(In Part 1 of this series on the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, I laid a foundation to promote understanding of the phenomena of sexual abuse and why it is often covered up, both inside and outside of the Church. Much of this information was drawn from my background as a psychologist. Here, in Part 2, I plunge more deeply into the faith aspects that have led me to remain a Catholic Christian despite the scandal.)
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69)
As I have been contemplating how to explain my remaining in the Catholic Church, these are the words that keep appearing and reappearing in my mind.
I think this means that this is where I am supposed to begin.
These words, of course, were uttered by Simon Peter when Jesus saw that many of His followers were leaving Him because they could not accept His teachings.
The circumstances of Peter’s proclamation are very different from my own. Jesus had just delivered what we now refer to as “The Bread of Life discourse”.
Those of us who are at all familiar with the New Testament know this discourse well – so well, in fact, that we can easily forget how very scandalous it was.
Yes, scandalous. There, in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus told His followers that, in order to have eternal life with Him, they must eat Him, flesh and blood. The Gospel tells us that the word He used for “eat” meant quite literally to “gnaw” or “munch on”.
It is not surprising that a good many people were shocked and decided that this was just a bit too much. It might have flown had He presented it as something symbolic, e.g. “I will give you living bread, even better the manna your fathers ate in the desert, because you will know that I am with you when you eat it.”
The only problem is that He didn’t say this. What He said sounded very much like cannibalism. It was, indeed, scandalous and many of His disciples left Him as a result.
But Peter stayed. Even though it must have sounded just as odd to his ears, he had come to believe that Jesus was the Anointed One of God, the Messiah. To whom else could he go?
I realize that this Scriptural reflection may seem like a digression from the topic at hand.
The scandal I am dealing with today is about the sexual abuse of children and the cover up by clerics, not merely a difficult teaching given by Jesus.
But if I stop and consider this a bit more, it becomes apparent to me that this is about a difficult teaching of our Savior and whether I will continue to follow Him despite the seeming impossibility of what He asks of me.
May God guide me and grant me the words to explain.
The Catholic Church, as a human ecclesiastical institution, is made up of many, many sinners. In fact, every member of the Church is a sinner, including me. Undoubtedly, some of us are grievous sinners.
The message of the Gospel is for sinners, telling us that we are welcome, that we are forgiven, that salvation is ours – not because of any accomplishments of our own, but by God’s gracious mercy.
The Gospel also tells us that God wants none of us to be lost. He wants every human person He has fashioned to enter into the fullness of His healing, His mercy, His love – without exception.
When we hear this message for ourselves, we are much consoled. Whatever evils I am struggling with pale before this message. I may not feel like I am winning the battle but I know that God has not and will not ever forsake me despite my weakness.
This teaching becomes infinitely more difficult to my human ears, however, when the divine message is clarified: I am to offer everyone else, no matter what the state of their soul, the same mercy that I have received.
My instructions are to want for all others what I want for myself, to love them as I love myself.
Rather than raging at the sinners I see around me, I am to pray for them with heartfelt love, genuinely hoping that they emerge victorious in their battles, with Christ at their side.
Jesus did not make any exceptions in this teaching. He did not name a single individual, class of people or type of sinner that we need not love, forgive and pray for.
Not only that, but He demonstrated this in His own human life. He extended love and healing and mercy to some of the most feared and despised sinners of His time. He loved and embraced prostitutes, hypocritical Pharisees, Roman centurions, tax collectors and those possessed by demons.
He fearlessly touched the ritually unclean and made them clean. No longer was the leper to be cast out – he was to be freed of his leprosy.
Those severely possessed by evil no longer needed to live apart, for He cast the evil out of them. Christ saw who the person truly was and cast out the evil spirit that controlled them.
This is the Gospel. It seems impossible – perhaps even wrong to our human sensibilities. Surely Jesus did not intend this message for the likes of Stalin and Hitler. He could not have meant it for those who rape and molest children. He cannot have intended it to apply to His own priests who betrayed the Church He called them to lead.
And yet there was a betrayer among His closest followers – actually, more than one. Of course, Judas Iscariot betrayed Him. But so did Peter, the Rock, the one on whom the Lord promised to build His Church.
Peter, whom we just encountered proclaiming his faith in John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ arrest, denied even knowing Him – three times. But, unlike Judas, he returned to the Lord in humility.
And Jesus not only forgave him but again entrusted the Church to him, despite this terrible sin.
