The latest round of revelations related to clerical corruption, abuse and sin are yet another inexcusable abomination that soils the garments of the church. They severely compromise the integrity of our Gospel witness as heralds of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Even more, they undermine our moral witness in the public arena and our ability to serve as a voice of conscience in political life.
Confronted with this grim reality, we can despair at the potential for a generation of lost souls, and lament the continued, unchecked disintegration of a social order that needs the church more than ever.
Or, we can remember that the best argument for the Good News and claims of the church is not her clergy, but her saints. In times of great crisis, the Lord in his faithfulness raises up a new generation of saints for his name’s sake. Infidelity must always be countered by deeper fidelity.
Truly, we have all the means of holiness available to us. As St. Paul reminds us, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8:39).
The infidelity of today
In 1873, upon the opening of a new seminary in Birmingham, England, Blessed John Henry Newman delivered an eerily prescient address titled “The Infidelity of the Future,” cautioning that even one instance of clerical infidelity would have tremendously harmful effects on the witness of the church.
An increasingly widespread dissemination of the news would make the examples of clerical infidelity known to the masses. And modern, secular persons, he said, nurtured in a mode of thought in which faith is understood to be both inherently irrational and corrupting of the work of reason, would be looking quite naturally for more reasons to disbelieve or to push religion further into the private sphere.
Coupled with an immense store of malicious curiosity directed at Catholics, Newman asserts that “if there ever was a time when one priest will be a spectacle to men and angels it is in the age now open upon us.”
This reality is inescapably more evident today in the age of social media and fake news, filled as it is with curiosity, pride and gossip. That’s not to say that the news or those reporting it are bad. They are not. In general, we should be grateful to the media, bloggers and law enforcement when they put a spotlight on corruption and crime from which bishops have failed to protect the faithful.
But Newman’s caution speaks to the reality that the church makes bold truth claims and has the audacity to proclaim Christ crucified and risen. Unfaithful clergy undermine the credibility of the proposition — the Good News — and, in fact, make the often-spurious claims of the church’s opponents more reasonable to the masses, particularly in the public arena.
As Pope Benedict XVI noted on his voyage to Fatima, “The greatest persecution of the church comes not from her enemies but arises from sin within the church.”
As Christians today, the abuse, scandals and sins of others can make trying to live out the countercultural Good News seem like an impossible calling, precisely for the reasons Newman identified. We can look like fools in the eyes of the world.
Unfortunately, some will find the failures of clergy to be their excuse not to sacrifice this life for the sake of the kingdom. They ask themselves: If bishops won’t engage in the spiritual combat, master themselves and wage constant war against sin in the clergy and among their flock, then why should the people in the pew take up their own cross?
On his Fatima voyage, Pope Benedict offered this response: “The church … has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice. Forgiveness does not replace justice. In a word, we need to relearn precisely this essential: conversion, prayer, penance and the theological virtues. This is our response, we are realists in expecting that evil always attacks, attacks from within and without, yet that the forces of good are also ever present and that, in the end, the Lord is more powerful than evil, and Our Lady is for us the visible, motherly guarantee of God’s goodness, which is always the last word in history.”
The times are challenging, but we know that when sin abounds, grace abounds even more. We must counter infidelity with greater fidelity, and be credible witnesses of the Gospel, especially when others fail.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.