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Liturgy in the Shadow of Trauma

Much of the work surrounding the crisis of sexual abuse in the Catholic church has focused on how the abuse remained simultaneously widespread while being kept private, but not how the effects of the abuse impact the liturgy itself.  Paying particular attention to PTSD, moral injury, and moral distress, this project examines how systemic clergy perpetuated sexual abuse (CPSA) has damaged liturgical efficacy for both abuse survivors and Roman Catholic laity.


Focusing on PSTD, moral injury, and moral distress frames the issue in a way that illuminates the church’s ongoing role in preventing the healing of survivors and limiting the potential for grace in the sacraments. 


In light of the exploration, we suggest that in order for widespread healing we must move towards a relational ontology that realigns with the survivors and reject language and practices that blame survivors for their discomfort in the church, instead affirming the dignity in the options to seek grace and relationship with God outside of the Roman Catholic tradition.    

Selected Bibliography

Barlem, E.L.D.; Ramos, F.R.S. Constructing a Theoretical Model of Moral Distress. Nursing Ethics 2015, 22, doi:10.1177/0969733014551595.


In this essay, “Constructing a Theoretical Model of Moral Distress”, Barlem and Ramos present an insight into moral distress, where it came from and how we can best apply it to our society. They approach this goal by broadening the definition of moral distress and creating a theoretical model for moral distress. Barlem and Ramos focus on moral distress being “the feeling of powerlessness experienced during power games in the micro-spaces of action…” and from this definition continue to describe the impacts moral distress continually has on everyone over the period of their life.


Beste, J. Receiving and Responding to God's Grace: A Re-Examination in Light of Trauma Theory. Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 2003, 23, 3–20,


In this article, Beste relies on the testimony of incest survivors to examine the impact that trauma has on a person’s ability to receive and respond to God’s grace. The article argues that grace is mediated through interpersonal relationships. If trauma negatively influences a person’s relationships, it will also inhibit a person’s relationship to experience God’s grace. Therefore, theological considerations of grace should consider the role of trauma.


Bonanno, G. A.; Mancini A.D. “Beyond Resilience and PTSD: Mapping the Heterogeneity of Responses to Potential Trauma.” Psychological Trauma 2012, 4.


In this essay, “Beyond Resilience and PTSD: Mapping the Heterogeneity of Responses to Potential Trauma”, Bonanno, a professor specializing in PTSD at Teachers college, focuses on redefining PTSD and the continual trauma that follows. Bonanno approaches PTSD through the lense wider than commonly understood and works to develop a definition that encompasses all experiences of PTSD either immediate or arising over time. He also focuses on the relationship between a traumatic event and other experiences that cause continual PTSD over the span of someone's life.  

The Catholic Project. Crisis: Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church. Podcast audio. September 9, 2020. Crisis: Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church Podcast

Crisis: Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church details the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal examining the legal implications, organizational coverup, and ongoing abuse dating from the mid twentieth century to the current day. Crisis includes statements and interviews from attorneys, Church officials, and journalists to illustrate the lineage of the crisis and ongoing struggle to find justice for the survivors of CPSA. The podcast examines statements, meetings, and reports from the uppermost rungs of the Catholic Church, the legal cases made for and against the Church by legal attorneys, and the psychologists who worked to understand the ability, or lack thereof, to reform pedophilic Priests.


Hodgson T.J.; Carey L.B. Moral Injury and Definitional Clarity: Betrayal, Spirituality and the Role of Chaplains. Journal of Religion and Health 2017, 56, 1211-1228.


In this essay, “Moral Injury and Definitional Clarity: Betrayal, Spirituality and the Role of Chaplains”, Hodgson, who studies moral injury at the University of Queensland and who has served as a military chaplain overseas for over 10 years, discusses the connection of moral injury and trauma within religious leadership. Hodgson makes the connection of betrayal and spirituality and how imperative these two concepts are when it comes to moral injury. He also takes the time to emphasize the inherent role that chaplains have within healing and leadership but also the harm that power and control has. He calls for more attention of Chaplains to the trauma that exists within the people they lead and the role they have of being directly involved in the rehabilitation of those with trauma, like moral injury.

McCarthy, Tom, director. Spotlight. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2015.

Spotlight, a 2015 award winning docu-drama tells the story of the Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Price winning journalistic investigation into the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Boston Catholic diosese. Starring Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, the film details the difficulty in publishing an investigation that cast the Catholic Church in a negative light, the years of silenced clergy sexual abuse that were uncovered by the Globe’s journalists and the attorneys employed by the Catholic Church who quietly granting settlements to the victims of CPSA in order to keep the scandal from the public’s eye.

Scarsella, H.J. Victimization via Ritualization: Christian Communion and Sexual Abuse. In Trauma and Lived Religion: Transcending the Ordinary; Ganzevoort, R.; Sremac, S., Eds.; Springer International: Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Mamillan, 2019, pp. 230, ISBN 978-33-1991-871-6.


In this article, Scarsella argues that aspects of the liturgy cultivate dispositions that make the worshippers more susceptible to sexual abuse. Specifically, communion-confession, kenotic soteriology, and reception of communion all ritualize a form of self-negation that hinders a person’s ability to resist sexual abuse. Therefore, it is insufficient to focus one’s criticism on traumatic events and perpetrators of sexual assault. One must also criticize the religious language and ritual that serve as barriers to help-seeking.

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