms of it evinced an insensitivity to the letter’s, well, I do not know what word to use except, “strangeness.” Many commentators voiced eminently sensible reactions to facially sensible interpretations of the letter, but once I spent some time reading it, I began to suspect that so many “reasonable” interpretations of this document were, precisely on account of their obvious sense, not quite right. Where on matters of practical, institutional response I felt bereft, on this matter of interpretation suddenly I found myself well prepared. Thus, I read and re-read and read the letter again, taking in hand the tools my sojourn with the Catholic intellectual tradition have loaned me. My appropriation of the Catholic intellectual tradition bequeathed to me not just tools, but also a conviction that to understand better is always good and indeed integral to more effective pursuit of the good. While I do not have much to offer our collective perplexity about what to do next, I can offer my understanding of this text. It is a kind of theological, philosophical, and even imaginative understanding and so only one, fairly peripheral element in an adequate response. But my sense is that other people feel as I do that we will take anything we can get right now.

My contention again is that many commentators miss the central strangeness of Francis’s letter. I am going to begin to address the letter a bit strangely myself, starting with the pericope in Matthew that Francis cites in a footnote about halfway through. I hope the relevance to the present circumstance will be evident. From there I will turn directly to the letter and the peculiar relationship between penitence, grace, and the empowerment of the laity I find in its organizing logic. That part will be hard insofar as I will ask my reader to attend to how Francis associates terms in a way that holds their broader and more common associations in abeyance. It will also be hard because I suspect it will ask many of you who have already read the letter and already decided upon its significance to entertain the possibility that what you found upsetting about the letter may not have in fact been present there in the first place. This, of course, does not mean that what I propose to find there cannot cause offense or outrage. I only ask that, if we would take offense or stand upon our outrage, we do so in terms of what the letter says and not what we might hear in its echo. I will conclude with a short Marian coda, but for now let us turn to Matthew 17.

Part I

In Matthew 17:14, a father brings his afflicted son through a crowd and places him before Jesus. “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly,” the father says. The boy falls down with seizures at unpredictable times, sometimes into the fire, sometimes into water. This father, racked with constant fear for his son, surely unable for even a few trusting moments to leave him alone, has tried everything, sought every remedy. “And I brought him to your disciples,” he continues, “but they could not cure him.” At this Jesus shows us his anger, whipping around upon his disciples: “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” But just before Matthew pulls back the curtain on Jesus’s frustration and intervention, the text takes an awkward step. It prefaces Christ’s rebuke with, “Jesus answered.” For just a moment, all we have is a father who asked for mercy upon his son and that “Jesus answered” with an accusation of faithlessness and perversity. But, the pericope continues: Jesus drives out the demon causing the seizures, heals the child straight away, and the disciples ask why they could not do it themselves, for which Jesus blames their lack of faith. All this makes it evident that his disciples are the rebuke’s object. Still, for a breathless second (“Jesus answered”) one could be forgiven for wondering if perhaps Jesus was expressing exasperation with the epileptic boy’s father. He asked for mercy; “Jesus answered” with a rebuke. There are times in the Gospels when I am not sure what Jesus is up to and I am not sure I can follow where he seems to be going, but to scold a father seeking healing for his suffering son? How dare he? What relief, then, to find that this is a misreading.

In Francis’s letter, he cites a verse from the above pericope (Matthew 17:21) to “invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command.” Many have felt that at this point, the letter takes an awkward step. After all, are not the victims of sexual abuse by clergy members themselves of “the entire holy faithful People of God”? Are not all of the laity, deceived by priests and bishops and curial officials, victims of the Church’s institutionalized mendacity? For what in these galling circumstances could we be atoning? How could we be conceivably counted among the penitent? In but a few words: how dare he?

