Tag Archives: corruption

Lamentation

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were young;
I will set up an everlasting covenant with you,
that you may remember and be covered with confusion,
and that you may be utterly silenced for shame
when I pardon you for all you have done, says the Lord GOD.
—Ezekiel 16:60–63

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Matthias Grünewald, Lamentation of Christ (detail) / PD-US

This reading from Ezekiel reminds me of a recent video from Fr. Robert Barron, which is definitely worth a watch: Bishop Barron on Ezekiel and the Sex Abuse Crisis. Ezekiel wrote of the corruption within the holy city of Jerusalem and its cleansing through avengers from the North. Today, the “holy city” of the Church has fallen into corruption, and it too needs to be cleansed, to endure the painful siege of repentance. God will not abandon His covenant with us. But if we are to be cleansed, we must allow Him to show us the weight of our sin; we must be willing to feel our shame and sorrow.

It has been sobering to read reports of the horrific abuse that has occurred within the Church and the deep corruption that kept it hidden for years. As American Catholics, we are mourning over these unthinkable crimes and trying to figure out how we can possibly move forward through this mess.

The Gospel reading prior to this spoke of forgiveness, which may seem untimely at the moment. The Gospel asks us to forgive, but often we don’t understand the meaning of true forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean making excuses for the person who wronged you or brushing it under the rug. That’s not forgiveness; it’s denial. True forgiveness must acknowledge the sin and yet refuse to feed it. A person who forgives renounces any claim toward revenge and resists the tendency to harbor resentment. It is a daily decision, and it is not an easy one. But it is the only way that we can stop the cycle of sin and open our hearts to mercy. A truly forgiving heart is not indifferent to injustice; it is all the more deeply hurt by it, since it refuses to dehumanize either the victim or the perpetrator. It sees the tragedy of an innocent life altered irrevocably; it sees those individuals who used their God-given will for evil. And it resolves to do better.

I am reminded of the story of St. Maria Goretti and her murderer/attempted rapist, Alessandro Serenelli. Now, this is not a typical story—we should not go around assuming that all murderers and rapists will be reformed by our prayers and can be later welcomed into our families. But it is in fact what happened in the case of Alessandro Serenelli, incredible though it may seem. Though Alessandro was bitterly unrepentant for the first few years after Maria’s death, he experienced a profound conversion of heart after experiencing a vision of Maria in which she forgave him. He was moved to weep for his sins for the first time, and he began the process of true repentance. Due to Maria’s miraculous intercession (again, possible only through the grace of God and not by human means), he was completely reformed and eventually became an adopted son of Maria’s mother.

While Alessandro clung to his pride and callously denied his guilt, the seeds of sin and evil continued to fester within him. Only when he realized the depth of his sin and entered into a living purgatory of shame and regret was his heart opened to receive God’s mercy. This step was crucial: acknowledgment of wrongdoing, grief over what has been tainted and destroyed, ownership of one’s sinfulness. Unless we confront the realities of our sins and face our deepest wounds, we will never be able to receive healing. And Alessandro’s revelation of guilt—and thus his pathway to forgiveness—was made possible because of Maria’s purity and steadfast prayer.

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Alvar Cawén, Pietà / PD-US

As faithful Catholics who are shocked, saddened, and heartbroken over the recent scandals within the heart of our Church, we are called to step up and be the solution, to challenge the Church to rise up to her sacred calling. Now is the time for prayer and fasting. We will expect from the Church a higher standard, and we will start by being saints. The purification of the Church will begin with the purification of our own souls, by a deep desire for holiness and purity throughout every aspect of our lives. Jesus and Mary weep alongside us at these crimes. I’ve been encouraged by the discussion among young, faithful Catholics of the many ways in which we can carry this out, and I’ve compiled a list of resources here.

I stay with the Church because her teachings proclaim the dignity of the human person, even as some of those who represent her have trampled upon human dignity through objectification and abuse. I pray that we allow the light of truth to overcome the darkness, so that everything hidden will be exposed to the light. The truth of our own dignity and worth—and indeed that of our children—must prevail against the shadows.

Originally published at Frassati Reflections.

Falling Away and Coming Home

There has been no shortage of critiques levied at the Catholic Church in recent decades. Plenty to attack, after all.

I grew up with neighbors who discovered the local Calvary Chapel and became “born again.” They had always sneered at my Catholic faith, but this “rebirth” brought with it an eagerness to challenge this ignorant little kid about why we were cannibals and engaged in “idol-worship” — i.e. Mary, the Saints — you know the drill.

Later, as the Church was rocked by scandal, Catholic-bashing reached new heights in the media; I mean, what else could they do with such low-hanging fruit?

I kept wondering, won’t the Church have to dial back its rules just to survive all this? Won’t it need to ease up a bit if it’s going to emerge from these trials intact? Maybe relax the rules a little regarding pre-marital and extra-marital sex, divorce and annulments? Abortion, even? To convey how far at sea I was, I really believed it would . . . and part of me thought it should.

How absolutely adrift I was.

Like many of those raised Catholic, I had indeed drifted. But unlike many, my falling away had nothing to do with the sex abuse scandals that would soon impact the Church. Instead, I rationalized my passivity and absence by pointing at the failings of priests and what I interpreted as the Church’s preoccupation with wealth. My distaste fixated on priests who seemed to have missed the lessons on humility — who appeared to make the mass about themselves, who aggrandized themselves by selling cassettes of their every homily and smiled like unctuous salesmen — in short, who seemed more show than substance.

Suffice it to say, if you want a reason to stop attending Catholic mass, you tend to find it. I had watched several older siblings pull this off already, citing “phony” priests, “Puritanism,” and the ever-popular critique, “hypocrisy.” Oh yeah, I found plenty of that, too. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I could find hypocrisy everywhere — in every human institution or organization, and because I am human, in myself too — though that was the last realization in the chain. It always seems to be.

When we’re young, we want so much for the world to be the idyllic place we thought it was, and we hold fiercely to that ideal. As a result, we also hold our elders — parents, teachers, older siblings, adults around us or in the larger world — to an impossibly high standard of righteousness. And if they happen to be representatives of a religion, an even higher standard of perfection. As we move into our teenage years, we begin to sense the inevitable disillusionment, and we hone our critical blade to a razor’s edge. But why?

It starts with the fact that teenagers feel everything more acutely, including hurt. We see weakness, sin or foible, and it hurts us beyond repair. It shatters our illusions — our world — the one we previously thought was perfect. Disillusionment causes hurt, and as teenagers, our natural defense mechanism to ward off that hurt is to allow religious folks no room for flaws and failings — and we shield ourselves with scorn. It’s a loss like any death, and even at that age we experience the entire cycle — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but acceptance usually just becomes cynicism. And later, apathy.

The critical step for me was not merely a religious maturation, but an evolving understanding of myself — my motivations and attitudes — and an understanding of our universal human nature. More simply, I got more honest with myself about why I was doing what I was doing, and what I wasn’t doing. Eventually, this led to exploring a number of other faith congregations because I wasn’t yet ready to absolve Catholicism. It wasn’t until I felt something lacking in every other faith, which I would come to realize as the sacraments, that I knew I had to find my way back.

In time, I understood what I was doing and why — that I had been applying an impossible standard of righteousness to a human institution. Which isn’t to say I was letting off the hook sexual abusers or those who had allowed them to thrive. That was a different matter to me, outside of my experience, although it may have added to my detachment. But through what I can only assume was Grace, I grew to separate the human failings from the actual tenets and doctrines of the Faith.

As a result, I stopped blaming the Catholic Faith for the behaviors and attitudes of its representatives. Mostly, I realized that failings like hypocrisy are part of the universal human experience, failings we can’t avoid no matter how hard we try. I realized how easy it is to find flaws in representatives of any institution, organization, political or religious group — and therefore how easy it is to attribute those faults to the whole.

Partly what helped me was my experience as a public high school English teacher: I could hold up many teachers as arguments against public education, completely ignoring the system and its attributes distinct from its human elements. Same goes for law enforcement, the medical establishment, environmental groups, and even civil rights causes. Anywhere you have humans involved, you have flawed institutions. That’s just part of this messy existence we have — at least within any social group. Perhaps this is what drives certain individuals completely off the grid and away from all society. And even then, do they escape their human failings? I doubt it.

When we get past the charges of hypocrisy, most critiques express that the Catholic Church demands too much, and that these demands put it out of touch with people today: premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, practicing the sacraments regularly, and so on. The tenets are simply too hard to follow, we complain.

And to some extent, I empathized with these frustrations. Like many people, I looked at the Church’s doctrines and thought they were too rigid, too unrealistic and impractical in today’s world, harboring the belief that some day there would become an “American Catholic Church” — one that is more forgiving or tolerant — of sexual laxity, of sacramental laziness and so on. I began to see priests who seemed more liberal in their interpretation of doctrine, who seemed less offended by divorce and pre-marital sex. I thought it almost inevitable that they would rise up; I pictured scores of priests standing up to the Vatican and saying, “We go this way instead!” Clearly, I had a ways yet to go toward wisdom and maturity.

But then something happened. Over the years, as society continued toward greater laxity and moral relativism — more accepting of gay marriage, LBGTQ openness in general across the board, more accepting of divorce and abortion — the Church, under the leadership of the Pope, stood tall and unyielding in its stance against these trends. And I thought — wow — this just might be the only moral constant in the world. I had to respect that . . . and I also had to wonder why.

But to pursue that question, I flipped it on its head, asking, why not? Is there a chance that what we might be confused about what we actually want? — which led to other questions: What would it mean if this actually happened? Would we really wish our faith to be any less than what the Church has proscribed? Would we really want a Church that changes with society’s whims and vacillating moral standards? Would we want the Pope to come out and say, “Young people will not remain celibate, and so we are revising our moral teaching to say that it’s o.k. to live together, to have sex with multiple partners before marrying”? Would we then want to go about the practice of our faith the next day with this new understanding of what morality means? Really? I sort of doubt it.

No, in this way we are like children: we want clear boundaries and standards to strive toward, even if we know they are nearly impossible to meet. We want to know someone or something cares about our striving to become the very best and purest versions of ourselves — even if we aren’t strong enough to fully achieve that version. We want to know someone believes we have the potential, at least.

We don’t really want a Pope, a Church and a God who say to us, “It’s o.k. that you are weak and needy – I understand that you are less than capable of spiritual greatness; don’t worry — you have no hope of being moral, so don’t beat yourself up over it. We’ll be waiting here for you no matter how mediocre and flaccid your efforts are to be decent.” And perhaps that is the essence of Free Will as taught by the Catholic Church — that our God and our Church believe in our potential for spiritual perfection and respect our ability to strive toward it.

In short, I stopped criticizing the Faith when I realized the Church was setting a standard we should aspire to. And following quickly on the heels of this understanding was the realization that this is precisely what a church should do; it’s just that most do not.

As teachers and parents, my wife and I have unfortunately seen that few parents lay down expectations for civil behavior and then hold their children accountable for those standards. Likewise, few religions parent their faithful with expectations and accountability. Instead, they temper their message and go with the flow, gauging the mood of their congregation and keeping an eye toward membership. They seem to focus entirely on the compassion and love, without the expectation to become a better, more Christ-like version of ourselves.

So then, is the Catholic Church expecting us to meet these exceedingly high standards? Well, it’s a bit like parenting, isn’t it? The standards are set, knowing there will be failings, but also that forgiveness will be granted with compassion and love so that we might rise and try again . . . and again.

There’s an honesty in that, and that’s what brought me home.