It’s quite clear that 2018 has not been a good year for the Catholic Church. With the Cardinal McCarrick affair, the damning Pennsylvania grand jury report, and ongoing clerical scandals in Australia, Chile, Germany, and elsewhere, controversies over the Youth Synod and homosexuality, coverage of the Catholic Church in the secular media has overwhelmingly focused on priestly sexual abuse and cover-ups by bishops.
Rather than causing us to grow discouraged in our faith, however, revelations of misconduct committed by men and women of the Church should be an opportunity for our personal conversion and a call for greater public Christian witness.
When we read about crimes against young people by priests, we should keep things in perspective. In his study Pedophiles and Priests, historian and criminal justice expert Philip Jenkins (an Episcopalian who left the Catholic Church decades ago, and therefore cannot be accused of pro-Catholic bias) estimates that between 1.5 and 3.5 percent of Catholic priests in the United States may have engaged in the sexual abuse of minors.
I have no idea what the corresponding figures are for clergy of other denominations, teachers, coaches, physicians, or others who work with young people. But I would guess that other groups would be glad about such a track record.
In the past year, we have learned something we already knew: that Hollywood is full of predators. The Tinseltown establishment thinks of itself as holier-than-us, but responded to Harvey Weinstein’s sexual crimes (turning a blind eye to cover-ups) in ways little different from how some of the most aloof and craven bishops in, say, Ireland reacted to allegations concerning sexual abuse by priests.
When we discuss these scandals with our non-Catholic friends, we should inform them of these facts, remembering that one of Jesus’ beatitudes was to instruct the ignorant.
At the same time, it is understandable that the world holds the Catholic Church, which claims to have been founded by Jesus Christ, to higher standards. Even if the bishops’ conferences in every country on earth adopt procedures that will prevent every man with wicked sexual tendencies from entering seminary and even if civil and ecclesial authorities always immediately and harshly respond to abuse charges – something I pray will happen – there will always be evil among the clergy.
The simple reason for this is our very own human nature. Because of original sin, we are all capable of harming our neighbors. Priests are human, and throughout history we have had numerous scandalous examples of them. After the Crusades, the Teutonic Knights, an order of friar-knights, used the sword to convert Europe’s last pagan tribes in the Baltics.
During World War II a priest, Slovakia’s demonic Monsignor Jozef Tiso, headed one of the vilest Nazi puppet states. Although in popular parlance the terms “sinner” and “saint” are often presented as opposites, even saints sin. What makes them saints is that they are aware of their fallen nature, go to Confession much more often than most of us (St. John Paul II went every week, for example), and strive to improve.
We should pray for the conversion of priests who sow scandal, remembering that even seemingly hopeless sinners are capable of turning their lives around and bearing witness. This is beautifully illustrated in Graham Greene’s classic novel The Power and the Glory, about a priest who has not taken his vow of celibacy seriously and has an alcohol problem, yet ultimately chooses martyrdom in 1920s Mexico.
Above all, when we hear stories about priests who give the Church a bad name, we should ourselves give greater Christian witness at the local level, in our families and our work, at our universities, among our friends, and wherever else possible.
When most people hear the term “the Church,” they conjure up images of bishops wearing miters, St. Peter’s Basilica, or possibly their parish priest. Laypeople, however, are also the Church. In addition to the generals in Rome and the colonels who lead our dioceses, the Church consists of more than a billion unordained foot soldiers of God.
Thus, when we think of how many people are turned from the faith by the misdeeds of members of the Church, instead of smugly criticizing “the priests” or “the bishops,” we should ask if our own actions have hurt others. Are we good messengers of Christ’s teachings in our everyday lives?
If evil done by people who claim to be Catholics can turn people away, it logically follows that saintly Catholic witness can attract them. Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist raised in an atheist family. In 1969, he went to Calcutta to make a BBC documentary and write a book about Mother Teresa’s work among the world’s most destitute. Muggeridge was so impressed by her witness that upon returning to England he converted to Christianity and, eventually, Catholicism.
Most of us are incapable of Mother Teresa-style heroic charity, but we can strive to better live out the Gospels in our everyday lives. We should examine our own sinfulness, go to Confession, and think about what to do to be better Catholics.
When we hear of priests or bishops or cardinals doing wicked things, this could be a call to start volunteering at a soup kitchen or center for people with disabilities. If we have family or friends we know have been struggling with various problems but haven’t spoken with in a while, now is the time to call them. If we haven’t been on speaking terms with someone close, we should make amends. Even small things, done in the right spirit, are Catholic charity in action.
Apart from praying for them, lay Catholics can do little to affect the conduct of the hierarchy and clergy (except, maybe, for those we know personally). We are as much a part of the Church as they are, however, and we can definitely impact the public perception of Catholicism and maybe even, in the unexpected ways of God’s grace, facilitate some conversions.
*Image: The Appearance to the Apostles by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1310 [Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy]