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Over the weekend, a fellow Catholic mentioned they were having a difficult time remaining in the Church because of the scandals within it. He was emotional and upset, following the news that hundreds of indigenous children were found buried at the site of an old Catholic school for Indigenous people in Canada. He wasn't the first person to approach me with these concerns, and he won't be the last. Naturally, this is odious, so how should we respond? Shall we resign our membership and quit the Church?
LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - A beautiful and simple apologetic says we crave water because it exists. Likewise, we crave God because He exists. We crave truth because it exists.
When people leave the Church it isn't because they have a problem with the truth. It's because they aren't hearing the truth. No person will reject the truth if it's offered in love, anymore than a wanderer lost in the desert will reject a drink of water offered by a kind stranger.
Sadly, the Church is filled with people who are using it to promote something beside the Gospel. They aren't offering water. Some, like the ultra-conservatives, politically-minded clergy are offering bitter gall that is repulsive to many. Others on the left are offering some kind of saccharine concoction that you simply know it's bad. As Christ rejected the sour and bitter sponge on the Cross, we also turn away. And sadly, these are the well-intentioned ones.
Worse we have the pedophiles and the abusers. We have their enablers. And we have embezzlers, and the corrupt. And above all, we have legions of hypocrites from the Vatican to the person next to you in the pew.
How can anyone stand to be a member of a church so riddled with sinners and plagued with scandal?
First, the desire to flee is instinctive. No person can be blamed for that. The outrage and the tears are also justified. If anything, they are evidence the Holy Spirit is active in your heart. After all, anyone who loves Christ, the Church, and the Gospel must also be repulsed by evil.
But now let's take a hard, honest look at the matter.
The fact is, we live in a fallen world. Each one of us is tainted by Original Sin. We are all hypocrites at one time or another, because no person can reasonably live up to the high standard of impeccability. But there is of course, a difference between a person who commits the occasional sin, and the person who is an abuser. There is also a difference between the person who sits in the pew and the person who preaches. But the point here is that if we judge all people by the standard of impeccability, we will find no person worthy of following. Even the Pope commits sins and avails himself of Confession.
Paul mentions this in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
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9 In my letter, I wrote to you that you should have nothing to do with people living immoral lives.
10 I was not including everybody in this present world who is sexually immoral, or everybody who is greedy, or dishonest or worships false gods -- that would mean you would have to cut yourselves off completely from the world.
He acknowledged the evil state of affairs in the world. Then, he spoke about those within the Church itself, who were supposed to know better:
11 In fact what I meant was that you were not to have anything to do with anyone going by the name of brother who is sexually immoral, or is greedy, or worships false gods, or is a slanderer or a drunkard or dishonest; never even have a meal with anybody of that kind.
12 It is no concern of mine to judge outsiders. It is for you to judge those who are inside, is it not?
13 But outsiders are for God to judge. You must banish this evil-doer from among you.
There's a few things to note here. First, the concerns we have over evildoers within the Church are nothing new. As we can see, there were great sinners within the early Church itself. Yet it should be noted that Paul did not leave the Church. Also, when Paul spoke of banishing evildoers, it did not mean he wanted them banished forever, but instead until they repented and paid their penance.
The threat of such banishment was intended to discourage evil in the first place. However, no evildoer is ever cut off entirely from salvation, since that is only for God to judge. All the living are invited to reconciliation. Paul himself was a great persecutor of the early Christians, yet became an Apostle!
But Paul's prescription is the right one. We are to banish those who do evil from the ranks of the Church, at least until they repent. And for those who have committed crimes, they must pay the penalty associated with those crimes. We must always advocate for justice.
Yet this is key, we must understand that all people, even ourselves, are sinners. The fact that others beside us in the pews are hypocrites is perhaps the weakest reason to abandon the Church. We ourselves are hypocrites, and we should concern ourselves with this more than we worry about the hypocrisy of those next to us.
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When it comes to the clergy, we must recognize two things. First, the truth is the truth, no matter who speaks it. Even if a person is a known liar and teller of tall tales, the truth does not stop being the truth when they repeat it. So, if a priest preaches the Gospel, even while himself being a great sinner, or even a criminal, the Gospel remains true.
Second, when a priest validly performs a Sacrament, the grace conferred upon you is legitimate. It is not tainted because it is Christ, not the priest, who is conferring the grace. The priest would be committing a sin himself, that of sacrilege (assuming he has the opportunity to confess and refuses), but the Sacrament itself remains valid. As St. Thomas Aquinas once explained: Christ may even act through a minister who may be spiritually dead. (Such is the power of Christ!)
To reject the Church and the Sacraments on this basis is similar to rejecting a drink of water in the scorching desert because the offerer's clothes are dirty. It is yourself who suffers the greatest loss, not the giver.
That last part is key. To abandon the Church because some of its ministers are sinners is to punish yourself for their sins. You are not the one who ought to pay. Instead, the solution is to advocate, to agitate for justice. And above all, by looking after our own sins and avoiding our own hypocrisy, we can do the most to strengthen the Church.
Let us not abandon the Church to those who do evil. Paul certainly did not abandon it, despite this being a problem even in his time. Instead, we are called to remain and to advocate for justice while also recognizing that these problems are inherent, thanks to our fallen nature. There will always be problematic priests, priests who commit great sins, and hypocrites in the pews. But to quit the Church over our righteous indignation allows the devil to win not once, but twice.
Consider that when deciding.
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