Chasing the Spirit
A Letter to the Catholic Exchange Community #7

Like everyone in the Catholic Exchange community, I have been reading the pundits about the Church’s global sex abuse scandal.

George Weigel protests that the scandal is being ginned up by secular observers as a means of vitiating the Church’s moral authority.  He notes that the story-line is not being allowed to change, despite Benedict’s exemplary efforts.

Christopher Hitchens in Newsweek wants nothing less than for Pope Benedict to be interrogated by the police the next time he takes a step outside Vatican City.

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times tries to provide balance by praising the priests, religious, and laity he has met in places like the Sudan for their heroic service to humanity — despite the “homophobic,” tradition-bound, secretive old men in the Curia.  (Not seeing that there would be no heroic Catholics in the Sudan if not for the beliefs nurtured by the Curia.)

In the Wall Street Journal Peggy Noonan writes that the press has been the Church’s best friend in forcing the hierarchy to face up to the issue.  She also praises Benedict for his leadership while stressing the catastrophic nature of what’s occurred.

In so much of what been written there’s a palpable feeling that the Church’s life is at stake.  Might this ancient institution actually pass from the scene?

The thought of priests making sexual victims of children sickens me.  I’ve received letters from the abused, and the only thing I can say is to cling to Christ and Christ alone.

What if this had happened to one of my children?  I’ve asked myself.  I know the rage I would feel and keep feeling.

I pray that God in his mercy will work miracles for those who have been victimized.  Only God can supply the healing power needed, but faithful Catholics must assist in every way possible.

The assumption that the Church’s life is at stake is wrong, though.  Paradoxically, that’s exactly the mistake certain bishops made when they adopted a cover up policy.  “How could the Church survive such a scandal?  What would it look like?”

As ugly as it was, certainly, but scandal is not the worst thing that can happen to the Church — human pride, heresy and disbelief compete for that distinction.

In the 15th century Pope Alexander VI had 4 children by a mistress, and made one of the boys, Cesare, Archbishop of Valencia, at 17 years-of-age.  There’s been plenty of scandal, and the Church is still here.

We have even closer-at- hand historical evidence of that. Check out the 5-part series,  “Counting the Cost: Being Catholic in Mexico”, we are running this week about the history of the Church in Mexico. It will give you an unprecedented grasp of the situation in that country with implications for the entire hemisphere. Don’t miss it!

When I was thinking about converting to Catholicism I took a good, long, hard look at the sins of the Church’s sons and daughters.   They are there in abundance, coiled together like a tangle of vipers.

Christ founded his Church as both a divine and human institution.  In her divine character she is immaculate.  As a human institution she’s often in the mire.

The Church examined the implications of scandal in the 4th century’s Donatist controversy.  At that time violent persecution — the threat of torture and death — caused some priests to renounce the faith.  Others became traitors when they allowed the sacred Scriptures of their local churches to be confiscated by the Roman authorities.  Could these apostates ever celebrate the sacraments again?

The Donatists thought not.  The traitorous priests lack of courage in the face of persecution — their unworthiness — surely invalidated their administration of the sacraments.

Augustine disagreed and argued that the sacraments are efficacious by virtue of what Christ accomplished — not their administrators’ personal virtue.  The Church’s sacraments “work by the work that has been done.” Ex opere operato.   It was the office of the priest, not the person’s personal character, which guaranteed the validity of the sacraments.

Augustine won the argument, and the Church learned it could endure despite its human failings.

Protestantism operates on the Donatist assumption: a pastor’s moral authority depends on his sterling character.  The Protestant problem then becomes: How good is good enough?  And who is to say?

As I grew up in a Baptist minister’s household, I watched congregation after congregation fall like wolves on my father’s colleagues.  My dad avoided this fate by facing down a series of challenges.  A few were bizarre, like the time a group of radical right-wingers wanted to act as his sermons’ censors when my dad was a Goldwater/Reagan Republican.

The Donatist position would have continually fractured the Church, as it does in Protestantism,

The Church’s true life consists in Christ.  The Holy Spirit guides her into all truth, while God the Father insures that the gates of hell will not prevail against her.

The erring bishops effectively denied these central teachings when they placed the avoidance of scandal above living the truth.  Too often members of the hierarchy decided to be their own saviors.  Lack of faith, pure and simple, compounded the tragedy.

These are hard things to say because merely as a human institution the Church commands a certain amount of loyalty.  The laity have an obligation, however, to call their leaders to serve more faithfully our common Lord.

The Wonderful One Hundred

Last week, I challenged at least 100 among the Catholic Exchange community to become monthly contributors of $25.  We are putting up a graphic at the site today that will track the community’s progress toward this goal.  We need help from “The Wonderful One Hundred” before the new website design goes up in early June to make full use of its many new functionalities.

Please click here and contribute to the progress toward 100!  Click here and show you join with us in our mission of mobilizing the laity for Christ and His Kingdom.  Please!

Harold FIckett, President
Catholic Exchange


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