For some years now the Catholic Church has been in the news for what is called the “sex abuse scandal.” And it truly is a scandal. That is probably not a strong enough word for it. There is something profoundly wicked at the heart of if all, and to try and downplay the mess is not what a Christian is called to do. This is not to say that those who find some kind of enjoyment in playing the role of accuser are free from hypocrisy, but the finger pointing is all too often warranted. Because of this scandal many have left the Church. In other words they have been “scandalized” and I don’t blame them. For some this was merely the last straw, for others it’s just too big to “get past”. And yet, in the midst of this recent history I came into the Church.
How can I, a father of three children, a man desiring to conform his life to Christ, allow myself to enter an organization with such a scandal hanging over its head? A friend of mine said the biggest issue for him not entering the Catholic Church (though certainly only one of many issues) is the sex abuse scandal. You shall know them by their fruits he told me, and frankly, that makes a lot of sense. So what does one do? Most would say the answer is easy: don’t enter the Church, leave the Church if one is in it, and call a spade a spade for Christ’s sake.
There are a lot of angles from which one can approach this scandal. A lot of ink, virtual and real, has been spilled addressing this story. And the stories are heartbreaking and deeply upsetting. Some serious reporters have, and continue, to present the big picture — that only a very small percentage of priests were involved, most abuses occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s, that most of the victims were old enough that most the abuses don’t qualify as pedophilia (though this does not excuse anyone from being an abuser), and that a lot of work has been done by the Church in recent years to deal with the problem, etc. etc. That’s all true, and worth understanding. The truth is important. As Christians we must be willing to call a spade a spade. Others have pointed out that a pervasive and, perhaps not surprising, seething anti-Catholic prejudice underlies much of popular reporting on this issue, thus fomenting the continued and publicly accepted hatred against the Church by promoting prejudice, obscuring facts, and substantiating what people are convinced the already know to be true or just want to believe. Which is to say a lot of the rhetoric on this issue has not served the truth, and thus has not truly served anyone, including the victims, as it should. Still, to the degree that we have them, facts are facts, and there are many real and troubling facts of abuse. Trying to downplay the problem is both wrong and only adds to the hurt, and to the general foolishness exhibited by some, including a few defenders of the Church.
So as a Christian I want and must know the truth, and thus I cannot dismiss the simple fact that grave sin has been committed in the Church, has gone directly against both Church teaching and the gospel, and that some bishops (those especially called to carry forward the teaching and example of the apostles) covered up the sin and made decisions to allow the abuse to continue unabated, thus creating even more victims. I cannot deny that people were abused and hurt by representatives of the Church, and that some of the victims were young children. And though I must be clear about the true scope, which was rather small in a Church of over one billion (including over 400,000 priests), and the total response by the Church which has been unprecedented and documented as so, I cannot turn a blind eye. Sin is sin, and what do I do with a Church that claims to follow Christ, to be His body on earth, and yet is filled with so much sin? What could I say to the Church’s detractors, to those who hate the Church, to friends and family who can’t understand my choice (happily, joyfully) to become Catholic?
There is no one thing, one argument, one piece of evidence that solves the issue for me. There is also no excuse for sin, only repentance and, ultimately, mercy. However, several intersecting, interweaving lines of thought have played their parts in helping me come to terms with the Catholic Church that is Christ’s body, carrying forward, however imperfectly, the tradition of the Apostles. There have been scandals before, bad popes and crusades, support of wicked governments, and lots and lots of sinners doing evil while claiming fidelity to Christ and his Church. But there are still good and excellent reasons to believe the Catholic Church is the church established by Christ and sustained by the Holy Spirit. I have written about those reasons in other posts. Here I want to explore if there is something even more fundamental.
Along side those good and excellent reasons, I begin with myself. I cannot judge hearts, only actions. But if my sense is right, and if I could judge hearts, and then if my intention was to separate myself from wickedly evil people, those who harbor dark thoughts, self-righteousness, perverse desires, anger, double-standard judgments, and shameless hypocrisy, then I would have to separate myself from you. And if I had any integrity, I would also protect you by keeping myself from you and everyone else. Because, you see, all have sinned. We are all wicked. I am wicked. So my first thought is to try as I might and move forward with great humility, which can really only come from God. So I seek mercy. Perhaps it applies here as well to repeat the words of Christ: he who is without sin cast the first stone. I don’t want to play the game that seeks to rank how good I am against others. I don’t want to say, “Thank you God I am not like that priest, a sinner.” God help me if I do.
