“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I came into the church with my eyes pretty wide open.
|Deacon Kyle Eller
I was, by God’s grace, received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2004 — two years after a massive wave of clergy sexual abuse scandals broke in the national media. (I was a journalist for a local secular newspaper myself.)
I knew about Judas, knew the Lord’s words about scandals to come and about the millstones that accompany them. I knew St. Paul’s words about wolves coming among the flock.
I knew, at least vaguely, that there had been evil popes and whole eras in which there had been widespread and horrible corruption among the clergy, including the era that created the Protestant schisms.
So in that respect, this present day crucible of abuse, corruption, and betrayal is not exactly new. There is a whole heresy — Donatism — that arose in the early church from the question of how to respond to gravely sinful clergy, and in particular whether the sacraments they celebrated — all those baptisms, Communions, confessions, marriages — are still valid. (The correct answer: They are.)
Infidelity to God goes back even deeper in salvation history. It’s a central theme in the Old Covenant too.
Back in 2004, my faith was not based on the holiness of clergy. It still isn’t. The fact that I am now numbered among them makes me even more certain how misplaced such a faith would be. Having been ordained some months now, I can report that among the graces of ordination, which are real, I have not found any instant antidote to my own sin. I still have to seek God’s mercy at least as often as I did before I was ordained, and having been given greater responsibility, I know I will face a greater accountability on judgment day. Kyrie eleison.
My faith is in Jesus Christ. And I believed then and believe now that Jesus established the Catholic Church, entrusting its governance to a pope, bishops, priests, and deacons, even though that meant entrusting it to sinful men who are capable of all the worst things the human race is capable of.
“As for me and for my house, we will serve the Lord.”
In the midst of the earthquakes shaking the church over these last weeks, I had the privilege of preaching on a Saturday morning. In the Gospel passage, Jesus tells the crowd to obey the Scribes and the Pharisees who had taken their place on Moses’ seat, but not to follow their example. He goes on to give a scathing indictment of their sins and hypocrisy before teaching what authentic religious leadership looks like — humble, servant leadership suffused with the awareness that we are truly all brothers and sisters before the One true teacher, father, and master.
So Jesus himself distinguishes between the office (and its authority) and the man holding it, while making clear just how direct and honest we can be about clerical sins.
But as I said in my homily, this can be a rather cold comfort.
Because it’s one thing to know, in the abstract and in the intellect, that clergy are sinners too and that Judas, in this life, is always present. It’s another thing entirely to have put before our eyes, for instance, the unspeakable horrors perpetrated against God’s precious little ones detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report. (And I know of no reason to believe Pennsylvania is worse than anywhere else.)
Every baptized child or young person and their families and friends are as much the church, as much the Body of Christ, as any deacon, priest, bishop, or pope. And yet what they have suffered — not just abuse but then not being believed and having the crimes covered up by the very people they should have been able to trust to protect them.
Even as I tremble for my own sins and hope on his mercy, I don’t think I have ever been as grateful as I have been these last weeks that God is also just.
My feelings about these things are somewhere near the bottom of the list of what’s important here, but I have felt heartbroken, angry, outraged, betrayed, ashamed, all the things I’m sure everyone else has felt. I am a professional writer and rarely at a loss for words, but I have often stood speechless before this horror.
I weep, too, over this betrayal that has brought into the world’s entirely understandable scorn and contempt the very things I believe are for the ultimate good of every person — the faith to which I have dedicated my life.
What can console our hearts? I often think of the “problem of evil” and how knowing the theological and philosophical answers, while helpful to our minds, sometimes does so little for our hearts. What is perhaps most consoling is to look on the crucifix and see the God who willingly took our suffering on himself and redeemed and transformed it into our salvation.
Something similar might be said here. The same Jesus suffered with every innocent victim of these crimes. What was done to the least of these was done unto him. The same Jesus is again suffering the betrayal of Judas.
And he will make things right.
Pray for the victims of these crimes. Pray for the purification of the church. Pray for those whose faith is shaken. Pray and work for justice.
“Et unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam ….”
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].