The crisis facing the Church at this time has challenged the faith of countless Catholics in the durability of the Rock, which is the Church as promised by Christ. In an effort to avoid precisely this loss of trust, many in the hierarchy went to extraordinary lengths to keep the problems of abuse by the clergy out of the public eye. The failure of this approach has caused divisions that are tearing at the fabric of Church unity and threatening permanent rupture. Some lay faithful reflexively defend against any criticism of bishops, cardinals or the pope so as to demonstrate unqualified loyalty and preserve consensus. Others believe it is critical to bring a sanitizing light to ecclesial misdeeds as a means of cleaning out the Augean stables and restoring the Church’s moral authority. So which approach should the laity adopt?
This is not the first time, of course, that the Church has faced internal divisions of such grave proportions. In its earliest years, the Church endured heated arguments over whether to require circumcision of Gentile converts. Before it was settled, the first Pope himself, St. Peter, stood accused by St. Paul of hypocrisy for attempting to accommodate both sides at once: “But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I [Paul] opposed him to his face because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles, but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party” (Galatians 2: 11-12). We know also that during the long struggle with the heresy of Arianism in the fourth century, there were at times more Arian bishops than orthodox. St. Athanasius stood almost alone in fighting for the truth of Christ’s divinity. He was told by other prelates to back off for the sake of preserving unity. “Why are you dividing the Church?” they challenged. But he persisted, accepting five periods of exile rather than contradicting the truth. Should Athanasius have been more compliant? Or did the challenge he faced of preserving the integrity of Christ’s divinity justify his perceived divisiveness?
It is also instructive to look at the intense clash between clericalism and anticlericalism in late nineteenth-century France. A century earlier, French anti-clericalism erupted in the wake of persistent clergy scandals. In the late 1800s, anticlericalism gained favor with the leftist republicans and socialists. As a result, many faithful Catholics sided with the clericalist party, even when this group was defending the army’s unjust conviction of the Jewish Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, after his innocence had been proven. The Catholic party felt it would undermine both Army and Church authority if they were to admit their mistake.
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A prominent French writer and keen observer of the political scene during this period, Charles Peguy, accused both sides of attempting to leverage the issue to gain power. By contrast, he concluded that the cry for unity by the Catholics was failing to adequately recognize the need for truth and justice. The Church’s myopic focus on unity in this circumstance was sterile, he argued, because the pursuit of truth – a central mission of the Church – was being set aside in favor of public power. Peguy asserted that unity is the fruit of a spiritual attitude and must therefore find its source in truth and justice. One must have an interior freedom from the oppression of sin in order to search meaningfully for truth. To seek to preserve institutional unity at all costs, he argued, is to lose sight of the life at the center, which is grounded in truth and grace. This life is the root of unity.
The issues and circumstances of Peguy’s time are different from today’s, but his instinct to establish a foundation of unity in truth born of a liberating freedom from sin may be the example to follow in healing our own serious divisions. If all Catholics were thoroughly taught, as Jesus instructed his disciples, “all that I have commanded,” as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, then a great unity would spring forth from inner conviction rather than exterior imposition. Real unity can never come from crushing all criticism, but from a shared understanding of the central truths of Christianity. Unity can never be separated from truth.
In the current crisis facing the Church, one could say that the cover-ups of both child abuse and the practice of sodomy among clergy, even to the highest levels of Church hierarchy, is a form of clericalism — defending clerics even when they are immersed in the most disgraceful acts of immorality. Continued attempts to ignore or obfuscate this reality will cause drastic damage to the Church and its mission to be a sacrament of truth, grace and holiness for the world.