Our teenager was looking over my shoulder one night as I read a New York Times article about one of my former pastors. “What does defrocked mean?” he asked me. “It means this man no longer is a priest,” I explained. For years I have intermittently followed the case of Charles Kavanagh, a man who once served as a priest my childhood parish. Acting on authority of the Vatican, a church tribunal last week found the man guilty of sexually abusing a teenager in the 1970s. The statue of limitations for any civil trial had long since run out but “between July 2002 and July 2003 the district attorney’s office worked closely with the Archdiocese and found the allegations to be credible.”
A few hours later, my son wakened himself at 2 a.m. with a cell-phone alarm clock to watch the moon turn red. He saw in the first total lunar eclipse on a winter solstice since 1632, the year Galileo Galilei printed Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and received a summons to appear before the Roman Inquisition.
There are as many reasons to leave the Catholic Church as people who leave it, but certainly the sex-abuse crisis has propelled many faithful out Her doors. The fact a man I knew growing up as a glad-handing, gregarious priest has been found guilty of sex abuse repulses and saddens me. What I learned about Christ as a child came not from the words of our parish priests: I remember nothing they ever said. Instead, I encountered Christ by watching the fathers and mothers in my parish as they raised their large broods of children and coped with the myriad challenges work and family presented them. I understood even then that Kavanagh was a big shot in the Archdiocese of New York: during the week he served as rector of Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in Manhattan. Later, he served as the Archdiocese’s top fundraiser. Neither his sins nor anyone else’s shake my faith the Holy Spirit guides the Church here on earth as well as the Church Triumphant.
The Church took nearly 200 years to figure out that Florentine physicist Galileo was right about his science and to declare “the printing and publication of works treating of the motion of the earth and the stability of the sun, in accordance with the opinion of modern astronomers, is permitted.” But declare it She did.
I understand the bewilderment of medieval clergy. So much of what lies beyond us is Mystery explainable only by Christ. The massive size of the universe used to leave me wondering at the significance of human existence, until I read Dinesh D’Souza’s explanation of the anthropic principle both physicists and Christians now embrace. “It turns out that the vast size and great age of our universe are not coincidental. They are indispensable conditions for life on earth. In other words, the universe has to be just as big as it is and just as old as it is in order to contain living inhabitants like you and me.”
Thus, the life of a Christian requires expanding one’s perspective beyond oneself. My family will occupy this glorious, wounded planet a microscopic sliver of time. I don’t expect the men who occupy positions of leadership and power in the Church to be perfect, in fact, I know they are as flawed as me. But I do believe that, in the fullness of time, the Holy Spirit guides the Church and weaves together the Communion of Saints. I pray that Mr. Kavanagh, who reportedly is disillusioned with the Church, will discover this truth.
Last week, mingled with my disgust and sorrow, I felt graced that my own children never have encountered soul-damaging abuse at the hands of adults called to lead them to their destinies.
The psalmist wrote: The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder’s craft. One day to the next conveys that message; one night to the next imparts that knowledge. There is no word or sound; no voice is heard;Yet their report goes forth through all the earth, their message, to the ends of the world.”
What a blessing that my son decided to get a glimpse of God’s handiwork in the skies on a cold winter night. He walked for an hour in our neighborhood with our puppy. I’d like to think he understands that no matter how badly we bungle, the universe remains God’s gift to us.