"'If you want to become my followers, you must deny yourselves and take up your cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit you if you gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit your very self?'" (Luke 9:23-25)

"Comments on" and "Response to" Michael Whelan's Book Review

See Article "Problem-solving has Little to Offer in the Face of Evil" on this website

Comments on Michael Whelan’s Review of the book: Abuse and Cover-Up: Refounding the Catholic Church in Trauma (Orbis Books, 2019), by author Gerald A. Arbuckle, SM.

I am grateful to fellow Marists Michael for his review and to Tom Ryan for his Response that are on this website. They have tried to engage my book seriously. I offer a few reflections in light of their interchanges.

1. My Introduction states that the primary task of the book was not to focus directly on the sufferings of survivors, but to highlight the cultural causes of abuse and how we are in consequence to move forward in building a Gospel-based culture free of abuse and cover-up. This in no way ignores the pain of survivors.

2. Only by clarifying the cultural causes can we collectively grasp the urgency and complexity of personal and cultural conversion. To keep in focus the depth of pain is both estimable and important. But that is part of something much bigger. Pope Francis is calling for cultural change, not only compassionate identification with the pain of survivors. Otherwise we will continue to be seduced by the culture(s) that fostered sexual abuse and cover-up. Francis insistently repeats this message:

“The culture of abuse and cover-up is incompatible with the logic of the Gospel. The ‘never again’ to the culture of abuse and the system of cover-up that allows it to be perpetuated demands working among everyone in order to generate a culture of care.” (Letter to the Church in Chile, May 31, 2018)

3. Spirituality is the interaction of Christ in the Gospels and the context in which we are culturally and personally living. To neglect the context turns spirituality into a static thing. And that is fundamentalistic. (See my book Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad: Analysis and Pastoral Responses, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017). To assess the context of the culture of abuse and cover-up we need the insights of cultural anthropology because this discipline provides appropriate skills for cultural analysis. This is not a task for amateurs (See my book: Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010).

4. A general comment about professional book reviews; it is normal practice that they begin with a clear and objective overview of the book’s contents. This is done as a service to both the book’s author and the readers of the review. It struck me that, in this particular case, without that sort of summary, there seemed to be an inadequate foundation for criticism of its assumed defects.

5. Finally, in such interchanges as this, there is always something more to learn that can enhance further studies and an individual author’s own work. 


Michael Whelan SM
Gerald A Arbuckle SM, Abuse and Cover-Up: Refounding the Catholic Church in Trauma, Orbis Books, 2019.
Tom Ryan sm


The above review is currently on the Aquinas Academy’s website.

Attempting a review of a fellow Marist’s book (as does Michael Whelan) is a delicate exercise at the best of times, particularly when it entails criticism of perceived inadequacies (especially major ones) of content or presentation. So, credit where it’s due.

The central concern driving this review is both a valuable and needed reminder: the sexual abuse crisis is less about solving problems and much more about the pain and ‘inexpressible suffering’ of survivors. The reviewer draws on his own first- hand experience in attending sessions of the Royal Commission. In closing the review, he quotes from the experience of a young man abused by a Marist priest in the United Kingdom. As he reminds us, Graham Caveney is amongst those who are ‘bearers of wisdom that is born of unbearable pain.’

A comment here may be helpful. Some may find the language of this quoted passage ‘not the sort of thing said in polite company.’ But such ‘company’ is not the benchmark here. It is basic humanity in primal, visceral mode. This is not about gratuitous obscenity. The passage from Caveney’s book tries to express verbally what Edvard Munch attempts to convey visually in his painting The Scream. It is a howl of pain. In groping for words, there is a grasping for those that are sharp and short - with four letters.

We move on to Whelan’s a key criticism of this book. He says:

Rightly, there is a search for some answers. But Arbuckle’s book has too many “answers”. It shows little openness for serious dialogue as distinct from merely gathering quotations and references from multiple sources. In particular, the book does not show what Pope Francis calls a “closeness” to or feel for the human.

Elsewhere, Whelan teases out this quote. He considers that, in this book, ‘the critical field of ecclesiology is missing’ and also that of Spirituality.

Concerning ecclesiology, the book addresses Whelan’s first ‘axiom’: it is an extended ‘listening’ exercise by the Church (and theology) to cultural anthropology (and other human sciences cited) concerning its identity and purpose as a cultural reality and how this field of knowledge illuminates the need for change and conversion. Five chapters lay down the essential foundation for the ‘Action Plans and Strategies’ of the final chapter.

For all that, Whelan still considers that ‘the book fails to engage in substantial dialogue with those fields of knowledge and research that lie beyond the realm of the human sciences’ – which requires comment.

