Several years ago a young priest whom I know, caught up in the pain surrounding the scandal of sexual abuse, used his pulpit to make the following plea. He said something to this effect: “I am in deep pain about this scandal, and I’m hurt by it. I’m not a pedophile. However now, because of the abuse of a small number of clergy, I can no longer be close to your children, I can no longer touch them, and I am no longer free to relate to them as a priest should. This is unfair to me!”
His comment was well intentioned, but it was not a wise one. In the end, this type of comment, which attempts to distance one from what is wrong inside the church, is itself wrong. It is also self-indulgent. Why is it wrong?
It is not wrong technically. One can protest one’s individual innocence in such things. Most of us could stand up and, in truth, say: “I was not part of the inquisition! I am not a pedophile! I am not a patriarchal oppressor! I am not, in ways that I can help, unfair to the poor! The church’s dark history and scandals have nothing to do with me! They are unfair to me!”
However while such a protest is true in a sense, it is superficial, at least from the perspective of Christology and ecclesiology. In the end, it is not wise, nor compassionate, nor Christian, nor particularly adult to say such a thing. Christ did not, and would not, ever protest in such a way.
Take, for example, the image that scripture gives us of Jesus on the cross, crucified between two thieves. He is innocent. They are not. Yet there is no protest on his part. Hung between thieves, we do not hear Christ protesting: “This is unfair to me! I am not guilty like these others are!” On the cross, looking very compromised, his attention and his words attempt rather to engage his God, not protest his innocence to the onlookers.
This, in the end, is what wisdom, compassion, Christ, and the church always look like. This is the face of God in our world; Christ hung between thieves. And that picture is perennial. Goodness and truth are always hanging between their opposites, against a dark sky, looking compromised. All is painted with one brush, good and bad together. Only time and the newness of the resurrection sort things out. But, in Christ’s way of doing things, there is no interim protest, no distancing of oneself from the thieves, no pointing out that I am good and misunderstood, while the others are bad. Christ, as scripture tells us, takes upon himself the sin of the world.
That is what we also are asked to do in the face of the recent scandals in the church and in the face of all that is dark within the history of Christianity. To be an adult Christian, to be an adult member of the church, that is, to be someone who really is co-responsible for carrying the life of Christ and the church forward through history, is precisely to be someone who helps carry all of that baggage. To be an adult member of Christ’s body is to, with him, take upon oneself the sin of the world … and not protest that it is others, not ourselves, who are guilty and, as my young priest friend did, become self-pitying about the unfairness of it.
This vocation, to help carry the sin and dark history of the church, is, too, not just something for the clergy. It is for all adult Christians. Everyone is asked to take upon himself or herself the sin of the world … and of the church. Yet most everyone protests: Clerics do it with the kind of protest that my young friend made in his homily. Others, especially anti-clerics, do it by trying to distance themselves from the church’s dark side by projecting hatred on to the institutional church. Hence the too common view: “What is wrong with the church is not the people. They are good. It’s the institutional part that’s to blame for the things that are bad, especially the hierarchy and clergy.” Neither, clerics nor anti-clerics, it would seem, are content, like Christ, to be hung up alongside thieves.
And that is our mistake. The incarnation, save for that part which happened through Jesus himself, does not come pure. Only Jesus did God without compromise, and even he was misunderstood. To carry the mystery of Christ is to accept the church’s graced history as well as its dark history and be seen as part of it.
The vocation of the adult Christian today is to help carry the wounds of the church, its dark history, its present scandals, and its perennial compromises with the world. In doing that, we do as Jesus did; namely, we enter into the shocking humility of God.