Dealing With Catholic Frustration

I recently heard that the second priest to have ever dined in my parents’ home had been implicated in sex abuse scandal. As a former child abuse prosecutor and now mother of four, it has been a particularly difficult question to answer why stay in light of the crimes committed by an astounding number of priests and the subsequent systemic cover up by members of the hierarchy…

So began the letter of an old college friend with whom I have recently connected on Facebook.  This friend has been an active member of the Catholic Church for as long as I’ve known her; in college she served as a sponsor for RCIA and after college she spent a year as a full-time volunteer.  As the note continued, she did make a point of saying that she had not left the church and she is indeed making sure that her children are being raised in the faith.  Still, the frustration was there… and I recognized it because it is the same frustration that I have also been trying to move beyond.

FistFor years, the scandal and the ensuing cover-up served as one of the main reasons I resisted joining the priesthood… hence the name of the blog “Kicking and Screaming.”  Like my friend, I saw the scandal as the result of a systemic issue, a mode of thinking in which clergy were viewed to be above the fray and a particular understanding of church infallibility was seen as something that had to be defended at all costs.  In other words, I did not see it as the actions of a few bad apples that happened to commit some grievous sins that could be easily isolated from the rest of the bunch; I saw it as basically an attitude of church first, flock second.  Consequently, it made me wonder what would happen to my soul if I should more deeply enter into that system.  Much like how one might refuse to visit the site Groupon.com after their infamous Super Bowl commercial about Tibet, during those years I was discerning I looked at the handling of the sex abuse crisis as Exhibit A of why I should take my “ministry business” elsewhere.

Eventually through the many (many, MANY) promptings of the Holy Spirit, I did join religious life.  In an effort to be open to the journey, there have been times when I have tried to put the sex abuse scandal out of my mind… in much the same way some people try to set aside feelings about one’s mother-in-law in order to avoid jeopardizing the upcoming wedding.  I tried to be open to what the Catholic Church has to offer beyond the scandal, beyond the power plays, and beyond the hypocrisy.

As my formation has continued, I began to not only experience the blessings of the Church, but I also felt God leading me to an increasing awareness of the scandals within my own life, the various power plays that I have made, and my own occasional penchant for hypocrisy.  In other words—when I’m being really honest—I too have systemic flaws that cannot be remedied by getting of some of the bad apples of my soul.  After all, the existence of those flaws is why I need God in the first place, the reason why I need religion who mediates God in the first place.

Of course that awareness should not serve as a free pass for the damage done by those who abused and those who covered up; it’s the issues in which we have the most to lose that are simultaneously the hardest confront but the most necessary to tackle.  But it’s also to say that if I am a part of a Church that is in continual need of reform, one of those areas of the Catholic Church in need of reform is also me.  In other words, we are all in this together.

To that end, my friend included a quote from the Italian spiritual writer Carlo Carrett at the close of her e-mail.  I had never heard of him before, but Carett puts the experience of simultaneously being frustrated at the Church while being aware of one’s own shortcomings in a particularly apt light.  He doesn’t necessarily come to a full resolution, but he offers a compelling perspective during those moments when the big red button labeled “EJECT” starts to look attractive.  We are all in this together.

How much I must criticize you, my church and yet how much I love you!

You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.

I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.

You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous, or more beautiful.

Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face— and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms.

No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.

Then too- where would I go?

To build another church?

But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church.

No. I am old enough. I know better.

Fr. Tom Gibbons

Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.