The odd thing about Matthew 17:21 is that, if you go and grab your NRSV or NABRE off the shelf, you will not find verse 21 printed in Matthew 17. It is relegated to the footnotes. There the editors will inform you that verse 21 is, as the biblical scholars say, a textual variant. It is in some old manuscripts, but not in others. Where it is found as part of the text, it completes Jesus’s admonition in verse 20: “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” In verse 21, Jesus gets practical and continues, “But this kind [of demon] does not come out except by prayer and fasting.” It is not as scandalizing as the momentary impression that maybe Jesus is yelling at the father of a sick child, but it is still strange. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can relocate whole mountains at a word. However, if you happen to come up against this particular kind of demon—the kind that gives children seizures—then prayer and fasting are required in addition to faith. Where we might have avoided one textual stumbling block (by recognizing that it was the disciples to whom “Jesus answered”), we find another waiting at the pericope’s end. Jesus offers this strange bit of practical advice that in the judgment of the relevant biblical scholars may not belong in the text, but in the judgment of the Holy Father apparently does.

I wonder about this demon. What did it mean to those around this afflicted boy? One must think that his father hated it venomously. One must imagine him weeping cold tears of impotence in the face of it. I cannot speculate in any historically responsible way about what in quotidian life the boy’s neighbors must have thought of it. I guess I imagine them whispering—glancing and glancing away. Giving a wide berth. I have to imagine—and, as imagined, also admire—the single-mindedness of this father subjecting his afflicted son to the crowd on the way to the one they say heals and forgives sins. Did the boy seize there and then? Did it cause a scene? Were the two of them needlessly shamed? Ashamed themselves? One imagines, for all his persistence, that this father kept his dignity and maintained a kind of circumspection by approaching Jesus’s disciples first. Perhaps he thought better than to disturb this rabbi who draws crowds. But the disciples fail him and in the presence of the crowd. Do you think this father felt foolish? Made a fool of? If he lost faith, he was not so desolate that he carried his boy home. He persisted, still surrounded by the crowd—that same crowd that like all crowds, like crowds today was surely riddled with cruel, careless, misbegotten talk—until he found himself in earshot of the rabbi. And so our pericope begins.

I try not to flinch from the Gospel’s depiction of Christ’s anger. They show with Christ’s luminosity that love is so often ferocious. Have we not lately felt in ourselves the ferocity of love? Jesus does not just see in his disciples’ failure to heal this boy, their failure to drive out his demon some mere lapse in judgment or venial failure of character. He sees in their failure to do what mercy requires faithlessness, perversity, and—it is not too much to infer—evil. He recoils from a whole community, a fellowship from whom he would like to get away and with which he is loath to have to put up much longer. They sicken him. They enrage him. It afflicts him. We can assume that he had empathy for the child’s suffering, but the text makes explicit how he suffered from his disciples’ failure to address it. He takes this child to himself, this child that is scarred from burns, this child fearful of unforeseen and unforeseeable episodes, this child made strange to his community, this child who sees how tired, how fearful his own father is and suspects whose fault it must be. Then Jesus drives out what afflicts him, healing him at a word. A miracle.

Only after the boy has been healed, the demon driven out, the father given back his son whole and safe, does Jesus turn back to his disciples. The disciples have to wait while the afflicted are made whole. Christ returns his attention to his disciples only when they first turn to him privately and penitentially, frank about their failure. Obtuse as always, they ask him a question that he has already answered: “Why could we not drive it out?” Jesus, patient with the penitent, with those who have failed greatly and yet sincerely desire to turn around, to live as one does in the Kingdom of God, tells them again: “Because of your little faith.” But then we stutter with the text again, following its seeming misstep: what the learned set to the lower margin, the Holy Father directs us to read as Christ’s command: “But this kind [of demon] does not come out except by prayer and fasting.” Faith—this mysterious, inner posture of trust in God, this inextricably personal act of freedom to assent to or reject what is offered—is necessary but not sufficient with “this kind [of demon].” For that, you also need prayer and fasting.

And then they go back to Galilee and that is the whole thing.

