Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Why I Still Believe In A Church Run By Evil Men

In the latest news cycle relating to abuse and the Catholic Church, a Pennsylvania grand jury has released a massive report looking into abuse in various dioceses within the state. Over the course of 70 years (primarily from the 1960s through the 1990s) 300+ priests abused over a thousand children, while bishops of the dioceses in question tried to secure silence to "avoid scandal" and far too often transferred known abusers to new assignments where they would have the opportunity to abuse again. Among the bishops who was responsible for such transfers was Cardinal Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington DC, who just finished expressing himself to be Shocked! Shocked! that his predecessor Cardinal McCarrick was himself an abuser of children, seminarians, and priests, whose victims previous dioceses had attempt to buy silence from via settlements.

But it is not just Wuerl. It is not just McCarrick. It is not just 'liberals' or 'conservatives' or any other group one faction or another might want to see as at fault. A number of bishops, past and current. clearly have not acted in what most of us normal people would consider to be minimal virtue and human decency when confronted with people in their charge who committed unspeakable crimes. A number of bishops decided to be institutional men rather than men of God.

Confronted with this, I've seen some people announce that they can't belong to a Church which can't safeguard children, a Church in which too many of the bishops have so severely fallen short.

I myself am not going anywhere. Indeed, having read all this horrific stuff, I'll be in church with my family tomorrow evening, because it's the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

What's wrong with me? Why do I continue to belong to a church obviously run by evil men?

If my reason for belonging to the Church was that I thought the people running it were exclusively good people, I would have been gone a long time ago. This is the tragedy and the beauty of Church. Its truth does not come from the people running it. Its truth comes from God. The people running the church here on earth are usually so flawed, so small, so wicked. But these flawed and sometimes wicked people do not define the Church. I don't show up to church because I believe in the bishops, or in my parish priest, or in the pope. I show up because I believe that God, that perfect, infinite, all powerful being, revealed Himself to sad and flawed humanity, and offers His body and blood every day upon the altar for us in the Eucharist.

Does this mean that we need to fatalistically accept that the Church cannot improve? Far from it. Every one of us, as Christians, has a duty to follow the commands of the Jesus who said that rather than that one should corrupt one of these little ones, "It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea."

We must end this reflexive attempt to "avoid scandal" at the expense of putting more innocents in danger. We must tell the truth about the evils done. We must punish those who have by act or omission perpetuated abuse. We must, as Christ's Church, strive to act as Christ would have us do: the Christ who could be both forgiving but also furious against injustice. But we should not leave.

“Do you also want to leave?”

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”


Finicky Cat said...

Exactly. Anyone who reads history has already had to grapple with this conundrum -- though not, admittedly, in so personal a way.

Anonymous said...

