A reader writes
I’m sure you get lots of emails like this, especially these days. You’re one of my favorite Catholic writers; I read By What Authority during my conversion about 7 years ago, and your blog is a source of continuing solace for me. I attend an Extraordinary Form parish, I’m a trad at heart, and I’m by turns dismayed and disgusted at the growing conservatism/Trump-ness of so much of the American church (the ones you call The Greatest Catholics in the World TM).
Now, I find myself totally at wit’s end. This latest chapter in “The Scandal” has me completely devastated, and I don’t know that I can recover. I find myself wondering what it will look like going forward for me to continue to be Catholic, and for us to raise a family in the church. I wasn’t naive to this; I knew the full history when I converted. How could I not? But I knew this was where God wanted me to be, in his church. I look around me now and I’m not sure. My conversion came at great personal cost: I lost friends, and my relationship with my Protestant family was frayed. I’ve endured low-level scorn from acquaintances and co-workers. Are these the trials that make martyrs? No; they are decidedly first-world problems, but they were real enough for me.
And for what? A church that shelters abusers, then blames it all on the gays? A church where voting Republican and wearing a precious feet pin covers a multitude of sins? A church full of people who think Humanae Vitae is the Most Important Thing Evah, but deny that a hundred encyclicals about social justice mean a damn thing? A church of priests who put dead babies on altars, and lay folk who love them for it? This is where God wants me and my family?
I don’t know how to answer that question anymore. I know our faith is not in men, and especially not in bishops. I know our faith is not in any person in the Church, but rather the three Persons who head the Church. And I’m enough of a student of church history to know that there has never been a time when corruption and imbecility were not rampant among the clergy, and sin and disbelief rampant among the laity. Our time is no different; we are not special. But this is hard, harder than I thought it would be, and I do not know what to do. I don’t know why this feels different, but it does.
I’m begging you, someone I have never met but whose words and opinions I respect, for some words of encouragement. Like your reader from last week, I want to rationalize this. I want to see my way clear to remaining where I am, and being the Catholic man I’m meant to be for my wife and my family. But I want to see it, not close my eyes to what is around me; I am having difficulty, in good conscience, doing that. Can you help me, Mark?
My advice with this *particular* story is wait for facts, documentation and evidence and not get stampeded by what appears to me to be a pretty obvious right wing panic du jour engineered by Vigano, Tosatti, EWTN, Liesite News and several other Usual Suspects. That Vigano refuses to document his charges and has now run off into hiding tells me this is bunk.
At the same time, my previous counsel stands: “ Was Francis crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Benedict?
The papal office is *founded* on a man who, multiple times, radically showed that he was flesh and blood and capable of despicable cowardice, as were all the apostles.
I think the Church is being cleansed by the Holy Spirit. Remember your theology: the Church is not and never has been holy because of its members. It is holy only because the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. The reason we have a crucifix on the altar is because Christ is in agony till the end of the world and the human species remains fallen till then. We are not yet living in the new heaven and the new earth and *that* sacrifice remains the horrific necessity it was on the first Good Friday for saving a race of cunning, fallen predators. We have not improved. We have not, every day in every way, gotten better and better. We remain sons of bitches who *enjoy* pressing a crown of thorns down on the head of perfect innocence while he shivers in shock from the beating we just savored giving him. That is what we are and that is what we will remain apart from grace.
The Church remains what Christ made it: a society of sinners being saved by grace. That tortuous process goes on through history and starts again every morning. It requires facing the fact that sin is ugly as hell and not a mere charming foible. It was sinners Jesus died for and it was sinners who killed him in the most disgusting way possible. We are not charming rogues. We are child molesters, cowards, grasping, vain, stupid, officious, and so selfish it makes you puke. That’s homo sapiens and that is the dried dung Jesus has to work with to build a Church because that’s all of us. So there’s no where else to go because you find this everywhere. We’re just more visible about it than others.
But we are also clay pots with treasure inside, capable of things so beautiful and full of love it’ll make you gasp out tears. You see it in the saints. They get called Rock and then two minutes later they get called Satan and back it up by gutlessly leaving friends to die in the most horrible way possible. The Church is full of those contrasts and has been since the start.
But it is also full, mostly full, of just ordinary day to day averageness—small graces and petty sins and the life of Christ meted out to us in little ways. I often say that Grace is Dark Matter. The scientists tell us most of the universe is Dark Matter. Yet nobody has ever seen Dark Matter. It’s there. It’s real (they say) but they can’t see it. Grace is mostly like that. And most of our lives in the Church are like that. There are big terrible things in the news right now that break our hearts. And we have to face them. But we have to also hold on the millions of rounds of grace we receive from God and remain in relationship with his deeply wounded body. We’re hurt and angry and we don’t know what to do. But we do know that nothing Christ has said is falsified. Men lie. But he has never lied to you. He never promised you a Church without sin. He never promised you that bishops and priests could never commit grave evil. He never promised you a pope could not commit grave evil or act like a fool. (I’m not saying I believe the claims of Vigano. I don’t.) He has promised that he will be present in every sacrament and he has, again and again, spoken to us by his Spirit and helped us through his Word and given us little graces each day to help us.
And (what is often overlooked) he has *called* us. We have obligations to him and to those he has made part of his body. It was for such an hour as this that you and I were born. This plague has not struck the Church as a surprise to God. He knew all about it when he called you and me. He knew we would face it and he has therefore given us the grace, not merely to endure it, but to turn it into something good for others. We may, like Frodo, wish none of this had happened. But that is not for us decide. What we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us. Leaving solves nothing. The same sins will be found in any human community, Christian or not. It is horrific that our Church, which has so high a call, could sin so much. But that only makes more urgent our duty to stay and fight this pestilence since judgment begins with the house of God.
Christ has not left his house abandoned. When Mary thought she had lost him, she found him where he will always be found: in the temple of the living God. The Church is his temple and he remains, as he promises, till the end of the age.
The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple (1879), by Max Liebermann (1847-1935) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]