Hope in the Face of Crisis

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.

(Image: Thuong Do @dodangthuong | Unsplash.com)

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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About Fr. Charles Fox 27 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.

10 Comments

  1. Any priest that has hope and offers advice for purification of the Church of the long embedded scourge of homosexual behavior has my full support. Yes there is hope although at its slimmest expectation of changing a long entrenched ecclesial structure of networking and complacency. There is no leadership among Hierarchy prepared to confront it apart from words of disapproval and advice. Advice that has no weight. Only a Pontiff with the requisite authority strong conviction can begin the long brutal process of removing clerics and enforcing prohibitions. Our Pontiff is disinclined as are his advisers. The new paradigm is focused on acceptance which in itself is reason for ambivalence and half hearted murmuring. We whether priest bishop or layman must speak out against with hope but with realization we must whatever the consequences in fulfillment of our witness to Christ.

    • It disturbs me, though, that this author, and many other Catholic authors, has managed to write this article without using the word “homosexuality” even once. He merely says “Since accusations of sexual harassment and abuse’. It is as if they all are so scared of the homosexuals in the church that they dare not even mention the elephant in the room. This is part of an ethos in the church that must be driven out.

      • Samton you touched on something that is not mere timidity rather indicative of an ecclesial culture that as you cite cannot spell out the sin in all its perverse horror but a sin that many priests have learned to live with and accommodate as something not quite so perverse because so widely practiced. A behavior too common among fellow seminarians and later clergy friends that it would seem to be an outrageous insult to name the outrage. Some are presuming the Pontiff is perhaps taking a first step in cleansing the Church of homosexuals in his sacking of 88 year old McCarrick. More Kabuki theatre that fits well with the Pontiff’s previous reinstating faculties to much younger actively notorious sexual convict Fr Inzoli who Benedict XVI defrocked. Let’s have the moral courage to call a spade a spade.

      • Samton909: I’m sorry you have been disturbed, but it’s an injustice to ascribe a motive with so little evidence. I have many faults, but the particular kind of timidity of which you accuse me is not, I think, one of them. Nor, if I may go for a “two-fer” and respond to Fr. Morello, has “ecclesial culture” muzzled me. I think that the causes of the abuse crisis deserve close, detailed and (perhaps most importantly) substantiated treatment in other articles. The same is true of the particular strategies that will best serve this cause, which would undoubtedly include an examination of homosexuality among priests. But every written work has its particular purpose. This essay was not an overview of the entire problem, nor a strategic plan, but rather a call to hope in Christ as the animating principle of our spiritual combat. It’s not clear to me what mentioning homosexuality would have accomplished with the specific purpose of this essay in view. And anything more than a mention would surely have diverted attention away from the point. Again, other articles on the topic would be extremely helpful, but attributing vices based on so little evidence is surely not going to help the cause of authentic reform. God bless you.

  2. I certainly agree with both Fr Fox and Fr. Morello.

    I particularly observe that the current pontiff and “his team” are totally compromised wrt assuring justice against sex abuse, as the pontiff was the hand- picked candidate of notorious sex abuser and coverup Cardinals: McCarrick, Danneels, Maradiaga and Mahony, to name 4 prominent ones.

    • Do you not believe that God can bring good out of evil?

      The current pontiff has accepted McCarrick’s resignation, suspended him a divinis, and placed him under house arrest while the investigation moves forward. If this is a harbinger of things to come, then perhaps Pope Francis will be able to effect the reform the Church so desperately needs in this crisis.

      Don’t forget to pray, fast, and offer sacrifices for our pope and bishops. Even the reprehensible ones were worth Christ’s life on the cross, and the Lord’s Prayer teaches us that the standard of mercy we show is the standard of mercy we will receive.

  3. Has the church ever explained how so many men (1/3 of all priests? 1/2?) with psycho-sexual problems (including, but not limited to homosexuality) have apparently entered the priesthood? Further, have such men really formed a ‘club’ in the church, with a view to shaping from within the teachings of the church and the attitudes of the laity?

    • Greyser: In reply to your second question, all I can say is that I have never encountered such a “club” (to use your term). I’m not saying they don’t exist anywhere, but I think it’s good to know that they don’t exist everywhere.

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