Busted Halo

Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.

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February 15th, 2011

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.

The Author : 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.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Tiffany

    @William Grogan- with just a little bit of research, you would discover that sexual abuse is just as prevalent in other institutions. Protestant churches, boy scouts, public and private schools, even the police force have a disturbing amount of sexual abuse cases. It is the sad truth. Allowing married priests, women priests, and gay priests did not solve the problem for protestant churches. Accepting sexual liberalism has not helped abusive teachers, uncles, or boy scout leaders. Actually, the frequency of abuse cases within the Catholic church peaked during the 70’s, a time when the church was most open to sexual freedom. The church does not think sex is evil. In fact, it’s the opposite. The church thinks sex is so beautiful that it can mirror the love of the Trinity.

    Celibacy is not required because the Church thinks sex is wrong. Celibacy within the priesthood is similar to faithfulness in marriage. A father is faithful to his wife and his children. A priest is also faithful to his wife (the church) and his family (her people). Do we really want to limit our definition of family? How do we know
    that being married to a man or woman is so much more fulfilling than being married to the church? Or being married to Jesus (for a nun)? Are we limiting God and His consolations? or maybe even being a bit judgemental?

    Sorry- one more thing. Please read the above comments with a tone of love. God bless you all.

  • Joan Seymour

    Megan, thank you for this. (I was amazed, in fact, that there is still this confusion between the Immaculate Conception (of Mary, conceived without sin though not necessarily without sex) and the virginal conception of Jesus). I’d further nuance your comment about consensual sex between adults by saying it can be sacramental (it isn’t always).

  • Megan

    Ah – a clarification to my point above. I am using “sacrament,” above, in a general sense meaning “sacred and beautiful.” It is, of course, only Sacrament, in the Church’s eyes, when blessed by the Church in formal marriage vows. Removing many of the Church’s restrictions on who can MAKE those vows is, I submit, essential to becoming more honest about the role of sexuality in a fully human life and spirituality.

  • Megan

    Let’s just clear this one up now.

    Many of my students, after 12 years of Catholic education, are surprised to learn that the “Immaculate Conception” does not refer to the conception of Jesus (i.e., conception without sex) but rather the conception of Mary (i.e., the conception of a baby girl who does not bear the curse of sin). The word “immaculate” refers to the conceived, not the conceiver.

    All of that is to clear up a commmon misconception. The point made by William, however, is still legitimate, which is to say that our church (along with a large percentage of our human societies) continues to struggle with the notion that consensual adult sexual intimacy is a sacrament. Abolishing the celibacy requirement for the priesthood would do nothing but HELP with that particular issue… though I would hesitate to believe that it would solve the problem, either. Far more work to be done on that one, in all areas of human life.

  • William Grogan

    SrGayl, as Lisa said, we have married Deacons at present and also married priests who have converted to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church. Other denominations seem to handle married clergy quite well. Are you suggesting that their spouses play “second fiddle” to their calling as well? Or is it only Catholic spouses who would play “second fiddle?” I think that is an arrogant premise. As far as the Immaculate Conception is concerned, my point is that any conception brought about through the sanctity of loving sex is just as immaculate.

  • Lisa

    @SrGayle True, there are many obstacles to the management of the ministry of the priesthood especially if you add married priests and women to the ministry. But right now we have Deacons who are married, who might be called to be priests, who’s wives are already committed to the ministry to the Church. They already work together for the good of the Church.
    I am part of a parish being threatened with closure mostly because there are not enough priests to serve in parish ministry. I think it is time we focus on all who are truly called to the priesthood, through discernment and lots of prayer. And stop limiting the “harvesters” who are being called because that is the way it has always been done or it will cause too great of a management problem for the Church. What blessings are we denying the people of God because it’s too difficult or costly?

  • SrGayle

    Perhaps you should look up “Immaculate Conception.” Also allowing priests to marry simply causes a host of other issues.Will parishes support a priest’s large family? What about divorced priests? Also, few women would marry a priest and play second fiddle to the parish.

  • William Grogan

    It is not the flaws of the Catholic church which are demoralizing to me but its intransigent unwillingness to address changes that may diminish those flaws. Married clergy, women priests and a much more open attitude toward sexuality would help. Like it or not, the church has always been a haven for sexually immature, repressed and predatory individuals. The truth hurts. Face it and deal with it. Human beings are sexual beings and the church has always had the unhealthy attitude that this fact is somehow evil. The term “Immaculate Conception” is a case in point, as if the sexual act is dirty. I am tired of the pie in the sky mumbo jumbo that the catholic hierarchy adheres to. Get off your pedestals and come into the twenty-first century. You would break no laws against God if women were allowed into the priesthood, priests were allowed to marry, and you opened your arms in welcoming ALL congregants, including gay people, without judgement or condemnation. A person’s sexuality is between that person and God, and as long as there is respect between individual adults, not for the church to demonize and condemn. I’m sure my comments will breed contention but that is of no concern to me. For me, the church remains mired in darkness and hypocrisy, and is making no believable attempt to relieve itself of that burden.

