I don’t want to write this blog post. I’ve started it or something like it six or seven times now, only to throw away my work. But it has to be done and I feel that I need to do it.
I’m going to write about the current sex scandals in the Church.
Before I dive in, let me tell you a little bit about myself. From 2000-2006, I worked as a youth minister in the Archdiocese of Chicago and then was a seminarian in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. under first, Theodore McCarrick and then Donald Cardinal Wuerl. I studied for 2 ½ years at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and lived in residence at a parish in the Archdiocese of Washington for an additional year. I’ve known scores of seminarians and dozens of priests. I’ve been around a few blocks and I know a few things. The following reflections are only my opinions, but they are the fruit of my experience, the experience of close friends, a lot of prayer, and, well, a bit of alcohol the night before a deadline. Please take these thoughts to your own prayer and throw out anything that smells rotten.
What we are witnessing in the Church is a revelation of something that has been going on for a while. In some sense it’s been going on since the Fall of Man. I mean, it’s just sin. Bad sin, but not new sin. Not even new in the Church really. Many of the incidents being uncovered were already uncovered in 2002 and others were uncovered before then. And almost all of the incidents predate the current and the last papacy.
One thing that’s new, at least in our generation, is to see bishops involved. That’s appalling. But really, we are fools if the reason we are Catholic is because we thought our bishops were all saints, or even especially good. A recent convert told me, “I didn’t become Catholic because our bishop is so charming.”
But there’s another sense in which what’s happening now is new and outrageous. In the Long Lent of 2002, we were promised, “Never again.” New structures were put in place. New mechanisms. The problem is that human beings aren’t systems, and families and communities aren’t managed by mechanisms. We’re people and we sin. So do our leaders. So after the promises of the Long Lent of 2002, we have the Long Summer of 2018.
After a few weeks retching up the bile and outrage of the broken promises, promises that many apparently never intended to keep in the first place, many whom I trusted, I have become mellow. Not passive, mind you. Determined, actually, but at peace. This peace has taken a lot of prayer and a bit of alcohol. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not cool with the sin. I’m cool with the providence of God. Cool that this is part of his plan. Jesus himself lived in times in which the God’s people were radically failed by their leaders. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” (Mt 9:36). This is not the first time that the people of God have been ditched by the hirelings among our shepherds. Jesus knew this would happen (Jn 10:12-13). It’s just the first time that I’ve felt quite so ditched personally.
I’m glad I’m calmed down and less angry. “For the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God,” (James 1:20). It’s going to be important for us to keep our cool so we can work rationally, decisively, ruthlessly, each in our own sphere of influence. I want 100% accountability and transparency from our bishops and won’t be satisfied until we get it. In 2002, in general, I trusted our bishops; now I trust none of them. Whereas in 2002, I thought we needed better procedures, now I realize that the problem is deeper.
Firstly, the problem isn’t bad procedure or poor administration. Those are part of the fruits of the problem. The problem isn’t clericalism. Clericalism has only aided and abetted the problem, sheltered it. Clericalism is protecting the problem in the Church like sloth protects the problems in my soul. I want to get up earlier and pray more, but sloth defends my distance from God. I want to cut out cussing or clean out my basement, but sloth intervenes, takes over, and somehow stops my better angels from acting. Clericalism is thus. In our clergy there are men who prize money, sex, and power far above Christ and His poor, ailing Bride, the Church, our Mother. They value advancement, look out for each other, and “help” each other. They find each other by shared interests and recruit new members into their little cliques. They get each other promoted and even made cardinals. Their “friendship” is tainted and corrupted by sin until at last they are merely cabals of criminals conspiring to live overpaid, underworked, sexually indulgent and even perverted lives on the backs of the people of God. Clericalism, the over-exalting of our clergy together with the aloofness of many of them from us, has protected all these vices. But like my sloth, the clericalism isn’t really the main problem. It just helps protect the problem. Keep it secret.
The secret is coming out now. We’ve all heard about this or that stray incident over the last decade or two. An archbishop resigns after his illicit sexual union is revealed. A drug-fueled orgy is busted by Swiss Guards in the Vatican. A large group of seminarians in Honduras complain about being preyed upon in their seminary and their bishop’s refusal to act in the matter. A cardinal is publicly outed for decades of abuse and other behavior unbecoming a man of God. Another is publicly shamed for failing to act or acting with depraved indifference. But he’s not even the first. But now, it’s becoming clear that these stray incidents are not random flukes, but instances of a pattern. The pattern is becoming clear and visible. A significant number of bishops have systematically covered up for the deranged behavior of their priests or brother bishops, to clear obstacles from their careers, or because they colluded in the original crimes themselves, or because they are just really incompetent. It’s a sad state of affairs when the best you can hope for from your bishop is that maybe he isn’t evil; maybe he’s just an idiot.
