“Trust in a faithless man in time of trouble is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips.” (Prov 25:19)
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (1 Cor 4:1-2)
My wife and I entered the Catholic Church in 1997, not long before the news about clergy sexual abuse started coming out of Dallas. I recall having a conversation with a life-long Catholic who expressed some amazement that my wife and I—both former Evangelical Protestants—had made the journey into the Church. “Things are really a mess,” he lamented, referring to the sex abuse stories. “How could you overcome that and still become Catholic?”
I’ve thought of that conversation a few times in recent weeks, as details of reports about Cardinal McCarrick—the lecherous “Uncle Ted” who groped, fondled, and abused seminarians and others as he steadily climbed the episcopal ranks—have emerged like rotten sewage bubbling up through cracks in a suddenly hollow and ugly house. Social media erupted with anger, pain, and disgust. One question is repeated, like a swelling drumbeat: “Who knew?” (After all, reports of McCarrick’s known and alleged actions—some dating back to the 1960s and early 1970s—have been around for many years.)
Some Catholics have said they can no longer support the Church; a few have indicated they are thinking of walking away altogether.
I’ve spent most of my adult life in the Catholic Church—I was 28 years old when I entered—and I can say three things with certainty and honestly: I have never regretted becoming Catholic, I sympathized deeply with the frustrations expressed by so many, and I think we are at a precarious and potentially disastrous moment in the life of the Church here in the United States (if not also beyond our borders).
I became Catholic because, first, I believe in Jesus Christ and believe he founded the Catholic Church; I remain Catholic despite the many failings of her members because I, of course, am a sinner in need of God’s mercy and grace, but also because I know the Church has endured many dark travails—even deaths, as Chesterton wrote about in The Everlasting Man—over the centuries. The gates of hell will not prevail, but that doesn’t mean that sin, evil, corruption, and rot must not be constantly confronted, addressed, and denounced. Quite the contrary.
It is true, without doubt, that many of the bishops and cardinals are good men who are trying to do the right thing. But the rot in the Church cannot be covered by good intentions, the corruption in the Body of Christ cannot be treated like a PR problem, and the righteous anger of the laity cannot be placated by soothing sound bites. Put simply, the current course—which has all too often been a wearying combination of tweaks, spins, deflections, and obfuscations—has deeply damaged trust in the leadership of the Church. Not in the Church—One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic—but in her current leadership as a whole, which often seems to think the laity are either stupid or not able to handle the truth.
But, in fact, the one thing the Catholic faithful want and deserve is the truth. The whole truth. The ugly, even nasty truth. The dark and difficult truth. Indeed, all the Christian faithful and all people everywhere, who have a right to the Gospel, deserve the truth.
Speaking of the Church and of holiness, the Catechism states:
“Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled,’ knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. (par 827)
And yet, as of this writing, McCarrick has not publicly acknowledged his sin; on the contrary, he has denied any wrongdoing. Very little has been said by the USCCB. Perhaps something substantial is in the works. But I’m not at all convinced that the bureaucracy of the USCCB is interested in really taking on the wolves, to borrow a term from Benedict XVI.
While distinctions, of course, must be made between consensual adult relationships and non-consensual adult-child relationships, the two are not unrelated, as Fr. Thomas V. Berg argues in this First Things essay:
We can’t prevent the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable adults by clergy while habitual and widespread failures in celibacy are left unchecked. Most experts who have studied the phenomenon of sexual activity by clerics agree that the offenders do not constitute a large percentage of priests—though the incidence is difficult to measure with any accuracy, given the success with which sexually active clerics, especially those who pursue a gay lifestyle, are able to cover their tracks. Nevertheless, most priests I know would estimate, as I do, that in dioceses in the United States, at least 5 percent of the clergy in a given diocese are or have been sexually active with consenting adults since their ordination. Most of us would venture that the majority of sexually active clergy participate in networks of gay priests, networks that maintain a code of silence out of mutual fear of being discovered.
“Silence” is a key word. Consider that fifty years ago this week Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, which exhorted priests (par 28) in this way: “In the performance of your ministry you must be the first to give an example of that sincere obedience, inward as well as outward, which is due to the magisterium of the Church. For, as you know, the pastors of the Church enjoy a special light of the Holy Spirit in teaching the truth.”
The sad irony is that numerous priests not only openly dissented from the encyclical, far too many bishops shrank away from addressing the dissent and defending the prophetic words of Paul VI. That silence, combined with cultural revolution and other challenges, had a devastating effect (hence the title of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s 1973 book: The Devastated Vineyard). It is true that the Catholic Church has continued to teach the truth about marriage, sexuality, and related matters; it is also true that huge numbers of Catholics ignore those teachings and embrace the use of contraceptives, have no issue with cohabitation, feel that homosexuality is perfectly normal, and even give a nod to gender ideology.
As John Paul II explained twenty-five years ago in Veritatis Splendor, more than a few Catholics—and he was specifically addressing certain moral theologians—believe that “man, as a rational being, not only can but actually must freely determine the meaning of his behaviour” (par 47). Not only does such an approach sound reasonable, it has the benefit of being far easier than holding to the teachings of Christ. But, as John Paul II stated at the very beginning of that essential encyclical:
Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, “the true light that enlightens everyone” (Jn 1:9), people become “light in the Lord” and “children of light” (Eph 5:8), and are made holy by “obedience to the truth” (1 Pet 1:22). This obedience is not always easy. (par 1; emphasis added)
The Catholic faithful do not want “easy”; they want the hard truth. They do not want therapists and counsellors; they want faithful men of God. They do not pine for happy talk, but for the joy found in the word of God, preached by servants of Christ in and out of season. And they do not easily trust those who do not vigorously proclaim and live the truth. As John Paul II stated twenty years ago in his encyclical on Faith and Reason, “To bear witness to the truth is therefore a task entrusted to us Bishops; we cannot renounce this task without failing in the ministry which we have received” (Fides et ratio, 6).
Meanwhile, the fathers of Vatican II stated, “Each individual layman must stand before the world as a witness to the resurrection and life of the Lord Jesus and a symbol of the living God” (Lumen Gentium, 38). This is not a time for silence, mediocrity, or fear for the laity or the bishops. The rot and corruption must be outed; the truth must be stated; trust must be renewed and restored.