Abuse, Trauma, and the Body of Christ

Posted on January 14, 2020


Absent an honest and truthful admission of our brokenness, and the telling of the whole story, we can never find freedom and healing—let alone restore the Church’s bella figura.

Most scholars agree that it was the Vietnam War that spurred serious study of trauma and its after effects. This led, in 1980, to the American Psychiatric Association introducing formal diagnostic criteria for what it called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today PTSD has received greater recognition in part because of America’s ongoing wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

More recently, scholars and clinicians have realized three additional key insights. First, things other than war can traumatize people very badly, overwhelming their capacity for processing and comprehension (key hallmarks of trauma). Among the worst are the crimes of rape and sexual abuse.

Second, studies of both communist and Nazi victims has made clear that post-traumatic effects are frequently experienced in identifiable ways at least to the third generation, affecting even those not yet born at the time of the original disaster. For Jews and Christians familiar with our scriptures, this should come as no surprise, for we know that the sins (and their consequences) of fathers and forefathers are often visited upon their successors many generations later (cf., inter alia, Lev 26:40; Lam 5:7; Ez 18:20).

Third, as Juan-David Nasio has argued in his short but powerful new book Psychoanalysis and Repetition: Why Do We Keep Making the Same Mistakes? (State University of New York Press, 2020), not all trauma comes in big packages like the gulag or Holocaust. Some experience a “series of regular micro traumas. Indeed a psychical trauma does not necessarily present itself as a sudden and violent breach [effraction]. Rather, it can occur progressively and subtly over the course of a sufficiently long duration.” Moreover, these micro-traumas can often build up in those (like therapists, clergy, and family members) who have close contact with victims of major trauma, leading clinicians to speak of “vicarious traumatization”.

Over the Christmas break I put together a lecture for a congress of Russian Catholics (whose 2017 congress I discussed on CWR) to be held this spring focused on the theme of living in the aftermath of the Soviet Union and its gulags. This allowed me to read from a burgeoning body of new literature, including Hillary Scarsella’s essay in Trauma and Lived Religion: Transcending the Ordinary, eds., R.R. Ganzevoort and S. Sremac (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); and Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Westminster/John Knox Press, 2019). While both women are writing from a Protestant perspective, much of what they say is directly relevant to Catholics still being traumatized by the ongoing sex abuse crisis.

In particular, the reappearance this week in the headlines of Theodore McCarrick, as well as the fact that the dioceses of Buffalo and West Virginia remain toxic disaster areas, means that the Body of Christ is facing open, suppurating wounds in those places—and many others. And “wound” is the very translation of the New Testament word τραῦμα, as the Catholic theologian Marcus Pound has noted in his important book Theology, Psychoanalysis, and Trauma: “trauma implies a break, deriving from the Greek τραῦμα, to wound: ‘He went up to him and bandaged his wounds’ (Luke 10:34).”

The Church remains hugely wounded by this crisis, and it affects all of us, starting with those direct victims of abuse, whose wounds are profound but still too little known, much less healed. Without in any way detracting from their suffering, we can say that in some ways all of us who remain in, and are not indifferent to the welfare of, the Church, are affected. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder puts it this way about his friend Sebastian’s descent into alcoholism, which equally describes the feeling many of us have with each new headline about abuse in the Church: “a blow, expected, repeated, falling upon a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull and sickening pain and the doubt whether another like it could be borne.”

The sins of abuse traumatize us all in the Body of Christ, albeit to different degrees and in different ways. What can we do about this? Two landmark books—Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, and Besel van der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps the Score—note that victims in search of healing usually need three things at least. The first and most basic is to ensure they are safe from being retraumatized. The second is to begin a narrative—to tell a story—of what they endured and how it has harmed them. The third is to find ways of physically processing the story. (One Catholic therapist I recently spoke to said that when dealing with traumatized patients she assigns homework after every session, requiring that the person engage for at least 20 minutes in some form of vigorous activity—swimming, kneading bread, playing sports, martial arts, or something else, for the body does indeed keep the score, and the pain stirred up therapeutically must be processed and released physically.)

The Church is doing little of this right now. Yes, certain protocols have been put in place after 2002, making many parishes safer places—but not all. (The week before Christmas the pastor of a parish here in Ft. Wayne was removed for allegations of abuse.) But those protocols are no comfort at all to those who were victimized. For them it is an open question of whether they will ever again feel safe in any church. Since my book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power came out, I have had numerous, extensive, and utterly harrowing conversations with victims across this country, and none of them—none—feels safe in the Church today. Even slipping into an unknown parish for a quiet daily Mass is overwhelming for some, causing them to flee from the sacraments.

