Sometimes you don’t want to pick up the newspaper or look at the web. It’s just too painful. The sex scandal just won’t go away. We know the major media twist a lot of the stories about the sex abuse scandal, but some very bad men did some very bad things, and other men let them. Some of them were monsters, and monsters people called “Father.”
And then there’s all the other bad news. The bickering and squabbling over the pope. Dioceses closing parishes and schools because the number of Catholics who still get involved is in free fall.
Or Catholic Facebook and Twitter. You want to see humanity at its worst, read Catholics arguing about the Mass or Francis or just about any other subject. I mean, gosh.
I’m afraid there’s no good comeback to offer people who use the news to score points against the Church. They make the simple equation: “Bad priests = bad Church.” Or “Shrinking dioceses = terminally ill Church.” Or “Hateful angry Catholics = Hypocritical fake Church.” For them it’s obvious.
Good Answers, But They Don’t Listen
There are some good long answers to those charges, but few people are going to sit still for them. They won’t listen to us while we distinguish the Church as the Body of Christ and the Church as we see it on the evening news. The idea that God may accomplish his purposes through sinful men is too subtle for them. They don’t see that God writes straight with crooked lines. They see the crooked lines and think God’s not writing.
But that is the key point, whether or not they want to see it. God could have wrapped up human history after the Resurrection, but he didn’t. He left men to do his work, knowing full well what some of them would do.
Or rather it’s part of the key point. The other part is that God established a body that would be his whatever his followers did to it. It would always give the body and blood of Christ to his people, and give his forgiveness to them in confession. It would guard the truth, so they would always know what he wanted them to know and to do. It would always make saints, who would show us what holiness looks like.
We believe God knows what he’s doing, even if we can’t see the reason. For evidence, look at the kings of Judah. I got this from the Old Testament scholar Gary Anderson in an article published years ago in an Italian newspaper. Anderson, who became a Catholic while teaching at Harvard, of all places, points out that of the fourteen kings of Israel listed in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew, twelve were bad guys. A 85 percent failure rate. (He now teaches at Notre Dame, by the way.)
God kept his promise to give David an heir (whom we know to be Jesus) through men who worshipped idols, killed people when useful, slept around, robbed their people for their own gain. Starting with David himself. Just think what the headlines would be were he running things today.
As in the Old Testament, so in the New. As Anderson writes, “when God called the church into being, he did not alter the moral DNA we share with the rest of the human race. . . . What is divine about the church, however, is not the moral character of its office holders but the eternal promise that God has bestowed upon it.”
No, Not Sorry At All
My family and I were received into the Church in 2001. After the stories about the archdiocese of Boston started appearing in 2002, an Evangelical friend said, “I bet you’re sorry now.” No, I said. We came into the Church knowing every bad thing that can be said against the Church. We’d read the history, and the history’s grim. No new evidence that Catholics are sinners surprises us. We had only to look at our own lives to know that.
In fact, the sins of Catholics were an argument for the Church’s claims to be who she says she is. Of course a human institution as big and old and complex as the Church will have scandals and horrors. Sinners tend to wreck whatever they touch. But only something Divinely guided and empowered would have survived everything its members have done to it, much less shown that amazing ability for renewal and revival that marks the Church’s history.
Some Catholics like quoting the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc. A friend and ally of G. K. Chesterton’s, he had a coldly realistic view of his Church. “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine,” he said. “But for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
In the sixth chapter of John, after the crowds had listened to Jesus long enough to decide they weren’t going to follow him, Jesus asked the apostles if they were going to leave too. Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
One sign of that is the Catholic Church’s amazing ability for renewal and revival. In particular, the saints. We have all these mediocre people, barely distinguishable from the world, and then all these deeply good, holy people, people who live as lights in the darkness. That impressed me long before I felt the Church’s attraction. That place over there, that’s where amazing people are to be found.
That seems to me the best answer to challenges like my friend’s, not that people like that will always listen. Where else should we go? The Church is the Body of Christ. Despite the great sins of its members — despite our sins — we meet the Lord there in a way we meet him nowhere else on earth. There he offers us the words of eternal life.