clergy abuse crisis

Can we drink this cup? Nouwen and the abuse crisis

These are all ours: the beauty and the horror, the charity and the abuse, the art and the scandal.

In his brief text by that title, Henri Nouwen asks: “Can you drink the cup?” He reflects on Matthew 20:20-23, where Jesus speaks with the mother of Zebedee’s sons and then asks them, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They reply, “We can.” And Jesus responds:

“Very well; you shall drink my cup, but as for seats at my right hand and my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted by my Father.”

Nouwen reflects on the question posed by Christ, exploring what this cup consists of, and how to drink of it. He writes that this cup is the cup of life, and the cup brought before each Catholic in communion. Christ offers a cup of both joy and sorrow, and we must drink it as such in order to receive it as a cup of blessings and salvation.

Nouwen writes:

‘”Can you drink the cup? Can you empty it to the dregs? Can you taste all the sorrows and joys? Can you live your life to the full whatever it will bring?’ I realized these were our questions.”

Today, Catholics are asked these questions in a particularly jarring way. Those of us who love the Church have drunk deeply of its rich history, art, and literature. We love that the Church is the largest charitable organization in the world, and we find life in the sacraments. And yet we also know that thousands of men and women walk among us as survivors of clerical abuse. Our leaders have betrayed us, and we the laity have contributed to the present crises. We feel ourselves torn apart and pushed to choose a side. The beauty or the horror? Life or death? What is the Church? Which is it?

We see this choice played out particularly among those who have condemned the Church entirely, and also among those Catholics who choose to bury their heads in the sand or who repeat over and over again, “These evils are not really ours, but are the failures of an other, one who is not truly among us, and we must banish that other and remember that the Church is only beauty.”

Nouwen offers no such solution. He teaches that the cup Christ offers is both a cup of starvation, torture, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, and anguish, and also a cup of hope, courage, love, trust, and true care. He writes:

“The cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy. Only when we discover this in our own life can we consider drinking it.”

Nouwen does not present the cup of salvation as simply a cup of joy or a cup of sorrow. Rather, it is a cup of joy and sorrow, and those who truly wish to drink salvation must drink both to the full. This is the cup Christ offers, and He calls us to drink deeply.

And so it is as ecclesia, as Church. In his text, “The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood,” Ratzinger writes:

“Here we must go back to the original Christian meaning of ekklesia, which at first meant the actual realization within the local community of the one Church… The word not only means ‘Church’ and ‘local community’, but it can also mean ‘religious assembly.’ These three meanings are not simply distinct, unrelated to each other, but are, in fact, much more three levels of a single meaning and, consequently, often overlap with one another. They are connected in the following way: the one Church always exists concretely in the concrete local community. The local community realizes itself as the Church in the religious assembly, that is, above all in the celebration of the Eucharist.”

Here, Ratzinger teaches us that the life of the local parish or diocesan community can be said to be the “life of the Church” just as fully as when one talks about the worldwide and historical Catholic community. And when we gather in the Eucharist to drink from that cup, we must drink fully from all of that community, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. All of that assembly is “Church,” just as fully as has been people and events of all the Church’s history. If we want to be Catholic, and to drink fully from the cup of salvation, we are not permitted to choose. We must drink from all of these. These are all ours: the beauty and the horror, the charity and the abuse, the art and the scandal, both in the universal Church and also (and just as fully) in our local assembly. We must face all of these and take responsibility for all of these if we are to receive the Eucharist which Christ offers us.

Those who do not embrace the beauty of the Church do not drink the cup of salvation. But those who do not take hold of the present crises do not drink this cup either. They fail to fully receive the Church as She is on earth. They refuse to enter into the ecclesial body. The reject the Church.

This, perhaps, is why especially the clergy who respond as if nothing has happened, burying their heads in the sand and failing to hear the laity before them, are such strong additives to the scandal. They refuse to participate in the body to which they claim to have dedicated themselves. They refuse to drink deeply from the very cup they offer at each Mass.

Failing to dwell with those suffering in the present crises, especially for pastors, brings about confusion in the Church, because this is an expression of anti-ecclesiality. It manifests an alternative spirituality, one of individualism. It refuses to take the Church as a body of which I am only one part. Thus, those who refuse to recognize the suffering within their parishes or who fail to listen to the voices from their pews, refuse to recognize the suffering and hear the voice of the Church as a whole. To neglect the parish assembly is to neglect the Church, since, as Ratzinger teaches, this assembly is as fully Church as is the universal institution.

Conversely, priests and bishops who have publicly accepted guilt for the Church’s abuses have provided much-needed healing, not only because such statements are expressions of accountability, but also because they are expressions of ecclesiality. They demonstrate a willingness to drink from the cup of our sufferings. The call for a recognition of corporate guilt is essentially a call for ecclesiality, a call to be Church. Because we are one body. The actions of “the Church” are my actions. Her failures are my failures. Her sanctity is my sanctity.

We are called to praise the art, to embrace the sacraments, and to pursue the charitable works of our Church. These are ours. But so too is the horror and the scandal. Only when we look fully upon and respond to both can we truly be ecclesia and drink from that cup.

“Finally, we must remember and reflect with great seriousness on the fact that the Church consists of all those who profess faith in her. Each one of us reveals Christ and each one conceals Him. We can never speak as if the Church stood there and we–I in each instance–stood here and I could view and analyze and judge her, pointing out responsibilities and failures. I must always include myself in the image I construct of her, must refer to myself the judgment I pass upon her. Then the image and the judgment will be different–as though I were speaking of the faults of a person whose life is closely bound with mine. I tell what is good about him and reject what is faulty, but all in a spirit of love.” -Romano Guardini

This post was also published at YArespond.

1 comment on “Can we drink this cup? Nouwen and the abuse crisis

  1. Sally McEachen

    Chris, this is the best article I have read by you, and the best I have read on this crisis. I was at Mass today (in Korean, which I don’t speak) and this deeper understanding of the cup, and especially in the current context, truly enriched my prayer at communion.

    I’ll admit I didn’t much like being asked in Pope Francis’s letter to do penance for the sins of abusive priests and bishops. I still struggle with it but I can see I’m wrong now in a much clearer way. Thank you.


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