When I was teaching at the University of Dallas, sometime in the mid-1990s, it hit me that I was now teaching a very different kind of student, the likes of which I had not seen before.
For years, I felt like I was laboriously pulling students up a steep incline to truths they had only barely glimpsed, but I now I was in front of students who had been home-schooled or shaped by one of the Church movements, and I began hoping they, who were passionately in love with the Truth, wouldn’t leave me too far behind. Friends teaching at other faithful Catholic institutions were having the same experience.
For a few decades now I have been rather buoyantly hopeful about the direction of the Church. What riches it now has: the Catechism, the writings of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, strong Catholic media, reformed Catholic colleges, a vigorous home-schooling movement, rigorous new Catholic schools, orthodox publishing companies, renewed seminaries — the list goes on.
And then the McCarrick scandal hit, followed by an explosive aftermath that has been exposing the corruption in the Church. It’s not just the abuse of minors, but the abuse of seminarians, the double lives of so many priests and bishops, the embezzlement and misuse of funds — and the cover-up, the cover-up, the cover-up. So many of us have been plunged into near despair as we realized the extent of the corruption — piled high, deep and wide.
When Pope Francis was elected pope, the expectation was that he was chosen to clean up the “filth” in the Church — a filth that had reportedly driven the frail Pope Benedict into retirement. But whatever plans Pope Francis may have for dealing with the filth in the Church, more and more is being exposed nearly every day.
Among other scandals, we know of cardinals who have abused seminarians and been swept off to positions of power in the Vatican. We see a diocese like that of Buffalo incapable of responding well to the barrage of accusations against it. We learn of the misuse of funds and “favor-purchasing” of West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield. The confusion surrounding the pachamama has been unsettling: Is it a pagan idol that has no place in a Catholic church or a benign expression of gratefulness of the gifts of the Earth?
All of that seems to be the tip of an iceberg — or the oozing up of a toxic black mold that has corroded what held up the façade and has shown us the rot behind the façade.
This exposé seems to be the work of the Holy Spirit, who surely has a reform plan in mind and possibly even in place. Part of that plan must be what has been emerging in the last 40 years or so: a robust Catholicism sustained largely by faithful laity and the vocations that have come out of faithful households.
Many of the students I taught in the ’90s have their own college-age children now; and to my surprise and delight, a lot of those young people seem somewhat unfazed by the revelation of depravity of various kinds in the hierarchy. Some parents are nearly bereft, struggling to keep their own faith, and are worried about what will happen to the faith of their children. But Catholic young adults and young converts are joyfully waltzing off to do evangelization on college campuses and street corners, regularly saying their Rosaries, going to Eucharistic adoration and engaging in all sorts of charitable acts. Some are even discovering the glories of the traditional Latin Mass.
Oldsters, like myself, take great consolation from the steadfastness and zeal of the young who know this to be Jesus’ Church that has the deposit of the faith, the sacraments, a storehouse of intellectual and spiritual writings, and a heritage of overwhelming beauty, sadly lacking in the modern age.
The majority of Catholics, so the polls tell us, dissent from most moral teachings and even lack understanding of the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist. So we seem to have a three-tiered Church — a hierarchy that never ceases to shock for the scandals seemingly laced throughout it; a flabby middle of badly-catechized Catholics; and a group of believers who have a vibrant commitment to the faith. Yes, we believers are a minority — but we’re a significant and powerful minority.
When the upper stories of the World Trade Center collapsed in the terrorist attack of 9/11, the whole of the Twin Towers collapsed. It seems to me that a collapse will not happen to the Church even as more disturbing revelations come forward that shake the Church. The faithful, many of them young, constitute a stratum of rock-solid believers and are virtually immovable in their commitment to the faith. Deo gratias.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a moral theologian,
recently retired from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.