... but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. — Matthew 18:6
These are not good times for Catholics. The drip, drip, drip of the sexual abuse scandal against its clergy has caused a lot of pain and doubt within the church and its adherents.
Already beset with a shortage of priests, a decline in church attendance and a drop in giving, the Catholic Church is in crisis mode, with bishops trying to play catch-up after decades of worrying more about the church’s image than protecting the youngest members of its flock.
This past week, the Jackson Diocese released its long-awaited report on how bad the problem of sexual abuse of minors has been in the 65 counties it covers. It produced a list of 30 priests or other male members of the clergy whom the diocese said were credibly accused of inappropriate sexual relations in Mississippi with girls and boys ranging in age from 5 to 17, and seven who had served in this state but were accused of such behavior elsewhere.
Four of those on the list served at some point during their ministry in Greenwood, and two of them, both Franciscan brothers, are alleged to have committed sexual abuse during their time in the 1990s at one of this city’s two Catholic churches. Two of the accused were before my time here, and the other two I don’t remember — a blessing, I suppose.
I’m also thankful that the list wasn’t longer and that the alleged offenses were not more recent. The diocese said it reviewed 1,400 files on priests and other clergy dating back almost a century, and its findings only implicated a small fraction of them, a percentage somewhere in the low single digits. It also said it did not turn up a single case that was less than 20 years ago.
Skeptics are going to question both of these findings, with good reason. Since the Catholic hierarchy tried to cover up these abuses in the past, can it be trusted now to tell the whole truth? Maybe so, maybe not. A group that represents survivors of those abused by priests claims at least four more names should have been on the list released Tuesday.
This erosion of trust is one of the worst consequences of the scandal. Those of us raised Catholic didn’t question the honesty and integrity of the priests who minstered to us. We believed that what we saw and heard in church on Sunday was what was practiced on Monday, at least by those giving the homily. We didn’t expect them to be perfect, but we did expect their sins to be venial.
You can’t read the Scripture from Matthew about Jesus’ warning to those who defile children and square that with the priesthood. The bromide that we’re all sinners doesn’t mitigate such a revolting betrayal of trust.
This scandal has caused some to give up on Catholicism, switching to other denominations or, more commonly, abandoning organized religion completely.
Why haven’t I?
Like Wayne Pittman, a fellow parishioner whom I interviewed this past week for an article about the scandal, I have known many wonderful, inspiring, devoted priests. I attended Catholic schools from first grade through college, and at every step there were priests who helped develop my spirituality and my intellect. I am saddened for those priests who must now labor under a cloud of suspicion and doubt that they do not personally deserve but may never be able to completely shake.
More fundamentally, though, I am stuck on Catholicism because at its core, it does not depend on the charisma or erudition or even the character of the priests.
Certainly a homilist who doesn’t put the congregation to sleep adds to the quality of the worship service. But even if the homily is boring and even if — heaven forbid — the priest is morally flawed, the celebration of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is not impacted. As Catholics, we believe that at every Mass a miracle occurs — the changing of wine and bread into the body and blood of Christ — and that the priest, while holding a special status from his ordination, is just a conduit for God’s power.
This core belief of Catholicism — that the sacrament of Communion is not just a remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples but an actual recreation of it — can be mystifying and offputting to non-Catholics. It demands a suspension of the senses, taking on faith a transformation that your eyes can’t see, your nose can’t smell, your tongue can’t taste. To be honest, most Catholics have moments of doubt, too.
Forgive me if I come across as proselytizing. That’s not my nature. I believe there are many paths to heaven, and Catholicism does not have the only map on how to get there.
But in trying to explain why I stay a Catholic, despite being let down by some of those who have led our church, it boils down to this: I cannot walk away from the Eucharist. Maybe that comes from an indoctrination that began from the day I was old enough to be carried to a Catholic church, but it’s there, and it seems that there’s no shaking it free.
When Jesus tried to explain the Eucharist to his followers, the Book of John tells us, many of them were turned off and left him, presumably returning to a belief system that made them more comfortable.
After seeing this reaction and knowing his own closest disciples were whispering among themselves, he asked the 12 if they were wanting to leave him, too. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
I think about that Scripture when I contemplate how to react to my church’s scandal. Nothing feels right other than to ride it out. Where else, I ask myself, would I go?
• Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.