The Catholic church in North America today is undergoing a crisis of soul, perhaps the most severe one in its young history. Sex scandals among the clergy and the less-than-ideal way the bishops have, at least up to now, dealt with this, have left the church shaken, humbled, and humiliated. It’s dark hour, a painful dark night of the soul.
It’s also high season for those who dislike organized religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. These revelations would seem to confirm their most hopeful suspicions, namely, that organized religion is ultimately all about self-interest and the celibacy of the Roman Catholic clergy is a charade.
What’s to be said and done in the face of all of this?
There’s no easy answer, though there is a biblical one. We must see this as a pruning from God, a needed cleansing, a season of purification, and an invitation to grow to a new maturity. We are being humbled and we must understand this biblically and carry it in a that fashion. What would our scriptural tradition say about this? Given how it always sees God as Lord and as speaking through every event, good or bad, I suspect that a biblical writer would say something to this effect: “This crisis has not been provoked by the media, but comes from God and is an invitation to grow to a deeper level of faith, compassion, and love.”
What’s being asked of us? How do we carry this scandal biblically?
First of all, by striving for a deeper compassion for the victims and a deeper understanding of how devastating sexual abuse is to the soul of its victim. God is asking us to never again trivialize something that so destroys a soul, especially of a defenceless young person.
Second, we are being asked for more courage and honesty in facing and acknowledging our sin. We have, indeed, betrayed a trust and we need to apologize for that, publicly and without rationalization. Moreover, we need to build up a new immune system, an ecology of health within the body of the church, so that this can never happen again. As well, this humiliation should teach us something about the dangers of clerical privilege. The chickens inevitably come home to roost. A season of nasty disprivilege will always follow a time of privilege. We misused power, took too many things for granted, enjoyed privilege, and kept too many things secret and in-house too long, however sincere we may have been. Now we are paying the price. We must never again let ourselves fall into the trap of privilege.
Third, we need too to widen our compassion so as to include the perpetrator, that person who suffers from the most unglamorous of all illnesses, paedophilia. It’s easy to have a selective compassion, to reach out for those whose weakness or illness is clean, uncompromised, and doesn’t taint us in any way. Gospel compassion, however, radiates the heart of God and has a special love for those who are the most unglamorous, outcast, and seen as unfit for normal life.
Finally, carrying this scandal biblically also means that we must resist the temptation to personally distance ourselves from it by taking the attitude: “Don’t look at me! I’m innocent! Don’t paint me with that brush!”
We’re family and this has happened inside our family. A biblical faith and Christ-like compassion does not link itself to the family’s graced moments, its saints, martyrs, and proud achievements and then distance itself from it dark history, its compromises, its betrayals, and its sin. Jesus didn’t do that. His love for us and his solidarity with the family made for a very painful conscription. He was crucified between two thieves and was judged, at the moment of his humiliation and death, by association to be as tainted as those who died around him. People present at the crucifixion were not making distinctions as to who was guilty and who was innocent. Jesus was seen as tainted, pure and simple. Perhaps that was the most painful aspect of all for him as he underwent the crucifixion. This too is what’s asked of us. The sex scandals re-make present the original scene at Calvary – Christ dying between two thieves. We are, each, all three of those characters.
To carry all of this in not easy, especially in the short run. We have to be prepared for a season, perhaps a long one, of continued pain and embarrassment and a further erosion of trust. We need to accept this without self-pity and without being overly self-protective. Partly we are ill (though everyone is) and, like a virus that has infected the body, this has to run its course and the body, in fever and weakness, has to build up a new immune system. In a situation like this, there is only one thing to do and the Book of Lamentations spells it out graphically: “Put your mouth to the dust and wait!”