Pope Francis' Letter to the People of God: a Reflection

by frankbeswick

The pope's letter concerning the abuse scandal addresses the roots of ecclesiastical abuse.

No one can fail to be aware of the abuse scandal that is engulfing institutions in parts of the world, but abuse based in the Christian church is a very specific aspect of this problem, one that is all the more bitter because it is happening in an institution which is by its mission dedicated to opposing all kinds of abuse. In attacking clericalism the pope has addressed the roots of abuse in a problem that has beset the Christian church throughout its long history.

Photo courtesy of LoggaWiggler

The People of God.

The Pope's letter of August 20th 2018 was not what we call an encyclical, which is a papal letter couched in formal language and addressed to the whole Catholic Church on  matters generally of doctrine.  Encyclicals can be a bit heavy to read, but this letter was clearly and simply written, though certainly not losing in scholarship what it gained in simplicity and clarity, and this befitted the urgency of the situation that the Pope was addressing. 

One key point that will probably have been overlooked by the secular commentators is that he addressed the People of God. This is a term that was coined at the Second Vatican Council to recognize that Christians are one people, they are not merely individuals each concerned with their own salvation, but all are communally bound to each other in a bond in which the full individuality of each person is seen as being complementary to their communal existence as one people. Thus as a people composed of individuals in community we all have a stake in each other, and thus as the Pope says, quoting from St Paul, that when one is hurt all are hurt. Abuse therefore damages us all. 

But critically, the papal moral horizon is not limited by the Catholic Church, for the concept of the people of God embraces all Christians, and thus abuse within non-Catholic churches is also the subject of the papal letter. The term People of God denotes a sacred community with Christ at its heart committed to following God's way of life.   This is an issue that transcends denominations and pertains to the whole Christian church, so this letter is addressed to all Christians. But its energy is not limited by the wider Christian church, but can be heard by all people of goodwill anywhere in the world. People belonging to non-Christian religions may well find some concepts in the letter  to help them in their own struggles, for the issue with which the letter deals concerns and touches all of us, and all  people of good will on the planet can find common cause in addressing it. 



One key concept in the letter that is extremely pertinent to papal thinking, but which has probably been overlooked by much of the [religiously challenged]  secular press is the Pope's rejection of clericalism. When the parish priest read out the papal statement at mass this week I  was delighted to hear the world's top Christian cleric damning clericalism and citing it as part of the abuse crisis, for it was one of the issues that began to concern me when I was at theological college, when I realized  that some clerics were deeply into power and saw the laity and the public in general as there to be ordered around. I did not like it and have always disapproved of the use of religion or the church as a means of gaining status and power.

So what is clericalism? It is an "us and them" mentality in which the clerics regard themselves as  a privileged elite. This elite demand subservience from the laity, exercise power over them and often reap the ensuing economic rewards. This power is  religious in nature, but can become tied into political structures, and the blend between religious and political power is potentially toxic and destructive. We have seen the damage that has been done to the Irish church by its grave mistake  of accepting De Valera's poisoned chalice of a role in the state. Clerics and politicians in cahoots with each other in comfortable networks of cronyism and mutual self-interest! Not good, destructive, and the consequences for state and church have been disastrous. Established churches are particularly vulnerable to this kind of unholy alliance, and they are places where abuse can thrive. 

George Bernard Shaw once said that professions are a conspiracy against the public. I am not a great fan of Shaw, but he may have stumbled upon a significant  truth, at least where some people are concerned. The clerical life, the religious ministry, must exist as a mean of service, but in the case of those infected by clericalism  it takes the form of a commitment to a self-interest group in which members look after each other. We saw this in the way in which clerics covered up the abuse perpetrated by other clerics, looking after their pals while the abuse of vulnerable laity went unchecked.

Pope Francis is fiercely critical. "...When we have replace...silence..ignore...reduce the People of God to small elites we are creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memories, without faces, without bodies and ultimately without lives." He proceeds to say that clericalism is a nullification of the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the soul. By this he means that by presenting themselves as the elite  of Christians they are belittling the Christianity of the lay folk and ultimately laying the ground for abuse to take place. By undermining clericalism the Pope is hacking away at the rationale that underpins the networks in which abuse thrives. I regard this authoritative letter as making a long-term contribution to the Catholic theology of ministry.