If the Church is truly the body of Christ, then the presence of sinners should not keep me from being there. I can weep, repent, pray, encourage righteousness, call myself and others to holiness, love all as best I can, but I should not leave the body of Christ. If I do, then I am lost, regardless of the terrible things others have and are doing in the name of Christ. I think of the Israelites who were often faced with this dilemma. Does one remain a child of God, one of the chosen, or leave because of sin? Does one look around, see all the sin, and say one is no longer willing to be a child of God? God sent punishments many times on His children, but He never abandoned them, and they remained His children. If the Church today is, in any significant way, an extension of those original covenants, the “new Israel”, grafted in, the people of God, then one does not leave. To leave is to turn one’s back on God. And boy can we ever do that in our self-righteousness, thinking we are with God when we are, in fact, rejecting Him. Division in the Church is the first sign of self-righteousness. The question, naturally, is whether or not the Catholic Church is the Church. As I said, there are many good and excellent reasons to think so, but of course one might think not because of the sins within her.
So then what does one do with the sin? First of all, “The Church is not a hotel for saints, it is a hospital for sinners,” said George Craig Stewart, former bishop of Chicago. It is a terrible trap to think one has to be free of sin in order to be in the Church. It is worse to say one is “in” and therefore that’s evidence one must be a pretty good person – for only good people are in the Church. That kind of circular reasoning could get one into Hell. Come to the Church because you are a sinner, because that’s exactly where you need to be. And more than that, don’t then kick others out because they are sinners, because that will get you eternal condemnation. This is not denying the grave importance of excommunication, but it is not up to the vast majority of us to make that determination – though making that determination in our hearts is one of our most popular pastimes. Second, consider this idea from someone far wiser than you and I put together, G. K. Chesterton. He said, “The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” We need the Church precisely because we are sinners. That we sin shows us the Church has been right all along. Those priests and bishops who have forsaken Christ need to be called back to Him. Their actions speak volumes of what the Church has been proclaiming since the beginning, that we are all sinners who need to repent. Have we been actively praying for those priests? Or have we only condemned? Do we love our enemies? If not, perhaps it is we who are the pretenders.
But what about this “fruit” we so desperately want to see as the irrefutable evidence of the true Church? A couple things first. Notice that verse about fruit (Matthew 7:16) is specifically in reference to false prophets. Certainly there has to be some overlap with all Christians, and with the Church, but false prophets are what’s called out here. Second, read the entire chapter of Matthew 7. This is a frightening chapter for any of us who are looking at other Christians and judging them based on our perceptions of their fruits. We are to be wise, and we must make good judgments, but let us not send ourselves to Hell because we see evil in others and not in ourselves. If I am to condemn others because they show a lack of fruit, am I conversely truly fruitful? Now what about this fruit? Everything that is good and beautiful about the Catholic Church (and it would take many days or months to list them all) is from God. It is a church overflowing with beautiful fruit, with abundant good works, with piety and service, truth and goodness, and it preaches the gospel to the world. The Church was established by Christ and is maintained by the Holy Spirit. What is good is from God. All that is despicable and deplorable in the Church is because the Church is made up of a bunch of sinners, and in its midst there are both wheat and tares, sheep and goats. God help us!
Remember the Church is made up of all those that are within it, not merely a select few, not only the priests and bishops, or only the Vatican and the Pope, but all who are baptized into the body of Christ. The Church is not a club that is looking for members based on a list of selling points. It is not like a restaurant trying to entice with its own unique menu of options. Nor is it a the administrative structure, its hierarchy, that we merely compare with other choices. Protestants “church shop” but Catholics enter in. One enters into the Body of Christ through baptism, just as the Apostles did and preached in the New Testament. One joins with other sinners in the journey of faith, a journey often marred by great failings and even horrible sins. For me to say I cannot be a Catholic because of the sex abuse scandal is to stand with the Pharisee and thank God I am not like those Catholics. To enter the Church is to say forgive me God, a sinner; it is to come to the Eucharist and humbly proclaim I am only saved by God’s grace.
None of this excuses sin. None of this should be seen as bypassing the evil done by some who represent Christ to others. We should seek justice, but we also must not seek vengeance, for that belongs to God alone. Seek to love, seek to forgive, seek to set things right, seek to call the unrighteous to repentance and be subject to the law, and especially seek to come along side the suffering and the hurting, but let God do the damning.
So, can I be in a Church that has a few profoundly immoral priests within it? Can I remain if the Church hierarchy moves too slow to address abuse? I can only imagine the suffering of those who were abused. I don’t have any answer for them. I don’t want to be like Job’s friends. I would rather admit I am more ignorant than I probably even know, than try to say something “meaningful” that’s really insensitive and hurtful. And maybe I’ve been hurtful and don’t realize it. All I can say is that, like Peter to Christ, where else am I to go? The Church is the body of Christ. The Eucharist is the real presence. Like the woman washing Christ’s feet with her tears, that’s where I want to be, with Him, at His feet. I have no where else to go. This is His Church, a church of sinners.