  • PM

    Those who assume that sin and corruption in the church – or even the sheer banality of so much of its life – are reason for leaving it haven’t got to first base with Scripture or theology. See, for example, the parable of the whaet and the tares, or read Acts and the letters to the Corintians. There have only ever been two perfect people,Jesus and Mary, and if no-one else were alowed in there wouldn’t be much hope. (That’s not to say that the gross betrayal of the Gospel in the abuse saga is anything but intolerable.)

    Put simply, the reason for remaining a Catholic is the grace of the sacraments and the apostolic tradition, which we can’t manufacture fo ourselves somewhere else.

  • Kat

    Thanks for the article. Voices like yours are what will keep the church going. The poem captures how I feel too. To appreciate the immense good of the church you have to be familiar with it, and it just isn’t as newsworthy to cover the many wonderful works of the church through its charities, universities, etc. done day in and day out. May the Spirit guide the author and all new religious and lay to hand down the faith well even in these difficult times, and to protect the kids to see that this is never repeated.

  • Mary Perth WA

    I’ve heard all the theories about sex offenders.
    As a child and when my children were under adult age I always became aware when something was wrong and dared to find a real ear to speak to and ensure real change. Unfortunately I live in a society where sex offences open or hidden have been granted social status. Lustful titillation abounds everywhere as a norm. Sex abuse occurs in family, in sporting teams and clubs and yes, churches. In fact in any body of peoples. We want the Church to be God-like, not human. We need to be more alert and do something when concern arises. If concern does not go away, we need to do something about it. Not wait for serious problems and now litigation.

  • Patricia

    Thanks, Tom,, for a moving and helpful look at this Oh-so-troubling problem.
    And to you,James, for a reminder that this is indeed a human problem to be found whever there are children. God Bless you both.

  • Frank Jackson

    I posit that what is “beyond the scandal, power play, and hypocrisy” isn’t very credible if the scandals, power plays and hypocrisies exist at all, much less having existed for decades or centuries. They are systemic flaws.

    The scandals, power plays, and hypocries can not be rationalized. There are no excuses for such systemic flaws in a 2000 year old institution. The flaws seem to be by design, to be perpetuated generationally, and accepted by too many Catholics as anamolies. Meaning no change is coming —

  • Sr. Elizabeth Young

    Thanks, Tom, for your honest and inspiring article. As a young Religious Sister, I have grappled (and still do) with many of these issues to do with the institutional Church and Religious Life. Also in the choice of Religious Order – none of them are perfect, none will ever fit all my criteria. In these grapplings we grow, we become more humble and perhaps do see where we can fit in. The Church IS us, therefore we have the responsibility to keep holding it true to gospel values. Thanks again!

  • BK

    @Gerald. Thanks for your comments. I’d submit that no church is bound by Scripture under that rationale. Within every organization, Christian or otherwise, there will be elements that have seemingly abandoned their core value (be it scripture, a philosophy, founding purpose, etc).

    I’m not trying to defend the current status of any church or whatnot, just suggesting that no organization is always true to itself. Internal reform toward the core is always and constantly needed in all organizations.

  • Gerald Tracy

    This is a compelling article, especially your line: “I saw it as basically an attitude of church first, flock second”. I think this clarifies unintentionally the missing component. Scripture, the church is bound by Scripture or it is not. No church bound by Scripture can do this, yet this church did. That is in essence of the reformation and the schism which rightly is not closed. I hope it can be someday and I too will again share Carrett’s view whereas today I do not…. Still, nice article…

  • James Leo Oliver

    I worked at a residential treatment faculty for twenty-five years. It has been serving youth for over one hundred years. During the time I was employed there were sexual abuse scandals committed against these children by people there who even had buildings named after them. Never once was an individual prosecuted for their crime. They were fired and that was the end of it. They of course could go to work at another facility and do it again. The institution did not want the bad publicity. They relied heavily on charity and the good will of the donors and couldn’t chance offending them. Recently a settlement for sexual abuse was brought against the Boy Scouts of America. Their scandals have been hidden in similar fashion. It has been said that pediatricians are the next group to be rightfully targeted for their sexual crimes against children. I predict the YMCA, Camp Fire Girls, children sporting organizations, etc. to be next. Sexual abuse occurs where children are present and it is always kept hidden. This is not a Catholic problem. It is a human problem.

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