Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
I'm a Catholic. The purpose of this e-mail to you is to ask for your guidance in approaching a problem that I am confronted with from time to time. The problem is this: My good friend, perhaps my best friend, is an atheist, and we have argued with each other on occasion over the last 28 years, the various points regarding religion and atheism without any real difficulty in maintaining our friendship. However, our discussions these days mostly center around the sexual abuse scandals that seem to be in the press more often now than ever before. Of all the religious subjects that I have argued about over the years with my friend (e.g., the Existence of God, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, "Hitler was a Catholic", "Pope Pius XII should have done more for the Jews", etc.), the sexual abuse scandals have presented me with the most difficulty.
I find myself uncomfortable now and unwilling to argue, and ultimatley at a loss for an adequate response. I now find myself growing tired of my visits with my friend, and the onslaught of e-mails that I receive from my friend, which may include excerpts or Weblinks to the latest Internet press story of a sex abuse incident involving a member of the Catholic Church or some other religious entity. As a result, I wish to ask your advice on what you believe is the best approach in confronting my atheist friend regarding this subject. I have placed an excerpt below for your review, of the type of e-mail I receive from my friend at times. Do you have experience with responding to the kind of information in such e-mails?
Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Ah, the gift that keeps on giving...
In a not-so-related event in Washington lately, there was a massive rally of atheists:
By latest accounts, at the rally, there were no reported acts of hucksterism, warmongering, women-/civil rights-/gay-bashing, witch-hunts, inquisitions, excommunications, forced renunciations, shaming, sexual abuse, psychological tortures, display of jewelled regalia while condemning materialism, wearing of funny hats or other examples of stunning hypocrisy. ;-)
I think there are probably several components to this conversation that need to be addressed. The first and most obvious one is the scandal itself and the obvious and sensible thing to say, of course, about it is, “It’s disgusting and evil.” In saying that, you are acknowledging the truth of the Catholic teaching concerning original sin and the sinfulness of each and every member of the Catholic Church, clergy emphatically not excepted. The only Catholic our faith tells us has been preserved from all sin is the Blessed Virgin Mary. All the rest of us are subject to it and can fall into grave evil. The priests who have committed these crimes—and the bishops who have covered them up—should go to prison. Some have. Many have not. That is, by the way, due to us laymen, who own all the guns, run all the courts, and staff all the police departments and prisons. But, whatever our legal systems do, we Catholics do not need to be shy about saying that this scandal is a disgusting blot on the Church.
Your friend, however, seems to want to try to do more than this, and it is important to take a look at what he is trying to do, not only for the sake of truth and accuracy, but for the sake of your friendship.
There are, in the final analysis, only two good arguments for atheism. I discuss this fact here. All other arguments beyond this are simply padding the case. Clearly, your friend is making an appeal to the argument from the existence of evil (priests molest kids, so there’s no God). But he’s also padding the case: he’s laying particular emphasis on *priests* molesting kids and, in contrast, attempting to make the argument that atheists are particularly virtuous. Given the ocean of blood shed and the Himalaya range of human corpses piled up in the past century by atheistic regimes, this argument is something of a non-starter. It’s also ridiculously unfair, of course, since it not only turns a blind eye to Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, but it also fails to note the vast works of mercy being advanced by Catholics across the face of the globe at this hour and the little detail that the Catholic Church is, without any possible parallel, the most immense charitable enterprise on the face of the earth. Purely from a sociological perspective, it is folly to ignore this. But atheists typically do.
That said, the issue is not “Who’s nicer? Catholics or atheists?” I dare say many atheists are nice and many Catholics nasty. But so what? This is just another way of saying people are complicated. No. The issue remains what it has always been: Who is Jesus of Nazareth? And if, as he claims, he is the Son of God, is the Catholic Church the one he founded? The niceness of the members of the Church is not terribly relevant. You will in fact find great saints and great sinners in the Catholic communion. All that means is that the parable of the net is true and the dragnet hauls up both good and bad fish. Attempts to paint the Church as either unrelievedly evil (as your friend does) or as the communion of Perfect Saints (as foolish Christians sometimes do) are both fools’ errands.
But that, it seems to me, is what you friend is trying to do. And the question I would ask him if he were my friend is “Why? Why do you attack with such vindictive and dishonest malice this Church that you know I love and which I regard as central to who I am?” What sort of friend does that?
It may be that he himself is not really sure why. He will probably tell you he does it because he wants you to “face reality” (as though you’ve never heard before he told you so that Catholics sin). But that’s not true because he refuses to face the reality that the Church is vastly more than the 2% of perverts among the 3.5 one-hundredths of 1% of its members who are even ordained.(You read that right: There are 417,000 ordained Catholics out of a total Catholic population of 1.2 billion. So what’s the real issue? He would not, presumably, renounce his citizenship in Western civilization (which has done some very awful things), or reduce all of Western civilization to Auschwitz, the destruction of Native American, and the age of Disco. So why the radical reductionism of the Catholic tradition to this cartoonish condemnation?
But above all, why is it directed at you with such increasing hostility?
That’s a risky thing to ask and you may not want to do it. I wouldn’t blame you. I simply suggest it because it seems to me that in addition to arguing about the facts of the Catholic faith, there’s an obvious interpersonal dimension here that needs to be addressed. Do you treat him with scorn, contempt and ridicule? If not, it is reasonable to ask why he treats you this way. Is he using you (perhaps unconsciously) as a punching bag for his anger at somebody else?
That’s how I’d address it. Your mileage may vary.