This is the Gospel and I must follow it. Despite my many sins and weaknesses, it rests in my heart as the Truth, the most fundamental Truth of my being.
I may not live it perfectly, but it is the only way I know to live.
I realize that there is a risk in writing so boldly of the mercy of our Savior. I risk giving the impression that I think that the child-molesting priests, having confessed and received absolution, should be free to carry on their priesthood.
Or that the members of the hierarchy who covered up for them, who sent them back to serve families and children with full knowledge of their deeds, should be given a slap on the wrist – or perhaps even praise for being “merciful” to the erring priests.
“What about mercy for the victims? Don’t you care about them? They were innocent children!”
I hear the raging accusations echo in my mind.
Be still, my accusers.
This is not my message and certainly it is not the message of the Gospel.
When any of us sins, mercy is immediately available to us for the asking. Of course, we must ask with a contrite and humble heart, but forgiveness is not withheld to one who genuinely seeks it.
However, it does not end there. It is not that God’s forgiveness of us is incomplete. Rather, our sins have consequences and we still have work to do as part of our repentance.
Any sin, large or small, damages our souls and causes harm to the human community, even if it never reaches the public eye. I may not know what damage I have caused but it is there. I have added something to the evil that grips our world.
Doing the work of repentance is much more than saying a few prayers after my confession.
Indeed I must pray. I am not paying a price with a list of prayers but crying out to God with all my soul to be with me, to transform me, to grant me a new heart.
Not only must I pray, but I need to make amends to those I have harmed. Even if I do not see a victim before me, I must perform good works to help heal the community I have damaged with my sin.
And if my sin has harmed another grievously, I may need to devote the rest of my life to repentance, to forfeit my own wishes and will, to submit to confinement rather than risk repeating such a sin.
This, of course, assumes that I have the emotional and spiritual maturity to acknowledge the gravity of my sin and to repent deeply and genuinely.
With certain especially egregious sins or spiritual diseases, such as pedophilia, we can be reasonably certain that this maturity is absent.
When Jesus encountered the demoniac, He did not ask the man if he wanted to be freed, if he was sorry for his actions under the influence of evil. He knew the man was possessed and He took control, casting the evil out of him.
Similarly, when encountering those who are unable or unwilling to fully repent, Church leaders and civil authorities have to take control. They have a duty to protect the community by confining those dominated by evil, while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to turn to Christ and be restored to emotional and spiritual sanity.
This, of course, was the rationale behind the early penitentiaries. It is clear that we still need such places, absent the drugs and crime that have infested our modern prisons. Mercy demands the confinement of those who cannot be trusted to control themselves.
Like those who murder, those who sexually violate children need this confinement. And the Church, recognizing this, must not stand in the way of this consequence for such grievous sins. In addition to the obvious harm to more potential victims, neither the Church nor the offending priest benefit from denial or cover-ups.
If we know a brother or sister’s soul is in great peril, mercy demands that we confront them with this knowledge. We must not abandon our modern “demoniacs” to their diseases/sin, imagining that we are doing them a favor by remaining silent.
Nor must we abandon them once confined, as though our duty is now over. As followers of the Savior, we pray for the healing of both victim and offender and we minister to them and their families in their time of need.
All are God’s children – and it is His will that none of them be lost.
I have written many words and it may seem as though I still have not answered my own question: why do I remain in the Catholic Church when it is evident that, at least in this one area (and likely many more), it has failed to live out the Gospel message as I myself have just described it?
I now return to the words of Peter:
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69)
I must follow Him, the Savior, the Holy One of God.
I can imagine what many may be thinking. “But you don’t have to remain a Catholic to do that. Join a different Christian church, become a Protestant or join the Orthodox Church. Or are you one of those Catholics who thinks only your Church is the right one, even when it is so obviously wrong?”
This is a very fair question – but I could not begin my discussion there.
With regard to Peter’s question, “to whom shall we go?”, many responses could be given – and, in fact, many different paths have been taken by others who once called themselves Catholic. Here are a few:
- I could become a Christian who believes but doesn’t go to Church. I can read the Bible and pray on my own.
- I might follow Buddhist teachings or practice yoga. Healthy stuff without all of the dogmatic baggage.
- I could investigate the various Protestant denominations, trying out churches where I know good people and see which one suits me best.