Arbuckle’s is ‘engaging in’ what recent mainstream Catholic theology is actually doing in ecclesiology. There is the original work of Australian Neil Ormerod (the Church understood in the light of the social sciences); Robert Schreiter (theologies of local Churches) and the late Gerard Mannion (ecclesiology and postmodernity) – to give three examples. Such represent emerging approaches within ecclesiology that parallel (and, at times, incorporate) that of Trinitarian theology in relation to the Church.

About Spirituality. Whelan says he could not find the word ‘metanoia’ in the book. But one person’s ‘metanoia’ is another person’s ‘conversion’. Arbuckle describes his task precisely in those terms (and ‘refounding’). At the same time, he expands on Spirituality as a ‘journey into the paschal mystery for mission under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit’ (xxii). He develops these further in Ch. 4 using Leadership and servant model of the Church centred on Jesus Christ as model (from 119-121 onwards). A check of the Index will show 14 subheadings for references to ‘conversion.’ Other aspects in this area are pursued in Ch. 6 at various stages – e.g. intentional faith communities.

Arbuckle clearly states his task at the start: it is a ‘praxis-oriented book’ whose focus is the ‘cultural reasons for’ the Catholic Church’s trauma and ‘how, as People of God, we can and must move forward’ (xvi). Dialogue with, and listening to, the theological and scriptural tradition will, understandably, be guided by what is needed to achieve his aims.

Again, no author can, nor should try to, do everything in a book. There is clearly a place for studies engaging with, or based on, the first-hand experience and ‘unbearable pain’ of survivors, secondary victims and all influenced by sexual abuse.

But there is also a place, as here, for the sort of exercise that requires some ‘distance’ between the subject/topic/survivors in order to achieve a specific task and, as far as possible, avoid the danger of being so exposed to, for instance, trauma, that it influences one’s judgment.

Both approaches aim to assist survivors (and others) at the personal level but also as participants in Christ’s Church which, as a human-divine reality, is subject to the dynamics of culture.

Arbuckle, then, is doing precisely what Whelan articulates in his ‘first axiom’ that we must ‘listen to the information made available to us from the human sciences’. Given that the book is ‘praxis-oriented’, the emphasis is less on mutual interchange but on ‘listening to and learning from.’ If there is a concern that the dialogue is ‘one way’ and not cognisant of Whelan’s second axiom that ‘we must not let those human sciences define the Church and its path to renewal’, then, three thoughts are pertinent.

First, the Church needs all the help it can get in engaging, through personal and cultural conversion, with ‘its most challenging condition since the Reformation’ (xvi - xvi). Second, such human resources enjoy the ‘in-principle’ theological status of the autonomy of the secular unless it is demonstrated (or discerned) that a particular aspect of that realm or science is inimical to, or subversive of, the Church’s mission. Third, such an approach is a healthy corrective to views of the Church as, essentially, a mystical and supra-temporal realm with its own internal and God- given sources of life, self-correction and accountability – an implicit denial of the Incarnation and its implications. Ask the victims in their ‘unbearable pain’ how that view of the Church works for them...

In fairness, Arbuckle’s book and Whelan’s review need to be seen in context. In the past two decades, there has been a growing body of literature and research on the sexual abuse issue, its causes, effects and implications. But it is only in relatively recent times that studies (plus Papal statements and interventions) have started to emerge going beyond the social sciences, statistics or canon and civil law. Theologically informed questions are being asked by leading authors about the underpinnings and responses to the crisis, its accompanying evil and trauma plus associated issues. Concerning the latter, there are, for instance, the recent journal publications of Australian theologian James McEvoy on the Theological Anthropology of Childhood – a somewhat neglected topic. Representative of these developments is a journal with the calibre of Theological Studies. To my knowledge, we had to wait until the September 2019 issue to find a whole section devoted to the sexual abuse crisis and further set of articles in the December issue.

Finally, as intimated earlier in this response, Whelan does have a valid point about ‘closeness’ or ‘feel for the human’ that he considers lacking in this book. To be fair to Arbuckle, at the outset, he offers an extended quote on ‘silenced voices...invisible suffering’ from Prime Minister Scott Morrison in his National Apology in 2018 (xvii). Again, the author recounts a personal incident which prompted in him a sense of identifying with victims/survivors of sexual abuse (Chapter 1, p. 10-11). Nevertheless, throughout the book, he tends to distil the experience of victims and families in various countries into general statements.

The book could, rightly, be strengthened with more ‘feel for the human’ by a regular return to specific experiences as noted above. Again, there is something abrupt about the book’s ending. It needed 2-3 pages of postscript or final comments. This would be a suitable place to pick up the ‘bigger question’ issue and the human aspect centred on personal experience and suffering that are Whelan’s concerns.

Michael Whelan’s review does offer constructive criticisms. However, perhaps it could have been more securely anchored in what Arbuckle actually says in his book and the sources he draws on (not extensively but sufficient for his aims).

Hopefully, these comments, together with Michael Whelan’s review, may help to foster the dialogue that is so much a part of his (and Gerald Arbuckle’s) concerns.