The Abuse Scandal as a Dark Night of the Soul

Ronald Rolheiser
August 17, 2003
Reproduced with Permission

For the church in the Western World, particularly in the United States, the recent sexual abuse scandal is probably the biggest crisis we've yet faced, though it's not so much a crisis of faith as one of credibility.

In effect, this is a "dark night of the soul" and, like most dark nights of the soul, it wounds at a particularly vulnerable spot. It's easy to be scandalized, especially religiously, when sex is involved.

And if this is a dark night of the soul, and it is, we will learn its lesson and undergo its purification only if we are clear on some things:

1) A dark night of the soul comes from God.

God doesn't cause accidents, spread viruses, induce depression, break legs, have people die prematurely, or abuse innocent children. A conspiracy of accidents (brute history, human freedom, and sin) does that. But God speaks through all of this. For the authors of scripture, there are no pure accidents, God's finger is everything. If Israel loses a war it's not because the Assyrians have a superior army. No. She loses because she's been unfaithful and God is purifying her.

That's true too in the present situation. Put biblically, it's not the press that's causing this scandal. God's hand is behind this, humbling and purifying us. The real issue is not inflated, anti-clerical press- coverage, but our infidelity and God's pruning hand.

2) Contending with a dark night is not a distraction to our ministry, it is our real ministry.

"I was always upset by distractions in my work," Henri Nouwen once said, "until I realized those distractions were my real work!" That is true too for this scandal. This isn't a distraction to real ministry, it is the real ministry of the church.

Carrying this scandal properly is something that the church is invited to do for the sake of the world. Jesus said, "My flesh is food for the life of the world." The church exists for the sake of the world and we must keep that in mind as we face this crisis. What does that mean?

Put simply: Right now priests represent less than one per-cent of the overall problem of sexual abuse, yet they are on the front pages of the newspapers and the issue is very much focused on the church. While this is painful, it can also be fruitful. The fact that priests and the church are (in a way) being scapegoated is not necessarily a bad thing. If our being scapegoated helps society to bring the issue of sexual abuse and its devastation of the human soul more into the open, then we are precisely offering ourselves as "food for the life of the world".

There are very few things that we are doing as Christian communities today that are more important than helping the world deal with this issue. If the price tag is humiliation and a drain on our resources, so be it. Crucifixions are never easy.

3) A dark night asks us to "sing a new song".

Sing to the Lord a new song! But what's the old song?

Jesus specifies this when he says that unless our virtue goes deeper than that of the scribes and pharisees (the "old song") we can't enter the kingdom of heaven. What was the virtue of the scribes and pharisees? Theirs was an ethic of strict justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, give back in kind. What's wrong with that?

It's too easy. Anyone, Jesus says, can live the virtue of strict justice at a certain level. A paraphrase of Jesus might read like this: Anyone can be nice to those who are nice to them, can forgive those who forgive them, and can love those who love them. But can we love those who hate us? Can we be gracious to those who curse us? That's the litmus test of Christian orthodoxy and it's what's being asked of us in this scandal: Can we love, forgive, reach out, and be empathic in a new way? Can we have compassion for both the victim and the perpetrator? Can we have compassion for some of our church leaders who made mistakes? Can we give of our money when it seems we are paying for someone else's sin? Can we help carry something that doesn't make us feel good and clean?

This is a dark night of the soul. Like every dark night it's meant to stretch the heart. This is always painful and our normal impulse is to do something to end the pain. But it won't go away until we learn what it's meant to teach us. And what is that, beyond a new humility?

That there is a terrible pain within the culture today, a soul- devastation caused by sexual abuse, and we, the church, are being asked, like Christ, to have our flesh be food for the life of the world so that this wound might be opened to healing.