The Stony Road of Scandal

The Stony Road of Scandal June 5, 2012

Stones in the road
Leave a mark from whence they came
A thousand points of light or shame
Baby, I don’t know . . .
~ Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Stones in the Road”

I’m thinking about stones today–particularly the stumbling stones in the road set down to trap and confuse us. The Greeks called a stumbling block or snare a skandalon, and it’s from that root that we get the word scandal. The road we travel as Church seems littered this week with the stumbling stones of scandal, and I am stubbing the toes of my soul on a new one every day.

By scandal I don’t just mean the popular sense of titillating, how-are-the-mighty-fallen revelations, though Lord knows we’ve had more than our share of those recently. From VatiLeaks to yet another media-famous Father fathering a child, plus the infernal stench as more news oozes out about the inept-at-best, deeply-sinful-at-worst handling of clergy abuse cases by the hierarchy, it’s been enough to justify News Corp taking over L’Osservatore Romano and turning it tabloid. People who hate Catholics–and there are a lot of them–do not always need an excuse to do so, but we are taking all the work out of it for them. “To all my foes I am a thing of scorn, and especially my neighbors, a horror to my friends . . .” writes the psalmist (Psalm 31:12).

Defensiveness is the natural reaction of institutions, and the Church is enough of an institution–too much of one, many would say–that going into lockdown mode is not surprising. And it’s tempting to see a symmetry of finger-pointing in recent events. If the Church’s male hierarchy and celibate priesthood have been a source of scandal to the world, so this unavoidably paranoid thinking goes, we’ll turn the tables and start cracking down on women religious and those who would question the Church’s sexual ethics. In the world’s eyes, nothing would make more snse.

But we are not the world. Our eyes should be better than this. The stones I am bruised by right now are not the traps set by enemies but the ones we are lobbing at each other from within.

In my experience, there has always been a tradition of dissent within the Church–a tradition I was happy to be part of at times in my own journey. There has always–especially in the US–been a sense that it is Rome vs The Rest of Us. As long as I can remember, though, and this includes the days of the difficult struggle of the Immaculate Heart community with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, there has been love underneath it all, and an understanding that we were wrestling with one goal: to be, in an imperfect world, the most unified and radiant expression of Christ that we could be.

I have heard anger and frustration and pain (not to mention lots of black humor) in the struggles between traditional and progressive Catholics over the years, but I have not, until recently, seen signs of serious schism. I never imagined I would see it in a parish bulletin. But on Pentecost Sunday, Fr Doug Koesel, pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Cleveland, published a letter to his parishioners entitled “What the Nuns’ Story Is Really About.” In his letter, Fr Koesel–a priest with a long history of sensitive pastoral ministry, a pastor who has helped to forge a real community out of the ashes of three parishes closed in a contentious process even the Vatican found fault with–openly dismisses the authority of the male hierarchy in favor of the witness of nuns:

The problem with the Vatican approach is that it places the nuns squarely on the side of Jesus and the Vatican on the side of tired old men, making a last gasp to save a crumbling kingdom lost long ago for a variety of reasons.

Fr Koesel provides several examples of women’s prophetic ministry, and then notes that “the number of popes and bishops and priests following in their [the nuns’] footsteps, in Jesus footsteps, is ___?” In setting up the Vatican as the enemy, Fr Koesel provides what sounds to me like the (anti)doctrinal formula of a schismatic American Catholic Church:

The Vatican sounded like the Pharisees of the New Testament;—legalistic, paternalistic and orthodox— while “the good sisters” were the ones who were feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, educating the immigrant, and so on. Nuns also learned that Catholics are intuitively smart about their faith. They prefer dialogue over diatribe, freedom of thought over mind control, biblical study over fundamentalism, development of doctrine over isolated mandates.

This is skandalon at its worst, a stone on which many will stumble. It’s no surprise that the HuffPost and the National Catholic Reporter have published Fr Koesel’s letter as gospel. With friends like him, who needs Maureen Dowd? There’s no point in refuting him–in pointing out, as my friend Michael did, for example, that in the Diocese of Cleveland, as in most dioceses across the country, the entire bishop’s appeal goes to “feeding the hungry, . . . and so on.” All I can do is rub the bruise, and wonder.

Can anything good come out of Cleveland? Will the city where the river once burned be the place where schism catches fire? Have Catholics who believe as Fr Koesel does already left the Church, or are they casting a necessary first stone? Will the hierarchy–beginning with Fr Koesel’s ordinary, Bishop Lennon–simply tighten down further, crack down harder, build the stones into higher, more impenetrable walls of division?

The answers, from whatever side of the stony road you’re on, may seem simple. But I find myself looking to the far less simple, far less predictable mystery at the heart of the Church: the skandalon that is the Cross.

Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith. For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

Out of this road full of stumbling stones, may the wisdom of God bring a Church renewed and united, built of living stones on the stone the builders rejected.


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