Many of us are still reeling from the report of widespread and decades-long sex abuse in Pennsylvania that came out last week. Compounded with the credible accusations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, reports of corruption and sexual deviancy in our seminaries, and the continuing wave of priests who are coming forward reporting what they have endured during their time as priests, it is clear that a massive festering wound is infecting the Mystical Body of Christ and the corruption can be found at some of the highest levels of the Church hierarchy. It does not appear that we have reached the apex and most of us continue to brace for the next round of rot to come out in the news.
People are angry, disgusted, saddened, heart-broken, confused, and disoriented. It seemed this issue was resolved in 2002 when everything blew wide open, but it is clear that certain issues have not been addressed, such as homosexual activity in the priesthood. Since it is an all male institution–by God–it is much more difficult to root out, especially in an age such as ours where this is seen as an acceptable form of expressing one’s sexuality. Oftentimes, what infects the culture also infects the priesthood.
That is not to say that some men with same sex attraction cannot rightly order their inclinations because their desire for holiness supersedes those inclinations, but very serious discussions about this issue need to be had within the College of Bishops and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s call for men with ‘deeply-rooted homosexual tendencies’ to be denied entry in the priesthood need to be taken seriously. There is also an issue of those who are leading active homosexual lifestyles in the priesthood. A purge is obviously needed, the same could be said of heterosexual activity in the priesthood, but as many others have pointed out, these men typically leave the priesthood if it is ongoing. The vast majority of this scandal is related to males abusing males of various ages. It’s the elephant in the room.
Anger is a completely understandable response to the onslaught we are currently taking in the Church. We expect the ministerial priesthood to mirror itself after Christ. And while most priests are not saints quite yet, and they will battle serious temptations like the rest of us, this type of abuse of power, diabolical sexual exploitation, and utter disregard for the dignity of the human person is appalling at an astonishing level. It is evil. It is, in the words of both Dr. Robert George and Bishop Morlino, “sacrilege” of the sacred office of Holy Orders. Priests are expected to fight the good fight and battle temptations so that they can love their flocks as Christ loves them. Temptations do in fact teach us lessons on rightly ordered love if we allow them to. Sacred Scripture points to the rewards of enduring and persevering to the end. We seek a Crown of Glory. Our choice is always Christ or the world.
More than anything, a priest is charged with the spiritual welfare of his flock. These actions not only harm the physical dignity of the body of each victim, they cause immense damage to the spiritual state of the victims. There is no Cartesian dualism in Catholicism. Body and soul, these evil acts attack the very heart of the human person. Actions of this kind are the inversion of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This should be logical to even the most poorly of catechized Catholics, but it has not always been so obvious to priests and bishops alike throughout the Church where scandals have come to light. We still don’t know the extent of the cover-ups–we may never know–but it is clear that the people involved chose the world over Christ and a great many people paid the price for that choice. And if there is not justice in this life, there will be justice in eternity.
Those of us who are angry understand the great horror of the situation, but we need to make sure that we are keeping our anger in check and not falling into the deadly sin of wrath. Why? For many reasons. We cannot root sin out with sin and wrath is a deadly sin for a reason. Wrath at its core seeks vengeance, not justice. Anger is an inherently difficult passion to rule. Once it takes over–because we have not sought the spiritual discipline to keep it in check–it rules us. Wrath also causes a form of blindness. We are no longer able to differentiate between who is actually to blame and sweeping generalizations. We then fall into other sins such as calumny and gossip. Or the even deadlier sin of pride in thinking we know better than everyone else. In our desire to seek vengeance under the guise of justice, the anger within us continues to grow the more we dwell on it. It festers.
There is a lot of wrath going on in response to this scandal and wrath is not going to get us anywhere. I myself–after weeks of maintaining a leveled response to the scandals in which I was able to temper my anger–fell into wrath after the St. John’s Seminary scandal broke and the PA Grand Jury Report came out. The horror of it overwhelmed me and my anger rose at an intensity that I could no longer control. I was no longer able to see who was actually trying to shepherd us through this crisis. I started making assumptions such as saying “all bishops” are involved or they should have all known about it. That’s the same as implying that I should know all of the sins of my husband. I don’t, nor could I. I started to wonder how much our priests were keeping from us, which fosters distrust and suspicion. I ignored genuine calls to respond to this crisis at a spiritual level and every statement I read from a bishop or the Vatican rang hollow. Now, some of them are truly awful and rather than being spiritual beacons are lawyer-speak or PR marketing. I’m a former lawyer’s daughter, I can spot lawyer-speak a mile away.
When I realized what had befallen my soul, I took it immediately to the Sacrament of Confession. I walked in feeling blinded by my wrath. I had developed a sort of tunnel vision and could no longer differentiate between the good and the bad and I started blaming people who may or may not be guilty. I was getting close to judging souls. I was particularly wrathful towards our bishops, even my own. This is a very real danger for all of us during this time. I never grouped my own parish priests in with others–except occasionally wondering if they know things we don’t–because I know them personally and I know they are good shepherds and men who are dedicated to the priesthood and trying to become saints. They are both greatly pained and burdened by this crisis and are doing their best to lead my parish through the spiritual and moral chaos.
