As St. Gregory the Great says, "It is better that scandals arise than the truth be suppressed."
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, once wrote, “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!” These heartrending words sum up these times of scandal.
People inside and outside the Church have been shocked and outraged by the horrific details of clergy sexual abuse of children, teenagers, and adults. Also truly unconscionable is the behavior of some Church leaders who seemingly have put other priorities before the safety of the faithful—or even worse have engaged in abuse themselves. In the face of such evil, no words are adequate.
Indeed, how much filth there is in the Church!
Two thousand years ago, while he hung on the Cross, Jesus saw the filth that would threaten to obscure the holiness of his Church. He saw each egregious sin now detailed in grand jury reports and victims’ testimonies. He knew that some of his clergy would abandon him like Judas. He knew that some people—right in the heart of the Church—would commit evil, abhorrent acts and others would work to cover them up. He knew that people would leave the Church, offended and wounded by these sins against God. Jesus cried tears of blood as these heartrending scenes flashed before his eyes. These sins and their effects were so burdensome, so unimaginably painful that the Son of God cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46).
The Church began in a moment when it seemed like death had won. St. Ambrose wrote, “As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross.” Throughout the centuries in the Church, there have continued to be many periods in which death and evil seemed to have won. In fact, the Church seems continually on the brink of death, either through persecution from the outside or from its own members’ terrible sins. Yet, the Church endures. How? Because God remains with us—even in the midst of great sin.
The Church is a visible sign of God’s plan of union with all of humanity. The image of the Church as Christ’s bride reveals the kind of intimate union God has with his Church. This union is so close that St. Paul tells the people of Corinth, “You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (Cor 1 12:27). St. Cyprian of Carthage encouragingly described the strength of the Church’s bonds of unity: “God is one, and Christ is one, and his Church is one, and the faith is one … Unity cannot be severed; nor can one body be separated by a division of its structure, nor torn into pieces, with its entrails wrenched asunder by laceration.” In other words, no matter what happens, Christ remains in union with the Church.
However, one might ask, “If the Church is truly one with Christ, how can some members do such evil?” The answer to this question is at the heart of the mystery of the Church itself. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes this mystery well: “Christ, holy, innocent, and undefiled, knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal. All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time” (827). Therefore, no sinner, not even the worst of sinners, can bring ruin to the Church. Not because the humans that make up the Church are trustworthy—we are not. But God is trustworthy.
Nevertheless, born in a moment when it seemed like death and sin had prevailed, the Church continues to engage in a raging battle against evil. Hell will try its best to engulf the Church. Jesus’ words to Peter on this matter are just as chilling as they are encouraging, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). Hell is always at the gates of the Church. Jesus has been victorious over sin and God will remain united to his Church but demonic forces of evil will try to tear souls away from the Church. For this reason, the Church on earth is called “the Church militant” because we are engaged in a battle against sin. But we can only fight this battle effectively when, as a Church, we recognize that the fight against evil begins in our hearts. We are all sinners in needs of God’s grace.
Understandably, however, we also become discouraged and outraged when some of our clergy and bishops fall into serious sin. We might wonder, “How can I remain Catholic in the midst of such evil?” We want to distance ourselves from the crimes of some of the Church’s members by distancing ourselves from the Church. But God is united to the Church and he would never will that we abandon his Church. Instead, now—more than ever—God calls us to unite ourselves with his holiness. He calls us to be bold and prophetic men and women who advocate for the truth, seek justice for victims, and tenaciously pursue holiness.
Each member of the Body of Christ has a part in God’s plan for the renewal of his Church. In fact, right now, the Holy Spirit is at work in each one of us to bring about new life in the Church. Make no mistake, God will prevail.
Therefore, in the words of Benedict XVI, we plead to God for help in these times of distress, knowing that our prayers will be answered:
Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.
by Sr Theresa Aletheia, FSP
This blog post first appeared on Aleteia.com.