This scandal has caused harm to the entire Church. Most obviously, there are the victims of the sex abuse themselves and their families, who so much need healing and love. The perpetrators of these crimes have caused tremendous physical and spiritual harm (cf. Mt.18:6-9) and have dire need of divine mercy, in addition to any medical treatment or criminal sanction. There are the many good and faithful priests and religious who suddenly find themselves the objects of suspicion, hatred, and perhaps even false charges. And then there is the larger Church, whose pastoral and missionary efforts have been compromised by the sins of a few of her members.
In addition to all this pain, there is also the considerable anger, frustration, betrayal, sadness, confusion, and outrage experienced by Catholics and non-Catholics alike over this crisis. These feelings are directed not only toward the perpetrators of these crimes, but also toward a Church bureaucracy and ecclesial climate that would allow repeat offenders to remain in active ministry. The Holy Father affirms that "[b]ecause of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the Church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the Church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter."
Further, many faithful Catholics are profoundly offended when the Church is unfairly vilified in the media and when opponents and critics of the Church capitalize on this opportunity to attack the Church and promote their own agendas in the process.
This position paper does not attempt to provide a comprehensive treatment of the spiritual, psychological, and sociological dimensions of this problem, nor does it examine the intra-ecclesial procedures that are being put in place to more effectively address claims of clerical misconduct in the future.
Rather, as a private association of lay Catholics, Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) desires in this position paper to provide sound, practical guidance to lay Catholics who desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ and His Church, notwithstanding the scandalous behavior of some of her members.
The size and gravity of the current clerical sex abuse scandal can lead to anger, discouragement, and a sense of powerlessness. Yet Our Lord promised to be with us until the end of the world, and He can — and does — bring about good from even the greatest evils when we put our trust in Him (cf. Rom. 8:28). In point of fact, there are many things we can do to be "part of the solution," to cooperate with divine grace to make a difference in this crisis. Therefore, we offer the following eight practical steps Catholic laity can take to help bring some good out of this unspeakable evil.
In every age, and particularly during times of crisis, what the Church needs most is saints — the example and intercession of holy men and women. "The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church's history" (Catechism, no. 828). In our time we've been blessed with Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa — both celibates — whose holy lives bear effective, credible witness to the Gospel they proclaim. But, as Vatican II teaches, holiness is not just for Catholic "superstars" like the Pope, but also for rank and file lay Catholics. Therefore, the first order of business must be a renewal of our own commitment to the Lord and His Body, the Church. We must commit ourselves to daily prayer and the sacramental life of the Church as the first — not last — resort.
Not without reason does our Lord counsel us to remove the planks from our own eyes before trying to remove splinters from others' eyes (cf. Mt. 7:15). Imagine there's a mishap on an airplane, and the craft begins losing cabin pressure. In the face of such a calamity, most of us would want to be courageous, to do the right thing and help as many of our fellow passengers as possible. Yet, if we don't use our own air mask first, in a matter of seconds we'll be of no use to anybody. We would be among the first casualties.
While there may be other righteous actions we can take, if we were only to devote ourselves to prayer, frequent reception of the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion, weekly if not daily holy hours of reparation before the Blessed Sacrament, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and other such activities out of love for Our Lord and a desire to help rebuild His Church, we would be providing the greatest service we can possibly give.
We should pray specifically for an increase of the virtue of faith (cf. Lk. 17:5). That language may be offputting to some. After all, we either have faith or we don't, right? Yet we surely need to believe all that God has revealed through Christ and His Church with greater understanding, conviction, and joy. Even more, the virtue of faith enables us to see the fullness of reality, with its natural and supernatural components. Faith enables us to see the divine amidst the human. Jesus is not simply a good man, but the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Scripture is not just a collection of ancient human writings, but also truly the work of the Holy Spirit. And the Church is not simply a human "institution," but also the Mystical Body of Christ and the means of salvation for the whole world.
It takes a strong faith to acknowledge an "apostolic" Church if the "apostle" in our midst fails in his duties. It takes a strong faith to accept a "holy" Church when we're constantly having the sins of her members — and even some of her leaders — rubbed in our face.
We cannot deny the shortcomings and failures of members of the Church through the ages, including those that have been publicized in recent months. But we do need the virtue of faith to see the greater reality. The best way to grow in faith is to ask the Lord for this gift. Here is one popular Act of Faith that can be used to ask the Lord to increase our faith:
Act of Faith
O my God, I firmly believe that You are one God in three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe that Your divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy Catholic Church teaches, because You have revealed them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. Amen.