Part II

I think many have read Pope Francis’s letter and culled from it the sense that, in asking the People of God to practice penitential prayer and fasting in response to this terrible crisis, Francis has in effect scolded those seeking to help the innocent afflicted. What could it be but a cowardly deflection to distribute the act of atonement to the laity when it is priests and bishops who have victimized both those subjected to sexual abuse and in a more diffuse but still despicable way the laity from whom this abuse was hidden, onto whom predatory priests were shunted in the demonic episcopal shell game? Has Pope Francis in effect said that “All Sins Matter”? I think this proves largely, but not entirely a misreading of Francis’s letter. That it is an eminently understandable, even easy misreading raises valid questions about the letter’s rhetoric, timing, phrasing, etc. Nonetheless, I think that as to the substance Pope Francis is not asking for the diffusion of atonement. Rather, the letter offers essential practical guidance for how all the baptized may serve the cause of justice in the face of such “filth,” such “betrayal” in the Church (pace many commentators who object to its ethereal “spiritualizing”).

One invitation to misread Francis’s letter emerges from the common, but nonetheless careless ambiguity of plural, personal pronouns; “we,” “our,” “us”. As when in Matthew 17 I stumbled over “Jesus answered,” so I had to read and reread many sentences and paragraphs in the letter, trying to discern to whom these pronouns applied. I have come to the conclusion that in the first part of the letter (“1. If One Member Suffers . . . ”), these pronouns refer to the hierarchy as a whole. References to fallen “mighty” in the Magnificat and to then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s words weigh heavily in this direction. But in the second, longer part (“2. . . . All Suffer Together With It”), Francis begins to phase away from this focus on the ordained and towards the “People of God.”

According to Francis, the need for that solidarity by which “every type of abuse [victim] can encounter an outstretched hand to protect them and rescue them from their pain” calls for this pivot to the entire community of the faithful. He takes a moment to note that he is aware of labors to address the crisis throughout the Church:

I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable. We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary, yet I am confident that they will help to guarantee a greater culture of care in the present and future.

But this is not enough. Along with these institutional efforts, “every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need.” So far, so good. No doubt, it would be an odd thing for the laity to at once declare some justified loss of faith in the ordained hierarchy of the Church and at the same time entrust reform entirely into their hands, even if perhaps ideally it should be their responsibility to clean up their own filth. But it is here that Francis’s letter begins its awkward stride, when Francis writes that “this change calls for a personal and communal conversion,” calling the entire Church to “a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting.” What is worse, the solidarity that drags the laity onto the scene “will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes.” There are those troublesome pronouns again. Whose past sins and mistakes and which sins and mistakes exactly Francis does not pause to disambiguate. Instead, Francis entreats us to “beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others” and assures us that “the penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help us as God’s People to come before the Lord and our wounded brothers and sisters as sinners imploring forgiveness and the grace of shame and conversion.” Has not the Holy Father in calling for this penitential practice, like the Christ of my misreading above, rebuked those seeking remedy for the afflicted and failed to rebuke or at least too vaguely and too timidly rebuked those who afflicted these children and those who failed to relieve their affliction? How dare he?

I have tried very hard to read Francis’s letter slowly, with care, at turns with suspicion and with charity, with imagination and with rigor. What I am left with is something of a mixed report. I do think that Francis probably (with those damned pronouns) rebukes church authorities too timidly, too vaguely, and too abstractly—the bishops especially. That he attests to consciousness of the efforts being carried out on the issue does not enunciate sufficient responsibility. And yet I want to spend some time, without mitigating any of these criticisms, with the sense that Francis has so to speak “rebuked the epileptic boy’s father” in his call for penitential practices of prayer and fasting, imputing fault where it does not reside and calling for atonement where it is not owed. This scandalous impression, though understandable, I cannot help but find substantially mistaken.

