The new wave of clerical sexual abuse reports we are seeing is saddening to all of us. Our priests and bishops are called to be lights to the world, and representatives of Jesus on earth – moral leaders and sound teachers of the faith. When they betray these important roles, especially when it involves children, it can shake our faith, in both the priesthood and in the Church itself.
The effects have been so serious that some have left the Church or dismissed it as not possibly being the church Jesus established on earth. Many are understandably asking: if the Church’s own ordained leaders can’t live up to the standards the Church holds up to the world, what right does the Church have to tell us anything, especially about morality? It all seems to ring of massive hypocrisy.
I felt it important to revisit this issue and address some of these legitimate questions.
But let me be absolutely clear. My intention is not to defend, condone, or minimize any clerical sexual abuse that has occurred in the Catholic Church, or occasions where some have tried to cover up particular situations. My intention is to provide some context and perspective from which to view this current situation.
Let me look at this from a few different angles.
First, consider the role of a parent, which is not unlike the role of the Church. If we had to be perfect to teach morality – wrong and right – to our children, most of us could probably teach little to nothing. If we are the moral yardsticks against which we measure what we teach and do not teach our children, this world is in more trouble than we thought! We can certainly teach our children to unequivocally follow the truths that Jesus has revealed to us through his Church and his word, whether we have been able to live them ourselves or not. Consider Mathew 18:15-18, “If your brother sins, ... tell him his fault.”) So it is with those in the Church as well.
Second, and more important, the Church is not just a human institution. It is a divine institution, the “body of Christ,” founded by Jesus himself to faithfully teach his truths and administer his sacraments here on earth.
As the wisest of builders, Jesus built his Church, his house, on rock, (Mt 7:4-27, Mt 16:15-19, Eph 2:19-20). He promised “the gates of hell would not prevail against it” (i.e. it will never fall), and left it his truths (1 Tim 3:15). He then endowed the Church with the very authority that the Father had given him (cf Jn 17:18, Jn 20:21-23, Mt 28:18-20), and left it “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” He promised to send the Holy Spirit to guard the Church and guide it “into all truth” (Jn 16:13), to “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn 14:26), and to “declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn 16:13).
This Church Jesus commissioned is historically and unarguably the Catholic Church, and it still speaks today with the same authority and protection from error by the Holy Spirit that Jesus gave it from the beginning. It is a divine institution, built upon rock by Jesus himself, but made up of weak, sinful human beings. We cannot necessarily expect the same perfection from its members in their daily lives as we do from the doctrinal teaching of the Church itself.
Remember that Jesus hand-picked 12 apostles as the foundation for his Church (cf Eph 2:19-20, Rev 21:14), yet one of them was Judas. When Jesus told parables of what the kingdom (essentially, the Church) was like, one such parable (Mt 13:24-30) described weeds sown by an enemy among wheat. The weeds were permitted to grow up amongst the wheat, and then separated at the harvest. We see a similar situation in the Church today, and over the past 2,000 years.
Ultimately, what we must keep clearly in mind is that it is personal sin that is involved in the abuse cases we are seeing, and not the infallibility of the Church, the legitimacy of its authority, the reliability of its teaching, or its God-given role to be “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” as St. Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 3:15. To leave or reject this church because of the individual failings of some of its members would be a grave mistake.
All of us are fallen in some way. But God can still work through fallen human beings to accomplish his plan. When Jesus spoke of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees in Matthew 12:1-3, he scolded them for their scandalous behaviour. But he also exhorted his followers to still follow their teachings. Why? Because they taught with the authority God himself had given them: “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practise.”
This is the Scripture we must keep before us when we are tempted to discouragement by the poor example that some priests have given. God can still work through his Church in spite of them.
Most priests are good, holy men. They have committed their lives to Jesus and his Church and have left everything to follow him and share the Gospel. Rather than being tainted by a few who have broken their vows, they need our prayers, admiration, and love. The finest human beings I have ever met in my life – next to my saintly Catholic Grandma – have been Catholic priests.
There is a related side note to consider as well. Many contend the abuse scandal is largely the result of the discipline of celibacy, even though Jesus clearly calls for it in Matthew 19:12 above. Recall, “Some ... have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” St. Paul, celibate himself, appeals strongly for the same in 1 Corinthians 7:7-‐38, where he refers to celibacy as a “gift”: “He who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”
Research shows the incidence of sexual abuse is much higher in Protestant churches than within celibate Catholic clergy. In the secular world, research shows the percentage of abuse is much higher among non-‐celibates than among celibate Catholic clergy. A 2004 study for the U.S. Department of Education concluded, “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.” If celibacy were at the root of things, we would expect the opposite.
None of this is to minimalize the issue. Every single case of sexual abuse – in the Catholic Church or elsewhere – is heart-wrenching and indefensible. But these studies do provide perspective to the sometimes less than balanced media coverage on this issue we see today.
This does not make the abuse scandal any more tolerable, but it does give us a proper vantage point to view and assess it from. Sexual abuse is an issue of personal sin, but does not touch on the legitimacy or authority of the Church Jesus founded.
I want to conclude with a final thought. If you were the devil, where would you focus your efforts? Wouldn’t your primary target be the Church that Jesus founded? And if you could take out a priest or a bishop and scandalize thousands, wouldn’t that be exactly what you would do?
I have no doubt our priests and bishops are under intense spiritual attack. We must get down on our knees and pray for every one of them like we have never prayed before.
Freedom means letting nothing enslave you
13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year CFirst Reading: 1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21Second Reading: Gal 5:1, 13-18Gospel Reading: Lk 9:51-62...
The King's good servant
“To God be the Glory.” Those words – a version of the Jesuit motto “for the greater glory of God” – were the last ones spoken...
Why our new chapel? Thank Mary of Bethany
This new tabernacle cost more than one year’s worth of my salary. Let me tell you why I bought it. For years, I was stingy...
Don’t leave your faith off the court
Through all the faith formation that we’ll have had through our lifetime – every Mass and homily, the Gospels, Catholic...
Jesus is in the boat with you
Growing up in southwestern Ontario, news of tornadoes nearby was not uncommon. I have never experienced a tornado, but my dad...
Share this recipe for freedom
Every time I make a batch of oatcakes – a traditional Scottish cookie – I feel like I’m preserving a little bit of the freedom...
This zombie film could use a little life
More often than not, it has been said, when someone sees good in something, he or she is probably right. Conversely, when one...