After the public release of previously secret files regarding accusations of sexual abuse directed at 122 priests of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Jose Gomez announced on Thursday, January 31, 2013, that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony would be removed from all public duties. This is only one of many press releases from the past year concerning the issue of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church during the past decades.
I know many people who, in solidarity with those that have been abused, and to emphasize the grave evil of sexual abuse, have removed themselves from the Church. I respect their freedom of conscience and trust that their actions have been guided by a sincere search for truth. I, however, have chosen to stay within the Church, in spite of the grave scandals it has been in.
I am still Catholic, in spite of these scandals, for several reasons:
- I do not believe that leaving the Church in anyway solves the problem. Sexual abuse is not a Catholic problem, nor a clergy problem; it is a human problem. Sexual scandals are not unique to the Church; statistics actually show that, compared to any other group, there have been a statistically low number of priests that have sexually abused children. I do not mention this to imply that this lessens the gravity of the sexual abuse scandals within the Church: it doesn’t. In fact, I believe that sexual abuse committed by clergy who have purportedly dedicated their entire life to purity, and represent a Church that stands for the dignity and rights of each individual, is more tragic than the same offense committed by someone that doesn’t know how wrong it is, or doesn’t represent an institution whose very identity is in direct opposition with the act in question. I bring the statistical comparison up, however, to show that the problem we are dealing with is in no way a “Catholic” problem. If a person leaves the Church, where does he go? Does he join another denomination? Then he has associated himself with another group that also struggles with ministers and clergymen that have sexually abused minors, even if the media hasn’t been as outspoken about it. Does he join a different religion altogether? Still, if he looks around, he will find the issue of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the issue of sexual abuse is not one that can be linked to a particular group and thus gotten rid of by separating from the group. Sexual abuse is a result of man’s tendency to sin. It is the result of man’s freedom and ability to abuse his freedom. While finding out about sexual abuse within the Catholic Church seems even more enraging because of what the Church claims to stand for, we need to remember that everyone within the Church, including priests and bishops, are men and, as such, have the ability to abuse their freedom and have the tendency to sin. This is not unique to the Church; it is a human problem.
- Jesus chose to entrust the care of his Church to men. He chose to give men, in spite of our imperfect nature, an essential role in his Church. Man’s sinfulness, even within the Church, is not a surprise to the Lord. He chose 12 disciples, knowing already that one would betray him. He didn’t prevent Judas from betraying him. When Judas betrayed Jesus, the other eleven disciples didn’t react by abandoning ship; they remained faithful to the Lord and continued forward. I believe we need to do the same.
- It’s hard to draw a line between when a priest represents the Church and when he doesn’t, but I think it’s essential to draw this line. A priest does represent the Lord. When the priest hears our sins in a confessional, he does so in the name of Jesus. When he consecrates the host, he is doing so in persona Christi. Because of this close connection, we are used to associating everything a priest says or does with the Church and, indirectly, with God. As a result, when we find out that a priest has betrayed us by behaving immorally, we blame the Church and possibly go so far as feeling betrayed by God. However, this is not actually the case. The priest does not represent God or the Church in everything he does. God is perfect love. A priest tries to give his life over for the sake of transmitting God’s perfect love. When he administers the sacraments, prayers, and helps people, he succeeds, and all the good that comes from him comes from the source of all goodness, God. However, the priest does not lose his human nature by assuming the collar; his ability to sin and abuse his freedom continue. We thus have the grace of God working through a weak, sinful nature. When a priest sins, sexually abusing a minor, for example, the source of the sin is not the Church, nor is it God; it is the priest’s human weakness. The Church has not betrayed us. God has not betrayed us. A man has, unfortunately, given in to his tendency to sin. This in itself is a tragedy, but it is an even greater tragedy to attribute the failure of an individual to the entire Church or to God. Any priest that commits an immoral act, such as sexually abusing a child, has acted directly against the teachings of the Church and of God, and therefore cannot be said to represent either with regards to his act.
- The Church is made up of individuals, but not defined by them. It is the sacrament of salvation, and continues to be so even when individuals within the Church commit grave errors. The Church exists to offer salvation to all men, including those within it that sin. Men have an important role in the Church, but they cannot destroy it any more than they could create it. It also helps to remember that the validity of the sacraments do not depend on the holiness of the clergy. All clergy, by virtue of what they represent, should strive to maintain the highest possible level of holiness, but their level of personal holiness does not affect the sacraments. We do not receive more graces from a sacrament when we receive it from a holy priest or bishop than when we receive it from a less holy priest or bishop because the grace of the sacrament does not depend on the minister of the sacrament, but on the sacrament itself and the state of soul of the one that receives the sacrament. I believe that the sacraments – all seven of them – are essential for salvation. I therefore prefer to stay in the Church and receive the sacraments. I hope and pray that all priests and bishops avoid temptation and live in a state of holiness, but I am confident that, even were I to receive a sacrament from a priest that has committed a grave sin, the sacrament would still be valid. That being said, I do believe that it is the Church’s duty to protect its own purity by not allowing priests to continue representing the Church if they are discovered to be living a lifestyle in direct conflict with the Church’s teachings. I believe, however that the Church does try to do this and is putting more systems in place in response to the many abuse scandals in the past decades.
- The Lord promised to be with his Church until the end of time. I believe that the Lord keeps his promises, and I therefore believe that he will not abandon his Church, even when it is suffering from betrayal from within. I will remain inside the Church in spite of the scandals, because the Lord always remains with his Church and I want to remain as close to the Lord as possible. I affirm my Catholic faith and remain in the Church not because I agree with or support the scandals that occur within it, but because I support what the Church stands for – salvation, and I support the foundation the Church stands on – the foundation of our Lord, crucified and risen.
Scandal has rocked the Church in the past and, although I wish it could be otherwise, I am sure that scandal will rock the Church again. This in no way lessens the pain caused by current scandals, nor the gravity of the sins in question. It does, however, show that the Church will persevere. It withstood the scandals of the past and learned from them. It is withstanding and learning from its present scandals as well, and is trying to put in place systems that will prevent such scandals from being repeated. The Church cannot, however, do away with sin; nor can it do away with man’s freedom. The goal, therefore, cannot be to have a perfect Church, for an institution full of imperfect people can never be perfect. The goal, rather, should be for the Church as a whole, as well as each of us individually, when faced with wrongs we have committed, to learn from them and continue begging for salvation. The Catholic Church looks back to Peter, not Judas, as its first leader. Both betrayed the Lord. Judas, when he realized the extent of his betrayal, despaired, and destroyed himself. When Peter realized that he had denied his Lord and Savior, ran toward the Lord, learned from his mistake and strengthened his brethren. He became an example for all, not because he was perfect, nor because he would be perfect in the future, but because he didn’t despair of his imperfection. He clung to his Lord through his imperfection and was willing to keep serving his Lord in spite of his personal failings. And because of this, Peter the Sinner became Peter the Saint, and inspired many others to do the same. The Church, under the guidance of the Vicar of Christ, the successor of Peter should follow in the footsteps of the first pontiff, recognizing sin and betrayal within the Church, feeling remorse and making reparation for it, learning from it and rising above it to continue serving the Lord. I, as an individual, hope to follow in those same footsteps, rising again when I fall, strengthening others and continuing on my journey toward the Lord.