A deeply troubling trend has arisen in the wake of the new wave of Catholic Church sex scandal revelations. Deeply committed Catholics, some lifelong, have begun to leave the Church. These are people deeply committed to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother. The sacraments and Catholic devotion have been their lifeblood. They viewed the papacy and the Catholic hierarchy as divinely instituted structures. They couldn’t have imagined leaving the Church. But they have.
Certainly, righteous rage against hypocrisy has its place. We feel angry and abandoned when those we looked up to and relied on betray us. Why stay in an institution led by those who have trampled on what we most love?
For those who have left, their reasons run like this: “I could take the first wave of scandals, back in the 90s. The bishops stepped up to the plate, addressed the issue, and put policies into place to protect the vulnerable. Admittedly, that should have happened years before. But at least it happened.”
“But the McCarrick situation and the slow, tepid, obstructionist Vatican response are the last straw. I can’t take the ‘rabbit hole’ dismissals of the depth of the problem. I will no longer tolerate the politically correct narrative of “it’s clericalism, stupid!” No, the sexual abuse is the fruit of a widespread homosexual subculture that sees itself as invulnerable. It is an abuse of power by a perverse, immune, arrogant, godless hierarchy – not ‘clericalism’. And I will no longer excuse the Pope’s seeming determination to surround himself with corrupt bishop-politicians. I can’t accept his refusal to call the problem what it is. I can no longer belong to a Church led by deceitful men who seem far more interested in protecting themselves and their cronies than in justice for their victims.”
“I’m at the point where I don’t trust any priest, any bishop. The whole structure is rotten, top to bottom. I should be able to let my kids be around my Church’s clergy. But I can’t. So, I’m gone. Give me the Orthodox Church, where I can receive valid sacraments without the addition of lies and corruption. Or give me a faithful non-sacramental church. At least I won’t have to explain the unexplainable to myself, my kids, my relatives, and my friends.”
Truly, I get their narrative. I get stirred up myself as I write it. I’ve had to reduce my consumption of news about the issue. Each sickening development in the seemingly endless stream of scandals raises my sense of powerlessness, anxiety, and wrath. So I have to responsibly detach as needed.
Yet I don’t leave. I never will. It’s not an option.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” (Jn 6:68) The Church is Christ’s Body on Earth – disfigured, scarred, broken, bloody at times. The Catholic Church, particularly, is the fullness of the revelation of Christ to the world. Believing this with all of my heart, to leave Her is to leave Christ. But how can the Church be Christ, when sin ravages its ranks from top to bottom? How can this be, when it simply seems to lurch from one scandal to another?
The earliest Christians could easily have looked at the history of Israel and said the same thing. How could the hope of the world come from Israel, of all nations? Israel’s autobiography (the Old Testament) just shows one failure after another. God saves them through their forefather, Abraham. And within two generations, Abraham’s grandson Jacob deceives his father, runs away from his brother, cheats his boss, sets his wives against one another, plays favorites with his sons Joseph and Benjamin, and in general rears a family that puts the “fun” back into dysfunctional (cf. Gen 25-50).
Then, God raises up Moses. Moses saves Israel from Egyptian slavery through astounding signs and wonders. Israel pays God back through repeated grumbling and rebellion. Briefly faithful once they reach the Promised Land, the rest of Israel’s history up to the time of Christ is of rebellion and grievous sin interspersed with brief periods of faithfulness. Bad king follows bad king, sacrificing their children by fire to pagan gods and hosting prostitutes in the Temple. Their best king, David, only cleans up his act after adultery and murder. God tirelessly sends his servants the prophets to call Israel to repentance. Israel murders the prophets for their trouble.
Matthew’s gospel begins with Jesus’s Jewish ancestry. A microcosm of the history of Israel, Jesus’s family tree is riddled with scandal and sin. There’s incest, prostitution, adultery, murder, idolatrous kings, faithful kings (very few), exiles, and nobodies.
Justly, one could ask, “Of all nations, why would God choose this family and nation to be the family and nation of His Son? Couldn’t He find anything better? Why didn’t He abandon them and start over with more promising material?”
Yet God did not. He chose Israel. Israel responded sometimes wholeheartedly, more often poorly or not at all to God’s choice. But somehow, through the ups and downs, Israel never abandoned the faith completely. Amidst a world of idolatry and barbaric practices, at least a remnant stayed faithful to the one true God. An even smaller remnant believed in Him when He came in the flesh. Had they not, I wouldn’t be writing this post. That mustard seed of the faithful few has now spread to every corner of the Earth.
St. Paul writes, “The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). The rest of Romans 11 prophesies that the Jews will return to the Lord when the number of Gentile believers is full. God has not abandoned Israel, even now. And God has not, cannot, will not abandon the Catholic Church, either. He worked in and through Israel’s mess, and He can work through ours. Israel’s most heinous sins could not cancel out the truth of its beliefs. Neither can the sins and corruption that so plague the hierarchy of the Church in the West cancel out the truth of Catholic teaching, the power of the sacraments, and the divinely appointed nature of the hierarchy.
Like Israel, we, too, have a remnant. The scandal and the corruption in the West naturally get all of the headlines. Like Israel, we forget the Lord in our prosperity. Like Israel, it may take difficult times indeed to make us remember Him. Free to worship as we please, we abuse and neglect that freedom. Meanwhile, Catholic brothers and sisters all over the world (as well as countless other Christians) are daily giving their lives for the truth of Christianity. As the single most persecuted group in the world for years running (see this article: Report: Christianity Most Persecuted Religion Worldwide …), they are filling Earth with their heroic sacrifices, and they fill Heaven as they ascend to blessedness.
Yes, much of the Catholic Church is racked by sexual scandal. We are scarred. We are broken. Corruption has rotted into the highest levels. So it was with Israel. Yet God never withdrew His choice of it. So it is with the Catholic Church. Yet it is still His Church. There is no other.