Making an address to the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in June of 1972, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said something most relevant to our times:
Who is going to save our Church? Not our bishops, not our priests and religious. It is up to you, the people. You have the minds, the eyes, and the ears to save the Church. Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and your religious act like religious.
As we ponder headline after headline concerning the matter of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick (recently removed from the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis) and the possibility of at least one more Cardinal getting the boot, Sheen’s words seem more than prescient—they are an early call for the laity to hold the hierarchy accountable for what happens within the church, in both sacred and temporal matters, by speaking up and speaking out and asking questions whenever it seems that the teachings of the Gospel are being ignored, distorted, or sublimated to more worldy perspectives and values.
When in past decades, for instance, Catholic bishops commissioned psychological studies and followed the advice of social scientists—sending priests credibly accused of pedophiliac or pederastic behavior for therapy and then re-assigning them to new parishes—shouldn’t someone have said, “Is this really the best plan? Civil considerations aside (though of course important), do we really think a bit of therapy and a new assignment will prevent recidivism by abusive priests? What about the Gospel? What about the fact that a shepherd has used human beings as ‘things’—vessels in service to their own desires—and thus sinned against them, and against God, and against the very vows made to God? While bearing in mind the reality of mercy and forgiveness, don’t we have a responsibility to ensure that priests in this position can never again use young men or girls as ‘things’ by virtue of their trusted position of authority?”
Perhaps if someone, or some body within the Church—perhaps the Knights, perhaps a diocesan council led by layfolk of varying gifts—had asked such questions, Bishops responsible for covering up the behavior and shifting bad priests to new fields might have reconsidered taking the worldly advice of disinterested psychologists and removed bad shepherds from the pastures altogether.
“But,” I can hear some ask fairly, “how could we have asked these questions if we did not know?”
The answer is, we couldn’t have, because—at least “officially”—we did not know. Diocesan councils led by layfolk have not been the norm.
But it’s only a partial answer. The truth is, most Catholics who are involved with the Church have, at some point, “heard things” or have been advised by other Catholics to be wary of Father So-and-So, or not permit their child to serve Mass with him, due to long-standing or “established” rumors.
In other words, we may not have “known” about the distressing behavior of many of our priests or bishops, but we had strong inklings, and sometimes more than that.
As a pretty standard-issue Catholic—one educated in a Catholic elementary system, brought up in the sacraments, and experienced in the sad-but-common “time away from the Church” that defines most Catholics—I have known all my life that amid our faithful and good priests there have always been a number of “bad” ones, those spiritually unhealthy and immature men who might have been good, had they been well-shepherded themselves, or who were wholly unsuited to the life and should never have been ordained.
I have known it because as a ten-year old, I endured a shattering, traumatic experience with a priest. My best friend (at a parish forty miles away) had a similar experience, only disclosed in adulthood.
I have known it because while volunteering at my parish I “heard” things about a (now deceased) priest I really liked, and I didn’t want them to be true.
I have known it because even as a perfect nobody within the church, I had heard all the rumors about Theodore McCarrick decades ago. If I heard them, I’m sure others did as well.
Yet I said nothing. Very few of us said anything—not the people imparting the warnings or rumors, not the little girls in two parishes who had been used as “things” by the bad priests to whom we confessed our lesser sins for the sake of heaven.
The reluctance to talk may have been a circumstance of place and time. Back then, before the era of Oprah and “afternoon confessional” programming, painful secrets were kept “in the family,” so to speak, and a spiritual father’s bad behavior seemed of a piece with grandpa falling down the stairs every Friday night from the drink and the lady next door wearing long sleeves in the summertime to hide her bruises. What was noted went unspoken.
For whatever reason—perhaps a paralysis born of cognitive dissonance—few of us communicated our concerns or called for investigations for the sake of simple truth.
Perhaps none of us thought it would matter—that nothing would be done. If so, shame on our bishops for keeping such a distance as to leave us feeling ignored, ignorable, and without recourse.
Perhaps some of us simply thought it was wrong to speak against a shepherd, even to protect our lambs, and if so, shame on us for being the stupidest of sheep.
Perhaps some of were loath to see scandal and humiliation touch our Church, remaining silent out of a misplaced idea of love, and if so, shame on us for thinking so little of love—that it can be protected by deceit or served by silence without becoming perverted.
We are rightly sickened and disgusted by the actions of some of our churchmen—too many, it seems—and we must demand and participate in a thorough house-cleaning. But before doing so, we must face our own failings on this front: if we heard rumors, or even knew something, but never asked for an investigation, then we own a measure of sin by our omision.
There is a great deal of work to be done, and as I have written elsewhere, the laity must necessarily be part of that work. As we discern how to proceed, we can immediately do two things:
- Pray for our priests, by name when we can, every day and at every Mass.
- Do penance for the sins of our Church, and be willing to suffer a bit for the sake of its restoration to spiritual health.
Some might balk at the notion of doing penance for the sins of our leadership, but “We are Church” and must therefore in all ways be the Church we want to see proceed from this day forth. When Joel called Judah to repentence he called the whole people:
Blow the horn in Zion / Proclaim a fast / call an assembly! / Gather the people / sanctify the congregation / Assemble the elderly / gather the children, even infants nursing at the breast / Let the bridegroom leave his room / and the bride her bridal tent. (Joel 2:15-16)
Taking our cue from Sheen’s exhortation, we need to offer our best efforts to the Lord, and then look with clear eyes at the reality of a Church whose legacy of greatness has always been tainted with some squalor because—just as Christ died between two criminals, though one was repentant—holiness and evil are always within sight of each other.
Then we must look at the myriad ways change needs to happen, even as we understand that every solution we come up with will have its complications. I’ll write more on that next week.
It will be difficult work, but we mustn’t be afraid to begin it, faithfully, humbly, and begging the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But perhaps first we need to begin with one prayer made mindfully, and together:
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do…