Francis’s invocation of a missing verse in the Gospel of Matthew is not the only oddity in his letter. There are small oddities. I have basically no idea, for instance, what “abuse of conscience” is. But the central strangeness is that Francis’s letter calls for penitential practices without substantially linking them to atonement or absolution. Indeed, he links these practices to forgiveness only once and even then at a kind of second order level of remove. Upon careful inspection, Francis directs us to penitential prayer and fasting with a view to something other than collective moral reckoning. Francis calls us to these practices in order not to obliquely indict the laity, but to empower us. Francis asks us to pray and fast primarily because that is how one takes hold of God’s grace. Francis thinks that we need the whole Church in full possession of its “baptismal grace,” the “grace of conversion” to effect “sound and realistic change.” Now, you might say, what is this grace of conversion and why does the whole Church need it? Why not only the clergy and bishops who “were not where [they] should have been, that [did] not act in a timely manner, [did not realize] the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives?” Let us play for a moment at being metaphysicians and discern the nature of the “grace of conversion” from the character of the effects Francis tells us it will cause.

Francis says that the journey of conversion requires “we acknowledge the truth of what has happened,” but even more it requires a solidarity that “demands that we in turn condemn whatever endangers the integrity of any person. A solidarity that summons us to fight all forms of corruption, especially spiritual corruption.” Personal and communal conversion “makes us see things as the Lord does” and will “awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.” It will “open our eyes and our hearts to other people’s sufferings,” “open our ears to the hushed pain felt by children, young people and the disabled,” and “make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary.” It will lead us “to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of good will, and with society in general, to combatting all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience.” It provides the opportunity to “grow in the gift of compassion, in justice, prevention and reparation.”

Some have complained that all of this focus on spiritual effects, however laudatory, constitutes at best a naïve and at worst a calculated distraction from the practical work of vindicating victims and holding responsible perpetrators of abuse. I find this at once the most understandable gripe with the letter, but also the most seriously mistaken. I cannot make a detailed philosophical defense of the claim here, but I am convinced that every practicality, every institutional and structural injustice, every avenue of prevention and reparation, every material force, every concrete human circumstance issues from spirit, which is to say from the conscious experiences, understandings, judgments, decisions, and commitments of persons.[2] When it comes to exerting agency over the social, cultural, legal, and ecclesial structures that bind us, each glass can only spill what it contains. A focus on the spiritual can only be a flight or distraction from the practical if one slips into the all-too-common habit of thinking of the spiritual as a private, individual, and—because immaterial in itself—materially inconsequential indulgence. If this eviscerated characterization of the spiritual is what Francis intends by the effects of prayer and fasting, then I stand with those who reject it. But I do not think that interpretation can be sustained. I come down on this misapprehension with some force, not because it is so unthinkable, but because it is at once so perfectly natural to us and at the same time touches on the very center of the question.

Moreover, I think Francis is being rather more practical than some give him credit for. Could we not after all simply aim directly at embodying these virtues Francis finds central to addressing this crisis in a “sound and realistic” way? Why do we need to take up penitential practices when it is the egregious sin of “Christ’s betrayal by his disciples” that demands special attention at this moment? Are we not still haunted by the specter that Francis has had recourse to an “All Sins Matter” response? Yes and no. I respect my readers’ right not to be so credulous, but I think, no, Francis is not dodging the problem in the fashion that “All Lives Matter” seeks to dodge the problem of racist state violence. But yes, in a very specific sense, Francis is telling us that all sins matter for everyone in the process of facing up to this crisis of clerical sin. This is a hard word and it requires very careful qualification and sensitive application. Still, I think it is true and necessary.

