A time of great crisis

cathedra Drennan

by Dan Stollenwerk

Like so many of the faithful, I was greatly saddened to read that Bishop Charles Drennan had resigned — a complaint having been made against him of “unacceptable behaviour of a sexual nature”.

He was the new face of the hierarchy: young, able, polished, strong in financial discipline, a spokesman for economic justice and committed to cleansing the Church of the scourge of paedophilia.

And now this.

“Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna / London / Unreal.” T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland comes to mind. To which we might now add Palmerston North.

Things are falling apart.

I suppose, like so many as well, I’ve become weary of the scandals — financial, sexual, paedophiliac. Angry too, of course. Especially if one knows victims of sexual exploitation, one understands a bit of the soul-destroying nature of the sin.

There’s a reason why Dante Alighieri places traitors in the innermost circle
of hell — Judas getting the centre seat. Traitors break trust. And it’s but a short leap from political traitor to sexual betrayer. Adultery, after all, is one of the top 10 Mosaic sins.

Sexual betrayal consumes not just the victim; it poisons a web of social
relations in ways that the sinner could never imagine. As Genesis pointed out ever so long ago and Sigmund Freud confirmed much more recently, sexuality runs deep — very, very deep.

Which is why the sexual scandal of the Church will not go away. In fact, the repercussions of the scandal have only just begun. (Whence, for example, our future leaders?)

Some have said that a healthy ecclesial purification may be in store. Maybe. Not all fire destroys. Still, purging flames can sear for a very, very long time.

Some six centuries before the coming of Christ, the Deuteronomic Historian wrote that God chose Babylon to chastise his rebellious people.

Today, the state of New York, the courts of Australia and the royal commission in New Zealand appear to have been given the similar task of bringing the Church to her knees, of humiliating her in front of those to whom she is supposed to be preaching the Way.

Who now is the voice of moral authority? If only we could say we were innocent lambs suffering for the unjust. But we are not. The burden we bear is of our own making. (And that the Weinstein Company and Greenlane Hospital have also come under scrutiny, hardly lightens the ecclesial burden.)

Yet another thought must be added to this discussion. In addition to the fires of destruction and the flames of purgation are the words: “Who am I to judge?” As I’ve written in this paper before: It could have been any of us.

A Missionary of Charity co-worker in the early 1980s once told me of a frequent patron of the sisters’ Bronx shelter who, from time to time, displayed a rather disturbing habit from the third storey window.

Naturally, the neighbours complained.

Some of the sisters convinced the co-worker to ask Mother Teresa herself what to do. Mother replied that, quite obviously, you must stop him. But, she added, please be gentle. You know such a thing could just as easily happen to you or me.

There but for the grace of God . . . . Or, to put it negatively, let the judgmental beware, “for the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2).

It has been my experience in New Zealand and beyond that, for the most part, our Church leaders are not judgmental.

They are, in fact, very merciful; they are truly bearers of God’s love. And in their mercy and love they follow the lead of our greatest saints, like Mother
Teresa. These nearly universal priestly virtues are something we may want to remember and evoke more often.

Regardless of the mercy they have shown or the prudence in judgement that must be reciprocated, however, it cannot go without being stated that a
prevailing historic truth remains: our Church leadership has led us into a time of great crisis.

Some have called it the worst since the 16th century Reformation. (We may
have to wait another 500 years to confirm the veracity or not of that claim.)And like the Reformation and the Babylonian exile, it’s bound to affect many, many generations to come — though exactly how we still do not know.

Eliot’s dry, scorched wasteland ends with the distant voice of thunder: “generosity, compassion, self-control”. But like the fire which can either purify or destroy, so the reader does not know if this imminent storm will revive or devastate the parched land.

Oh, the Church will survive. Jerusalem endured. The Western Church lives
on. But, to use Eliot one last time — and perhaps not too far out of context — while the Church may continue, our experience of this crisis may be “Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

Like so many, I lament the loss of Bishop Drennan’s leadership to the

I wish him all God’s blessings. I wish the same for his complainant; may God
bless her abundantly with every good thing in life. And may the Holy Spirit
bring about the consolation and reconciliation needed to heal her, Bishop
Drennan and the Church.

As for the faithful who may be feeling the death of an era, humiliation
before foes, shame in front of the state, or chastisement from God, it appears we are called, as St John was apt to say, to patient endurance.

Not knowing the repercussions of the present ecclesial crisis of leadership,
ours is to carry on the journey, to put our head down and walk into the driving storm, or, to quote St John again, to “keep the commandments of
God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (Revelations 14:12).

Dr Dan Stollenwerk is the head of the theology and philosophy faculty at St Peter’s College, Auckland.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Greg says

    It’s probably time to park all the think-tanks, conferences, meetings, conferences, specially-composed prayers, glossy publications, powerpoints, facilitated discussions, and other corporate healing and relationship management approaches that are deployed so adroitly. We are not an NGO with funny hats.

    We are in a super-natural battle. Remember all that stuff about God, Jesus, the devil, your soul, reparation, grace, sorrow, forgiveness, etc etc…
    Supernatural issues require supernatural solutions, surely?
    Prayer (rosaries and other devotions of the same socially unifying and combative nature)
    Fasting (real fasting, not just reducing netflix from 4 hours to 3.5 hours)
    Penance (private sacrifices and discomforts)
    Public penance and mortification of Episcopal leaders to inspire the sheep.
    Exorcism (do we still do that?)

  2. Bryan Parry says

    And Dan I have been very badly treated by a Catholic School the staffroom of which was run as a branch of the National Party. How much does this Diocese contribute to thecWaitemata Trust?

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