A crisis that strikes so centrally at the integrity of the Church necessitates a response from each one us. There must be general reform in the Church, but I’d like to explore how each one of us can respond to the Church’s crisis with a commitment to stronger faith and personal reform. In focusing on this personal response, I am by no means equating personal sin with the deep corruption we are discovering, nor seeking to take focus away from needed calls for practical change. The crisis to which I am responding, however, goes beyond the recent scandals to the underlying crisis of faith that has weakened the Church as a whole. Although the main thrust of this reflection predated the recent scandals, and comes from a talk I gave in the spring, I offer it now in hopes that it may help focus us on our response to them.
We must decide how we will respond to the storm. Jesus looks at each one of us as we are rocked by the waves. There is no one to grab onto, the wind is whipping up, and we are beginning to sink with discouragement. Do we keep our eyes on Jesus or do we focus on the storm surrounding us? Right now, many of us are drowning in the confusion and scandal caused by leaders of the Church. Does Jesus need to tell us, like Peter: “You of little faith, why so afraid”? The devil uses real problems in the Church to tempt us to sin against faith. If we take our eyes off of the Lord, we could be tempted to think that our faith is based upon the human dimension of the Church. There are so many reasons to be discouraged, but we are called to a supernatural response to God’s plan.
There can be no doubt that the Church is facing a general crisis. It’s not hard to find statistics of the precipitous decline in Church attendance as well as the reception of the sacraments, and there’s no need to repeat them here. Even many Catholics who come to Church do not fully profess faith in the Church’s teaching and may receive the Eucharist unprepared and in a state of sin. We now see that our leadership has been compromised in fundamental ways. And yet, the Church always faces some form of serious crisis. It is built into the nature of the Church as a mystical association of believers, to receive God’s sanctifying grace while remaining weak and sinful human beings. The Church contains both sinners who are experiencing lifelong conversion and hypocrites who reject God’s grace but remain within the Church and even hold positions of authority.
Recognizing the never-ending crisis in the Church does not distract from the need for real reform and for holding people accountable. But it does point us to the heart of Jesus’s call to faith and trust in his providence. God wills the Church to be weak and to suffer. That may sound nice in theory, but the self-inflicted nature of this suffering is particularly hard to bear. Pope Benedict XVI has often pointed this out: “The suffering of the church comes from inside the church, from sin that exists inside the church.” It is tempting to evaluate this statement only from the viewpoint of the clergy, particularly in light of grievous scandals, but the laity, too, must recognize that we are part of the problem. We are also a large part of the solution, if we cooperate with God’s grace. Looking to the saints, the great reformers, we must dedicate ourselves to reform, embracing the Lord’s call to conversion and holiness so that we can play our own part in the Church’s mission with renewed faith and strength.
Nature of the Crisis
There are three major fronts to the crisis facing the Church: doctrine, corruption, and secularization. We could describe these points further as not teaching and adhering fully to divine revelation and dogma; abandoning the call to holiness and the moral demands of God’s commandments; and a breakdown of Catholic culture and the Christian way of life. A fundamental crisis of faith underlies all three points: namely, not adhering to the faith and not living it out personally and socially.
It is true that the Church constantly faces challenges to faith and the moral life, but secularization offers a new and unique challenge. Never before have Christians lived within a secular culture, which pushes God to the sidelines of society, living life as if he did not exist. This secularization has brought unprecedented challenges to the Church and society, as we have called even the fundamental realities of life into question: marriage, the nature of man and woman, and the dignity of human life itself. Secularization is a challenge to the Church because it influences her members in fundamental ways that impede the life of faith, sapping the dynamism of their spiritual lives.
We cannot turn to the Church as a safe haven from our culture, because the Church lives in the world and a crisis of culture always enters into the Church. Catholics bring their struggles with them into the pews, because we live within and are shaped by the culture itself. Confusion and dissent on fundamental points of belief and morality have entered the Church. Despite the heroic witness of some, Catholics as a whole are responsible for the Church’s crisis:
Both the clergy and laity have not been true to the faith.
- Clergy have not insisted on its integrity and have not taught it fully and faithfully.
- The laity have rejected large portions of it and have fallen into relativism.
Both the clergy and laity have not lived the faith and kept true to the moral law.
- Many members of the clergy have not been faithful to demands of celibacy or have fallen into spiritual mediocrity.