Vatican II clearly called upon all the faithful to beg the Lord of the harvest for more laborers in the vineyard (cf. Mt. 9:36-38), particularly for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In a special way, this call goes out to families, which must be "incubators" of vocations in the Church (cf. Catechism, no. 1656). Parents must not exert pressure on their children when it comes to choosing a state in life, but rather they should encourage their children to follow Jesus and accept with generosity whatever specific vocation the Lord has in store for them (cf. Catechism, nos. 2230, 2232). Sadly, some parents do not want their children to become priests or religious. Yet the Catechism teaches:
Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord's call to one of their children to follow him in virginity for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry (no. 2233).
If, however, our focus is only on the next generation of priests, then we're missing an increasingly significant aspect of our vocations effort. Many priests and religious feel the spiritual and material support of the faithful while they're in formation, but then they are ordained or take their final vows and then seemingly fall off the intercessory map. More than ever, all priests and religious need the prayers, support, and encouragement of all the Church. In times past, a parish might have had three or four priests in residence. Now often there is usually just one, and increasingly he is serving two or more parishes. Further, with the latest scandals, all priests more than ever are the butt of jokes and subjected to derision and anti-Catholic venom. The Lord surely will bless efforts to support our beloved priests through our prayers and our friendship (cf. Mt. 10:40-42).
Catholics have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities (cf. Catechism, no. 2043; Code of Canon Law, canon 222). This can be a real stumbling block for some Catholics today, especially in dioceses where millions of dollars are being paid to settle sex abuse lawsuits.
First, it should be understood that funds donated in the weekly collection plate or to an annual diocesan campaign are not typically the source of the funds used when the diocese settles a lawsuit. Even so, the diocese should spell this out specifically for the faithful so that there is no misunderstanding as to how the settlements are being funded. Clearly, the Church's immense humanitarian, educational, parochial, and missionary activities are dependent upon the ongoing support of Catholics.
Even more, we must learn from the account of the widow's mite (Lk. 21:1-4). Her contribution was inconsequential, but she was held up for special praise because she gave what she had, not simply what she could spare. In the Old Testament, Our Lord accuses those who refuse to tithe of stealing from Him (cf. Mal. 3:8). Surely lay people have the right to decide to which parishes, diocesan programs, religious communities, and apostolates they will contribute, and they will likely contribute their hard-earned money to those entities which they consider to be the best stewards of their offerings. But Our Lord and His Church are clear about our need to do what we can to support the Church. "Generosity" literally means "full of giving life." Putting our time, talent, and treasure at the service of the Church is a reflection of the priority of Jesus Christ in our lives (cf. Mt. 6:24) and will help breathe new life in the Church in the new millennium.
We have to be so careful today in terms of how we talk about the priesthood and contemporary issues facing the Church. Probably the harshest critics of the Church are former Catholics and those who still consider themselves Catholic but who oppose the Church on any number of issues.
It's very easy to find fault in the Church right now. People are rightly upset or disturbed. When we give verbal expression to these feelings, we may be just "letting off steam," and everything we say may well be true. But having part of the truth and needing to let off steam do not excuse making statements that will harm the faith of other Catholics whose faith perhaps is weaker, provide an unnecessary stumbling block for nonbelievers, and needlessly and perhaps even unfairly harm the reputations of others (cf. Catechism, no. 2477).
In place of the above, Scripture is very clear. We are told to say "only the things men need to hear, things that will help them" (Eph. 4:29). As St. Paul says, "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil. 4:8).
Scandal involves inducing others to sin (cf. Catechism, nos. 2284-87). It's a type of spiritual murder. Are our comments regarding the Church being expressed in ways that will actually turn people against the Church? And if giving scandal is like spiritual murder, then taking scandal is akin to spiritual suicide. We must protect our own hearts, that we do not allow our own negative feelings about the real evils in some dioceses to fester and ultimately to lead us out of the Church.
In the business world, there's a maxim that may help us take the right approach in this matter. Successful managers are able to "catch their employees doing something right" and in the process provide positive reinforcement for good behavior. In the spiritual realm, we likewise do well to "overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12:21). There are holy people in the Church. There are many great stories of contemporary Christian heroes, not to mention the lives of saints through the centuries. There is much good going on in the Church on many different fronts, globally, nationally, and in our backyard. We need to acknowledge and publicize this truth.
This does not mean that we ignore the sins of Church members. As we discussed above, the Church is at once holy yet always in need of renewal and reform, and charitably correcting a sinner is a spiritual work of mercy. Using an analogy, let us assume that a husband and wife are having marital problems, and the husband wants to do something about it. The first step would be for the husband to honestly acknowledge the nature and extent of the problem. He would try to work things out with his spouse, and no one would criticize him for seeking the help of others — marital counselors, spiritual advisors, friends and confidantes, and above all God Himself — to help remedy the problem. However, if the husband were to begin to vilify his wife to his children, to neighbors, perhaps even to the press, we can say that regardless of the truth and frustration level behind his statements, he is only hurting the situation. Notice that St. Joseph, when confronted with the apparent infidelity of his wife, determined to "divorce her quietly," without subjecting her to shame (Mt. 1:19).
