“We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair.” — 2 Corinthians 4:8
Since accusations of sexual harassment and abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick began to surface publicly a little over a month ago, a slew of articles by Catholic writers have appeared in response to the allegations. These writers, giving voice to countless members of the laity and clergy, have expressed disgust and much anger both about McCarrick’s alleged abuse and about the apparent failure of so many in the Church to do anything about it until now.
Some of these writers wisely took as a thematic scriptural text this past Sunday’s first reading from Jeremiah 23, in which the prophet vigorously denounces the failed leaders of Israel. The reading begins, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD.”
The appointment of such a reading at such a time seems providential. No matter what further investigation into the allegations against McCarrick yields, something has gone terribly wrong. We currently face at least three particular evils:
- the sins themselves, which have often been not only sins but also crimes (there is a distinction between the two);
- faulty policies and procedures that are insufficient to the task of holding wrongdoers accountable and empowering victims and other witnesses to speak-up—an evil decried recently by Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston;
- and the failure of many Church leaders, who ought to have done much more to protect the flock entrusted to their care, whether or not they had the support of sound policies and procedures.
Many articles and opinion columns published recently express lost patience, after so many years of waiting for these problems to subside, and of righteous anger at an ecclesiastical status quo that seems impervious to the kind of change that will bring a substantial resolution to this crisis.
Generally, the rousing of frustrated Catholic laity and clergy promises to be both corrective and constructive. J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that “not all tears are an evil” and neither is all anger an evil.
Yet some forms of anger are evil, and a certain measure of vicious anger seem to have found its way into the conversation about the sexual abuse crisis. Blind rage is an evil. Lashing-out indiscriminately against entire groups of people (e.g. all the bishops) is an evil. Failure to persevere in charity, even towards those who have victimized others, is an evil. And it is also evil to adopt a revolutionary spirit that (often implicitly) ascribes all change to our action and fails to trust that while we must act in every way as Christ’s instruments to bring necessary change, the victory belongs to him and is assured.
The retort to what I’ve just written is obvious: Where is Christ’s victory over sexual abuse, then? This question is better resolved in prayer than in an article such as this, but it is part of God’s providence that he allows some evil situations to continue long past the time when any of us would have put a stop to things if we had the power to do so. God’s wisdom in these matters is often inscrutable, but his wisdom is nevertheless certain. And we need the virtue of hope in order to carry-on with the holy work of reforming the Church.
Along these lines, another providential scriptural text appeared both in this past Wednesday’s Mass for the Feast of St. James, and in yesterday’s Office of Readings. Saint Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is very much about what it means to suffer and to persevere in suffering no matter how long it takes. Paul writes of suffering beyond what nature can stand, and of how nature’s disability highlights the truth that the life to which we are called is supernatural. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4 that the “surpassing power” comes from God and not from us.
Saint Paul goes on to write, “We are…perplexed, but not driven to despair.” Every thinking and caring person is perplexed by the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. But we must also never give in to despair. We need to cultivate and protect the supernatural hope that guards against despair and its progenitors: discouragement and cynicism.
It is desperately easy to become discouraged and cynical when even those within the Church’s inner-circles have failed. A line from Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” comes to mind: “the pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?” We know the world is a place of sin and danger. We don’t expect to find these evils in the Church.
We need to fight in the face of the temptations against hope, fight for the reform the Church so badly needs and fight against discouragement and cynicism. And I should mention here that many Catholics are surely already fighting with great hope. I do not mean to imply that any particular number of us struggles to hope in the midst of this crisis. I only propose that all of us are tempted against hope, sometimes with fierce intensity.
Why should we hope in the midst of crisis? Perhaps an illustrative story will help here. I first read this story about Julius Caesar in Msgr. Ronald Knox’s sermon for the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, and I will simply offer Knox’s telling of the story and its lesson. Keep in mind the point Knox is trying to make about the ministry of one of the Church’s greatest bishop-saints at a time of terrible crisis, in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, as you read the following:
When Julius Caesar wished to cross from Durazzo to Brindisi in a little boat, and the master of it wanted to turn back, because the wind had risen and he was in danger of shipwreck, Caesar rebuked him for his cowardice in noble words that have come down to us: “Take courage, my friend, take courage, and fear nothing; Caesar is your passenger, and Caesar’s fortunes are your freight.” With greater, and with better grounded confidence, the Church of God, which is Peter’s boat, has breasted the waves all through her troubled history. It is not upon the captain’s judgment or the pilot’s experience, not upon human wisdom or human prudence, that she depends for her safe voyage: she rests secure in the presence of her inviolable passenger.
Jesus Christ is both the source and the object of our hope. Even during times of crisis, he remains with us as he promised he would be before ascending into heaven. And despite our many sins and failures, he is also active in his church. He has given us the Church as a mother, and our mother is holy even when her children are not. He is acting now, working out his own saving purposes.
Christ’s saving action is an eschatological truth, but it has very real and consoling implications for the battle before us. He has raised up and continues to raise up many holy bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity who, while certainly imperfect, truly strive for holiness and to herald God’s kingdom on earth.
We must hope in Christ, not in a way that drives us toward quietism, so that we shrug our shoulders at the crisis roiling around us. That is not how the virtue of hope works. Our hope propels us precisely towards doing battle for the glory of God, the good of his Church, and in a special way now for the protection of the innocent and for establishing God’s justice in the household of faith.
With this hope, we can fight the battle before us not as mere social activists, however well-intentioned, but as the true crusaders envisioned by St. Paul in Ephesians 6:14-17:
So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all [the] flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Preparing for battle in this way will be the beginning of any authentic reform in the Church.
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