As the director of campus ministry in a Catholic high school, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the clergy abuse scandal. Most all of them are some version of: “Why do you remain Catholic?”
I understand that some people don’t understand why I would remain a member of an institution that is so clearly flawed. It was hard enough to explain why I didn’t leave the Church back when the horror and scope of clergy sexual abuse came to light across the globe in the early 2000s. It’s harder now, close to 20 years later, as the atrocities of abuse and cover-up have returned to the headlines. Even if new civil or legal remedies are attempted, the ugliness of these offenses, the scope of their reach, and the impact of their brutality on individuals, families, and communities cannot be understated.
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And yet, I remain Catholic because the essential, core tenants of the faith – the Incarnation and the Resurrection – shape my understanding of the world. God is truly present in human life, not only in its most profound expression in the person of Jesus but also in every conceivable life-giving, love-affirming moment of our own lives. And because of this sacredness of the human experience, life will always win in the end. Death, our own physical death or the countless other ways we experience pain and loss, is never the final chapter of our story. New life is always possible.
Unfortunately, we use the word “church” to mean several different things. One meaning is the building where religious services take place. Another is the religious institution as an organization from the pope all the way down to individual believers. And the third meaning of “church” is the “Body of Christ.” Just as I remain part of the Body of Christ even if my particular parish church were to burn to the ground, I also remain part of the Body of Christ when the Catholic religion as an institution fails to live up to its mission.
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I do believe that some form of new life can come from the death experience currently unfolding. But this belief is no passive acceptance of the status quo until some magical remedy is found. Incarnation and Resurrection are not spectator sports. They are not just historical events from the past that we recall with affection but have no bearing on us today. They are profound invitations to honor the sacredness of all life in our words and actions every single day of our lives. I have prayerfully decided on some of the words and actions I will take in the face of today’s challenges:
I will remain Catholic. I understand and respect the choices of those who do not, but I choose to stay. I think the only way to affect change to a system is from within it. Throwing rocks from the outside might give me something to do with my anger, but it won’t bring about change.
I will not throw out the baby with the bath water. Despite all its flaws and problems, the Catholic Church is still the strongest voice for social justice on the planet, and it has done more to help the world’s most vulnerable people than any other organization.
I will remember that the failures of some are not the failures of all. One of my best friends was a Catholic priest. Before his death, he spoke of the pain he felt in knowing that so many others ordained just like he was had done such unspeakable things. But he was the very best example of a servant of God, and there are many more like him.
I will do what Pope Francis has asked me to do. In his open letter to all Catholics in late August, he referenced the need for “prayer and penance” multiple times. I will pray for the victims and their families. And I will pray for the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. I will continue to be angry and disgusted, but I will pray for them. And I will pray for the Church as both the Body of Christ and the very human institution now in great need of redemption.
But I will do more than pray. I will speak up and say that both civil laws and Church practices need to change. I will say that the “zero tolerance” policy that Pope Francis mentioned in his letter needs to include concrete actions and consequences that are put into writing and shared with all. I will say that the Vatican needs to engage in an independent, thorough study of the use and abuse of power within the entirety of its hierarchy, offices, and ministries, and the results of their findings, recommendations, and Vatican response should be communicated with all. I will say that the patriarchy of the Church needs careful examination. I will say that the Church needs to be open – really, truly open — to new possibilities for executing its pastoral mission. And I will say all of this in writing in the form of a letter to Pope Francis. Will it have an effect? Maybe not. But I will mail it anyway. And then I’ll write another.