The Catholic tradition offers healing resources for survivors

Though the church has not always been a refuge for survivors, Catholic mystics and theologians offer rich resources for healing from sexual violence.
Peace & Justice
Julia Feder is associate professor of religious studies and theology and the director of the Center for the Study of Spirituality at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.

Considering Jesus’ teachings on care for the vulnerable, as well as his ministry of healing, the church he founded should be a refuge for survivors of sexual violence and abuse. Unfortunately, the opposite has often been true. In addition, some Christian views on suffering further harm and exclude survivors. For people who have experienced trauma and abuse, the belief that God wills violence to inculcate holiness or punish wrongdoing is deeply damaging.

Despite these failures in pastoral care, the Christian tradition does have rich theological and spiritual resources that can help survivors of sexual trauma and abuse. In her new book Incarnating Grace: A Theology of Healing from Sexual Trauma (Fordham University Press), theologian Julia Feder delves into these resources. Drawing on the mystical revelations of St. Teresa of Ávila, as well as other spiritual and theological traditions, Feder articulates a theology of healing that offers real hope for survivors of sexual violence.

Feder critiques the popular but problematic ways many Christians discuss suffering, acknowledging that violence is wholly evil, never part of God’s design for anyone. “God is not disclosed in the crosses of our experience, but rather beside our crosses as an indignant witness,” she writes. She makes a powerful argument that, in place of theologies that try to justify senseless suffering, people of faith should instead build on those traditions that emphasize God’s work of healing and wholeness—not just for the individual, but for the whole community.

Can you share some data on how widespread sexual violence is in our society and in the church?

When I started this project, it was generally thought that 1 in 4 women, over the course of their lives, experience sexual violence involving some kind of physical contact. By the time I finished writing the first draft, it was recognized that up to 1 in 3 women experience sexual violence. Now it’s known that more than half of all women and 1 in 3 men experience sexual violence involving physical contact over the course of their lifetime.


There is also stalking or online harrassment. These experiences don’t involve physical contact, so they wouldn’t even be included in the above statistics. So yes, sexual violence is quite common in our society. We don’t have any data to suggest that it’s different in the church.

Which demographics are especially at risk for sexual violence and sexual trauma?

People who are vulnerable in society tend to be more vulnerable to sexual violence because perpetrators often target them. People of color, undocumented people, and children are more at risk for sexual violence.

Not everybody who experiences sexual violence necessarily develops a traumatic response, however. Those most at risk of developing a traumatic response are people who experience that violence at a young age or who have other stresses in their lives such as depression, poverty, or unstable housing. Such factors contribute to a sense of precarity and increase the risk of developing trauma.

How does trauma affect the broader community?

When an individual suffers from traumatic violence, their life is significantly disrupted and their vision of the world can be fundamentally shaken. That tends to affect people for long periods of time—sometimes their whole lives. So, everybody who encounters that person will be affected. The effects of violence and trauma ripple out across different people.


These effects are not confined only to those who interact with the original survivor, either. When somebody breaks the spoken and unspoken rules of how we should care for one another in our communities, that damages communal trust. People may question whether they can trust others, whether they can have faith in our institutions, whether they can trust their own bodies.

In addition, in places such as the United States where sexual violence is common, it can become part of the fabric of everyday life. That’s what some feminists have referred to as “rape culture.” And that’s what we have in spaces where there is a trend of normalizing or even encouraging sexual violence as a healthy form of sexuality, desire, power, or success.

What does healing look like on the communal level?

Our response to the pervasive wounds of sexual violence must involve social and political transformation in all areas of human life. This means legislative action, media advocacy, and ecclesial reform. We need better methods of preventing sexual violence in our families, schools, and churches. And when sexual violence does occur, we need better forms of accountability. 

What are some common Christian ideas about suffering that can be damaging for survivors?

There are two ways of thinking about suffering that are damaging for survivors, and they are related to each other. One is the concept of suffering as a divine correction that happens because someone did something wrong. Sexual violence occurs based on who perpetrators can access and what they can get away with. It has nothing to do with what the survivor did or didn’t do, and certainly nothing to do with what they deserve. When it comes to sexual violence, the idea that suffering happens because we did something wrong suggests a God who is in the business of doling out punishment, who uses evil to enact justice.


