Recently, a candidate for reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church wrote an article for America magazine titled: “How can I think about becoming Catholic after the latest sex abuse reports?”
I share the writer’s overwhelming grief, and I am completely dismayed and disheartened about the abuse scandals. I suspect many of you are, too.
Perhaps some of you have had a candidate, catechumen, or inquirer ask you the same question as the writer above. I wondered how I would answer his question, and I realized that to do so, I had to ask myself why I stay Catholic.
As I read his article, I also realized that the writer actually answers his own question about why be Catholic. And, his answer was also my response to why I still remain Catholic. In his words, the reason to be Catholic is because of “the history, the global connectedness, the continuity, the tradition, the liturgy, the sacraments, the prayers, the saints, the mysticism, the focus on the poor, the emphasis on justice—all these dimensions of the faith remain true, good, beautiful and compelling.”
So even with the sex abuse scandal, there’s no confusion for either of us about the good reasons to be Catholic. But here’s where I want to add an important caution for all of us, especially for those of us in initiation ministry. We have to be very careful not to conflate and confuse elements of a clericalist system that protects pedophiles and exploits power with the Mystical Body of Christ. Our baptism was not into a system or an institution but into Christ, dead, risen, and alive for the sake of the world, especially for those most vulnerable, so that the reign of God may be clearly visible here and now.
The apostolic mission of the baptized
So when I hear questions like one the writer asks— “Can I submit myself to this institution?”—I have to challenge him and all of us to take our baptism more seriously. All of us who are baptized are part of the common priesthood, and we have an apostolic vocation. The ministerial priesthood is “at the service of the common priesthood” (CCC 1547). All of us submit ourselves not to the institution of the church but to the Person of Jesus Christ.
All of us fail to live up to our baptismal promises. Ministerial priests are not preserved from error by their ordination. They sometimes act in ways “that are not always signs of fidelity to the Gospel and consequently can harm the apostolic fruitfulness of the Church” (CCC 1550).
Our response to sin is not to abandon the sinner or worse yet, our own apostolic vocation. Rather, we are bound to offer fraternal correction through every means available to us — including legal action if necessary. The question is not, should I leave the Church. Rather we should ask how we can, through our baptismal priesthood, heal the wounds that the clericalist system has caused.
Going back to the writer of the article linked above, he appears to be a well-catechized Christian, and he is aware that he is already a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. If he remains an Anglican or returns to the Baptist fold (where he was baptized into Christ) or just stops participating altogether, he is still a member of the baptized priesthood with a responsibility to exercise his apostolic vocation. He already knows that, for him, the fullest expression of that vocation will be found in the Catholic Church. The sins of the clericalist system will not change that reality, just as it hasn’t for me.
Our work has not changed
My response to an unbaptized seeker who does not know Christ would be different. Someone with no formation in Christian teaching might equate the hierarchy with the Church. That is one of the things that makes our priestly apostolic work so much harder. It is very likely that some potential converts will walk away without ever really hearing the good news. The sins of the church do not change who Christ is; they reveal how deeply we need Christ. The abuse scandals do make our job harder, but they do not change our job. Pope Francis reminds us that this must be our constant message to those most in need:
“Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” (Joy of the Gospel, 164)
The bottom line for me is, we are all disheartened, angry, sad, and fed up with things as they are. The clericalist system is broken, and it is causing really evil things to happen. It is up to all of us to fix it. I don’t know what each of us might be called to do individually, but I do know that choosing to not participate will simply allow the dysfunction to continue.
Remind your neophytes and all the baptized in your communities of their inherent dignity as priests and of their mission in Christ. Then pray and work for change that changes all of us, for every one of us, in both the common and ministerial priesthood, are coworkers in the vineyard and servants of the Lord.
What questions and concerns are you hearing from your candidates and catechumens? How are you accompanying them on this difficult stage of their faith journey? Share your thoughts in the comments below.