The grand jury’s report may have come out by the time this appears. If it hasn’t, it will be hanging over our heads. Whatever it reports, the news won’t be good. In his letter to the diocese, Bishop David Zubik called the abuse it describes “sad and tragic.” He’s concerned that the news will test people’s faith.
And that’s coming after the news that the former cardinal, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, was a sexual abuser. Not a run-of-the-mill bishop, but a prince of the church, a man who helps choose the pope. It’s more news that can test people’s faith.
Where does that leave laypeople like us? It’s a question I had to think about shortly after my family and I entered the Catholic Church. We were received at the Easter Vigil in 2001, when I was working at an Episcopal seminary. The very next year, the story of the sexual abuse scandal in Boston hit the news. It was bad.
I was still working at the seminary and some of my colleagues said, triumphantly, “I bet you’re sorry now!” Other friends said the same thing. They said it the way they’d laugh at a silly friend who had spent his life savings on a shiny sports car that fell apart in the street three blocks from the dealer.
I just said, “No.” We didn’t enter the Catholic Church because we thought every Catholic priest and bishop was a saint. We knew they were sinners like we were sinners, and some did things that made the front page of the Boston Globe for months. They embarrassed us, of course. We felt ashamed.
My friends thought, “Gotcha, sucker!” But that wasn’t the point. Jesus said the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his church. He didn’t say the church would look good doing it. Among his own closest friends, he had Judas, who seems to have been a slimeball at the time, and wound up getting Jesus killed to make some money. Jesus knew how bad his followers could get.
As I wrote in my Aleteia column last week, God knew this and set up a church that is relatively people-proof. He knows people. The Bible begins with the story of mankind blowing the sweetest deal anyone ever got. He chose a people as his own, and they kept choosing other gods and fighting with each other. He saw the great and good of the day cold-bloodedly murder his Son, and Jesus’ best friends run for cover.
And church history after that? Holy cow, Catholics have done a lot of bad stuff. We’ve been blessed with a lot of great saints, too, of course. But also a lot of spectacular sinners.
But God knew from the beginning what we would need. He knew we couldn’t depend on our own goodness. We need a place we knew for certain we’d meet Jesus, a place where we’d find out what he wants to tell us and how he wants us to live, and where we’d get his help and aid.
He created the Catholic Church. In the church, grace overcomes our weakness and sins. He created the papacy, and gives its holder the grace to guard the church’s teaching and unity. He created the episcopacy and priesthood, and gives those the church ordains the power to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Mass.
Here’s the genius of the thing. The fundamental things, they always work no matter how bad Catholics get. God has made sure we’ll get the things we need. However badly bishops and priests act, Jesus lives with us in the tabernacle and gives himself to us in the Mass. He makes us new creatures in baptism. He forgives our sins in the confessional. He gives us priests in ordination.
My friends at the seminary should have known better. They had enough problems in their own tradition to know Christians can sin big time. The Catholic Church’s problems didn’t push me away. Her realism about human nature pulled me in. She wasn’t all sappy and starry-eyed. To put it another way, she loves us effectively.
Sin is not the end of the story, though. We also see astonishing goodness. We see heroism. Not just in the official saints, but in people we sit with at Mass. Whatever evil Catholics do, whatever sins we commit, the church gives us saints and helps us become saints. We don’t get that anywhere else.
Mills is a member of St. Joseph Parish in Coraopolis. The Aleteia column can be found at tinyurl.com/CatholicSinners.