Healing the ‘Wounded Body of Christ’
Deacon Matthew Halbach encourages parish-based groups to discuss the clergy sexual abuse crisis
BY LISA MLADINICH
Recalling his parents’ divorce, which occurred when he was 9 years old, Deacon Matthew Halbach of the Diocese of Des Moines reflected on the radical mercy of God. He recalled how the divorce devastated his family, and how it continued to bear the rotten fruit of shame, loneliness, and anger many years after it happened. For a long time, his parents were unable to forgive each other or themselves. However, as Halbach notes, God often draws straight with crooked lines.
Since the divorce, Halbach said, “My dad has slowly made an incredible journey of faith, self-discovery, and renewal. He remarried, centered his life on his Catholic faith, and became a very generous and selfless individual. Likewise, over time, my mother made a journey of faith and conversion. These days, she sees her life in terms of her relationship with God. She is more prayerful, more peaceful, happier.
“I share this story because it is personal and a great example of God’s mercy,” he said. “For me, it confirms the hope that Christ’s grace is strong enough, powerful enough, and enduring enough to heal and to transform people — especially the brokenhearted (see Isaiah 61:1) and the shameful.”
Halbach’s reflection provides a telling backdrop for the empowering ideas at work in his beautiful study guide, The Wounded Body of Christ: A Parish Group Discussion Guide on Abuse in the Catholic Church (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018), a booklet written to help parishes around the country begin to heal from the wounds of clergy abuse and its cover-up.
Q: Matt, it’s just scratching the surface to note that you’re a deacon with a PhD in catechetics, a national author and speaker, as well as a member of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ National Advisory Council. But what motivated you on a personal level to create a resource that helps the laity to share their voices on this devastating topic?
A: I had an experience of clergy abuse as an adult. It was an abuse of power, manifested as inappropriate touching. It was dealt with, and it’s done. This experience opened my eyes to a brokenness that is possible among clergy — among anyone, for that matter. And it got me thinking about the personal, sociocultural, and ecclesial aspects that might have contributed to this other person’s formation and that placed him in a position of sacred authority.
When we think about healing from clergy abuse and its cover-up, we have to think about the whole Body of Christ, the Church. This includes a review of its structures, policies, ideologies — anything that lends itself to unnecessary or unhealthy secrecy and disproportionate power.
I have also been involved extensively in adult faith formation, including small-group facilitation, for many years. I have found that adults learn best when they talk to each other and intersect in real time. People seem to move through difficulties best when they are able to share their thoughts with others. It’s an important first step.
Q: This resource seems directed at people hurting because of the scandals. Is there anyone in the Church it’s not for?
A: I don’t know anyone not touched by this tragedy. It’s a pall that has been cast over the whole Church. From an ecclesial standpoint, we are a body. So, if one of us is suffering, we all need to ask ourselves, How does that suffering impact me? How is God calling me to respond? My hope is that the booklet raises those questions and helps both readers and discussion groups to answer them.
Q: Can you talk about the authentic role of the laity in confronting this crisis?
A: The laity need to be empowered to discover their voice in the Church on this issue and others. Part of the role of the people of God is to speak out in the face of injustice — systemic, episodic, or structural. It’s our prophetic calling, vis-à-vis our Baptism. We are baptized priest, prophet, and king. Gathering to dialogue is a great first step. It’s not a panacea, just a first step in the process of what Pope Francis has called the “art of accompaniment.”
Q: Why is the personal sense of shame so great for Catholics?
A: It all comes down to our dignity and value in the eyes of God. Pope Francis has excoriated western culture as a “throw-away” culture. He was not just referring to environmental degradation and overconsumption, but to people who throw away others — people who use other individuals for their own personal whims and pleasures. This is going on in the Church in the form of clergy abuse and its cover-up, and it is in direct opposition to the Church’s own teachings about the sacredness of the human person. These are visible examples of catechetical dissonance: leaders in the Church saying one thing and doing another. Our young people are noticing and are deeply affected by this dissonance.
Q: The Wounded Body of Christ encourages participants to recognize their own sinfulness. How is that helpful in the process of healing?
A: As St. Paul expresses in Romans 5:8, God the Father showed his love for us by sending his Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners.” This points us toward a few things. First, the heart of God is merciful. Second, God’s mercy is so radical that it defies all reason and expectation. Third, God’s mercy is his justice.
The hope of this resource is to raise consciousness around what it means to be the Church. We need to recognize and commit to the fact that we’re all sinners who are loved by God, who are called to try to love and support each other, and even to reform each other. If someone in the Church is doing something harmful, it affects the whole Body of Christ, and it needs to be called out and rectified. And clergy abuse and its cover-up invites the whole Church to do just that.
Q: How are the groups facilitated?
A: At Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart parish in Ankeny, Iowa, where I grew up, they designated deacon couples to lead the discussions, and it went very well. Knowing that what they talked about in their groups could be shared with their pastor — if they so chose — was important to participants.
Part of the gift of the booklet is that a lot of times people don’t know how to talk to leadership. The book encourages them, saying Yes, you have permission, and you should address your concerns to your leaders. Dialogue is a first step in learning how to live as a wounded body.
Q: The program is insightful and accessible, but I was particularly inspired by the encouragement in session two to “bring our desires for justice to the Lord who purifies our intentions and, in doing so, reveals his course of action.”
A: I’m not trying to oversimply this, but instead to try and describe the spirit of what was going on in Isaiah 55, and in that part of the session, I can only echo [that] God’s ways are not our ways. In the end it’s God’s Church, and we are not God — though sometimes we think so! To heal is to hold accountable those who have caused harm. To heal is to restore lost dignity and to reintegrate people with the Body of Christ. To heal is not to seek revenge or to abandon the Church, which is so much more than its sinners. It is Christ among and with the sinner, and that is each one of us.
Q: With great integrity, the booklet delves into the relationship between justice and mercy. Tell us why that’s important.
A: When we speak of justice in the Church, we should be thinking of the kind of justice modeled by Christ in Scripture. Jesus demonstrates a justice that is ultimately meant to rehabilitate. Jesus came so that all might be saved (see 1 Timothy 2:4).
Yes, there needs to be accountability. If the act is criminal, then some sort of criminal justice has to be sought. But as Catholics, we should also hope for a justice that rehabilitates all persons involved. The real trick — or “the rub” — of being Christian is to love our enemies and pray for them (see Matthew 5:44). It’s a difficult line to walk. We are talking about something supernatural, something only God can help us do.
God does not call us to be a doormat or a victim, or to have our dignity denigrated, but to realize that while we were yet sinners, the Father loved us and sent us his Son. We are called (even obliged) to hope that all people will be saved. It’s a hope rooted in mercy. We have to be merciful if we want to enter God’s kingdom. Sometimes mercy seems impossible, especially in difficult times when we are the ones wounded or unjustly treated. And it’s an incredible grace to desire to be merciful during these times. To be sure, there is a time and season to grieve, to be angry, to pray, to hope, and to be merciful.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts?
A: This resource is just a small step in the work of accompanying the victims of abuse and the rest of the Church, the Body of Christ. By encouraging people to dialogue, to reflect, and pray together, it is my hope that people start thinking and acting in ways that help the wounded Body of Christ to heal.
LEARN MORE: The Wounded Body of Christ: A Parish Group Discussion Guide on Abuse in the Catholic Church is available at TwentyThirdPublications.com.