Where Else Shall We Go?

Some say that people are leaving the Catholic Church over the current scandals.  This confuses me. In whom did you have faith?  The priest?  The bishop?  Or God?  If your faith was in a priest, a bishop, or even the pope, then what you professed was idolatry, not Christian faith.

Am I downplaying the seriousness of the scandal or the damage it has done?  No, but let’s put things into perspective.  If you ask, “How can I continue to have faith in the Catholic Church considering all these horrible acts?” you might put yourself in the place of the Jewish community after the Holocaust. They had to ask themselves: “How can I continue to have faith in God considering all these horrible acts?”

How can we continue to dedicate ourselves to a community so unfaithful to God?  Moses asked the same question when he saw the infidelity of his fellow Jews in the desert. The prophets asked the same question when they saw the injustices of the people in the Promised Land.  The early apostles must have asked themselves the same question when they saw that it was one of their own company who handed Jesus over to His enemies.  And Peter himself, the “rock” on which the Church was to be built, denied he even knew the Lord in His most desperate hour of need.  What could anyone do to compete with that?

How hard would it have been to stay in the Church when one’s friends, neighbors, and family members were being martyred, torn to shred by animals or burned alive, for refusing to deny their faith? How hard would it have been to stay in the Church when so many of one’s other friends, neighbors, and family members had given in and denied Christ in the face of the threats of the Roman authorities.  Life in the Church has rarely been simple.


What would you have done when the Arian crisis split the Church in two, with the supposedly “Christian” emperor Constantine and most of the empire siding with the Arians?  How about when three men all claimed to be pope in the fourteenth century? Or when the Protestant Revolt split Christendom and much of the Church hierarchy was corrupt and moribund?  The Council of Trent was a great gift of the Spirit, but it didn’t commence until 1545 (Martin Luther authored the 95 theses in 1517), and it didn’t wrap up until 1563, nearly twenty years later.

Imagine being a Catholic in the midst of these scandals. What would you have done?  Would you have been one of those who stayed and fought the good fight in faith?  Or would you have been one of the many who said, “That’s it. I’m out”?

But then where would you have gone?  That’s the question Peter asks Christ.  “Lord, where else shall we go?” Who else has the words of everlasting life?

I’m sorry, but did I miss something?  Did Christ found some other Church – the Church with the good people?  The Church with the perfect liturgies?  The Church in which all the clergy and laity are doctrinally correct and without sin? Because I’ve never seen it.  I’ve never read about it in the Scriptures, nor did the Fathers and Doctors of the Church mention it.  Quite the contrary; they repeatedly talk about the human element of the Church being sinful and in need of Christ’s redemption.

Are these scandals keeping people away from the Church?  Please.  People are staying away from the Church because the Church makes uncomfortable moral claims and because Catholics aren’t a living witness in society to the truth of that teaching.  Surveys have repeatedly shown Catholics to be little different from the general public in their opinions on fundamental moral issues.  Catholics in San Francisco threatened to sue their own bishop when he tried to enforce basic moral principles on the Catholic schools. Archbishop Chaput is held at arms’ length by many Catholic universities, while Cardinal Mahoney, supposedly under penance the way ex-Cardinal McCarrick was, travels freely.

Ask priests and editors of “conservative” Catholic websites what kind of blowback they get when they try to tell the laity they should pay a living wage, be fair and honest in their business practices, or exercise a preferential option for the poor.   What kind of priests and bishops would you expect to get when large portions of the laity revolt if they hear anything from the pulpit about abortion, contraception, fornication, and same-sex sexual activity?

Large proportions of American Catholics wanted bishops who would look the other way as they openly violated fundamental Catholic teaching.  Why are they surprised now to discover that some of these men “bent the rules” in their personal lives as well?  Was fidelity what people were looking for?  Or a winning personality and the ability to raise money?  Wasn’t the latter the reason why so many institutions now so self-righteously condemning McCarrick earlier lavished him with honors and praise?

C.S. Lewis once complained about a culture that produces “men without chests” and then expects of them virtue.“We laugh at honor,” wrote Lewis, “and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.  We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”  An American Catholic Church that laughed at Catholic social teaching and Catholic sexual morality should not be shocked to find doctrinal and moral traitors in its midst.

What do we do now?  Demand the truth?  Certainly. But as the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel insisted, you demand truth by living in the truth.  We should say of authentic Church teaching what St. Augustine said about the Gospel: “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

Are you a Catholic?  Then stop worrying – and act like one.


*Image: The Apostle Peter by Anton Raphael Mengs, c. 1775 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.