The Church in the United States is once more stunned to learn of scandal within our leadership as news of accusations of sexual abuse by Cardinal McCarrick continue to be reported. The news coming out of Chile has been bad enough, but now a high ranking member of the hierarchy is accused of multiple instances of sexual abuse. Those of us in the Church continue to feel anger, sadness, confusion, and, quite frankly, disgust, about a problem that just will not seem to go away.
People outside of the Church now have even more ammunition to lob our way, which makes it harder for us to evangelize in an ever more hostile culture like our own. Many are asking: When will this evil finally be purged from the Church? The truth is that evil will only be fully purged from the Church when Christ returns.
The dangers of despair
I read various threads in social media about this latest scandal and one of the greatest concerns I had was about those people who are struggling with despair and a loss of faith. Some people are even contemplating leaving the Church for some other denomination or leaving Christianity for good. This is one of the great evils of public scandal within the hierarchy of the Church. It harms the faithful directly and can lead people to the sin of despair. Sin always has communal dimensions, but when it is tied directly to our leadership its reach is far and wide.
When I was stationed in England, at the height of the American Church’s abuse scandal, I worked with a gentleman who had left the Church because of the scandal. He was angry, repulsed, hostile, and had become anti-Catholic. Underneath, I could see great pain and disappointment. He couldn’t stomach that some priests had abused children and this caused him to leave the Faith. There was little I could do to help change his mind. The damage was done.
The McCarrick situation seems to follow the more common issue of a man in power abusing other adults, but the media has made sure the majority of people think that the vast majority of victims were children, even though they were not. This in no way minimizes the seriousness of the situation or the crimes. Abuses of power and coercion for sexual gain, or any other type of gain, is gravely sinful and evil, even more so when children are involved. It is merely to clarify the situation because precision does matter. It also allows us to explain this terrible situation to our interlocutors.
The danger is very real for people to leave the Church as these scandals continue to happen. Rightly so, we have expectations of our priests and bishops that they will truly live out their vocation and be alter Christus — another Christ — to us and the world. We want them to be men of heroic virtue and steadfast holiness. This is understandable, but it isn’t necessarily in conformity with reality. Church history is very instructive here, as is parish life.
Priests oftentimes are not as progressed in holiness as we would like, or even as they would like to be. They have character flaws, weaknesses, temptations, and struggles of their own that they are working on through the grace given to them through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as well as the other Sacraments.
They need the Sacrament of Confession just as much as we do and the grace that Christ extends to all of His people through it. They are also nourished and strengthened through the Holy Eucharist even as they make it present to God’s people. Priests have chosen to walk the path to holiness through that particular vocation, which means they are on the path to sainthood too. All of us, clergy and laity, are works in progress. We are all capable of great evil, which is why we need the salvation extended to us through Christ and His Church. Conversion of heart is a daily—minute-by-minute—activity.
The reality of Church history
The Church has always been a mess. It is one of the reasons we know that it is Christ who is the Head and the Holy Spirit who keeps us on course. There’s no way we would have survived this long with all of our in-fighting, scandals, sins, and blunders over the last 2000 years if the Church was merely a human institution or invention. The Church is always living in dark days and will continue to do so until Christ returns at the end of time. At least bishops aren’t currently orchestrating murders of other priests and bishops while they say Mass, like in past centuries. The hierarchy, for all of its fighting, is pretty peaceful when compared to other times in Church history.
If you are struggling with the state of the Church hierarchy and the continued scandals it would be beneficial to study Church history a little more closely. It tends to turn people into realists and pragmatists. I find rose-tinted glasses and sentimentality don’t do us any good in the spiritual life. The same is true when it comes to understanding the Fallen men in the hierarchy. Church history allows us to understand that our age is not somehow worse than any other. The sins and scandals are still appalling and evil, but the same has been true since Pentecost, and even longer since the Fall.
Our faith is not in princes or men, not even princes of the Church. Our faith is in Christ Jesus. We trust in the power of His Paschal Mystery and the Holy Spirit who guides the Church through history. We know that it is Christ who is leading us to our ultimate destiny. Don’t take your eyes off of Him, even as the waves crash, the wind blows, and the clouds whirl. The Church has survived many storms and she will survive this one. Yes, it is a painful process, but purification is always painful. That’s exactly what is going on. Christ is purifying His Church. It will take time and it won’t be complete until His return.
Keep in mind that our priests and bishops are Fallen men who need our prayers, support, and sacrifice. They struggle with weaknesses just as much as we do. The Enemy attacks priests with great intensity. As members of the laity, we can fight by their sides as their brothers and sisters in Christ in order to help lift them up in their own struggles. They fight for us and we should be doing the same for them. When a scandal breaks, turn to Christ in prayer, hope, and trust. Offer reparation for the sins of our leadership, but never lose hope. When the urge to leave wells up inside of you, remember the words of St. Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68).”