Let us not grow in the temptation to forget the times we are in. Scandal is not a new word for Catholics, but it will be thrown around more than ever before with the release of the McCarrick Report which documents (in nearly five hundred pages) the rise to power and history of abuse by this prelate along with details surrounding the knowledge and possible culpability of other church officials. Countless words will be printed and typed while headlines scream out against a Church that most will unilaterally condemn for its crimes deeming them unredeemable. The news which this report details is horrible, inexcusable, and somewhat incompetent but not novel. The recipe for renewal is also not novel.
Most pages and news outlets will speak of the Church as a company rather than an in-gathering of followers founded on the person of Jesus Christ. Most, if not all reporting, will never even mention his name. We must resist the temptation to equate the man McCarrick or the word scandal with the name of Jesus. To re-focus our attention, while never glossing over the heinous nature of these crimes, let us turn to how Jesus approached and crushed scandal.
“Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67). Jesus asks this direct question to the disciples after he multiplies the loaves and the fish. He tells the crowds that if they want to have life at all they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. John writes that the crowds began to leave as a consequence of this seemingly grotesque and impossible teaching. The people were literally scandalized by what their teacher had to say, so they abandoned ship. The multitudes wanted nothing to do with this man; they fled to ensure they did not risk being associated with him. An event that happened two thousand years ago, but continues to be repeated in every age – 2020 is the newest culprit.
Many people no longer want to be associated with the Catholic Church because of these scandals. Most Catholics are speechless while some are vitriol in their response. Some are scrambling to come up with a reason why they should continue to pray or go to Sunday Mass. The blueprint for the answer must be paved with a continued investigation into the nature of scandal.
The word scandal literally means, to trip someone up. Similar to a rock that someone places in front of another person’s foot right as he or she is about to take their next step. Scandals take us by surprise and they force us to stumble along our path, ending up flat on our faces. On another occasion in the Gospels, Jesus reveals to the disciples that he must be handed over, suffer greatly and die. Peter responds by attempting to deny Christ his mission: “God forbid it Lord, I will not let anything happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Jesus looks at Peter, the first bishop and pope, and says, “get behind me Satan” (Matthew 16:23). The words Satan and scandal come from the same root word for causing someone to trip up, and that is absolutely no coincidence.
Peter wanted Jesus to abandon what he had come to earth to accomplish. He was trying to mix him up, he was being a scandal to Christ. How does Jesus deal with scandal? He stares it down, calls it out as evil and moves forward. Christ didn’t ignore it or simply acknowledge Peter’s words quickly, and then move on. He took it straight on and refused to allow it to derail his mission: to suffer, die and rise for each and everyone of us.
These Gospel passages have many lessons to teach us when taking on the scandals we face yet again. Despite the screaming and deserting being done by the crowds we must stand our ground and remember not only what the Church is about but who she is about. We must refuse to be consumed by and addicted to bashing the Church. Jesus sees the masses leaving and it kills him. His question to us is the same as it always has been: “Do you also want to leave?” Our answer must always be the version of Peter from this account: “Never Lord, where else would we go? You have the words that give us life” (John 6:68).
Second, it is imperative that we stare down the scandal for the evil that it is. We must not shy away from it or make excuses – we must admit failure. Denouncing the abuse and the mishandling of it as a disgrace is not an option. However, we can’t be caught up in the web of endless conversations about how the Church is immensely imperfect and in need of deconstruction. Despair and the lowering of morale never leads to authentic reform. Call it out as evil and then move forward with the confidence that not even this can dismantle the mission of Christ.
Some have been notably predicting for decades now that the Church is going to become very small in numbers. Sunday Mass attendance is at all-time lows, Sacramental preparation is in need of revival, and the approach of many parishes and dioceses are in need of reform. Some have also said, however, that these difficult moments would result in the production of the greatest saints: those who truly know Christ personally, and live for God dramatically. Those who are ruled, not by the despair of the present moment but by unconditional and unrelenting sacrificial love founded on the thirst of Jesus for us all.
I don’t know if these predictions will be validated, but I do know one thing is true. If we take our eyes off of Jesus, if we forget about the fact that having a true encounter with him is the reason why we have our Church, all will be lost. We will be leaving him and we won’t even know it. Sometimes we’re tripped up in life and difficult times arise, but this often results in a dynamic shift in what is most important.
Let us begin that shift, let us pick ourselves up, decry what was done as evil, and move forward with our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ. The only one who has the remedy to defeat scandal.