Here’s the thing. Money, sex, and power are always tangled together in the un-redeemed, un-transformed heart. That means a few things. We are going to see more scandals. Fraud, embezzlement, and the like are going to come out. These scandals will, like the sex scandals, also come in duplicate: the initial sin and the cover-up. It seems clearer by the day that Blessed Pope Paul VI was not exaggerating when in 1972 he preached that the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God (homily in Italian).
We will seek to discover the perpetrators and collaborators of each of these crimes. We must try to root them out. They have betrayed the trust of God and his people. If their crimes can be prosecuted by the secular authority, they must be turned in. If the people of God - clergy and laity - are confident that a particular person is guilty, then we must put him out, let him learn honest work, and no longer permit him to fleece and prey upon the people of God.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber -- not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you," (1 Cor 5:9-13).
Of course thieves and rapists are welcome in the Field Hospital of the Lord: as penitents, not as wolves walking with a shepherd’s crozier.
So what can we do? In civic affairs, I can vote every so often. I can’t even do that much in ecclesiastical affairs. Maybe I can pass around a petition. Some people are doing that. Such measures, alone, don't instill confidence. Still, there are a few things that I think we can do that, cumulatively, will have impact.
Encourage our priests to say the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel after every mass and indeed after every public gathering of Catholics. “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” (Eph 6:12). If you’re at daily Mass, and the priest has said the concluding blessing, kissed the altar, and started walking out, why not start it yourself? People will join in.
Recommit to the practices of daily prayer and frequent fasting. “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness,” (Tob 12:8).
Adopt the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience according to our duties and state of life. These are the antidote to money-grubbing sexual depravity and power politics in the Church. While it will certainly look different for a family of six versus a single person, every Christian should spend some time examining his or her own situation in light of the evangelical counsels.
Demand justice in a spirit of the nagging widow toward the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). The victims of these crimes deserve justice, but so do clerics who are rightly or wrongly accused. Do not be deterred by claims of scandalmongering. Don't get all obsessed and definitely don't believe everything you hear. Check your facts and your sources. But don't let up. The time for secrecy, if there ever was such a time, is past. Now is the time for truth and justice. Use whatever influence you have, great or small, to demand it. Do not view attorneys general and the secular press as our enemies. If our bishops had forthrightly dealt with these issues as they promised, the media and the law would not have had the opportunity to deal with our bishops in this way. Our bishops have made their own beds. Sign petitions or hold placards. Redirect your tithe to more suitable custodians of grace. Write articles. Tweet. Ask awkward questions in public. Satan is unleashed and we will not drive him back with holy silence but with the Holy Name of Jesus (Mt 7:22). Always remember: these outward actions must be accompanied by prayer and trust in God rather than simple anger.
Do not leave. The Church is the bishop united to the people of God in the sacraments. The bishop is just part of that equation; you are another part of it. You are a Christian by virtue of your baptism into Christ. Unless you have sinned in a scandalous way, the bishop has no more right to chase you out than you have to chase him out. Don’t let him!
The term 'laity' is here understood to mean all the faithful except those in Holy Orders... who by Baptism are incorporated into Christ and integrated into the People of God... and have their own part to play in the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the World, (CCC 897).
And if you leave, where will you go? Where will you receive the Body and Blood of Christ? Who will absolve your sins? Do you expect to find another Church that will not have sinners in it? “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (Jn 6:68).
While we’re on the topic of baptism, “[do] you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3). For a long time, I had no idea what these words meant. I probably still don’t really know. But I’m starting to get a sense because sometimes this does feel like a death. Our Lord’s body is pierced and pierced again.
None of the above probably sounds very satisfying to you. They don’t sound satisfying to me either. They don't comfort me. But they’re what I have: cold, hard reality as far as I can see it. It’s sad. We’re right to be sad. Despite our desires for a quick fix and a tidy ending, we’re not going to get them. We’re going to get bloodied brows, lacerated backs, and pierced sides.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4).
Maybe it’s just not time for comfort yet.