And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. – 2 Cor 11:12-15
I did not live in Boston when the scandal broke in 2002. It was strange to feel the sting of humiliation and anger inflicted by people who, while physically distant, somehow managed to tarnish the entire Church– of which I, protected far away in the comfort of my midwestern dorm room, was a part. I didn’t know any of the people involved in the scandal, and yet I felt the sort of shame-by-association that one might feel upon discovering a deep, sordid family secret. Recently, Timothy Cardinal Dolan gave a keynote presentation at the Portsmouth Institute’s Summer Conference. He called for theologians to rediscover, in light of today’s challenges to family life, the meaning of Church as “family.” What does it mean that baptism actually transforms us into adopted sons and daughters of God?
Sadly, Cardinal Dolan, one of the things it means is that we’re stuck with one another, I guess.
The recent fallout of the McCarrick scandal, Cardinal Sean’s seminary inquiry, and numerous testimonials of seminarians and priests about misconduct among clerics just makes me want to crawl into bed, hide my face and cry. I can’t make sense of it and at the very root of everything, I feel betrayed. As a laywoman who has dedicated my professional life, ministry and my children to the care of the Catholic Church, I am disgusted and hurt. I now feel the burden of having to shelter my children not just from secular violations of the human person, but ecclesiastical ones as well. It’s a horrible cross to bear– and there’s really not much more to be said.
And yet, it seems as if there should be more. I’ve spent far too much time wrestling with the idea that God has entrusted the care of His flock and the transmission of the Sacraments into the hands of such broken people. Jacob’s angel seems a far less formidable foe. Part of the problem is that when I examine my feelings, I find that I don’t specifically blame one group of people for this. I don’t blame men. I don’t blame priests. I don’t blame unmarried priests. I don’t blame priests who experience same-sex attraction. I just blame people.
I blame us for being so weak and so easily seduced into sin.
I blame us for covering up the misdeeds of others, out of self-preservation or fear or misguided concepts of mercy.
I blame us for not thinking about how our private actions affect others.
I blame us for turning our backs on God.
And, to be honest, I blame God for letting all this happen.
As soon as I admit that, I actually feel a little bit better– because even though these scandals feel like a new assault on the Church, they are just one manifestation of the same old problem we Monotheists will never be able to shake: if God is all-powerful and completely Good, why is there evil? We can do a quick feather-dusting of the problem by saying, “evil comes from the devil,” but that doesn’t really solve anything, does it? I didn’t ask whence comes evil. I asked why.
The answer, which in the throes of suffering seldom feels satisfactory, is simply that God permits us to do evil things so that His goodness and glory may be made more manifest in some way. There’s this pesky thing called free will that God has given to us as a gift, meant to be used for love of God and love of neighbor, but far too often misused and abused to do evil. God chooses not to violate our free will, so instead He chooses to use our errors for good. To put it more colloquially, God writes straight with crooked lines– and this should lead us to appreciate His artistry even more. In the particular case of sins committed by priests, we can turn to the ancient Donatist debates and see how the scandals, and responses to scandals, led us to a more robust appreciation of how CHRIST works in the Sacraments, NOT the priest. I am grateful to have this understanding at a theological, but also a practical level. Just as a priest must put aside what he knows about each of us from the confessional as we approach the Eucharist, we lay people must put aside our feelings about the human minister of Holy Communion. It is not easy, but sacramental theology dictates this of all of us. I know this. I will teach my children this.
But it doesn’t get rid of the feelings of betrayal, does it? The biggest problem with scandal is that it poisons the wellspring of faith. It sows doubt and suspicion– and in the face of such enemies we have to make the arduous choice to trust. We have to ask God to supply the grace we need to trust Him and to trust His Church. We need to choose to trust the Father, even when His children prove time and time again that we are disobedient. We need to choose to trust the office of the priesthood, even when our “fathers” fall incredibly short of the goodness and perfection of our heavenly Father.
One danger of calling our priests “fathers” is that we tend to hold them up on a pedestal as we do our own biological fathers. While it is not easy to see a brother or sister following a dark path, it is much harder to cope with the sins of our parents. Whether we are children or adults, there is no way to soften the blow that comes from having our trust in a parent undermined. It challenges the very foundation of our perception of the world and our self. Perhaps in an age when the family, and specifically the office fatherhood, are under perilous attack, it should come as no surprise that our spiritual fathers would suffer the same fate.
Yet I do not think it is inappropriate to continue to think of and refer to our priests as “fathers,” for I do know many wonderful, holy, men who have given their lives to serve God’s family as spiritual fathers and leaders. Christ continues to call and to strengthen true shepherds who speak with the same voice as the Good Shepherd. I do not want their witness or their sacrifice to go unnoticed and unappreciated in the current haze. I promise that I will continue to be outraged at cover-ups and the systematic permission of sin which have occurred and might continue to occur within the Church. I will do all that I can to strive for holiness in my own life, to cultivate holiness in my family and relationships, and to speak out against offenses to God and His Church.
But I also promise to pray for our priests, for our seminarians, for all those young men who feel called to the priesthood— and I will encourage my son to respond generously to God’s call to fatherhood, whether spiritual or biological, when the time comes. That, at least, feels like something I can do at this moment– in addition to a little bit of crying into my pillow. If Jesus wept, so can I.