The Tragedy of Commonplace Church Scandals

Despite curbing my online reading, scarcely a day passes without noting some new scandal caused by a theologian, priest, or bishop. It’s true, of course, that small stories from faraway places achieve an immediacy impossible without the web, but, still, the outrages are all too real.

I suspect stories come readily to mind: commemorations of the Reformation in Catholic cathedrals, theologians subverting infallibly declared doctrine, priests tweeting morally tendentious viewpoints, bishops giving license to permissiveness, faithful scholars losing positions … on and on goes the litany of confusion. So much instability in the Church just now, it’s exhausting.

Despite the sadness (sometimes spleen) occasioned by these accounts, I find myself even more troubled by the “not-newsworthy” scandals, those overlooked infidelities wearing and chipping away at the foundations of faith. That is, the normal, everyday scandal.

We tend to think of a scandal as something shocking and public but a scandal need not be grave. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil,” even if that evil is prosaic or ubiquitous. Further, while the term “lead” suggests deliberate intention, as when planning to tempt another into sinning, the Catechism notes that scandal can be “provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion” which lead “to the decline of moral and the corruption of religious practice” that “intentionally or not” make Christian obedience difficult. A background culture, a set of social norms and attitudes—fashion and opinion—can be scandalous if they contribute to the doing of evil, even if not explicitly intended—even if unintended. Of course, culpability for unintended scandal may be mitigated by a lack of intention without thereby diminishing its objectivity.

Given this understanding, by “everyday scandal” I mean the failure to teach and proclaim the fullness of faith such that others are led to do evil by that failure. Catholic Lite is a scandal.

It is a scandal when priests fail to remind parishioners of a forthcoming day of obligation.

It is a scandal when priests (and others in authority) fail to teach the illicitness of artificial contraception.

It is a scandal when catechists dumb down the Faith so that their young charges receive a false image of God who is “nice” rather than holy, lenient rather than merciful, and who does not hate wickedness (Proverbs 6: 16-19).

It is a scandal when the Tabernacle and the Eucharist are not duly reverenced.

It is a scandal when those in authority teach us to accommodate, to water down, to give way to our cultured despisers.

I choose these examples precisely for their ordinariness. They are drearily common, so usual as to be expected. Still, they are scandalous, even if done out of good will. So often the good intentions of the priest and catechist are obvious; they want to present the Catholic Church in ways that can be heard and accepted by the parishioner, the alienated cradle Catholic, the searcher, and also by the skeptical columnist or academic. They know the Faith appears hard, strange, uncompromising, even weird to their contemporaries, and they want their sister to return to the Church, their child to remain, the students at the parish school to attend. They want good, they do not intend scandal, and yet they cause it by leading to the decline of religious practice and obedience.

It’s not just the “nice-ing” and taming of the Faith that scandalizes. So, too, is the atmosphere of indifference and lack of transcendence. In his Republic, Plato reminds that a sense of true and false, good and evil, beauty and ugliness are formed through the implicit, the inchoate, the unspoken—through a kind of atmosphere. Music, architecture, craftsmanship, art, manners, dress, they all go to forming our moral imagination. If scandal can be caused by attitudes and opinions, as the Catechism suggests, then the miseducation of imagination certainly can scandalize.

Thus, it is scandalous when Church music portrays a lame, insipid God who is more buddy, or boyfriend, or therapist than the Holy Immortal One.

It’s scandalous when publishers of material for children use images depicting Jesus as cutesy or cartoonish. They cavalierly teach that we needn’t take any of this very seriously, that we have no duties to render worship.

It’s scandalous when a “chatty” deacon or priest interrupts the liturgy—which is the prayer of the Church universal—to ad lib their own meanderings, implicitly teaching congregationalism rather than Catholicism.

It is scandalous to build parishes that look like shopping malls. If architecture is theology in stone, we are chiseling bad theology.

