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“If one member suffers, all suffer together.” Thus writes St. Paul to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 12:26). What does this mean when a thousand members have suf­fered in ways unimag­inable to me? The recent Penn­syl­vania grand jury report has again unmasked clerical sexual abuse of minors, failed attempts to treat priests with therapy without involving the police, eccle­si­as­tical incom­pe­tence, and — most egre­gious — duplic­itous cover-ups by bishops who acted with greater care for the Church’s public image than for the safety of her members, shep­herding with greater concern their own careers than the flocks com­mitted to their charge. Moved quietly from parish to parish, many predators con­tinued to abuse others; in a few cases, they grotesquely com­bined this abuse with rit­u­al­istic par­odies of the Church’s worship and sacra­ments. One arch­bishop even preyed upon young men who them­selves were preparing for the priesthood. Some even accuse the Pope of knowing but of having done nothing. Can I take the measure of all this suf­fering? What am I and my fellow Catholics to do now?

Before all else we must grieve for the victims, must seek to under­stand in some degree their pain, which cannot fully be known by any, except those who suffer it. Yet, that it escapes our expe­rience does not absolve us. We must not shield our­selves from the details of their suf­fering. We would be inhuman, we would reca­pit­ulate in a little way the sins of their abusers and their failed pro­tectors if we allowed any­thing to dis­place our first concern, for the victims. Christ Himself healed by taking on human infir­mities (Mt. 8:16 – 17), made our suf­ferings His own, saying “whatever you do to the least of these … you have done to me” (Mt. 25:40, 45). And we must likewise be com­pas­sionate, for “by this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and [so if anyone] .… sees his brother in need, yet closes his com­passion against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 Jn. 3:16 – 17).

I did not commit these sins, but as a member of Christ’s Body, I am united mys­te­ri­ously to those victims by the life of the Holy Spirit. I did not commit these sins, but I must share in their suf­fering. Com­passion, Gregory the Great tells us, is what it feels like for a human being to live from the com­plete gift that is the triune life of God, com­mu­ni­cated to us in Baptism. It is nec­essary; it is not impos­sible, for “it is God at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).

Second, com­passion renders all the more plain how gravely the actions and inac­tions of these priests and bishops mock and con­tradict every­thing that the Church stands for — every­thing to which they have pledged their lives. Their acts stand con­demned like those of the hyp­ocrites whom Christ called “white-washed sep­ul­chers,” beau­teous without but “with dead men’s bones inside” (Mt. 23:27). Because humans can turn away from God even as He infuses them with new life, the Church’s members can also fall. Judas betrayed the Lord. Peter denied Him and fled. The first gen­er­ation after the Apostles was no better. But the Lord’s warnings are not for­gotten even when they are unheeded by many. Sins must come and the Church knows scandal well. Thus the thir­teenth-century bishop of Paris, William of Auvergne, spoke fiercely against those among his fellows whose lead­ership made the Church of his time seem “more like Pharaoh’s chariot than God’s! It hurtles down into the abyss of wealth and sen­su­ality, even into sin.… Is there anyone who would not regard this dreadful per­version as Babylon rather than the Church of Christ?” It is under­standable that some might “call the Church ‘whore’ and ‘Babylon’ because of the appalling scandal of [her being] overrun by the degen­erate and carnal” such that her “other members are hidden and cannot be seen.”

Third, it is indeed fitting to ask: Have today’s mon­strous evils finally dis­credited the Catholic Church as a corrupt insti­tution? Is it time to leave the Church? A Catholic may wish to protest: When rabbis in New York or Evan­gelical Christian pastors were accused of sexual abuse, nobody really claimed that their reli­gions were dis­credited. No number of con­victed public school-teachers has led to the aban­donment of public edu­cation. And yet, unlike these others, the Catholic Church does not see itself (and is not seen) as simply a group of believers prac­ticing a par­ticular ideal. Rather, the Catholic Church is a trans-national insti­tution that claims to be the visible earthly form of that com­munity, spanning heaven and earth, which is Christ’s “spotless bride,” united to His life as closely as the members are united to a body. It is fair then to ask: Can this claim remain plau­sible? Or is it time to leave?

