The recent revelations and rumors swirling around the church have us reeling, and grappling with many difficult questions: Who knew what, and when? Who in the hierarchy is protecting whom, and who is simply in the dark? Where does responsibility lie for the disgusting abuses that have finally, thankfully come to light? How can we help victims who are still suffering?
It’s a hard time to be Catholic. It’s hard to keep the faith when so much is in doubt, and what little is known is so horrifying. Many people are suggesting not only that it’s easier to walk away, but actually morally preferable to staying. What better way to protest these injustices than to boycott the church?
It’s undeniable that we need a big protest and big changes. But our problems are with the hierarchy, and the hierarchy does not equal Catholicism. Protesting the grave scandals in the hierarchy by walking away from the entirety of the faith is like getting food poisoning from a bad piece of meat, and therefore deciding to stop eating food forever.
We humans are susceptible to identifying any organization with the few most powerful people in charge of it. A CEO represents the organization he leads: Apple, in some ways, was Steve Jobs.
But that is not the right lens with which to view the church. That perspective leads to clericalism, which is the name of the error when we give too much earthly glory and power to priests. Being a priest is not about being in charge — a priest’s role is to be the servant of the people of God, mirroring Jesus who came “not to be served, but to serve.”
The bishops and hierarchy and magisterium are an important way of maintaining unity in the Church’s teachings, but their primary role is to help the rest of us strive for holiness, not to enrich themselves, steer the church’s policies, or enjoy the benefits of influence and publicity.
Power corrupts, as history repeatedly shows, and the individuals in church leadership are sinful people subject to temptation just like the rest of us. We should honor them to the degree that they live out their vocation as self-denying servants of the people of God, seeking Jesus and holiness, and not simply because they have risen to the level of bureaucrat. After all, a lot of the hierarchy is just there to keep things organized — the church’s HR department.
Many of our priests and bishops have spectacularly failed in their responsibilities to serve the flock, instead choosing to abuse their positions of power and commit horrible crimes of abuse and deception. It is an outrage. We are justly heartbroken and furious. But the sins of these individuals, even if the whole Vatican is implicated, cannot imply that “the problem is the church,” because the hierarchy is not what the church is.
So what is the church? First and foremost, it is the bride of Christ, founded by Jesus and led by the Holy Spirit. Our faith and devotion must be centered on Christ, not on our affection for our local parish, or our Bible study friends, or our favorite bishop, or the pope. A scandal may rock the church down to its foundation, but its foundation will never fail — because it is God himself.
The other “who” in the church is us — we individual Catholics make up the mystical body of Christ. The whole, giant throng of faithful believers is much more “what the church is” than the small group of frocked men in the Vatican. We are the hands and feet and beating heart of the church.
It is our responsibility now to root out the diseased members of our body and make sure their infection does not spread. It is our job to discover and shine light on all of the wounds so that we can start the process of healing and atonement. Turning our back on the diseases will only let them fester and spread.
We must not leave — we must keep the faith. Cling to the cross. Fast, atone (some Catholics have started 40 days of fasting and penance as an act of atonement on behalf of the church), and pray, pray, pray. Write letters to bishops, demanding decisive action, continued investigation, and real consequences for those who did wrong.
Most priests are good men, working hard to be the servants that God has called them to be, and they are facing a violent backlash in the face of this mess. They need our encouragement. Consider volunteering at your parish—the people in your community need help as much as ever, and they are feeling the pain of this scandal, too. Be God’s hands and heart. Serve our aching family with love.
Don’t go. You are needed here.
Jessica Carney is a parishioner of St. Colman Church in Ardmore.
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