With two new books hot off the press about serious financial corruption in the Vatican, and a new movie opening today about the massive cover up of child sexual abuse by Church officials in Boston, I’ve been prayerfully reflecting on the issue of corruption in the Church. Okay, to be honest, I’ve been severely lamenting the reality of such widespread depravity, even as I’ve repeated the standard line to myself that all but one of Jesus’ handpicked band of apostles betrayed, denied or abandoned him during His Passion.
I remember the shock waves that went through the Church when the sexual abuse crisis exploded right after the turn of the millennium—while the world was freshly reeling from 911. Somehow—maybe because I was still riding the wave of excitement ushered in by the Jubilee Year 2000, the birth of our fifth child, and a brand new Masters Degree in Theology—I barely winced. “The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, is at once holy and always in need of purification," I would tell outraged friends, quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. “The Church is a mess because sinners like you and me are in it,” I would offer with a sardonic smile. “Besides, have you met my family?” That would usually lighten things up considerably.
But these days, as scandal after scandal breaks, I’m doing a lot more than wincing. I’m weeping. I’ve cried hard tears not only over the new revelations of misconduct in the Vatican, but about the divisive and vitriolic attacks that seem to be coming from every direction in the Church: “conservatives” attacking “progressives,” “left” accusing “right," "traditionalists" suspecting the Pope—with one well respected Catholic blogger’s excommunication even being demanded because she insinuated we might rethink letting Catholics in irregular marriages receive Communion. Really? “Why so much iniquity and rancor, Lord?” I’ve asked repeatedly. “What is going on here?”
The Lord reminded me of a passage from my own book, Miracle Man, wherein I described my profuse discouragement over the tsunami that hit our lives after I began praying seriously for our family’s healing:
Though I thought it meant that God would wave a magic wand over my family and me, and with Mary’s motherly intercession make everything better instantaneously, I’m beginning to understand that real cleansing is more like a boil erupting than a magic bullet, and that it takes time both to extract the infection from the wound and to repair the damage that’s been done. Furthermore, it ain’t very pretty when it happens. But neither was the Crucifixion. Salvation has always been a messy business, and the scandal is that God’s right there in the midst of all of it.
The scandal of Christianity is not that there are sinners (even serious ones) in the Church. No. The scandal of Christianity is that an all-holy God dwells in the midst of such sinners, and that—as Christ’s Cross and Resurrection so eloquently communicate—He mysteriously calls forth good from even the most outrageous evil. The scandal of Christianity is that Christ makes Himself present in the world in and through a broken Body of believers—a Body whose bones snap loudly in our ears as they are reset that we may walk, and not limp, forward. The scandal of Christianity is that Christ’s once-for-all Crucifixion is made present constantly in history—through our individual and collective sins, through the sins of the whole world, for which we daily beg for mercy.
I, for one, would prefer the magic bullet. But that’s not the way God chose, or chooses, to redeem the world.
What is happening in the Catholic Church? God is allowing the infected areas within the Church to be exposed and lanced, in order that she might be healed. He is applying the medicine of the Cross to human sin, starting with His own household. He is resetting the broken bones of a battered Body—the same Body that He uses to effect redemption in the world.
This is grace. This is Christ’s healing, bloody grace at work in the Church, bringing her steadily to salvation.
“Right now, in the midst of the scandals, we have experienced what it means to be very stunned by how wretched the Church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ. That is the one side, which we are forced to experience for our humiliation, for our real humility. The other side is that, in spite of everything, he does not release his grip on the Church. In spite of the weakness of the people to whom he shows himself, he keeps the Church in his grasp, he raises up saints in her, and makes himself present through them. I believe that these two feelings belong together: the deep shock over the wretchedness, the sinfulness of the Church—and the deep shock over the fact that he doesn’t drop this instrument, but that he works with it; that he never ceases to show himself through and in the Church. Pope Benedict XVI*
*From Light of the World, A Conversation with Peter Seewald, page 173.