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.
A reader writes:
Read some of your blog. I know their are some good people that are Catholics. Just don't understand why organized religion becomes perverted and the leadership condones the behavior. Wait, I do understand, it's all about "power over." The culture of the church is corrupt and sanctions this aberrant behavior. Puts all the good people in such a bad place, don't you think? The church has had a "power over" relationship with the people for centuries. Watched this in action during Semana Santa in Sevilla about 30 years back. It was a disgusting display of "power over" and yet apologists for the church condone and encourage this behavior.
First, thank you for the acknowledgement that "some" good people are Catholics. I would even go so far as to say most Catholics are good people. That is, we are average schlubs trying to get by in life. As you may recall, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is engaged in a great struggle." It turns out Catholics are remarkably like human beings and are not more prone to evil than the general population, nor do their IQ levels deviate from the norm for the general population.
Why then, do they remain Catholic when members of their communion do great evil?
Answer: Because Catholic faith does not stand or fall with the moral quality of our bishops. It stands on Jesus Christ. I'm a Catholic because I believe Jesus is the Son of God and that he established a Church as the sacrament of salvation--a Church composed entirely of sinful people--especially me. I don't place my faith in the personal sanctity of any bishop (though some are very good people and others are, in my view, scoundrels). I place it in Jesus to guide his Church because he is gracious to dunderheads and sinners. There is no option of escaping grave sin in this world. You meet it everywhere, including the mirror. The only option is to stick with Jesus--or not. Some people imagine you can stick with Jesus but ditch the Church. Not possible. Christ is the head and the Church is his body.
Doesn’t mean (obviously) that the Church is a bunch of perfect people. That's why we have the penitential rite in every Mass and the sacrament of confession. We sin, often gravely. But that would be true whether we are Catholic or not.
Does human sin find ways to exploit even the hierarchical structure of the Church? Of course, and the priest scandal is one example of that. Sin will exploit any conceivable structure of governance there is (which is why our democratic republic is currently transmogrifying into a Caesaroligarchic police state and empire). Again, you can't avoid the fact of human fallenness and the Church was never promised that human sin would not afflict her or her members. But the secret sauce that the Church has recourse to is the grace of God that sees her through the failures of her members (and members means everybody from Pope to dogcatcher).
So I can pick my friends, but I'm stuck with my relatives. And, frankly, I'm not so hot so who am I to sit in judgment of the whole Catholic Church? Particularly since, in addition to the vanishingly small population of abusive priests and stupid bishops, there is a rather remarkable communion of saints, living and dead, that I ignore to my great deprivation. It's like sizing up the whole apostolic band simply by the behavior of Judas. Short-sighted.
As to "power over" I'm afraid I have very little resonance with this common complaint. I simply don't experience it. My bishop has no idea who I am and our lives almost never intersect. My experience of my local priest has been happy and freeing. Indeed, my main experience of the Catholic Church (I am an adult convert) has been one of liberation, not bondage. Liberation from the constricting shibboleths of political ideology. Liberation from the confining PC pieties of our time. Liberation from the stifling and soul-crushing theologies of sundry American Protestant sectarianisms. LIberation from the formless anarchies of the Left and the cynical legalist mind games of the Right. Liberation to enjoy what I enjoy and not what I am "supposed" to enjoy. Liberation from almost innumerable mental prisons, suffocating orthodoxies and a hundred fears. I have no doubt that there are perversions of the Faith that can be suffocating. A little time on the internet with repressed Traditionalists trying to control whether women wear pants or repressive Progressives trying to force us all to confess this week's PC piety is proof enough of that. But of course, those sort of people *resent the Church* and constantly complain that it is "liberal" or "conservative" when it is, in fact, itself. That is, again, not a Catholic thing, but a human thing. Some people are legalistic, love rules, fear happiness, and are suspicious of joy. Some bureaucrats (including church bureaucrats) put the system before the person. Some "progressives" put ideology before persons. But it is simply not the case that this is the *essence* of the Church. It is, rather, the manifestation of sin. And once you've faced the fact that humans are sinners, you are halfway to the real essence of the Church: our need of salvation in Christ. Baptism is not a magic spell that makes you a Shiny Happy Person. It is the first installment of a lifelong program of chemotherapy against an aggressive and deadly form of cancer in the soul and in our culture. Catholics are a people on the road to recovery. Not a people who do not face setbacks. But without the treatment we don't escape the cancer. We just die faster.
My view of the abuse scandal is straightforward. Abusive priests and bishops who endangered people with their neglect should go to jail. Unfortunately, we laypeople, who run all the courts, staff all the prisons and police, and occupy all the juries, have mostly opted not to do that. Meanwhile, the Church has spent ten years reforming itself and now has policies in place to get rid of bad guys fast (that's why all the cases you hear about are old ones). Why didn't they do it before? Partly due to sin and partly due to stupidity. Some of it was institutional CYA and criminal neglect of duty. Some of it was bishops listening to the Enlightened Voice of Expert Lay Opinion (Lawyers and psychiatrists) who said these pervs should be rehabbed and sent back to their flocks. In short, the problem was that they *didn't* listen to the Tradition, not that there is something in the Tradition that just really approves of raping children. It was sin. Not something in the soul of the Church Jesus founded. That's because no mere mortal (nope, not even the Pope or the Blessed Virgin Mary) constitutes the soul of the Church. The soul of the Church is the Holy Spirit. We trousered apes just get to go along for the ride. Therefore the Church can be well described in the words of Hilaire Belloc: "An institute run with such knavish imbecility that if it were not the work of God it would not last a fortnight." I like that.
So being a Catholic doesn't mean I have to believe and profess my bishops are not sinners and fools. The whole shooting works is, after all, founded on Peter, who was, in Chesterton's fine phrase "a shuffler, a coward, and a snob--in a word, a man". The Church is a communion of sinners before it becomes a communion of saints. It is a giant house that is under perpetual renovation and is always a mess--like each of us. The only thing to commend it is that God has chosen to take up residence there. The bricks of which it is built are pathetically cracked. But God is merciful.