Has the Church made room for victims to tell their stories, and has the Church shown openness to hearing those stories, in all their horror and pain, for as long as it takes? Sadly, the answer is a “No”. Victims have told me privately that most people (including most priests they have tried talking to) do not want to hear their stories, or hear only the slightest part in the briefest possible way before either lawyering up and ending the conversation or piously pressing them to “move on” or “offer it up” or “pray and forgive more”.

These counsels are not just pious clichés but are in fact clinically dangerous and destructive. In Trauma and Grace, Jones recounts working pastorally with a new Christian who had to stop coming to church because trauma she had suffered was awakened every time she went to liturgy. Perhaps worse, Scarsella tells of a victim who tried to return to church after being sexually abused but found that the liturgy’s focus on the crucified Christ, and especially His silence in the face of His accusers, was thrown in her face by some who told her she should silently offer up her suffering like Christ did because speaking out would put the focus on her, not Him, and prevent reconciliation with those who had harmed her.

Such counsel is a perverted pseudo-asceticism that will drive people farther from God, not bring them closer, as healthy asceticism seeks to do. Saying such things to people is entirely counter-productive, bringing the real risk of setback and further alienating them from the loving God whose only Son was brutally traumatized by being arrested, tortured, and crucified.

The New Testament is, in fact, a major scene of trauma though most of us have not thought of it in these terms. Consider the encounters between Jesus and “doubting” Thomas, and between Jesus and the disciples en route to Emmaus: both involve people who cannot really see and have a hard time trusting reality. Rather than sanctimoniously chiding them for a “lack of faith,” we must understand them as acutely traumatized people, who only days before had watched their closest friend suffer unimaginable violence and pain, thereby exposing themselves to vicarious traumatization.

One feature of trauma (in both direct and indirect victims) is dissociation, a break in our capacity to see and understand. Victims experience dissociation, of having in effect a divided or split mind, and this is, in the first instance, a good thing insofar as it is an immediate survival mechanism. (Splitting can become a problem when it becomes our habitual way of dealing with the world, cutting us off from other emotions and isolating us from each other and God. Then it can play a part in the paralysis I spoke of here.)

Is the Church today one large scene of dissociation? Are we able really to see what has happened in our midst, and to talk openly about it? Or are most of us still engaged in splitting—of priests, bishops, and now popes into the good and bad ones? Many of us still do this because the alternative seems too horrifying to contemplate: that the whole Body of Christ, the suffering servant, is damaged and “wounded (ἐτραυματίσθ) because of our sins” (Isa 53:5).

But absent a confession of this demonstrable reality, absent an honest and truthful admission of our brokenness, and the telling of the whole story, we can never find freedom and healing—let alone restore the Church’s bella figura.

Old confessors’ manuals and catechisms used to sternly instruct Catholics approaching Confession to recount everything they could think of “in number and kind.” The late Pope John Paul II did something like that, at a special liturgy (“Day of Pardon”) in St. Peter’s at the start of Lent in 2000, with seven categories of very specific sins, including against women, other Christians, and the Jewish people. But nowhere on that list was any mention of sexual abuse.

Imagine if, at the start of Lent this year, Pope Francis were to travel to his cathedral in the Lateran, and ask all bishops to go to their cathedrals, and both he and they invited (and if necessary paid the travel expenses of) victims of sexual abuse to come to a special liturgy where some of their stories could be told. Imagine, moreover, if he instituted this as a new penitential practice to be kept on the first Sunday of Lent for the next decade at least. As A.L van Omenn has argued in Trauma and Lived Religion, “Liturgy can provide a safe space for people to remember and narrate traumatic experiences” in part because, as we know, liturgy is circular and repetitive, as traumatic stress disorders are.

But liturgy’s cycles of repetition are not destructive of our peace the way PTSD is. Indeed, liturgy is the very source and summit of our peace, and not just as an adjunct to individual therapy. As Marcus Pound has argued, the Eucharist “can be developed into a form of collective analysis…and a theological therapeutic” for all who are traumatized, for it commemorates the world’s greatest trauma—the Crucifixion—while also mediating to us in sure and certain hope the healing power of the Resurrection.

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