The second view of suffering that’s damaging to survivors is the idea that God gives people suffering because God loves them and wants to make them holier. This is simply untrue. Sexual violence doesn’t make us better. It doesn’t make us holier. It doesn’t bring us closer to God, to our true selves, or the people we are called to love. This idea presupposes an inaccurate view of God. The Christian tradition teaches that God is absolutely good, so God doesn’t use evil to accomplish God’s aims.

How do sexual violence and trauma affect a survivor’s religious experience?

It can be challenging to talk about this in an abstract way because sexual violence and trauma affect people differently. But we can talk about common tendencies. When we experience violence, it damages our capacity to connect with ourselves, with God, and with others. These modes of connection are at the heart of religious experience and our relationship to God, so sexual violence causes spiritual wounding as well as physical and psychological wounding.

However, someone who has survived sexual violence is never beyond the reach of healing. Part of why I wanted to write this book was to talk about the ways God always desires our healing. That is what God’s salvation means for us: God’s desire for our wholeness and God’s process of bringing that wholeness about.

You write that healing from sexual trauma is a “mystical-political practice.” What does this mean?

Healing from sexual trauma is a practice because it’s enacted over a long period of time. It’s not something that happens quickly; it can take a lifetime or more to be complete. And healing is a mystical practice, because sexual violence affects every part of our being, including the spiritual part. So part of healing involves repairing our relationship with God.


In the Christian tradition, we often use the language of mysticism to describe union with God. But authentic Christian mysticism is not an escapist flight from this world and its wounds. So healing is a political practice too, because it involves repairing the social, political, and institutional bonds that have been damaged. Part of healing from sexual trauma involves transforming the rape cultures that enable sexual violence. And this brings me back to the first point: This healing may span more than just one lifetime.

You write that post-traumatic healing requires deeper reserves than secular psychology can articulate and a theological approach. Why is this?

Because traumatic damage creates woundedness on all levels of our being, we need healing on all levels of our being, including the spiritual. And because healing from sexual violence is not always completed in a single lifetime, it requires a kind of courage for enduring things that are lengthy and difficult. A person must be able to hold on and have hope, even if they don’t see evidence that progress is happening. To talk about the full dynamic of healing, we need a theological approach. We need to be able to talk about courage and eschatological hope.


What is “eschatological hope”?

Hope is the habit of reaching toward a future good, particularly when that good is difficult to obtain. Hope is not merely a good feeling or optimism. It is a well-grounded expectation that something difficult is indeed possible. Christians believe that God can give us the gift of eschatological hope, which is the expectation that God’s creative work will be completed one day, making us whole and healed. We believe that we have already experienced God’s creative, saving action in our lives, but this work is not complete. When we have eschatological hope, we reach for and work toward a future in which all will be healed from the wounds of sexual violence. 

Is this approach to healing available for everyone, even if they’re not practicing a religious faith?

I believe that God’s gifts of healing are given to all people, because God loves everyone God has created. There are certainly equivalent gifts in other religious traditions and other spiritual approaches that I’m not able to describe, because I’m not an expert in those traditions. But certain resources unique to the Christian tradition are great gifts for survivors.


The language of eschatological hope is one of these gifts, since it helps us talk about how healing, though it outpaces that which we can do on our own, is still possible. The idea that we are created in the image of God is another gift from the Christian tradition, though it has its roots in the Hebrew Bible. Teresa of Ávila talks about God being our friend, and this is also a gift. These resources from the Christian tradition enable us to consider healing in a distinctive way.

You say that trauma, though entirely negative, can still function as a “site of revelation.” What does this mean?

God never wants sexual violence for us. It is never a gift from God to make us better people, to “teach us a lesson,” or to save us from “something worse.” Sexual violence is evil, full stop. However, when we experience suffering, we often experience an implicit “no” rising within us—a feeling of dis-ease, a feeling that life shouldn’t be like this. That feeling of protest can reveal what God does want for us: God wants our wholeness. God wants us to experience respect and care in relationships. God wants our safety.  

What do you hope that readers will take away from your book?

I hope that readers can receive the assurance that God never wants human beings to suffer. God wants our healing—for our bodies, spirits, communities, and institutions. I want readers to come away with the idea that Christian salvation is both incarnational and eschatological. It is incarnational in that it has everything to do with bodies: It is enfleshed and human and conditioned by history and circumstance. But it is also, by virtue of God’s full embrace of human life in Jesus Christ, infused with the Spirit. And our salvation is eschatological because it is still partial and incomplete and requires future transformation. Our experiences of evil and suffering are not the final word. 

This article also appears in the January 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 1, pages 26-29). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.