I do not choose these examples because I’m an aesthete who confuses taste with holiness; I simply take seriously the old Catholic wisdom knowing humans to be embodied and sacramental. Ideas have their consequences, to be sure, but our imagination goes much farther and much deeper into shaping our loves and hopes and commitments than we often think. There is nothing in the intellect not first in the senses, and a Catholicism without awe-fullness is unlikely to remain Catholic.

For the revisionist who wishes to endlessly “update” and make the Church accessible and relevant (ugly term), my examples likely smack of punctiliousness and rigidity. I don’t think so. Before my conversion, I found the forthright realism of Catholics to be startling, somewhat vulgar, but attractive and welcoming. In their honesty about sin and brokenness, Catholics seemed mostly free of hypocrisy and forgiving of others’ sins. Every Catholic I met considered himself, like Walker Percy, a bad Catholic, a sinner. Rooted in a gritty vision of nature and grace, they were not particularly surprised that others were flawed. No one conflated holiness with cheeriness or reverence with emotion. Catholic husbands may have hidden their smoking from wives, but bummed a cigarette from their pastor. Here came everybody, including whiskey priests, nominal believers, wheat and chaff, sinners and saints in the loud, boisterous, sometimes obnoxious, Catholic family. What a relief this was to encounter Christian religion that was not bourgeois but fully human and genuinely supernatural.

A friend (a convert) relates the story of taking an internationally known Catholic theologian to Anglican choral vespers at an Oxford college. At its conclusion, the famous theologian wept at how beautiful it had been, but also stated that it wasn’t suited for Catholics who were, after all, rather more vulgar than Anglicans. He did not mean this as an insult, instead noting that proper Catholic ecclesiology knows the visible Church to be comprised of all the baptized, including sinners, riff-raff, the unfaithful, the unwise, the ignorant—that is, us. Catholics were earthy, tough, often poor, and were the people of God because (not despite) all this.

This bad Catholic sensibility is palpable in the fiction of Bernanos and Percy, Flannery O’Connor and Sigrid Undset, Edwin O’Connor and J. F. Powers, almost valorized in Graham Greene and Waugh. (The famous “Catholic heaven” scene in The Simpsons, with drinking, fighting, dancing Catholics continues something of this tradition, if irreverently.)

Underlying it all, however, in its spotty, sometimes shabby glory, was the unmovable, solid, demanding Church in her fullness. The liturgy was difficult and long and sometimes incomprehensible, but it was offered whole to everyone alike, whether young or old, rich or poor, establishment or outcast, learned or ignorant. The sexual ethic was unbending and rigorous, but the same for the throbbing adolescent, newlywed, widow, and monk. Dogma was dogmatic, and pope, theologian, seminarian, and lay were challenged to believe and to understand.

I’m not pretending to some golden age of the Church where all was perfect. Not at all. Humans are sinners always and the holiness of the Church is that of her Head, Christ, not our unaided merit. But the intractable, stubborn, rooted, demanding, immovability of the Church allowed her children the freedom to grow into the maturity of faith under her maternal eye. As Belloc once put it, the foes of the Church lose vigor and decline, but “as for the Faith itself it stands immoveable in the midst of all such hostile things; they arise and pass before that majestic presence: ‘Stat it stabit, manet et manebit: spector orbis.’” She stands and still she stands, she remains and shall remain: a watcher of the generations.

The scandal of our time is the failure of our priests to teach, our bishops to shepherd, our theologians with docility to seek the face of God. The tethers are cut, the reins let loose, the ship unmoored. The Church scandalizes herself just now, in myriad small ways, wounded by a thousand cuts, in forms that have become, to us, unremarkable.

That it is unremarkable, expected, the fashion and opinion to which we have grown accustomed, is scandalous. It is the small things, the little details, on which everything depends.

R. J. Snell

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R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is a senior fellow at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. He is the author (with Steve Cone) of Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. His latest books are Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire and The Perspective of Love.

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