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Hatred of the Church? On Scandals, Sinners, and Stones | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | Ignatius Insight | April 12, 2010

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"Do not be surprised, beloved, that a trial by fire is occurring in your midst. .... See to it that none of you suffers for being a murderer, a thief, a malefactor, or a destroyer of another's rights. If anyone suffers for being a Christian, however, he ought not to be ashamed. He should rather glorify God in virtue of that name. The season of judgment has begun, and begun with God's own household. If it begins this way with us, what must be the end for those who refuse obedience to the gospel of God?" -- 1 Peter, 4: 12-17.

"Jesus...is 'full of grace and truth' (Jn. 1:14): he can read every human heart, he wants to condemn the sin but save the sinner, and unmask hypocrisy. St. John the Evangelist highlights one detail while his accusers are insistently interrogating him, Jesus bends down and starts writing with his finger on the ground. Thus, Jesus is the Legislator, he is Justice in person. And what is his sentence? 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.' These words are full of disarming power of truth that pulls down the wall of hypocrisy and opens consciences to a greater justice, that of love, in which consists the fulfillment of every precept." -- Benedict XVI, Angelus, March 20, 2010 (ORE, March 24).


Let me see if I can spell out reasons for the latest publicity about clerical abuse, particularly what it has to do with the Church's legitimacy. Some think we have here an issue that can finally carry out Voltaire's famous exclamation about the Church: "Crush the Infamous Thing." Of course, behind Voltaire was the counter position of the Lord's own guarantee that the same Church teachings would last even to the consummation of the world.

This assurance, however, did not mean that no Catholic, no priest, would ever sin again. Nietzsche was rather scandalized that Christians did not live exactly as Christ did. But they did come to live as Christ actually expected, lives often in need of forgiveness. It is, in this sense, difficult to fault the Church for finding in its ranks those whom Christ also expected to find there. This situation was, after all, a main reason why He came in the first place, that we repent and have our sins forgiven, not repeated ad infinitum.

We are seeing repeated on an international scale what we first saw on a national scale. We see cases in Norway, Chile, Germany, and Ireland. No doubt, as it says in Scripture, everything will be shouted from the housetops until we become completely bored with it all. It is a growth industry. The history of the Church (and mankind) in every century sees similar things recurring.

In principle, it is a good thing that we know the extent and destructive nature of these disorders, to the individuals concerned, both victims and perpetrators, as well as to the public and to the Church. Christ died to save sinners from their own free choices. He evidently did not come to prevent the possibility of sinning. Had he done this latter, He would have come to make men cease to be men.

If Benedict XVI has brought anything to the fore in Catholic theology, it is the nature and necessity of "judgment" of the acts we put into the world. This judgment is what Spe Salvi, among other things, is about. It is also very much what Plato is about. Augustine had said that Christian revelation was not necessary to learn what virtue was. The pagan philosophers understood this already. What mystified the great pagan thinkers was not the definition of virtue but its practice.

What we quickly learned both during and after the life of Christ was that the practice of virtue, even with grace, would still be quite difficult. Christians, along with everyone else, would still too often be sinners. One does not become a Christian in order to guarantee that he will never sin again. He becomes a Christian in order, should he sin again, that he need not despair of his soul's eternal fate, provided he is willing to respond as Christ in the Church asked him.

Thus, Christianity was also about repentance and forgiveness, without ceasing to be about judgment. But this possibility of repentance did not erase the harm our sins cause to others or the penalties of law designed to promote a decent order. Aquinas said that the civil law does not cover every sin but only the most serious ones, those without which people cannot live together. Certainly, the possibility of changing one's life after great faults is central to our understanding of human nature and freedom. But so is the experience of those who refuse, when given a chance, to reestablish proper order in their own lives. Like alcoholics, some people keep doing the same things over and over. The external effects of their internal disorders also need to be attended to.


As William Donohue often points out, this issue, as presented in the media, is never about the same crimes that are widely committed by members of other institutions, by public school teachers, protestant or other clergy, by people in business, military, unions, or other public bodies. Many suits are pending in all these categories, but we seldom see anything about them in the media. Why?

Most studies show that abuse that unhappily arises in some few Catholic clergy is about the same as other categories of society, granted that we would like it not exist at all. Such factors alone make one suspicious about the real motivation behind materials that we now read every day from all over the world. Even if we are concerned about child abuse, as we must be, is this the concern what we are seeing spelled out? Does the interest in child abuse just happen to be the one issue that allows the Church to be isolated?

Few can doubt that leaders in the Church were slow to deal with these areas, or even how to deal with it. They say so themselves. Many other groups have only begun to face these issues but they do not seem to get the media attention that the same issue among Catholics receives. The slowness of Catholic leaders was, in part, also due to the culture that has fostered a lack of respect for life and virtue.

