Sometimes you don’t want to pick up the newspaper or look at the web. It’s just too painful. The sex scandal just won’t go away. We know the major media twist a lot of the stories about the sex abuse scandal, but some very bad men did some very bad things, and other men let them. Some of them were monsters, and monsters people called “Father.”
And then there’s all the other bad news. The bickering
and squabbling over the pope. Dioceses closing parishes and schools because the
number of Catholics who still get involved is in free fall.
Or Catholic Facebook and Twitter. You want to see humanity
at its worst, read Catholics arguing about the Mass or Francis or just about any
other subject. I mean, gosh.
I’m afraid there’s no good comeback to offer people
who use the news to score points against the Church. They make the simple equation:
“Bad priests = bad Church.” Or “Shrinking dioceses = terminally ill Church.” Or
“Hateful angry Catholics = Hypocritical fake Church.” For them it’s obvious.
Good Answers, But They Don’t Listen
There are some good long answers to those charges,
but few people are going to sit still for them. They won’t listen to us while we
distinguish the Church as the Body of Christ and the Church as we see it on the
evening news. The idea that God may accomplish his purposes through sinful men is
too subtle for them. They don’t see that God writes straight with crooked lines.
They see the crooked lines and think God’s not writing.
But that is the key point, whether or not they want
to see it. God could have wrapped up human history after the Resurrection, but he
didn’t. He left men to do his work, knowing full well what some of them would do.
Or rather it’s part of the key point. The other part
is that God established a body that would be his whatever his followers did to it.
It would always give the body and blood of Christ to his people, and give his forgiveness
to them in confession. It would guard the truth, so they would always know what
he wanted them to know and to do. It would always make saints, who would show us
what holiness looks like.
We believe God knows what he’s doing, even if we can’t
see the reason. For evidence, look at the kings of Judah. I got this from the Old
Testament scholar Gary Anderson in an article published years ago in an Italian
newspaper. Anderson, who became a Catholic while teaching at Harvard, of all places,
points out that of the fourteen kings of Israel listed in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew,
twelve were bad guys. A 85 percent failure rate. (He now teaches at Notre
Dame, by the way.)
God kept his promise to give David an heir (whom we
know to be Jesus) through men who worshipped idols, killed
people when useful, slept around, robbed their people for their own gain. Starting
with David himself. Just think what the headlines would be were he running things
As in the Old Testament, so in the New. As Anderson
writes, “when God called the church into being, he did
not alter the moral DNA we share with the rest of the human race. . . . What is
divine about the church, however, is not the moral character of its office holders
but the eternal promise that God has bestowed upon it.”
No, Not Sorry At All
My family and I were received into the Church in 2001.
After the stories about the archdiocese of Boston started appearing in 2002, an
Evangelical friend said, “I bet you’re sorry now.” No, I said. We came into the
Church knowing every bad thing that can be said against the Church. We’d read the
history, and the history’s grim. No new evidence that Catholics are sinners surprises
us. We had only to look at our own lives to know that.
In fact, the sins of Catholics were an argument for
the Church’s claims to be who she says she is. Of course a human institution
as big and old and complex as the Church will have scandals and horrors. Sinners
tend to wreck whatever they touch. But only something Divinely guided and empowered
would have survived everything its members have done to it, much less shown that
amazing ability for renewal and revival that marks the Church’s history.
Some Catholics like quoting the Catholic writer Hilaire
Belloc. A friend and ally of G. K. Chesterton’s, he had a coldly realistic view
of his Church. “The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine,”
he said. “But for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact
that no merely human institution conducted
with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
In the sixth chapter of John, after the crowds had
listened to Jesus long enough to decide they weren’t going to follow him, Jesus
asked the apostles if they were going to leave too. Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
One sign of that is the Catholic
Church’s amazing ability for renewal and revival. In particular, the saints. We
have all these mediocre people, barely distinguishable from the world, and then
all these deeply good, holy people, people who live as lights in the darkness.
That impressed me long before I felt the Church’s attraction. That place over
there, that’s where amazing people are to be found.
That seems to me the best answer to challenges
like my friend’s, not that people like that will always listen. Where else should
we go? The Church is the Body of Christ. Despite the great sins of its members —
despite our sins — we meet the Lord there in a way we meet him nowhere else on earth.
There he offers us the words of eternal life.