The late Father Richard Neuhaus spoke of the sex-abuse scandal that broke out almost 10 years ago in the American Church as “The Long Lent.” I think he would have been astonished to know not only that it has not completely ended here (although we may finally be in the endgame), but that this sickening plague went viral into Ireland and continental Europe, bringing down not only abusing priests and religious but members of the hierarchy implicated in cover-ups that destroyed families and crippled dioceses. In the U.S., recent sexual scandals have also brought down several well-known media priests familiar to the readers of the Register through radio, television or personal appearances. And scandal has seriously hampered the operations of a well-known modern religious congregation whose late founder sadly was found to be a fraud and accused of several grave sexual crimes.
This is the background against which we need to look at the interplay of two very important virtues especially relevant for the Catholic laity today: justice and mercy.
The long history of the Church has seen, as Archbishop Sheen put it, “a thousand Crucifixions and a thousand Resurrections.”
If I were to propose two principal causes for the priestly sex-abuse scandal, I would point to a profound misapplication of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the secularization of the West.
Both coincided with exhaustion from the wars and genocides of the last century, leading people to look for pleasure and security as ends in themselves — and thus making them ripe for the “Dictatorship of Relativism,” as Pope Benedict terms it, which inevitably leads to violence, sexual license and (as C.S. Lewis put it) “The Abolition of Man.”
Should all of this shock us?
Well, in one sense, perhaps, but not fundamentally, if we understand human nature and the reality of original sin assumed by each one of us at conception. The truth is that only four human beings have ever been born or created without that original sin that inclines us to commit sins of our own: Adam and Eve, Our Lord and Savior, and his Mother, the Immaculate Conception. The rest of us are born sinners.
Therefore, it would be hypocritical to be “shocked, shocked” (see Casablanca for the reference) that anyone commits even the most grievous crime. We may be disappointed and disgusted, but not surprised. After all, did not even Peter, the Rock upon which the Church is built, deny his Savior three times in his moment of greatest need? Didn’t Judas, one of the original Twelve, betray the Lord for a handful of coins?
No, as Catholics aware that our own perhaps less newsworthy sins also nailed Christ to his cross, we are called to mercy, to forgiveness.
The Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:3-12). The Church is an engine of mercy for those who see forgiveness, offering three sacraments — baptism, reconciliation and the anointing of the sick — that apply God’s grace at various times during life for those who repent of their sins.
When I was a priest at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., some years ago, I placed behind my office desk one of the great photos of the last century: Blessed John Paul the Great, whose feast day we celebrate Oct. 22, in conversation with his would-be assassin in his jail cell, whispering words of forgiveness, whether asked for or not.
Everyone who walked into my office knew that there was no sin that could not be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Spirit that is despair of forgiveness.
In Blessed John Paul’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia (On the Mercy of God), written near the beginning of his papacy, in 1980, he foreshadowed what he exercised so nobly after the attempt on his life. There he says that merciful love for all human creatures “constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ” (64). The scriptural passage that he more often preached upon during his pontificate than any other was that of the Prodigal Son and Merciful Father (Luke 15:11-32).
Finally, for those of you more academically inclined, I recommend a book on anger and forgiveness written by two fine Catholic men, a psychiatrist and a psychologist: Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope by Robert D. Enright and Richard P. Fitzgibbons.
Father C. John McCloskey III is a Church historian and fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His website is FrMcCloskey.com.