It must be because February is so fleeting that one naturally assumes the news cycle will follow suit. Less calendar time translates into fewer stories, right? Wrong. Recent events have blown that thesis completely out of the water. Begin with the announcement of a papal resignation—could anything be more newsworthy? It will take effect by the end of this month, too, leaving the See of Peter officially vacant until a conclave can elect a new pope.
So what else has happened this month? How about the unprecedented public rebuke of retired Cardinal Roger Mahony by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, in the largest Archdiocese in America, the City of Angels no less?
What an extraordinary moment this has been in the life of the Church. And, without doubt, the most stunning humiliation possible for a once popular prelate, who had championed all the hot-button issues so dear to the liberal heart, from farmworkers to immigrants to inmates on Death Row. What had he done to deserve this? He had, in a word, failed to protect children and young boys from sexual abuse by predatory priests. “Nothing in my own background or education,“ he confessed on his blog, equipped him to cope with such a problem. How competent does a Cardinal need to be to recognize and report criminal sex abuse among members of his own clergy? If it requires a masters degree in social work, then what possible use did he make of the one he had earned? On the other hand, one would have thought a class or two in Morals and Canon Law quite enough background for someone charged with the spiritual welfare of four million plus souls. That and a little courage with which to punish priests who set about perverting the young and the innocent.
“I cannot undo the failings of the past that we find in these pages,” declared Archbishop Gomez, referring to the release of some twelve thousand pages of personnel files revealing both clerical crime and episcopal cover-up. “I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There’s no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children. The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.”
This is only the latest—and, please God, the last—in a series of shattering disclosures coming out of Los Angeles since 2007, when the faithful first learned of a massive pay-out ordered by the courts for victims of clergy sex abuse. Nearly seven hundred million dollars have been distributed among the more than five-hundred plaintiffs who had joined the legal suit against the Archdiocese. Which is a heap of cash even by California standards. Meanwhile, from sea to shining sea, the current price tag for clergy corruption and episcopal cover-up is over two billion dollars and counting.
So what else has the Church lost besides money? And will the amount paid out, coupled with the satisfaction of seeing the guilty punished, amount to an atonement sufficient to allay all the grief and suffering inflicted upon the innocent? What have we lost? Certainly the institution has taken a beating. Who wants to belong to that which has behaved so badly? Or put it this way: How do you defend what looks to be more and more indefensible? Are there churchgoers out there willing to take up arms on behalf of so bankrupt a body of bishops and priests?
Not at the institutional level, certainly, which is where the argument is joined against all that has happened to the Catholic Church since 2002, when the crisis first burst upon us with accusations coming out of Boston. And the argument is, at that level, unanswerable. Indeed, I have launched a few warheads myself. What else does one do with honest rage when innocence is defiled? One would sooner dismantle whole bureaucracies than to allow even one priest to so abuse his calling as to defile a single child. I will not be outdone, I am saying, in the contempt department when it comes to the depredations of those who either betray their calling, or others who cover-up their crimes.
On the other hand, is it entirely fair to blame an institution for those who betray its mission? Do we close the local constabulary because there are bad cops on the take? Or ban libraries because not enough good books are being read? Of course not. Then why should we punish the Church for the sinfulness of its members? Especially not when the survival of the things we value most, like the Mass and the Sacraments, depend upon the maintenance of that very institution which we are so inclined to revile. Go ahead and jettison all that you find odious and unjust. And when you’ve succeeded in completely leveling the thing for its many iniquities, where will you then go to hear God’s Word proclaimed, his Sacraments celebrated? It is not the Secular State that can guarantee the things we love, but the Catholic Church. It is the institution alone whose exercise of authority upholds the standards we observe, including those we invoke in order to punish great big bishops and cardinals. Or, sounding the very source and summit of the Church’s life, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which only a validly ordained priest can confect.
Have we perhaps gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick here? I mean, when the Church is seen through an institutional prism only, it is awfully easy to find fault with anything; in fact, a reductionism of that sort is interested only in the parts, particularly when they mal-function. But what if the Church were not finally an institution at all, but a Woman, She who is both Virgin and Mother, who in the purity and simplicity of her response to grace, to God, is Mary Immaculate? Under that sublime aspect, it is not so easy to hate the Church.
“Christ warns us that we must answer for what we have received,” writes Francois Mauriac. “When it is himself we have received, what shall we not have to answer for?” How the web of complicity is widened now! In other words, it is too easy to demonize bad priests who trash their vows. How much harder to hold all the baptized accountable for the evil that we do. No one who belongs to the Body of Christ will be given a free pass into Paradise. That should at least keep us from becoming pharisaical, which has got to be a good thing.
I cherish the reply Flannery O’Connor once gave to a friend who, appalled by the shortcomings of the Church she had just joined, resolved to take leave of it altogether. “The Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable,” she snapped. “The only thing that makes the Church endurable is that she is somehow the Body of Christ and on this Body we are fed.”
Please note that Miss O’Connor did not dispute the fact that the human face of the Church is something all our sins have helped disfigure. Only that we mustn’t wrest from the evidence of so much weakness and sin the conclusion that God cannot use crooked pencils to write straight lines. That would be a counsel of despair.
Here one thinks of the famous refusal of the sainted Francis of Assisi to condemn the fallen priest whom an irate group of churchgoers had accosted for his repeated infidelities. What did Francis do? Falling to his knees to kiss the hands of the suspect priest, he exclaimed: “I do not know if this man is a sinner or not. But I do know that in this world, I see nothing of my Lord Jesus Christ, except for His Body and Blood, which he consecrates and gives to me. I do not judge priests, because I receive life from my Lord through them.”
Unless we see the Church as having truly begun with Mary, in whose blessed womb the Word first took on flesh, we shall not see her as God’s sees her. Not that we shut our eyes to the awfulness of what is happening around us (indeed, how can we when the media report it so gleefully?), anymore than God himself did, who, after all, suffered his Son’s flesh to be flayed and crucified so as to redeem it. What else then is the Eucharist if not evidence of God’s love for a fallen world, a world hungry for such wholeness that he will break himself to become its bread?
Editor’s note: The image above is taken from a deposition conducted by the Los Angeles court in January 2010.