As Catholics, we similarly have to distinguish between acknowledging the truth and taking restorative action from mere venting and causing greater division within the Church.
Engaging the world
The Holy Father has continually called for a "new evangelization" or a reevangelization of formerly Christian cultures. We should not confuse "new evangelization" with "easy evangelization," nor should we expect the seeds of a "new springtime of faith" to sprout without opposition, persecution, and, indeed, the blood of martyrs.
An integral part of the new evangelization entails a prudent engagement with the world. Catholic laity need to be holy and they need to be informed. The Catholic Church is frequently battered in the media. We can't run from the media, but neither should we accept the media's rules of engagement — rules which often preclude, among other things, the existence of God and an objective moral law. We need, with God's grace, to be smarter and more convincing, not more fearful, compromising, or inflammatory.
And all of us know people, many of whom were raised as Catholics, who have an inadequate understanding of the Christian faith generally, and who are inclined to accept uncritically whatever evil the media attributes to the Church. Being able to put such attacks in their proper light is an important form of apologetics, of being prepared to make a defense, with gentleness and reverence, of the abiding hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).
Both the enemies of the Church and many of those who wish to come to her defense tend to blame the bishops for any and all evils in the Church. Certainly the bishop is responsible for his particular Church, or diocese, and throughout Church history, including in the present time, there have been bishops who have not been faithful to the sacred office entrusted to them. When such infidelity or malfeasance occurs, the Church suffers greatly.
Yet, it is futile to envision a Church without bishops, as they are legitimate successors of the apostles who bear the authority of Christ (cf. Catechism, nos. 886, 888). They are spiritual fathers in the Church. For a more complete treatment of this subject, see Servants of the Gospel (Emmaus Road Publishing, 1999, call 800-398-5470), a collection of essays by U.S. bishops on the role of the bishop in the Church today, as well as CUF's FAITH FACT "Following Our Bishops" (call 1-800-MY-FAITH), which summarizes Church teaching on the subject so as to foster an "open-eyed obedience" — neither "blind obedience" nor wide-eyed defiance.
One important teaching of Vatican II, which has also found its way into the current Code of Canon Law, is the laity's right to bring their concerns respectfully to their bishops (cf. Catechism, no. 907). Such a right should be exercised in a constructive way, and not simply as a justification to attack or condemn. The faithful should encourage their bishops not only to take appropriate action in clerical sex abuse cases, but also in relation to related issues, such as seminary screening, ministry to homosexuals, classroom sex education in Catholic schools, and other such issues.
Ambassadors of reconciliation
Regardless of our state in life, all of us as Christ's disciples are called to be ambassadors of His reconciliation, mercy, and healing:
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
A lively sense of divine mercy is so needed today, and we need to be its instruments as well as its recipients. We must be ambassadors of reconciliation within the Church, afflicted as she is with dissent and scandal. Without in any way minimizing the need to bring criminals to justice, we need to forgive from the heart the perpetrators of the crimes that have been committed as well as those who have allowed such crimes to continue, all the while praying for their repentance and conversion. We must be instruments of the Lord's healing and compassion to all those who have been directly harmed by abusive priests. We must repeatedly forgive those who have used the scandal as a pretext for attacking the Church and for furthering their own agendas, even as we peaceably answer their charges. And we need to be instruments of God's mercy and peace to all those we meet. The current situation does not need more heat. Rather, it needs the light of Christ. May we be ambassadors of the light of Christ to a society that is frequently walking in darkness (cf. Mt. 4:12-17; 5:14-16).
In this time of tribulation, when there are such grievous wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ, we must pray much more fervently for the Church, for all victims, for our bishops, priests, and seminarians, that this great suffering may be for the purification of the Church, and that the necessary exposure of evil may have a medicinal effect. This should be a wake-up call also for each of us poor sinners. We too are at fault because of our lukewarmness. We must do penance and make reparation for the offense against God. We already can see that Christ in His mercy is in the process of purifying His Bride the Church. We must pray unceasingly that Christ will have the final victory. This is the sentiment of our beloved Holy Father, who has said:
We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (cf. Rom 5:20). So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, a holier Church.
God alone is the source of holiness, and it is to Him above all that we must turn for forgiveness, for healing, and for the grace to meet this challenge with uncompromising courage and harmony of purpose.
Leon Suprenant "Don't Get Mad, Get Holy: Overcoming Evil with Good." Excerpted from Position Paper of Catholics United for the Faith on the Current Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal (Catholics United for the Faith, 2002).
Reprinted with permission of Catholics United for the Faith.
For the complete text, call toll-free 1-800-MY-FAITH or visit the CUF web site.
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is President of Catholics United for the Faith.
Copyright © 2002 Catholics United for the Faith