C. S. Lewis remarks somewhere that he heard a woman on a bus once complain that the Christians couldn’t leave well enough alone. Now they were even trying to drag their beliefs into Christmas.
I think of that as I watch postmoderns (a people radically innocent of historical knowledge or perspective, for whom the Age of the Beatles constitutes the uttermost boundaries of ancient history and who, in many cases, simply cannot conceive of a world — much less a worldview — prior to theirs) chatter in astonishment at the prospect of anybody remaining a believing Catholic given the fact of scandal in the Church. Such astonishment tends to reach its annual peak every Holy Week, when the press dutifully attempts to focus our attention on the fact that sundry representatives of the Catholic communion are sinful in an effort to disabuse us of our purported unquestioning faith in them. How, then, do we continue as Catholic in the teeth of such overwhelming failures? What’s the matter with Catholics, anyway? Sure, Catholics a long time ago, living in naïve pink-and-white-nursery bliss, might have been able to believe. But now, with all the obvious scandal, who can believe the gospel anymore?
In John’s Last Supper Discourse, Jesus gives the basic reason for His instruction to the apostles. It is a reason filled with the common sense that has always characterized Catholic teaching. Jesus is warning the disciples of His “hour” now so that “when their hour comes you may remember that I told you of them” (Jn 16:4). That is, He is not ushering them into a pink and white nursery but bracing them for the shock and scandal of His crucifixion, “to keep you from falling away” (Jn 16:1). This is something the Church has always had to do, since (contrary to the stunning naiveté of postmoderns who think history began with their knowledge of Jersey Shore), the reality is that shock and scandal are a permanent fixture of human life, including the lives of Christians.
Jesus’ death, and particularly the manner of His death, constituted a huge prima facie argument against the validity of His claims for many Jews, and there is no particular reason to think that the apostles would have been immune to such doubts. Deuteronomy 21:22-23 pronounced a curse on anyone executed by hanging on a tree. It was one of a number of arguments that Jews contemporary with the apostles could immediately point to in order to “prove from Scripture” that Jesus could not be the Messiah but was clearly an accursed imposter. Such arguments had all the advantages of obviousness. And it is very likely that the apostles would have had grave doubts about Jesus on the heels of what seems to be such a catastrophic collapse of all they had hoped for. So Jesus warns and strengthens them ahead of time to prepare them for the shock and scandal of His coming death.
This means that there was and is always the danger of really falling away from faith in Christ (and the corresponding need for us to “abide in Him” by listening carefully to His words).
For we are no more immune to the shock of scandal than the apostles were. Only the mist of romanticism has buffed the sharp edges of the scandal off the gospel story. When we encounter the incredible failure of our bishops in the sex-abuse scandal or let some rumor about a popular priest throw us into tailspins of doubt, we seem to forget entirely that the Church was, after all, founded on a shuffler, a snob, and a coward: a man who denied three times that he even knew Jesus. Having the historical memory of fruit flies, we postmoderns talk rubbish about how the bishops have “lost their moral authority” — as though the Church stands or falls with them.
Nonsense. The Church stands or falls with Jesus Christ and always has. The members of the Church lost their “moral authority” when the apostles fled from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The author of the Gospel of Mark wriggled out of his clothes and ran off buck naked (Mk 14:51-52). Later on, this same man bailed on the apostle Paul and caused a quarrel between him and his friend Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41).
Meanwhile, Simon, the coward who denied Christ three times, went on to become Peter, the coward who chickened out on his own teaching and had to be publicly rebuked by Paul (Gal 2). If this stuff were happening today, we’d be hearing all about how the Church’s leaders were spineless oafs who were more interested in politics than in serving God, etc. But because it happened two thousand years ago, we wrap it in a gauze of hagiography and imagine somehow that these weak, fallible men had “moral authority” and were not, as they themselves insisted, the worst of sinners.
Here’s reality: The Holy Spirit, not fallen men, is and always has been the soul of the Church. Our bishops and priests (and we laity) are, like the weak-kneed apostles whom Jesus called, entrusted with the gospel in His mercy and grace, not in our wisdom, virtue, and competence. When we fail (as we all surely shall), we must extend mercy therefore, not salivate over the failure of Christians and read one another out of the Church as though we are any better. The main thing to remember is that we are all worthy of hell and all fellow passengers on the way to the grave. Therefore, we cannot afford to sit around comparing which of us in the hospital of the Church is the least terminal.
Indeed, it is appropriate that Jesus’ warning comes in the context of the evening when the Eucharist was instituted, for the “hour” that Jesus faces is the “hour” we shall sooner or later face ourselves, both individually and as a Church. Jesus makes this clear by the linkage of His “hour” with the “hour” that His disciples will inevitably experience (Jn 16:2-3). The Eucharist is, among other things, a skandalon, a stumbling block that divides as well as unites. It challenges us in the most fundamental way because it bids us to come and die with Christ, and many of us refuse to do this. Like Judas, we want power or wealth and, like the apostles, we are afraid.
It is worth noting that, when Paul speaks of the evening of the Last Supper, he does not call it “the night Jesus gave thanks,” the “night Jesus washed the disciples’ feet,” or “the night Jesus prayed at Gethsemane.” He calls it the night He was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23). They (and we) too will face betrayal, persecution, anguish, and even death. When a bishop or priest or some other Christian of influence in our lives sins gravely, or some tragedy strikes or some other thing happens which seems to offer a crushing disproof of our faith, it is precisely then that we need to hold fast to the word of Christ that we have heard and to draw near to His sacraments, as He urges His apostles to do in the Last Supper Discourse. For such betrayals and wounds are not foreign to the gospel of Christ but are found near to the very heart of it. And they spring from the same source now as then: Those who betray Christ’s Church “have not known the Father, nor me” (Jn 16:3).
That does not mean there is no hope for the traitor (as Peter was to discover). Rather, it means that Jesus asks us, as He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” If we refuse His grace and pridefully prefer our own condemnation over His mercy (as Judas did), we have nobody to blame but ourselves for our condemnation, for “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:17). If we receive His mercy and extend it to others (even to the authors of scandal), we shall hear from Jesus not “depart from me” but “Feed my sheep.” And the food we shall have to give will be our own chastened hearts — which, having learned mercy at the cost of our own betrayals of Jesus, will be softened in charity toward the weakness of our brothers and sisters and shall comfort with the comfort wherewith we have been comforted (2 Cor 1:3-7).
Image: Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter