After one sex scandal after another involving clergy has broken out, it has been proposed that since the hierarchy cannot be trusted to weed out corruption from their own ranks, the task of saving the Catholic Church must fall on the laity.
There have been exhortations to the laity to demand accountability – and even resignations – from their bishops, to divert their contributions to the Church from their bishops to more trustworthy channels, and to speak out against misdeeds committed by clergymen. There have even been calls to include laypersons in committees that will investigate erring priests and bishops.
At the outset, I must clarify that I have nothing against these proposals, lest I be misunderstood because of the inherent limitations of online discourse and the intense justified outrage that the recent scandals have provoked. However, a lot has been written about the said proposals already, and it is important to discuss other options for the laity helping the Church recover from the clergy sex scandals.
While the laity can indeed play an important role in saving the Church, this idea can be a temptation to hubris if misunderstood, which would in turn result in sterility or worse. While the proposals mentioned in the first paragraph of this article are good, they can only do so much.
Since the problem of clergy sex scandals is inherently spiritual, the solution to it is spiritual. The clergy sex scandals are, essentially, the failure of the clergy to live consistently with their vocations.
Thus, to respond to these scandals, the laity should examine themselves if they are living unity of life, that is, whether their words, actions, and choices are consistent with their own vocations as lay Christians. Like, choices of entertainment, for example.
The point is not that the laity’s own failures take erring clergymen off the hook. Rather, like good soldiers of Christ, the laity should, as good battle strategy, reinforce the Church’s ranks where there are breaches.
Or rather, the laity – like all Christians – must, as Christ said, be the salt of the earth and preserve the world and the Church from corruption. To do this, they must themselves stay salty and never become insipid.
Furthermore, any reaction of the laity to the clergy sex scandals, to be meaningful and effective, must be realistic. It must take into account the limitations of the laity, as well as the laity’s specific vocation.
While there is room for more participation of the laity in the affairs of the Church, the extent to which the laity can exercise government functions is limited. The laity can never replace the hierarchy in fulfilling the functions of the ministerial priesthood. Nevertheless, there are things that the laity can do which capitalize on their specific strengths and opportunities.
The clergy sex scandals are merely consequences – disastrous, to be sure – of the world’s inability to understand, appreciate, and practice chastity. A big part of solving the problem is to preach chastity through word and example. As St. Josemaria Escriva put it, “There is need for a crusade of manliness and purity to counteract and undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast. And that crusade is a matter for you.” (The Way, 121).
It is true that the clergy are primarily responsible for propagating the Church’s teachings on human sexuality from the pulpit. But there are areas where the laity can do it more effectively.
For example, most, if not all, who work in the arts, in the mass media, in fashion, in advertising, and other similar fields, are laity. By raising their professional standards and challenging the dubious mantra that “sex sells”, they can create a moral environment conducive to the practice of virtue for everyone, including priests.
Some of the laity have more opportunities than others to wage the “crusade of manliness and purity” that St. Josemaria Escriva wrote of. But all of them can wage this crusade. By the way they speak, act, work, deal with others, and entertain themselves, they can raise the spiritual temperature around them wherever they are. They can exert a positive influence on those who come in touch with them, and “undo the savage work of those who think that man is a beast.”
To emphasize, this is not to say that more direct actions and reactions to address the clergy sex scandals are unnecessary. Indeed, tough measures must be taken, the truth must be told, justice must be served.
But all Catholics should remember that the clergy sex scandals are also, like other crises in the Church, calls to be holy. The Church is no stranger to difficult times, and difficult times for the Church have, in the past, raised great saints. There is no reason the current crisis cannot raise great saints, including laity living and working in the middle of the world, sanctifying temporal realities by doing so.
Image: François Brunery, An Eminent Gathering /PD-US