It is clear that something has gone wrong in the institution of the Catholic Church. Something has been eating away at the institution and doing that institution tremendous harm. That “something” is evil, for sure. Only the devil could take something as beautiful as sexuality the way God created it and make it so ugly — the way abusive priests and enabling bishops have debased it.
Unfortunately, many Catholics are using this terrible evil as a reason to reject faith and their religion itself. But the weaknesses and corrosive evil inside the institution have nothing to do with the faith itself. This brings us to a further temptation to evil — to abandon faith because of these evil acts.
If we think evil is at work in these scandals, let's not compound the victory of evil by rejecting faith itself.
Next month, the Pope will convene a summit of bishops from all over the world to deal with this terrible problem. The summit will last for three days; each day will have a theme: responsibility, accountability and transparency. Perhaps there should also be a fourth theme: durability — the idea that our faith and the truth of our teachings are just as real and reliable as the have ever been.
Here are some things we know about sexuality and sexual abuse:
- Human beings are moral actors. Our actions can be morally evaluated, and those actions are good or they are evil.
- Respect for the human person considers the other another self. It presupposes respect for the fundamental rights that flow from the intrinsic dignity of each person.
- Every human being has intrinsic dignity and worth and may not be used as an object.
- The chaste person maintains the integrity of the powers of life and love placed in him. This integrity is opposed to any behavior that would impair it. It tolerates neither a double life nor duplicity.
- Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil
How do we know these things? Because we have been taught them by the very faith now under attack. The five items above come from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
It was the early Catholic faith, the writings of St. Paul in particular, (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8) that made clear to the Roman world that common but unchaste practices were morally wrong. This related to fornication, adultery, polygamy and all forms of sexual immorality. This was unheard of to the Roman world, though it grew out of Paul's Jewish upbringing (Leviticus 18).
Catholicism and Judeo-Christian religious faith have actually provided the underlying justification for the recognition and dignity of each individual human being that lies at the very center of our understanding that this behavior is evil.
The seminal secular document recognizing the autonomy and value of the individual — the Declaration of Independence — notes that the value and dignity of each individual, and the very rights that these priests have trampled upon, are endowed upon us by the very Creator at the center of our faith.
This entire crisis highlights the need for more faith and less politics. So much of the criticism of this behavior is translated into an erosion of faith, and that is completely uncalled for.
Our faith is based on Jesus’ preexistent divinity, his salvific resurrection, and his presence in the Eucharist. We are taught by Christ to believe that he is the way, the truth and the life, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to feed the poor and to love the Lord our God with all our and soul. We are taught to be chaste and humble and to hunger and thirst and fight for justice and righteousness.
All these things are still true. Of course, those priests who abused young people as well as adults did not follow these teachings. But the reason we are disgusted is that we know the teachings of the Church about sexual immorality and abuse are true.
Those teachings are also challenging to follow, and it is easy to use this crisis as an excuse to stop trying to meet the challenges of our faith. As G.K. Chesterton said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
One needn’t be a sexual predator to seek excuses for rejecting this demanding but rewarding faith. If we fall short of these ideals, we will often seek excuses to be relieved of them. But If our faith can slip away because of the evil we abhor, then it is no faith at all. If our excuse for dropping away from the Church is that these men failed to live up to that Church’s teachings, then we must not believe those teachings, either.
Next month’s summit will be watched and examined in minute detail by thousands of media organs and millions of people all over the world. Of course this is a moment for responsibility, accountability and transparency. And the goals of understanding, penitence, and prevention are of paramount importance.
But this is also a chance to remind the world that the Catholic faith is based upon the very principles which help us know that abuse is wrong, and it is based on eternal teaching about our salvation through the cross and resurrection. Let’s hope the Vatican and bishops make sure to emphasize that these beliefs are why we must keep the faith and not run from it.
Charles E.F. Millard writes from New York.