Widespread areas of moral disorder go on every day with little concern at all. I saw recently, for instance, that in 2008, on the continent of Europe, we had 2,635,919 abortions. That is more than the whole population of many countries and states. Such numbers, however, hardly cause a ripple of moral concern even when the very population of many nations is rapidly declining.

Many, it now appears, seem to think that they finally have the slippery Church on the run. What the sins of the clergy are is no longer the main issue. Indeed, it is a dangerous issue for the accusers as it borders rather too closely on cherished "rights." It is not an accident that the relation of abuse and homosexuality is rarely honestly treated in this consideration.

The issue of concern is both legal and doctrinal. The law has now managed to make not the person who commits the crime guilty but those "responsible" to him. This move allows large sums of monies to be transferred from the Church to the lawyers and those who have sensible damages. Cherished protections like the statutes of limitation were changed specifically to allow this present situation to play itself out. It is doubtful if the principle that one is innocent until proved guilty any longer holds much force in this area. Many innocent persons, no doubt, have been unjustly treated in this atmosphere.

There are lawyers on International Criminal Courts who want to "try" Benedict himself for "humanitarian" crimes. They love this sort of absorption of all law into their hands. Some protesters in England want to prevent Benedict's upcoming visit on the grounds that he was somehow negligent. No one doubts that holding political and ecclesiastical officials to strict standards of justice is a good idea. Absolutely no one can have any problem with this if it is done reasonably.


In the beginning of these considerations, I cited a reflection of Benedict about the Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery. Evidently, she is guilty, whatever we now think of adultery and the punishment of it in the Old Law. Adultery is often considered more of a recreation than a moral problem. We are all against capital punishment for any crime or any sort. But Benedict notes the hypocrisy involved in this scene. The woman had recognized the problem. The local leaders wanted to stone her. Christ did not concern himself with the prescriptions of the Old Law or whether the woman was guilty. He concentrated on the accusers. What were their souls really like? He knew. He wrote on the ground. They knew He knew.

Evidently, each accuser suddenly realized that he was in a worse position than the woman. On this self-reflection, each walks away silently, hopefully wiser. No one is left to accuse her. Does that mean that she was not guilty? No. Does it mean that we need to be pretty careful how we judge others? Yes, it does.

We look at our modern day accusers. We look at what they hold. They have few if any problems with all sorts of human disorders which they have now made to be "human rights." The one classical thing that they still hold is that child abuse is wrong. But it is mainly wrong because no "consent" is involved. The same activities of those "of age" are deemed acceptable. Consent makes all sorts of sordid things all right. But does that make them all right?

This issue is the center of the crisis of our civilization. Much of the publicity about child abuse is really, I think, about the Church's stance on what is objectively wrong. This issue is the one place that the secular society and the Church agree. The Church has never taught these things are all right, even when done by presumably pious men. Thus, the implication that the Church is not a valid upholder of moral law because of this issue must be rejected.

But what is behind it all? What is sought is the de-legitimization of the Church because it continues to point to the disorders in our moral life that are now made over into civil law and enforced by it. The state wants its definition to be "holy." The only major impediment remaining to this absolute goal is the Church, which includes sinners.

The implication of the accusers of Church officials is that their own acts or their dealings with abusers are at times objectively wrong. Often they are. The Church has no problem in admitting these facts, when they are facts.

The second citation I cited was from the first letter of Peter. It is quite instructive. Peter is not surprised that there may well be murderers, thieves, and other sorts among the believers. If so, the instruction is simple: "Stop." It assumes this stopping is possible. We are free.

Then the epistle adds that, if the real opposition arises because we are Christian, then we should rejoice. The same thing happened to the Lord. He was hated not because of bad things but because of good ones. So what is at work here may not be only a question of sinful Christians and their inept responses. It may rather be about whether there is still in the world an authority that stands over against its living disorders.

People of the household of God are warned about the judgment of their acts and holdings. Likewise are those judged who "refuse the Gospel of God." Sometimes when I read about those who accuse the Church in this area, I wonder what would happen if they were selected to throw the first stone.

The final judgment of these things is necessary if the world is to be complete. What many want is the removal of any thought of such a judgment if it does not agree with their self-made world. In this sense, I think, we witness not so much a wringing of hands about sinful clerics, but an attack on the last force that can credibly state the disorders of our own souls and public lives.

Related Ignatius Insight and Insight Scoop Articles:

Let's Get the Story Straight: Defrocking and Divorce | Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Real Scandal and the Real Story | Carl E. Olson
The Pope and His Pharisaical Attackers | George Neumayr

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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