- A large percentage of the laity contracepts, has gotten divorced, and has abandoned the practice of the faith.
Is there a connection between the overarching failings of the clergy and the laity? Absolutely, as neither has kept the other accountable, in large part due to their own failings.
Why the Lord Allows the Church to Suffer
The Church’s crisis of faith creates scandal particularly by fostering discouragement. As it appears that the Church lacks faith and holiness, many begin to question if they are real and possible. To fight against discouragement, it is important to reflect on why the Lord allows weakness and sin to remain within his Church. Paul described this by saying that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). God wants the Church to be weak so that he can tell us with Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). The Lord desires to work through the ministry of sinners so that we realize that he alone is the source of grace and truth. The perpetual crisis of the Church continues when her members become self-referential, pointing to themselves above Christ and using the Church for self-serving ends.
Fr. Thomas Weinandy pointed to this reality at the heart of the Church’s crisis: “I have often asked myself: ‘Why has Jesus let all of this happen?’ The only answer that comes to mind is that Jesus wants to manifest just how weak is the faith of many within the Church, even among too many of her bishops.” Ironically then, the Lord may allow the crisis we face to strengthen our faith in him. He helps us to realize time and time again that we can do nothing without him. The constant need for conversion entails turning from ourselves to Christ for our salvation. The woundedness of the Church continues the scandal of the Cross. Just as the Jews and Greeks objected to salvation through the Resurrection of one Jewish man, acknowledged to be the Son of God, so the world understandably bulks at this salvation coming to it through the ministry of sinful Christians.
The Church must guard against complacency to the sin of her members, however. Otherwise, Catholics, whether the clergy or laity, can become like the unfaithful servant in Christ’s parable, who says: “‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the unfaithful” (Luke 12:45). We must constantly realize that we are sinners representing and serving God, who must seek ever-greater conformity to the Master. Otherwise, he will disown and punish us.
Lack of faith and the betrayal of sin have been a constant problem throughout history. Tracing the weakness of the Church—of God’s people—is not just a matter of history, but also a matter of listening to divine revelation. We can see how even our father in faith, Abraham, sought to force God’s promise by taking a concubine, how Israel rejected God in the desert after seeing his wonders, and how idolatry remained a constant struggle in the promised land. Most poignantly, we can see how the king after God’s own heart, David, responded to God’s promise that his throne would endure forever (2 Sam. 7), by committing the sins of adultery and murder (2 Sam. 11). Furthermore, his son Solomon, who received extraordinary blessings from God, fell into idolatry, only a minority of David’s descendants were faithful, and the promised line of kings ended in exile.
The Apostles weren’t much different. Jesus made another extraordinary promise to Peter only to call him “satan” five verses later for seeking to impede God’s plan (Matt. 16:18, 23). The same rock denies Jesus three times as all the apostles disperse, and one of them betrays his own master. Later, Paul had to correct Peter over his hypocrisy toward the Gentiles. Nothing could show us more directly how God works through weakness than how he established his Church upon the weakness of our humanity to manifest the power of his divinity. God gave us a clear sign to expect human weakness in our leaders, even as he showed us the transformation he could enact when the Holy Spirit acts through this weakness, such as at Pentecost.
The Church has faced many serious crises in history: severe persecution, which included not only the faithfulness of the martyrs but also many who betrayed the faith; heresies which overwhelmed a great number of bishops, especially Arianism; the destruction of images of Christ through the East in the iconoclast controversies; the external threat of Islam which overwhelmed the Christian heartland; the ignorance of priests and the corruption of the hierarchy in the Middle Ages; schisms in both East and West; the Protestant heresy which split Christendom in half; modern revolutions which nearly extinguished the priesthood and sacraments in entire nations; confusion in the Church’s liturgy and doctrine; and the secularism which has overwhelmed Western Civilization.
And what of the successors of St. Peter? We see both the power of God’s promise to make Peter the rock for the preservation of faith and the weakness and corruption of many popes who needed to be rebuked as satan for impeding the will of God. The laity has intervened at crucial moments in favor of reform. Even the monastic movement began largely as a lay response of personal conversion and reform, gaining popularity once the threat of Roman persecution waned and the Church entered mainstream society. The first ecumenical councils arose at the initiative of the Roman emperors. Similarly, early Germanic emperors intervened to depose some of the most corrupt popes in history in the tenth century. Nonetheless, the intervention of secular rulers would plague the Church as well, with Byzantine emperors seeking to impose heresy and Holy Roman Emperors and later monarchs attempting to control bishops (and many times succeeding).