- I could become an Orthodox Christian. Those who have been reading my blog regularly know that I am already halfway in. 🙂
I have known some sincere, good and very holy people who have taken one of these routes, either beginning their spiritual journeys there or changing course in reaction to the scandal.
I love and respect these people – but cannot make the same choice. I will address each option.
First, I cannot be a Christian alone. I need community – and Christ has given us community in the Church. So many times over have I been comforted, forgiven and rescued from error because there were good and holy priests, religious and lay people offering me their love or simply modeling for me the Christian life.
Second, there is much truth and wisdom in spiritual traditions outside of Christianity. I learn from them and make use of them all of the time. But I cannot walk away from Christ. And I do not believe that there is any tradition or church in which there are no sinners.
Third, I have known and loved many in the Protestant denominations. Some of them certainly are holier than I am. But, once again, a different church would not deliver me from the company of sinners – nor should it. (As it has been said, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.) And I would lose something. I mean no insult to my fellow Christians, but I fear I would lose the fullness of the Sacraments as I have come to know them – the shared faith in the real Presence of Christ in Eucharist, the opportunity to encounter Christ in confession.
Fourthly, while I have come to love Orthodoxy, it is not my home. If I had to leave the Catholic Church, I would run to the Orthodox. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that we are one Church in the eyes of God, sharing the ancient Faith with the full expression of sacramental life. May we celebrate it together, openly, someday soon.
I did consider Orthodoxy, having entrenched myself in reading, online and off. I did not consider it because of the Catholic scandal – for they are sinners too – but simply because of how beautifully many of them express their faith.
But, at one point, when I was regularly reading an Orthodox blog, it seemed that other readers frequently described how they entered an Orthodox church and knew they were home.
As I reflected on my own life direction, God’s message came to me with uncomfortable certainty: “You already have a home.”
And I knew then that He wanted me to stay in the Church, in the home He had given me from my birth.
Because He is my truth, my love, the center and direction of my life, I do as He bids. And not with any regret as though a wish of mine had been thwarted.
I know He is leading me on a path, for my good and the good of others. I have seen so much evidence of this that I cannot deny it, though I take no credit for any of the good.
I often cannot see the good of the path, blinded as I am by my own sin and weakness. I often do not see where it is leading at any given moment nor do I have any confidence that I am following it faithfully.
I do not know the answers for the Church as a whole. How could I, not even knowing the answers for my one small life?
But I know what I am called to do – to live a life of repentance, of prayer and loving actions. I must not repent only for my sins but for the sins of us all. Lost as I am, I can only hope that there are others repenting for my sins too.
As our sins bring harm to one another, so also does our repentance build one another up in grace.
This is the life of the Church. This is the Gospel.
Thanks be to God for His gracious mercy.
Hard subject. Not pleasant to talk about the sins of others, especially church leaders. Our own are heavy enough.
Your patient unwindings are helpful to anyone who might bear a grudge against those same leaders. My own complaint is from far earlier than the cover-ups, horrible as they are. It was–and stiil is–the pomp, the distance, the money, the rote language, even the silly hats and out of date symbolic walking sticks and fancy rings and enormous houses of bishops and the red flowing capes of cardinals (the color is supposed to represent martyrdom, for heaven’s sake): all of that undermines their representation of Christ.*
My dad quoted Peter’s question to us at the dinner table almost 50 years ago when we complained about inept and uninterested church leadership. We all agreed at the time that there was no place else. Now, out of nine, only a one or two of us agree.
You have found an answer and I am pleased for you. I have found that questions too can be a kind of answer. They remind me how faith works sometimes. You just know, in spite of all the reasons not to. You ask, and trust that you will receive. You make a home somewhere.
* clearly I have a residue of anger and mistrust that I need to get rid of.
(Hi Mary, I very much appreciate your honest, quiet reflections. Al)
As always, Al, I thank you for commenting. We all have our stuff to work through, whether about parents, teachers, clergy. Many have failed us in some way but the true tragedy that makes my heart hurt is that so many have lost Christ because of the sins of others.
To walk away from Christ would be to me the loss of meaning, the loss of my true self. Only in Him can I know the fullness of the life that God intends for me. May I never let anyone else’s sin be the justification for my own!
I must keep my mind on Christ, no matter what I see going on around me. I wait for His commands in this spiritual warfare being waged in our midst. I want to grab others and tell them, “Fear not! See what love He has for us!”
Too many are too angry, too confused, to listen. I must pray….