We do not know what kind of Church there will be after this abuse crisis, but we must assume that it will probably get worse before it gets better.
I am one of those Roman Catholics who had never heard or imagined that there were abusive priests sexually preying on children.
Neither could I have imagined a clerical system that protected abusive priests rather than their victims; a system that perpetuated the suffering of those abused.
Before moving to the United States in 2008, I spent more than 30 years of parish life in the mid-sized city of Ferrara in northern Italy. My Catholic experience there had been remarkably healthy and happy, despite the usual tensions with this or that particular priest or bishop.
I started to become aware of the epidemic of sexual abuses committed by clergy only in 2002, thanks to the investigative reporting of the Boston Globe.
Now as the parent of small children who attend a Catholic school in the Philadelphia area (one of the epicenters of the abuse crisis in the USA), I have been further educated about what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.
The sex abuse crisis is the greatest scandal in modern Church history, and we do not know yet what kind of Church will survive this protracted moment of public shame.
This crisis has understandably caused many to question whether they can stay in the Catholic Church. A number of Catholics known for engaging in public issues have written articles to explain why they remain.
No question, it’s becoming harder to justify the reasons why. But despite the shock and disgust over the revelations of historic cases of abuse – and revelations that will continue to arise for a long time – I have never thought about leaving the Church and I cannot think about leaving it now.
It’s not because I am a theologian, for whom the Catholic Church is not just another social phenomenon to be studied like others or whose relevance changes according to the Zeitgeist.
It’s not just the sacramental argument – that baptism made of me a member of the Church and that I need the sacraments of the Church in my life. It’s not even the ecclesiological argument – the Church has always been made up of both saints and sinners.
There is, on the one hand, a fundamental difference between the historical experience of Catholics living in a young Church in a social and political environment that assumed some degree of freedom and democracy (as in the United States), and those Catholics who are the descendants of a Church that has survived other crisis.
There was not only the scandalous behavior of Renaissance cardinals and popes, which shook believers like Martin Luther in 16th century.
Think also of the Church in the 20th century as it allied with Fascism, Nazism and other dictatorial regimes. And then there was the Catholic Church that had many of its members who were indifferent or even instrumental to the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews.
The long history of confrontation and alliance between Church and political power (from the Roman Empire to the nationalisms of the last century) has disabused European Catholics from any illusion about the purity of the institutional Church.
It has made them more capable to separate human failings from the true nature of what the Church is about. This is a factor in the gap between the different perceptions of the abuse scandal in different areas of the world.
Catholicism’s center of gravity has shifted in recent years from Europe towards North America. It has coincided chronologically with the explosion of the abuse crisis whose epicenter is in the United States.
This geo-religious shift, together with the abuse scandal, has re-centered Catholicism in a cultural system in which religious belonging is more pluralistic and more subject to shifts.
Compared to Christians in most other countries, Americans tend to be more inclined to move from one Church to another or formally leave the Church and renounce their faith altogether.
Elsewhere, being Catholic is not always measured by Mass attendance and participation in the life of the Church.
And, yet, Catholic identity seems to be culturally more resilient, even though in a disguised and almost subconscious way. This is the type of Catholicism I grew up in and it is one of the reasons I never thought about leaving the Church.
But there is also something more personal to explain why I stay. I mean no disrespect towards those who feel it is impossible to remain in a Church devastated by the abuse scandal or those who feel the need to justify why they do not leave. But this is not my experience. In fact, the opposite happened to me in a certain sense.
My Catholic faith has become stronger since moving to the United States. While some people have experienced cosmopolitanism as a grave threat to their religious roots and identity, this has not been true in my case.
I still have Italian citizenship, but I no longer live in Italy; I live in the United States but I am not yet a U.S. citizen.
Being a “resident alien” with a green card is a limited form of belonging that makes other identities stronger. I started to see my Catholicism as a form of insurance against other de-humanizing aspects of the American and cosmopolitan way of life.
Catholicism keeps a lot of elements in my life in check. It balances the secular and religious parts of my identity. It helps me avoid the temptation to become mono-dimensional and fall into the trap of a certain kind of secularism where one owes nothing to no one and is tethered only by his or her own personal past.
It is about keeping certain bonds that are bigger and deeper, as Robert Bellarmine identified five centuries ago, as essential for being Catholic — common profession of faith, communion in the sacraments and bond to ecclesiastical authority.
It is Catholicism that helps me avoid the temptation to reduce Christian faith to politics, to personal or political morality, or to social issues. It is not about joining a cause or becoming a cause. The Church is not a cause or an agenda.
It is Catholicism that helps me find and make room for freedom from social control, including the social control that has been for centuries (and in some sense still is) typical of Roman Catholicism.
The Church is not a club I decided to join. Nor is it something I can decide to leave. In some sense, I feel that not even the institutional Church can decide that I should leave or that I have left. Certainly, I do not leave to the institutional Church the power to define everything that the Church is.
It is a Church that I cannot even think about leaving because I refuse to accept the risk of becoming a consumer of the sacred.
The Church makes me a citizen in a culture that is being shaped more and more by tourists and sightseers of the soul, in a world where – in the words of Italian author and essayist Roberto Calasso — religion is identified between the Scylla of visiting tourists and the Charybdis of religious terrorists.
I definitely feel myself to be pilgrim, but not a tourist of the sacred. I feel I am a native of the Church and not a tourist that feels safe only while visiting protective compounds and resorts.
I am a cosmopolitan and globalized Catholic who tries not to look for safe havens from the paradoxes of religious faith.
The entire Catholic Church is my land, and no extraterritoriality is possible. I do not feel like (and do not want to be) a special kind of Catholic. I am simply part of the Church as a people of peoples.
My spirituality is not narrowly defined by one author, one book, one place or one Church movement. It strives to be the spirituality of the Church. To quote my friend David Gibson’s Twitter bio, I am too tempted to call myself “religious but not spiritual.”
I also see my remaining in the Church as a remedy from the virtualization of the world and from the illusions of “enhanced reality,” which often shapes our dreams and expectations of the Catholic Church.
I need mediation, and the flaws in the various forms of ecclesial and ecclesiastical mediation remind me of my own flaws – the ones I know and the ones I do not even want to know.
The abuse crisis is pushing us to rethink many aspects in the life of the Church, and even our theology. This is a difficult and, often, terrible time to be a Catholic theologian in the public square.
It reminds me of the words of Italy’s late prime minister Alcide de Gasperi at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. As the representative of a country that had lost the Second World War it helped start as an ally of Adolf Hitler, he said: “I feel that everything, except your personal kindness, is against me.”
In the abuse crisis we have discovered a cancer in the Church. It is up to us to find a cure for it and do everything possible for the victims and survivors. We do not know what kind of Church there will be after this, but we must assume that it will probably get worse before it gets better.
Still, I am not among those who are torn over whether to leave or stay in the Church. I do not stay because I have decided to stay in the Church. It’s the Church that stays in me.