The solution to the wrath in my soul is the very thing many of my brothers and sisters in the laity are railing against right now. They are angry that we are expected to do penance and make reparations for these abominations. I understand that at a human level, but as a theologian, I know this is to greatly misunderstand what we entered into at Baptism. We are no longer on our own. There is no longer simply me. It is we. We are united to one another at the deepest levels of reality. Sin harms the entire body. Our sins–even though they may not be as egregious–harm the Mystical Body. Wounds of the magnitude we are dealing with require a communal response and reparations from the entire Mystical Body. God is mercy, but He is also justice and these sins call out for Divine Justice. Our reparations bring about mercy, healing, and justice by allowing God to work through us within the Church. They also stay His hand.
Yes, writing to the bishops and blowing wide open these scandals is essential. The darkness must be brought out into the purifying light. It will be painful for a while and this will take generations to root out in order for a renewal to happen within the Church. There is no quick fix. There will be no speedy reform. Church history is very instructive for us impatient Americans. Chances of a mass resignation of bishops is very unlikely. Rather in periods of massive moral and spiritual corruption, God raises up saints such as St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, and St. Teresa of Avila. Most of us are not St. Catherine of Siena and we don’t have the ear of the pope or the graces God gave her to be successful in her work. The saints often work in mysterious ways and we need to keep that in mind. We should practice some humility before we start likening ourselves to her or other saints. Are we saints? I’m certainly not. We should all be actively striving to become one.
We do have to find ways to direct our anger and heartache properly. We need to be purged of wrath and seek healing from the Divine Physician in the Sacrament of Penance when that deadly sin befalls our souls. We must come to God in prayer and seek His will for our response. It may not be the one we want. Most of us aren’t going to be nailing demands to the bishop’s rectory in our diocese or even confronting the corruption in person. For the vast majority of us, the answer will be to strive for holiness and in so doing we will purify the Church and help lead the people around us to holiness. He’s going to ask us to perform penances and acts of reparation. He’s going to call us to pray and support the priests in our parishes who are shepherding as best they can in an impossible situation. He’s going to ask us to come together as never before in the communion that we are meant to be living, but in our individualistic society fail to live properly. Those of us with steadier faith will need to help to steady our wavering brothers and sisters.
Wrath keeps us from praying. It leads us to sinful judgment and I’ve seen far to many of my brothers and sisters grouping all priests together. They already bear the weight of walking around in public shamed for the collar they wear. While this is the least of the worries for the priests I know since they are most concerned about the victims and their flocks, this is still a heavy burden to carry and we should do our level best to shoulder it and make it lighter by our support. We their brothers and sisters must avoid judging the vast majority of priests who are in fact innocent. We also miss out on the very real spiritual guidance they are offering to us as our spiritual fathers in these dark days if we allow wrath to blind and deafen us. They are meant to help lead us to heaven. They can’t do that if we close ourselves off from them.
The penance I was assigned this past Saturday was exactly what the Holy Spirit knew I needed. It was the Feast of St. Helena and I was assigned offering atonement through a type of prayer to the Cross. Father suggested the Stations of the Cross. I still left Confession burdened, but I walked into the main sanctuary and began praying the Stations of the Cross. With each new Station the wrath I was carrying left my soul and by the end peace had been restored. I spent 30 minutes reading St. Matthew’s account of the Paschal Mystery while I waited for Mass to begin. I spent an hour in a mini-Lent. After receiving Holy Communion in the Mass, I finally felt strong enough and able to begin again and this time I understood what I must do.
I am not the only one in whose soul God has placed a desire to offer penance and reparations as an active response to the pain within the Church. Since Saturday, the need to enter into a Lenten period has increased in my soul and sure enough yesterday I discovered that other brothers and sisters in Christ have been called to do the same thing. It is how we can channel and rightly order our anger and pain.
Beginning tomorrow on the Feast of Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary, many Catholics–many fellow writers–are encouraging the Mystical Body to begin a 40-day period of prayer and fasting. Christ Himself tells us that certain sins can only be rooted out by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29). This is an opportunity for us to help begin to bring about healing and renewal in the Church. Spiritual weapons are vastly more effective at bringing about the purge needed than even the most eloquent of emails to the USCCB. That doesn’t mean we should stop voicing our concerns and desire for reform. I simply mean that we cannot hope for change if we are not entering into the very dark and real spiritual warfare embroiling the Church. We also need to be willing to play the long game. This will not be completely purged in my lifetime or even my daughter’s. You can find information about this period of prayer and fasting here.
I personally believe that God is calling me into a period of greater silence for the next 40 days, so I will be fasting from social media and television as well. I plan to write as I am able to and I will continue my regular Thursday contribution at Catholic Exchange. I pray this time is fruitful for all of us who enter into the tremendous Cross the Church is enduring in our age. Our hope is in Christ and we can enter more deeply into love and communion with Him by our prayers and sacrifices. I will be praying for all of you throughout this period. May God bless you always. Pax Christi.
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us.