It’s hard to know what’s worse. The recent revelations about Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick’s decades-long career as a homosexual predator or the scores of priests, bishops, and fellow cardinals who knew about his behavior but did nothing about it. Of course, none of this is helped by the sense that this is just the tip of the ecclesial iceberg.
This newest crisis has dealt a devastating blow to the Church. After being rightly subjected to a decade-long series of public beatings in the media due to the lurid revelations about clerical sexual abuse, it seemed that the Church was finally coming out of this dark period under Pope Francis. His charitable presence seemed to be convincing the world that maybe, just maybe, Catholic clergy still had the capacity to serve as an inspiration to people, instead of just the punchline to a long line of sick jokes.
But alas, it is not to be. The institutional church has failed utterly. I doubt there was a Catholic in the pews on July 22 who did not think of the McCarrick scandal when the lector proclaimed the first reading from Jeremiah, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD….You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.”
Of course it is not enough for lay people to point fingers and shake our heads. Instead of seeing this crisis as a reason to give up on our faith, I would like to suggest that we are being called to discover the rightful role of the baptized, lay priesthood to witness and challenge the institutional church to get its house in order.
1. Step Back
First, we have to step back and ask ourselves, “what do we believe in?” If we have been going to Church because we believed we were going to find inspiring leaders to comfort us while we napped in our pews, the Holy Spirit has disabused us of this notion. We shouldn’t be surprised. God has been telling us this for millennia. Psalm 146 says, “Put not your faith in princes.”
Instead, we need to remind ourselves that we go to church because we believe in Christ. Because we, ourselves, are broken and in need of healing. And because that healing can only come through both transformational encounter with Christ in the Eucharist and a commitment to reform our lives in conformity to his Truth.
2. Step Up
Second, we need to step up and lead by example. Despite the fact that many good, faithful priests and bishops exist, it is clear that their voices are being drowned out or ignored. If the clergy can’t figure out how to effectively support each other in living their vocations to chastity then we need to show them how.
We just celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Humanae Vitae. It’s long past time we, the laity, heeded its message. People like McCarrick don’t just appear out of thin air. They are the product of a culture that does not believe that our sexuality requires an ongoing commitment to formation and healing in order to be expressed appropriately. The fact is, any Catholic person who does not welcome the ongoing process of “ascent, purification, renunciation, and healing” (Deus Caritas Est #5) to which Humanae Vitae calls them is actively contributing to the culture that makes future McCarricks possible. It’s time to for a faithful laity to step up and proclaim to the world that while human sexuality is a good an beautiful thing, it can only be expressed in ways that lead to health and human flourishing when it is united with God’s grace and our consistent effort to choose love over use on every level.
3. Make Noise
Having checked the credibility of our own witness, we have to activate our prophetic role. We must call our church leaders to live and proclaim the truth in their words and their lives. Enough with letting committees led by lawyers lead the church. We need prophets.
Likewise, if a man has not done the work necessary to be a healthy, godly Christian disciple when he presents himself to seminary then we shouldn’t ordain him. Let’s stop being afraid there won’t be enough warm bodies to fill cassocks if we dare demand both doctrinal fidelity and psychological maturity. Yes, the combination is rare, but God has promised that he can raise up sons of Abraham out of stones (Mt 3:9) if necessary. Surely, he can find us a few faithful priests.
In short, if we really want an end to the scandals, we have to reform the very homes charged with raising future, godly, healthy pastors and we have to demand that our clergy stop winking at church teaching both in their own lives and in their sermons. And if they aren’t willing to live and proclaim Christ’s mission with all their heart, mind, soul and strength, they should be vigorously helped to seek a line of work better suited to their lack of ability.