Vast sectors of the media continue to train their spotlights on the scandalous behavior of a few bad Catholic priests.
I sit down to write just after learning that Pope John Paul II has accepted the resignation of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee.
By the time this column comes to print, I am sadly certain, other prominent priests and bishops will have resigned as well.
It is quite easy to be weary of the whole thing, to turn the channel or the page and get on to something more cheerful. Things were going so well, it seemed, riding high as we were under the leadership of the current Pope. Well, if we are tired of the scandal, and don't want to read or hear another word about it, then I am afraid that we are part of the problem. We cannot tire of it, but must fight to bring back the spiritual and moral health of the Church.
Perhaps it would be easier to bear, however, if there were a ray of hopeful light, some sign of victory in what appears to be a dark cloud enshrouding the entire Church.
At the risk of causing a bit of shock, may I suggest that the current scandal in the Church is a great sign of hope — even (if rightly understood) a cause for rejoicing. Please be patient while I explain.
First and most obvious, the problem with priests and bishops unfaithful to their vows of celibacy was a cancer in the Church for decades, a cancer that poisoned all aspects of their promised fidelity, from sexuality to doctrine to liturgy. The very worst thing that could have happened was for the cancer to continue its growth uninterrupted by disclosure. As with the seeming violence of an operation, the patient could not be cured without deep and invasive surgery using the intense light of public scrutiny. The scandal is just what the doctor — or more accurately, the Wounded Healer — ordered.
The good news, then, is that the Wounded Healer is now doing his work, and the scandal is his cure. If it were not so public, and the light of scrutiny were not so uncompromisingly bright, the deep surgery of reform would not occur. And as much as this has grieved John Paul II, we must remember that it is only part of the grief that has been piercing the Sacred Heart of Christ for as long as the cancerous infidelity has been growing. Further, who better to assist the Wounded Healer than this Pope, surely one of the greatest of all time?
Second, if you are Catholic, rejoice in the knowledge that you live in a Church in which hypocrisy is still possible. In order to have hypocrisy, vice must have some virtue to which it can pay tribute. The Church is such a broad and easy target for charges of hypocrisy because it draws clearly defined blacks and whites in a culture near-blind in a gritty, dense fog of moral grays.
Third, consider this. It is not only the Church's defense of virtue that makes it a favorite media target, but the very unity by which it is able to offer such defense. In most Protestant churches, the scandal can only rise as high as the individual who commits it. This might seem to be an enviable fireguard to snuff out scandal at the source, but it does so only by shrinking the unity of the body of Christ until it resides in the body of a mere individual. That is a very small church indeed.
By contrast, the true body of Christ, as St. Paul makes clear, “does not consist of one member but of many.” A mark of being a member of that body is that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 26). But also, if one member sins, all suffer together; if one member is dishonored, all lament together. If it is not too paradoxical to bear, be happy, Catholics, that you share today the shame of your bishops and priests, for that shame is rooted in the glorious privilege of being a member of the body of Christ.
And here is a fourth blessing. The so-called media feeding frenzy will allow — nay, force — the Church to declare once again its teachings in regard to sexuality, especially homosexuality. The problem is not pedophilia, as the media have consistently tried to portray it, but homosexuality.
In happily turning the bright glare of scrutiny on the scandal, the media will inadvertently uncover not only the “intrinsically disordered” nature of homosexual acts, but the “objectively disordered” inclination of “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” themselves (Catechism, Nos. 2357-2358). They will find that those who entered the priesthood with such deep-seated homosexual tendencies and were told that these tendencies were harmless soon translated the subjective disorder into the objective homosexuality of the scandal.
There is hope then — true hope. The current scandal is proof of the power and wisdom of God in uncovering and exposing what has remained covered and festering for too long in the body of Christ and proof that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church.
Ben Wiker teaches philosophy of science at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).