The clergy sexual abuse scandal is now roiling the Catholic Church in Ireland and in Germany.
It will eventually work its way around the world, touching the old Catholic countries of Europe and the younger Catholic countries in Africa and Asia. As the horror and pain of many generations is revealed all at once, many Catholics will feel like they are undergoing essential emergency surgery without anesthetic.
Corruption and incompetence in the Church are no longer secret. Students of Church history learn, alongside the history of holiness, much that makes the skin crawl. We no longer have to wait for historians. Perhaps some of the most terrifying lines in the Gospels are from Luke 12 – nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known; whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.
The Church is never without scandals. Many of those scandals aren't audible in the public conversation, and some even earn public praise – trimming the Gospel to the prevailing trends, teaching falsehoods as truth, keeping silent about the moral law when unpopular, collaborating with persecutors, selling out to the state, pandering to the powerful, corrupting worship, or perhaps the greatest scandal of all, the unremitting mediocrity which satisfies so many when it comes to the things of God.
We Catholics can bristle when sins in the Church are shouted from the rooftops. We complain of unfair treatment or unseemly delight. There is something to that. But the Church should be held to a higher standard than public schools, or juvenile prisons, or the mother who turns a blind eye when her creepy boyfriend molests her daughter. God forbid the Church should be considered just another place where a sexually exploitative culture holds sway.
It is true that in the culture wars of our time, the Catholic Church is perhaps the only culture-shaping global force left standing – reeling, bloodied and bruised to be sure, but still standing. That our shame would prove attractive to our enemies – and the Church has enemies – is not surprising.
Yet I am simply not too bothered about that. It is secondary. The primary drama is not about public esteem or media relations, but the ancient drama of virtue and vice, sin and redemption. Aside from the sins themselves, the principal failing of the scandals is that those who should have been seized with moral outrage reacted instead as bureaucratic managers seeking damage control. The Lord Jesus willed the Church to be governed by bishops, not bureaucrats. Ordination alone does not prevent the former from becoming the latter, and the scandals remind us that for bishops to become bureaucrats is a terrible betrayal of their mission.
If the Church suffers more – in the innocent victims, in the faith shaken, in the credibility of her preaching – than other institutions, that too relates to her mission. Sexual abuse of the young is prevalent in staggering numbers in every dark corner of society; yet only very few cases are brought to light. If the Church should be the place where more cases are exposed rather than fewer, that is for the good, for there is the possibility of grace and healing. Consequently, if the Church as a whole feels the pain of shame and disgrace, that can be an expiatory suffering for a sexually dissolute and depraved age. Expiatory suffering is, amongst other salvific things, what the Church exists for.
It is true that in the culture wars of our time, the Catholic Church is perhaps the only culture-shaping global force left standing – reeling, bloodied and bruised to be sure, but still standing.
"In the past decade, nearly every pillar institution in American society – whether it's General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media – has revealed itself to be corrupt, incompetent or both."
That's from the current Time magazine, examining "10 Ideas for the Next 10 Years." They call this trend the "twilight of the elites" and it is not just an American phenomenon. The issue reports very low levels of public trust in all major institutions – banks (32%), newspapers (24%), Congress (12%). The Church is not immune.
The challenge of reform therefore remains. The Catholic Church in Canada faced this almost 20 years ago, and now in terms of criminal checks, volunteer screening, reporting protocols and safe environment measures, it is likely that your typical Catholic parish in Canada is about the safest place for a child. As the old Latin phrase puts it, ecclesia semper reformanda. The Church is always in need of reform. It often begins when what is done in the dark is brought to the light.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Virtue and vice, sin and redemption." National Post, (Canada) March 18, 2010.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2010 National Post
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