It is Francis’s judgment that we cannot cultivate the “solidarity consciousness” characteristic of the grace of conversion without these penitential practices of prayer and fasting. Francis tells us, whether we find him convincing or not, that “The penitential dimension of fasting and prayer will help.” He does not explain the mechanics, but assures us that acknowledging “Our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness . . . can allow us to be renewed from within.” He does specify that “an awareness of sin helps us to acknowledge the errors, the crimes and the wounds caused in the past and allows us, in the present, to be more open and committed along a journey of renewed conversion.” Do we dare suspect this is true? That by attending to one’s own sin even in one’s rage and hurt—perhaps (and I hardly dare even say so) in one’s own victimhood—we will develop in ourselves a sharper nose for the evil that needs to be faced in the world, in the Church, in a bishop’s see? Francis seems to be saying that we take up these penitential practices, not because we need to join corrupt clergy in sackcloth and ashes, but because “this kind [of demon] does not come out except” thereby. Again, whether we believe him or not, Francis tells us over and over in his letter that prayer and fasting are not in themselves the laity’s vocation in this crisis, but rather that it is by these that the laity will lay claim to the grace, the power to bring upon the Church and its leadership “sound and realistic change,” concrete and practical solutions. “In this way,” he writes, “we will come up with actions that can generate resources attuned to the Gospel.”

But why do we have to do it? Is it fair to place this at the feet of the laity it when it is so manifestly not our fault? Maybe I have convinced you that the call to these penitential practices is not primarily about atonement, but about the concrete empowerment of persons. You could still reasonably ask whether this is some kind of abdication of responsibility, this pivot to the People of God. Francis makes much of the inescapably communal aspect of Christian life. This is perfectly sound theology, although in this context rather bloodless, even suspicious. However, he also strongly implies that the clergy have shown they cannot be trusted to do it without us. He writes, “whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives.” In brief, there is ample evidence that clericalism leads to death. And so, even if the precise logical nature of the equation remains murky, we might agree that “to say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.” If this negative statement is too vague and allusive, Francis also puts it positively and directly: “Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.” The Church faces a terrible crisis, one that has me quite at sea about what beyond legal retribution we would do to vindicate victims and set out on a sound path into the future. My innocence relative to the perpetrators is not much aid or comfort. That I did not abuse children or cover it up myself has not automatically granted me the epistemic or moral clarity required to respond adequately to those who did. I will not speak for you, but if I would join the Church in addressing this crisis practically and concretely, I will be precious little good without the grace Francis describes above.

Francis says that penitential prayer and fasting are our means to lay hold of that grace, that power our moment demands. I need to decide if I believe him. His call, like the textual variant in Matthew 17:21, appears before me in an inherently dubitable way. I come to it already in question, ruled out by wise friends and colleagues, but insisted upon by the Pontiff. As I deliberate, I am haunted by Christ’s rebuke in the pericope of Matthew 17. Christ indicts the disciples not because they did not try to help the epileptic boy, but because they had not laid claim to the power by which to succeed. I imagine the shame the disciples felt when they failed this boy and his father. It cannot have escaped them the personal cost of bringing this afflicted child into the light of day at the promise of healing and a new life. But I think too about the moment when, held in Christ’s arms, the affliction was lifted, safety restored, and fear relieved.


In a sense, this close reading of Francis’s letter is itself a penance. I set the thing aside for nearly a week, unwilling to look at it. I had done much the same with many of the articles sent to me about McCarrick, with the recent grand jury report, with the various other revelations that continue to tumble out of parishes and seminaries, out of the Roman Curia. Conscious of my averted gaze, I found it helpful when Francis returned to Mary to remind us how she

Chose to stand at the foot of her Son’s cross. She did so unhesitatingly, standing firmly by Jesus’s side . . . She, the first of the disciples, teaches all of us as disciples how we are to halt before the sufferings of the innocent, without excuses or cowardice. To look to Mary is to discover the model of a true follower of Christ.

What a dramatic reversal Francis implies here: Mary, full of grace, with our vulnerable Lord. As we follow her to the feet of the afflicted, what else will we find turned upside down?



[1] You can find Pope Francis’s letter here: http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2018/08/20/0578/01246.html#ingl

[2] The most fulsome contemporary defense of this view resides, to my mind, in Bernard Lonergan’s Insight (Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, CWL 3 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992]).

Featured Image: Papstaudienz 01.08.2018, Date: 1 August 2018, Author: Dede454; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Jonathan Heaps

Jonathan Heaps just completed a year as Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious and Theological Studies at St Edward’s University.

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