Stuck in heavy traffic scarcely moving near Philadelphia, I came across a notice which said: “You’re not stuck in the traffic – you ARE the traffic.” I thought of that recently when I realized what a mess the Catholic church is today. We’re not suffering from the wrongs of the church, we are the church that has gone wrong.
The crisis today is perhaps the biggest in the last 500 years. The Reformation then came as a result of people in the church clinging to power. In the year 1500, Catholic and Christian were synonymous; there was no such thing as non-Catholic Christians. Fifty years later, Catholics and Protestants were at each other’s throats – literally, not just doctrinally.
The media are saying that this is the biggest test for Pope Francis. No! It is much bigger than that. At the Reformation, the church was split. In this present crisis, it is not likely to split the church so much as to drive people away from Christ and away from the church. The crisis has shown itself by the terrible abuse and sexual abuse of children and young people often by those in authority in the church. But the crisis also comes more from people seeking wealth and power to the extent that no one can touch them. In Jesus’ time, he had a similar battle with the Pharisees, who were so respected by the people they led that they could do no wrong. They took advantage of such power and wealth, even to the extent of being willing to kill a person.
In the early church too, the temptation continued so that St. Peter himself, writing to priests said, “Do not become a dictator” (1 Peter 5.3). At the time of the Reformation in the 16th Century when the Jesuit order was founded, each one made a promise, which we still make today, not to become a bishop when asked, unless the Pope himself makes an exception by commanding it. Such ambition had been ruining the church.
Corrupted by a little authority
The Curia in Rome, sort of civil servants that administer the work of the Pope, too easily try to take over. At the beginning of the Vatican Council which had been called by Pope John, Cardinal Ottaviani immediately announced that they would elect people to chair the various committees – it was a list of those already running the Curia. Just in time, Cardinal Liénart took hold of the microphone and insisted that as the bishops did not know each other or know what each other was hoping for, they needed time to discern. As a result, the elections were delayed for some days and a completely new vision of the church emerged.
Nearer our time, when the translation of Catholic prayers in the liturgy was revised, we ended up with a hopeless translation, often unintelligible. This was largely due to the work of a small group in Rome who ignored the years of study and consultation conducted by ICEL and presented their own translation to Pope Benedict. Without realising what had been going on, he signed it. Eventually, it became clear that Pope Benedict could not manage to control the abuses he saw taking place and he resigned.
Monies which had been collected across the world for the good works sponsored by the Pope were controlled by people who gave no account of how the money was spent, some of it apparently lining their own pockets. Pope Francis is now struggling, mainly with people of authority in the church, to make it a church of the poor. At Christmas time it has been traditional for the Pope to address all those in the Curia to thank them and congratulate them on the work they are doing. Pope Francis did not hesitate to tell them that their work was hampered by ambition and petty jealousies.
The terrible scandal of religious men and women abusing youngsters in their care is a revelation of something much deeper. We have been blinded by our love of the church and our desire to protect it to such an extent that we have been unwilling to admit abuses. As Jesus put it: how can you offer to remove a splinter from your brother’s eye, when you are blinded by an enormous great plank stuck in your own eye? (Luke 6.41). Any suggestion of the evil being done in the church, we regarded as an attack by the media. We could not and would not believe what was actually happening but saw it as anti-Catholic propaganda.
A culture of silence and secrecy
Our respect for the clergy had put them in an impregnable position. One young boy abused by a priest ceased to be a fun-loving 14-year-old and became surly, moody and turned in on himself. His parents could see something wrong and realised that he needed help. For them, the obvious solution was to send him to a priest!
In reflecting on the attitude of the church, I have been analysing my own reaction. First of all, when I read reports of such big, terrible behaviour on the part of priests or nuns, I refused to believe it. I could not believe that of the church. When it became obvious that it was really happening, my thought was of the terrible sinfulness of men or women who had dedicated their lives to the service of Christ behaving like that. Sin was an offence against God and that’s what horrified me. I did not immediately think of the poor children who had been abused. I was shocked by the horror of sin; I was not moved by compassion to those in need.
We have moved on a bit but the attitude still remains. One parishioner was telling me that the intercessions at Mass were asking God to bring the perpetrators to repentance – nothing asking for healing of the terrible hurt done to the victims. I’m afraid such an attitude is so ingrained in us that it will not be easy to shift it. But we must. We are not part of the church suffering, we are the church. Some of us are guilty, but we are, all of us, responsible. That responsibility may not come from a deliberate act but we need to see the evil of our mentality.
When, as a youngster, I was first taught to be sorry for sin and ask for God’s forgiveness, I learned a prayer that gave three reasons why we should detest any sin: 1) because it deserved God’s punishment, 2) because it was responsible for the suffering and death of Christ and 3) because it offended the goodness of God. Never in my repentance was I taught to ask forgiveness because of the hurt I had caused to other people. We were always concerned entirely with our closeness or distance to God that we never realised how much that manifested itself through compassion for people who had been hurt.
The need for compassion
I have noticed two reactions which are indicative of our wrong thinking. Always our desire to protect the reputation of the church has dominated in such a way as to make this evil possible. Even now, when I heard the Pope Francis had said openly that some priests in one country had misused their position to sexually abuse some nuns, and he even called them “sex slaves to the clergy”, my first thought was “Why does he have to wash our dirty linen in public?” My first thought should have been one of compassion for those poor women who had suffered. The terrible abuse committed by people in the Catholic church has been possible because the rest of us were blinded, often by our desire to protect the good reputation of the church.
Whenever we find ourselves concerned about the church’s reputation, we must take it as an indication of serious wrong thinking, which allows those with power and authority to misuse it. Another indication of wrong thinking and blindness is when we feel relieved to hear that many other people and institutions apart from the Catholic church are similarly responsible for such evil. To feel a bit of a relief because others apart from ourselves are also perpetrating such evil is again, a lack of compassion, dominated by our desire to think so well of the church that we love.
Now that Pope Francis has openly admitted the evil in the church, he has helped us to open our eyes and see what is wrong. That must be the first step. Some of us are guilty, but we are all responsible. We are the church and we have been blind to what is going on largely because we could not believe it. Because of our blindness, the church is failing to convey the message of Christ and instead of drawing people to Christ, is turning them away from him. We need God’s help and healing. The church needs healing and we are the church.