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Reading the Scandal With Biblical Eyes

April 29, 2010


Reading the Scandal With Biblical Eyes

By Rev. Robert Barron / From Our Sunday Visitor

Once again we’re living in scandal times. The “Long Lent” that the American church endured in 2002 has now descended on the European church. A significant difference is that this time the Pope himself has come under scrutiny. Once again, the news media are in a frenzy—CNN has blanket coverage, the New York Times is running daily stories, and thousands of blogs are buzzing. In preparation for a television interview, I spent an entire day reading almost everything I could find in both the American and international press (I’m currently in Rome as a visiting professor) and found the process dismaying, depressing, and dispiriting. But what particularly struck me was this: though the scandal has been analyzed legally, institutionally, psychologically, and culturally, it has rarely been looked at biblically—even by church representatives themselves. And this is tragic, for the Bible, the Word of God, is the definitive lens through which the whole of reality is most rightly read, and church men and women above all should know this.

What does a Biblical reading of this never-ending scandal offer? First, we should not be surprised that people behave badly. The Bible clearly teaches that we human beings have been made in the image and likeness of God and that we are destined for eternal life with God; nevertheless it teaches with equal clarity that we are fallen, marked by the original sin which has compromised us in body, mind, and will. The Scriptural narratives are remarkably honest about this. They make reference to rape, theft, murder, jealous rages, palace intrigue, naked ambition, family dysfunction, political corruption, adultery, and yes, sexual abuse. More to it, many of these crimes are committed by God’s chosen instruments: Saul, David, Solomon, Jacob, Peter, Paul, and John, to name just a handful. An interviewer asked me just a few days ago, “how could this (the scandal) have happened?” and I responded, “sin.” I could have given a more textured answer, bringing in the psychological and institutional dimensions, but I believe I gave, from a Biblical perspective, the most fundamental and clarifying response. 

Second, the Church has enemies. St. Paul reminded us long ago that the Church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, carrying on in transfigured form the mission of Israel to be a light to the nations, the enduring sign of God’s existence and love. But it is a commonplace of the Biblical narratives that Israel was not universally revered. Instead, it was enslaved by Egypt, harassed by the Philistines, overrun by the Assyrians, exiled by the Babylonians, conquered by the Greeks and the Romans. And Israel was often at war with itself: the prophets were regularly ignored, mocked, or even murdered by the people they were sent to address. The point is this: the message of God’s love is not one that is necessarily received with enthusiasm by a sinful world, just the contrary. Now only the blindest or most anti-Catholic of commentators would fail to see that, to a degree, enemies of the church are operative in the coverage surrounding this scandal. The sexual abuse of children is an international epidemic, and it is present in every aspect of society. In the United States alone, there are approximately 39,000,000 victims of child sexual abuse, and around 50% of these were abused by family members. In the decade between 1990 and 2000, nearly 300,000 children in the American public school system were abused by teachers or coaches. Social workers in Africa report that in many countries on that continent, the numbers concerning the sexual abuse of young girls runs from “very, very high to astronomically high.” And this is to say nothing of the multi-billion dollar a year pornography industry in the United States, which disproportionately abuses young people, and the even more shocking—and highly profitable—sex trade involving kids. Moreover, the John Jay study showed that, over a fifty year period, only 3-4% of Catholic priests were credibly charged with sex abuse, a figure below the national average, and in the past year, precisely six cases of clerical sex abuse, in a church of 65,000,000 were reported. Yet, to watch the television networks or read the newspapers, one would think that the sexual abuse of children is a uniquely Catholic problem, one indeed facilitated by a wicked cabal of priestly and episcopal conspirators. There are some in the mainstream culture who are unhappy with many of the positions the Catholic Church has taken on sexual issues, especially abortion, and who would like to marginalize the church’s voice or eliminate it entirely from the public conversation. Biblically minded people should not find this the least bit surprising.

A third lesson provides a balance to the second. God regularly—and sometimes harshly—chastises his people Israel in order to cleanse them. On the biblical reading, God raises up figures who name the sins of the nation and call especially the leaders of the people to repentance and reform. Under this rubric, we might consider Samuel (who challenged Saul), Nathan (who called out David), Isaiah (who railed against the temple establishment), Jeremiah (who took the leadership of Israel to task), and Jesus himself (who had a few things to say about “whitewashed sepulchers”). Not everyone who brought the clergy sex scandal to light is an enemy of the church; many should be construed as instruments of God’s vengeance, who compelled a reluctant church to come to grips with a problem that had been, for far too long, ignored, brushed under the carpet, or handled with pathetic incompetence. And for that matter, Yahweh sometimes used the enemies of Israel—Philistines, Babylonians, Romans, etc.—to work out his cleansing purposes. Might the Lord God be using the Boston Globe or the New York Times in much the same way?

I think that it’s good to study this terrible phenomenon as thoroughly as we can, but we should never forget that the most clarifying perspective is the one provided by God’s holy word.