A Tradition of Failure
Mankind is an imperfect species. We have proven it time, and again. Adam and Eve turned their backs to God, Cain killed Abel, and the Jews wandered around for forty years, because they refused to get their act together, and believe in their God, who delivered them out of Egypt.
If you look at the founding of the Catholic church, it is built on the rock of Peter, who denied Jesus three times. This betrayal did not come as a surprise to Jesus. He knew of it, and pardoned it before Peter even committed it. God knows, far better than we ever will, humans stumble around in ignorance, fear, and pride. We fail, in so many ways, great and small, every single day.
No matter how far we age, individually, or how far we advance as a civilization, we are all children before the agelessness of God. God is our Father, and what is the responsibility of every Father to his children, but to pick them up when they fall, and teach them.
Ever since our initial fall from Grace, God has been trying to help us build ourselves back up. He gave us a priceless gift, and, as most of us learn, anything gained easily rarely endures. So we struggle, and we strive, and seek to collectively mold ourselves back into the beautiful form we were initially created to be.
An example of the Church implementing the values of divine forgiveness feature in the Church’s response to Donatism. Donatism was a medieval heresy born from Roman persecutions in Africa against Christians. If a Priest, or Bishop denied their faith in order to avoid being martyred, a Donatist believed they could no longer hold holy office, once the threat of persecution had subsided. To a humanistic perspective, it does seem to make a bit of just sense. If you deny your faith before man, why should you be allowed to continue to preach it when they danger is past. That’s not fair!, one may say. It pricks our sense of pride to think someone could gain the benefits of a high office when times are easy, but deny it during hardships.
Peter denied Jesus three times. Whether you view him as the rock upon which your church is built and sustained, or just another apostle, you cannot deny he still held a place of authority within Christianity. That is why Bishops were forgiven. I am not, yet, enough of a historian to know whether or not these Bishops and Priests were required to do penance, I can only have faith it was enforced if the Church was to be in line with good practices of atoning for sin.
The most remarkable aspect to come out of this history is the message that the sacraments performed by Clergy prior to, or after their fall was validated because the sacraments were enacted by the grace of God, and not the all-too-sinful prelate. It adds a new dimension of debate for me towards those who say that I, as a Catholic, worship images, Saints, or Priests. All authority on Earth comes from God, and it is through Him we are saved. Even in the early Church, this was recognized. Jesus gave a task to the apostles. Go out and spread The Word. God could very easily do this on his own. He did it with Adam and Eve, and they failed him. So God gave mankind an assignment. We are to go out and rebuild a Kingdom of God here on Earth. It requires extensive toil, and sacrifice, and we will make mistakes time after time.
It is from this background, I take the sex scandals within the Church to heart. It is natural, and right to feel outrage at sin, because it offends, not only ourselves, but God, Himself. God is disgusted by sin, because God bears the burden of all sin. History only shows us the aftermath. We know Clergy were forgiven when they renounced Christ before their Roman persecutors. Donatism lasted a hundred years, at least, though. People of the time were hurt, and outraged at what they viewed as a lack of faith. Councils were necessary, and decisions were made over the course of time, contemplation, and the Will of God through His Holy Spirit.
In our present time, we must apply these same tenants. In order to reform a problem, we must know the full extent. We must be informed of every criminal act perpetrated by the Clergy. We must know the full extent to which these crimes were known within the Church, and ignored. And we must know the penance by which these Priests will redeem themselves. When I confess to God, through my priest, I may be asked to recite a prayer, or take on a task to reform myself, depending on the scope of my sin.
For the crime of corrupting the lives of children within their care, it is no small thing to expect a sentence in prison as penance. Early models of American criminal justice referred to prisons as “penitentiaries”. It was a place for criminals to be in isolation from society to contemplate their crimes, and seek God’s redemptive favor. As a systemic model, it fails because most criminals are not interested in true rehabilitation. Seeking such redemption is up to each individual, along with it’s success, and not something we can expect success from systemically.
Just because the justice systems of America, and other countries, are bound by statutes of limitations, I see no reason to expect anyone who commits a criminal act to escape justice, by virtue of having successfully hid the crime for so long. If the Church can shelter criminals within their ranks for so long, then the Church can see to an equitable punishment for fallen clergy. Isolation from society has long been a historically utilized form to cleanse oneself of their sinful nature, and their is no reason why the higher authorities within the Church can not enact such penitential punishment upon those guilty of sexually assaulting the youth within their pastoral care.
The means by which the guilty are held to account can, and should be debated further.
As Christians, we can not remain silent on issues such as this. We should, and shall, hold our Clergy to account. As with all matters, this is to be done respectfully, and with dignity. We are all called to emulate Christ, both as laity, and in what we expect from our Ecclesiastical authorities. You can demand, without being brutish and crude, and it is something I expect you to enact. There are many who share this outrage. Write letters to your Arch-Bishoprics. Whether it is one letter from an influential person with thousands of signatories, or a million of you writing letters, the message will be made. We have a tradition of failing, but we also have a practice of forgiving, and rebuilding. We may not see the fulfillment of God’s plan for us within our lifetime, but we can do our part. We can demand more from ourselves, and our neighbors. That is how we will build. Brick by brick. One step at a time. It begins with you. It begins with me. It begins with Christ.
Editors Note: The Prince of Antares, Trey Blanton, has added his signature to one such letter. Find your voice, and be heard. Reach out. https://youngcatholicvoice.com/home/letters/