But then what is the point of being a Catholic? It's easy to say that the people of the Church is one thing and the revelation of God is something else. But surely part of the foundational belief of the Church, a foundational understanding of that revelation, is that being part of the body allows for some kind of moral improvement over not being a Catholic. Look at Paul writing about leaving behind the old man and taking on the new man in Christ. Look at him again writing about how Jesus' atonement does not give us liberty to sin in order to increase grace. Look at Christ's words to the people he has healed: go forth and sin no more. Look at Augustine writing about how God's grace is necessary to do good, and all of his commentators throughout the scholastic period considering what exactly that means in fine detail. Look at Aquinas,one of those commentators, talking about how baptism infuses us with the grace necessary to be virtuous. I think I am on safe ground to say that Church teaching is that participation in the Church is a pathway to virtue, or at least improved virtue.
Of course, one might say, that doesn't mean that all people in the Church will suddenly and irrevocably have perfect moral virtue upon baptism, or confirmation, or ever. It doesn't mean that anyone will. Of course there will be sins that are parasitic on religious life: pride, for instance. But surely, if Church teaching were true, then, on average, Catholics – taken as broadly or narrowly as you like – would show signs of the moral transformation promised by the New Testament. But they have not done so. They have never done so. Even with these cover ups of molestation – I believe the claim that teachers, or indeed any other corporate body that has usual care over children have a similar rate of child molesters as Catholic priests. But surely that is just as damning? We may not be worse than people outside the Church, but we are not better. We are morally indistinguishable from the world. I think I am still on safe ground when I say the Church was not old when it became morally indistinguishable from the world. But if this is the case, surely the promises of Paul and the rest have been shown to be false.
But perhaps I am wrong and I have misunderstood the Catholic teaching. Perhaps there is no claim that the Church is a path to moral virtue. Perhaps there is a gap between the salvation that comes from the Church and morality. But then why should I try to be good? It would be no different from the Calvinist problems with predestination. Or perhaps there is some other explanation that I have not yet understood. But if that is the case, what distinguishes the Church from other such groups? Protestants, Orthodox, or Muslims or Buddhists? Perhaps I accept that Aquinas has proven there is a God. That narrows down the possibilities. Still, Christ says that he has the words of eternal life, but Mohammed says similar things. If both are morally indistinguishable, if both have horribly evil people and both have saintly people, then why should I believe one over the other? What is the sign that the word of Christ is true? Further, if membership of the body of Christ doesn't mean, on average, that there will be moral improvement, then why should we follow the Church's moral teachings? Why would we trust that they are sent by God and not teachings of these evil men?
I'm not trying to be flippant. I'm really struggling here. I just can't help the conclusion that either the Church is false or that it is indistinguishable from other moral and religious bodies. And since in some sense the Church believes that all salvation is through Christ that would make it false, too.

Darwin said...


It definitely seems a fair and heartfelt question, and I'll to try to do it what justice I can in very limited time.

I think that what the Catholic Church does have is two thing: First, the intact teachings of Christ, and second the sacraments which offer us grace.

This means that through the Church we have the means to know what it is to do good, and we also have access to the graces which can help us grow in virtue.

As you point out, various religious sects and leaders all claim to have the truth. Since they teach contradictory things, they clearly can't all be true. I believe that what Christ taught (and the Church has passed down from Him) actually is true, and thus if one were to live fully according to Christ's teachings one would be more virtuous than if one lived fully according to Muhammad's teachings or Hindu teachings or Wiccan teachings or what have you.

However, having access to know a teaching is not at all the same thing as actually living according to it. The sacraments are channels of grace, and these can help give us the strength to live according to the truth, but again the word "can" is key here. We have to cooperate with grace in order for it work through us. Grace can help give us the strength to act rightly, and through acting rightly we build up the capacity to do so more often, just as a champion lifter builds up his ability to lift heavy weights through doing so repeatedly. But even if a person has all the nutrition he needs to become a champion lifter, if he doesn't practice, he won't actually grow strong. And if he stops practicing, his abilities will degrade. Virtue is a habit to the good, and we only grow in it by doing it repeatedly. If we act wrongly repeatedly, we do the opposite, we grow an attachment to vice and a habit of doing wrong such that it's harder to turn around and do right.

But neither knowledge nor grace make us good all on their own. They can help to direct us and give us strength, but the most important thing we have to do is actually choose to do right. And often, Catholics do not choose to do right. Woe to us, because I think that God will hold us to a higher standard given all the advantages we have been given. But often we don't choose to do right.

So should we expect Catholics, on average, to be better than other people if we're right that the Catholic Church is the true Church?

Not necessarily. To be honest, it's hard to measure "average virtue" or say if overall a group consisting of a billion people live more virtuously than the other billions. We don't have a good way to knowing and measuring that. But at a minimum, we all know lots of examples of Catholics who act badly, and of non-Catholic who act pretty well.

Does that mean the Church Fathers you cite are wrong?

I would say no. I think what they're pointing to is that it is through Christ we know what is good, and that we get the strength to do good. But that doesn't mean that everyone who is a visible member of the Church will choose to do so.

I think Paul does point out that being bad as a Christian is in some sense worse than being bad otherwise. He talks, for instance, about how when we receive Christ's body and blood unworthily (in a state of grave sin) we are eating and drinking to our own damnation. We're being disloyal to our membership in the Church when we sin.

So that's my rambling attempt at an answer... Hopefully it's somewhat on point?