Repentance, not revolution, is the key to reform.
The allegations surrounding the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick have provided difficult reading for American Catholics. It seems that we have reached a new low. The clerical scandals of 15 years ago revealed how clericalism and the sexual revolution joined to corrupt the lives of some priests. In 2018, we now learn that this vicious union may have corrupted the lives of some bishops.
It remains hard not to become disillusioned by the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick. They confront us with a possible disheartening failure by him to serve God’s plan for salvation. That plan itself can disorient us, of course. By God’s design, the Church is administered by fragile earthen vessels. On the one hand, the grace of this mystery has produced great shepherds like St. Paul, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. John Paul II. On the other hand, the betrayal of this mystery has produced shepherds who have harmed the flock. We need not rehearse here the scandals caused by bishops, priests, and also the lay faithful over the Church’s two millennia. A simple Google search suffices to reveal the historical weaknesses of the Church’s members.
When confronted with these scandals, the question rises naturally in our hearts: How do we react to the disappointment and shame caused by clerics who rather than standing as models of holiness represent counter-examples of it? Catholics are used to, and even understanding of, the spiritual, intellectual, and moral weaknesses of their shepherds. But scandal born from hardened sin tries the faithful’s compassion.
When compassion is tried by scandal, drastic action can appear to be the solution. Revolution can appear to be the remedy for sin. This bishop must be taken down, that structure must be overturned. Perhaps, but when calling for the reform of the Church we must keep her divine reality always in mind. Revolutions—religious and secular—have a way of destroying what they set out to save. Marx is not our inspiration here, but Christ. The hierarchical structure of the Church, formed of weak human beings, was established by Christ and remains sustained by him today. Though perfect in her grace, the Church remains repentant in her members.
Indeed, it is important to remember that Jesus Christ himself chose Judas Iscariot to be one of the Twelve. Even the prince of the apostles, Simon Peter, denied the Lord. Yet between the two apostles we are given the measure to discern between clerical sin and clerical obstinacy. The former can be forgiven; the latter plants the seeds of despair.
This measure is given not to ignore or excuse clerical sin but to understand it—like all sin—in a Christian manner.
Thus, when evaluating the current moment in the Church’s history, it is important to ask:
Do I believe that the Church was established by Christ?
Do I believe that the Church has subsisted in the Catholic Church and still subsists in her today?
Do I place such optimism in the earthly glory of the Church that the inevitable shortcomings of her members force me into a cynical pessimism?
Do I trust God?
The Church is in constant need of reform, institutionally and in every single one of her members. The need for clarion voices to lead this reform is perennial. But so is the need for the virtues of faith, hope, and love, exercised by all in prudence and fortitude—and, yes, in chastity—shaped by the Spirit’s gift of wisdom.
The light of Christ shines through every darkness, even that caused by sinful prelates and priests. His mercy is manifest, too, in poor parents and lazy laity. It is in the weakness of each human person that God’s glory can be revealed, and that, as St. Paul teaches us (2 Cor 12:9), is our boast.
The root cause of the current scandal is, as St. John teaches us (1 Jn 2:16), the world, the flesh, the devil, and man’s natural inability to conquer them. But we need not fear, because Jesus Christ has conquered the world, and has given us the Church—perfect and penitent—to participate in his victory. If we are troubled by this mode of salvation, then let us pour out our hearts to the Lord in prayer.
In the end, we can agree with these general sentiments: clean up the mess, adjudicate whatever crimes have been committed, care for the victims and their families, and keep those who need to be held responsible accountable. But to those whose otherwise sturdy faith is shaken by scandal, remember this: except for her divine head and his immaculate mother, the Church is incarnate in sinful men, from top to bottom. This is in itself scandalous, as scandalous as Christ’s cross (1 Cor 1:18). Through sinful hands we are given Christ’s unsullied graces necessary to purify first ourselves and then our neighbors. Still, some demons can only be conquered by prayer and fasting (Mt 17:21). The drama that dominates the headlines today calls us not to revolution but to a deeper living of the Church’s divine and incarnate mystery.
Fr. Aquinas Guilbeau, O.P., is senior editor of Aleteia.org and teaches at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
Fr. Dominic Bouck is a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck assigned to that city’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.