Better than Bitter — Even in the Face of Scandal

Catholics are angry. The revelations of sexual abuse by Catholics priests and of subsequent cover-ups by bishops continue. So they’re angry, primarily at negligent bishops (and of course the offending priests) but also at the media which exploits these sins to further their own anti-Catholic agenda. And this anger can be justifiable; after all, innocent children have been terribly harmed and the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel has been severely hindered.

But in many circles this anger is reaching a fever pitch level with serious spiritual consequences. Anger like this can too quickly lead to a lack of trust in God, as we come to believe that our current problems are permanently damaging the Church and cannot be repaired. But a survey of history shows us that every age has had to struggle against great evil both outside and inside the Church.

The spiritual perils of anger are often caused a lack of perspective. We see what is going on around us, get angry and suddenly move from the realm of righteous anger to the mindset that “this is the worst age ever!” Problems of today are magnified under the lens of the 24/7 news cycle, while problems of the past are either forgotten or seen in a clinical, detached manner. We study the saints of the past, but ignore the sinners. However, one of the conclusions a serious study of Church history must come to is that the doctrine of Original Sin gets proven in every generation. Saints are the exception, not the rule. There has never been a time during which members of the Church have not been full of avarice, lust, pride and gluttony. There has also never been a time during which the faithful did not have reason to be critical of their church leaders. In the fourth century Roman Empire, St. Athanasius was the only bishop resisting the Arian heresy, and in sixteenth century England, St. John Fisher was the only bishop who stood against King Henry’s thirst for ecclesial power. Yet even with that poor track record, the Church has endured, saints have been produced, and God’s grace continues to be poured into the world.

Being deep in history thus changes one’s perspective: you see the problems of today in light of past crises. When the local parish priest does something a bit loopy, you remember that in Middle Ages Russia, many parish priests were illiterate alcoholics who stumbled through the liturgy and didn’t know even the basics of Christian theology. When the New York Times produces (yet another) factually flimsy anti-Catholic article, you remember the terrible persecutions that Christians of past ages (and even today) have endured to pass on the faith. When a bishop appears to strive for the trappings of power rather than the power of the Gospel, you recall the times in history during which Churchmen blatantly abused temporal power. Acknowledging the sins of the past doesn’t mean that we can’t have righteous anger today, but it does put that anger in proper perspective, keeping it from disturbing the peace all Christians should have at all times.

The Catholic who allows anger to be his controlling emotion is a Catholic who is full of fear. He sees the serious crises afflicting the Church and can see no clear solution to these problems. Then, in the inner chamber of his heart, he fears that God cannot – or will not – overcome them. He fears that perhaps it is possible that our sins really will rule the day and that the gates of hell will in fact overcome the Church. Yet the more one surveys history, the more one sees that no matter how terrible man can be (and terrible indeed he can be), God is still at work in the world and He cannot be overcome. The Church endures, saints still live in the world, and the Gospel is still preached to the ends of the earth. There is absolutely no reason to fear, as we have already read the end of the book. We know that God wins.

All this is not to say that we should not resist evil; on the contrary, we are called as disciples of Jesus to proclaim the Gospel even when the world attacks it or his bishops or priests fall short of living it. St. Catherine of Sienna did not sit idly by when the Church was being torn apart by the pope’s abdication of his Roman diocese. Yet she resisted evil with a joyful and peaceful spirit, and we should too, because we know who the Victor is. Let us therefore follow the advice of St. Paul:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you (Ephesians 4:29-32).

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