Every crisis, however, brings forth a new champion of the faith, such as Athanasius who stood against the world in the Arian crisis. Merely human responses will not succeed and will introduce new problems. We cannot focus only on exterior solutions and policies without insisting on interior conversion. We can remove corrupt leaders, but who will replace them? The saints model the authentic reform that begins with oneself. St. Charles Borromeo led the true Reformation by modeling reform himself, which then inspired institutional reform. Holiness—expressed in prayer, penance, and virtue—must be the center of any true reform.
As I’ve already noted, a crisis creates discouragement, but it can also inspire reform. If we are not simply ignorant of what’s happening, we face four possible responses:
- Giving up by abandoning the Church.
- Complacency in simply accepting things as they are for better or worse.
- Corruption in resisting reform and remaining in sinful practices.
- Reform by seeking holiness above all else for oneself and others.
Option four will require us to ask with Chesterton, “What’s wrong with the world?” including the Church, and also to answer with him: “me.” This answer does not deny the faults and corruption of others, or turn a blind eye to the need for accountability, but recognizes that my sins are part of the problem. In fact, they are central for each of us, because they are the part of the problem for which we bear direct responsibility. For reform to succeed, stronger faith, repentance, and the will to change must flow from many Catholics. Only in following my “yes” to personal reform, can I be a part of the broader solution by allowing Christ to act through me.
Trials in the Church invite us to strengthen our faith. They invite us to examine the source of our faith. Why do we believe? Because we grew up Catholic, have been inspired by a particular priest or fellow Catholic, have enjoyed coming to Church (as unlikely as that might be), or have been encouraged or comforted by being Catholic? These things may have a role to play, but our faith must be rooted more deeply. Do we believe that Jesus is the Christ who has come into the world for our salvation? We must remind ourselves that we believe in God, not in human beings. In response to the crisis of the Church, I affirm my faith in God and the trust I have in him, recognizing that he is the source of my confidence, not myself or any other human being.
I put forward the following points as my own response to the crisis of faith:
- I believe that Jesus is the Son of God become man to reveal the truth of God and to lead us to salvation.
- I believe that Jesus founded the Church to communicate his truth and transmit his grace in the sacraments.
- I believe that Jesus chose to work through flawed and sinful human beings, including his own disciples, despite the scandal that this involves.
- I believe that Jesus will preserve the Church from definitively teaching errors in faith and morals, even though Christians will fail in their own roles to teach and witness the faith.
- I believe that God’s providence will continue to guide the Church through history to the second coming, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church, and that God will use our weakness for his greater glory.
- I believe that God is calling me to holiness despite all the obstacles in my own life, the Church, and society. I know that I am a sinner and that the Lord calls me now to a deeper conversion and relationship with him.
As we renew our faith, we must also reform our lives so that they embody what we believe. This will require an increase in humility, recognizing our own weakness and absolute dependence on God. We must also increase our life of prayer, seeking the one thing necessary and recognizing that all good comes from prayer. In addition, we must practice mortification and penance to reach true conversion of life and to make reparation for our sins and those of the Church. We will have to hold fast to the truth in love and patience, witnessing to and serving others. Ultimately, we must form a Christian culture (or way of life) in our family, work, and in all that we do, recreating the necessary soil for renewal.
Genuine faith leads us to hope, especially in the midst of difficulties, which in turn leads to a greater love for God and neighbor, completing our response to the crisis. If we truly trust in Jesus, we can say with St. Catherine of Siena:
This desire was great and continuous, but grew much more, when the First Truth showed her the neediness of the world, and in what a tempest of offense against God it lay. And she had understood this the better from a letter, which she had received from the spiritual Father of her soul, in which he explained to her the penalties and intolerable dolor caused by offenses against God, and the loss of souls, and the persecutions of Holy Church.
All this lighted the fire of her holy desire with grief for the offenses, and with the joy of the lively hope, with which she waited for God to provide against such great evils. And, since the soul seems, in such communion, sweetly to bind herself fast within herself and with God, and knows better his truth, inasmuch as the soul is then in God, and God in the soul, as the fish is in the sea, and the sea in the fish.
Editor’s note: Above is a photo of the statue of St. Athanasius on Litchfield Cathedral, Staffordshire, England.