Some years ago I remember Francis saying that we are all sinners, but we are not all corrupt. He spoke a significant truth. Yes, all humans do wrong, but corruption is a deep rooted disease of the soul, a rot that is destructive of the moral and spiritual life. What does Francis mean by corruption? To quote from Francis' letter, "Corruption is a comfortable and self-satisfied form of spiritual blindness. In the past Francis has seen corruption in the works of those who underpay their workers, yet attend mass and donate to charity. Such people see themselves as good Christians, but they are not, for they do not ally charity to justice. Francis sees corruption in the actions of clerics who don a mask of righteousness, but live sexually abusive lives. They take the plaudits of the priesthood, but do not deserve them.  For Francis corruption is deep-rooted serious sin. 

For Francis we must all strive to avoid allowing corruption into our lives. How many abusive clerics allowed it to subtly slide into their hearts and minds? How many practised self-deception, convincing themselves that they were not really sinning. But it is not just clerics who are vulnerable, we all are and so we must all take precautions. Francis and his predecessor Benedict teach that we must turn to penance and prayer to strengthen ourselves against the corruption of which we are all capable. 

Solidarity with the suffering of the abused is central to Francis' teaching, and he puts before us the example of Mary, who stood besides her abused son as he hung on the cross. Christians, Francis teaches, echoing an ancient theological truth, that we encounter Christ in the sufferings of others. Mary is, in Catholic thought, the highest example of human virtue short of her divine son. For Francis she represents the tenderness that we must feel towards the abused. 

Updated: 08/27/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/15/2024

We made o the kistakebof going into coalitions with the conservatiives,, but took the blame for their mistakes.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/13/2024

Your comment Sep. 1, 2018, in answer to my same-day question gets me mulling the competitiveness and non-competitiveness of new parties and of those alternative parties -- such as the Libertarian here -- that have their following.

You indicate that your centrist party is "not doing well at the moment."

Might things have changed for the better or the worse or might they have stayed more or less the same in the course of the last 6 years?

frankbeswick on 09/01/2018

Thanks Derdriu. What you have said about Senator Kennedy is very significant.It shows the ruthless streak in many capitalists..But lest any think me a Socialist, I distrust Socialist bureaucrats and apparachiks too. I am resolutely centrist. I am a member of a small centrist party. Unfortunately, we are not doing well at the moment.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/01/2018

frankbeswick, Thank you for the explanations and product lines. In particular, it impressed me about the hypothetical situation of someone always underpaying workers but giving to charity. (I remember Senator Kennedy saying that every time that he managed to get a pay rise through in Congress that so many businesses then turned jobs into part-time.) It made me think of my favorite passage in Les Misérables where the bishop turns Jean Valjean's life around by letting him have the silver.

Mira on 08/31/2018

Right, an active conscience and continuous efforts should make a difference!

frankbeswick on 08/30/2018

You have made an important point, Mira. Drawing the line is not easy, but I would say that anyone who is self-critical and who is trying to live their life according to moral standards, and who does not excuse their own wrongdoing is not corrupt. It is thus easier to say who is not corrupt than who is.

Mira on 08/30/2018

I like that comment saying that we are all sinners but we are not all corrupt. But where do you draw the line exactly? As you say, there's often self-deception at work too. I'm not talking about clerical abuse here. I'm speaking in general.

frankbeswick on 08/30/2018

Thanks for this. We have both many years in the Catholic Church behind us and the fact that we know so few abusers "speaks oceans." I suggest that the problem occurs in patches, in areas where supervision of entrants to the priesthood is lax and so unsuitable candidates can survive and where it is possible for people to slip into the ministry for the wrong reasons.

blackspanielgallery on 08/29/2018

Frank, I have known many priests, and none were involved in anything like this. I taught at a secondary school seminary, and heard of nothing.

frankbeswick on 08/29/2018

The Catholic Herald some years ago released figures that said that the percentage of abusers among priests was lower than the percentage in the population at large, but statistics are notoriously fickle. I was baptized a Catholic sixty eight years ago, went to theological college and worked for a while in Catholic education, and I have only known five priestly abusers. Other priests had their faults, such as drinking too much, but abuse was not among them.

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