“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.