Much as we may wish it oth­erwise, the Church’s credit was never founded on the exem­plary conduct of its members. The Church claims to be “holy” in that through her comes the life of the Holy Spirit, sanc­ti­fying the Church’s members in prayer, in love, and in the sacra­ments. In fifth century North Africa, fol­lowers of a certain bishop Donatus claimed that sinful bishops could not baptize Chris­tians into this life, since these bishops lacked the very spir­itual life that Baptism com­mu­ni­cates. St. Augustine of Hippo replied that the sacra­ments do not mediate the bishops who cel­e­brate them, but Christ. The Church is not called holy because its members are holy; rather, the Church’s members can be holy because Christ is active in the Church. And sinful min­isters cannot stop Christ.

This makes bishops’ sins all the more offensive, but it also means that Catholics ought to cling now more than ever to the sacra­ments, to prayer, and yes, to the holiness of the Church. On Aug. 15, the day after the grand jury report was released, Catholics cel­e­brated the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, com­mem­o­rating the belief that Christ, in con­se­quence of His victory over death, took His own mother, body and soul, into heaven, antic­i­pating the general res­ur­rection of the dead at the end of time. A dear friend of mine was at Mass on that day, despondent. And yet, he told me, here is this beau­tiful cel­e­bration, the full glory of Christ’s love and gen­erosity exhibited for one of us, His own mother. Despite the cor­ruption of the Church’s min­isters, this has been passed down, this beau­tiful truth. It is still here. Sinning car­dinals and predatory priests, he told himself, “cannot ruin this objec­tively. And you’re not going to ruin it for me.”

We must stare evil in the face and call it what it is. But like the leg­endary dragons of old, evil wishes to hold our gaze until it per­suades us that it is reality, that evil is the essence of these things. But it is not. It is a cor­ruption. And even in great suf­fering, it is in light of the beau­tiful things that evil cor­ruption can be known and con­demned. Old sins were covered up. Great injus­tices, sac­ri­leges, and harms were hidden. Much was taken away from the tor­tured and ignored victims of these sins. But can this destroy the beau­tiful real­ities of the Church? No. They were not made by our virtues and they will not be destroyed by our vices.

And so we are still here. We are still in the Church. Catholics must together take respon­si­bility for fighting — by prayer, by holiness, by protest, and by action — to facil­itate purging and reform where it must take place. We must look to our own holiness, our own repen­tance. Yes, we too by our love and com­passion must share in the burden of victims’ pain and in the penance that their vic­tim­izers ought to take on. We cannot repent in place of them; our suf­fering cannot take away the suf­fering of victims. But we can share these burdens in love, living in small measure the life lived by Christ. This is the life that He gives the Church. This is the beauty of the saints. The Lord fol­lowed Israel into exile. His love will not abandon the Church even now. For this is the love that made her.

Jordan Wales is a pro­fessor of The­ology at Hillsdale College. 

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Great article. Several of my friends who are Roman Catholics are taking the lead by forming laymen’s groups that meet, pray and attempt to promote change within the Catholic Church. One of them noted to me that he was very aware of the per­ceived lack of lead­ership by laity in the Catholic Church and that more than a few of them were trying to change that. There is no question that Reforms are needed and Catholics are looking for more from the Pope than simply acknowl­edgement of the trans­gres­sions. It might be time to reevaluate Priest mar­riage so that more men who want to pursue that avo­cation but also want a family life are attracted. As an Orthodox Christian I note nearly all our Priests are married.

    • bharper8

      Celibacy is not the problem; sin is. The need is not for accom­mo­dation, but for holiness.

      • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

        Celibacy is the problem in that it limits can­di­dates for Priests who may not have the most wholesome values, IMO. My Catholic friends admit to that in their Church and I see it in mine at the level of our ordained Lead­ership. Why deny the obvious, you are only being disin­genuous with yourself?

  • Protes­tants have left Protes­tantism for a lot less than the current scandal Rome faces. That’s a kind of dis­cred­iting.