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9-CHURCH

Finding hope amid a Church crisis

In a Letter from America, Brandon McGinley finds acts of grace that offer light amid the darkness of a Church crisis

We’ve all heard the cliches that follow scandal in the Church. We worship Jesus Christ, not priests or bishops or even popes. We believe in the perfection of the Church as a supernatural institution, not in her human administration here on earth. The Church has made it through far worse crises of morality and leadership in her history.

All of these sentiments are true (though the last one is increasingly contestable), but they don’t bring much comfort. Their appeal is in the notion that, in spite of the tempest of scandal churning all around us, everything will be alright: all we have to do is stay the course, our eyes fixed on the inextinguishable beacon that is Christ Crucified.

But, it brings me no pleasure to say, everything will not be alright. And the laity and clergy must do more than stay the course.

Sure, in the fullness of time, everything will be peachy. The gates of hell will not prevail and all that. But right now, at this moment, there are people in whom the doubts planted by the evil one seem to have been justified.

Right now, there are people who feel a soul-piercing pang with every new revelation or act of clerical nonchalance, perhaps from a wound inflicted long ago, perhaps from the trauma of a friend or family member, or perhaps simply from the pain left by a trust that has been betrayed over and over again. Right now, that is, people are suffering.

And so we have duties right now—all of us, not just bishops and cardinals. The spiritual works of mercy, which are often overshadowed by their corporal counterparts, come immediately to mind: counselling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offences, and praying for the living and the dead.

Taken together, they form a balanced and comprehensive response to our moment of ecclesial malfeasance and dysfunction. The wisdom of Scripture and tradition has handed down to us imperatives that are at once active and passive, interior-focused and other-regarding, enlivened by mercy and grounded in justice.

Meditating and acting on the spiritual works of mercy only throws into sharper relief the failure of so many Church leaders, whose actions (and inaction) have specifically undermined the spirit of these commandments.

They have led people into doubt and error; they have undermined the Church’s moral authority to preach repentance; they have inflicted rather than alleviated pain and sorrow; they have been boisterous when they should be meek and silent when they should be bold; they have demonstrated more faith in public relations professionals than in prayer.

But I began this letter from the troubled Church in America with the intention of being hopeful, and so let me turn to the good I have seen over these difficult weeks and months.

Even as the crisis seems to deepen by the day—in fact, precisely because the crisis is deepening—I have seen among the laity and clergy more public commitments to grow in holiness than I have ever seen before, especially in the form of commitments to prayer and fasting.

There is among the faithful, I can say with a measured confidence, that special kind of resolve that human beings are filled with when facing an imminent and fearsome peril. And the source of that resolve is grace. It has always been thus, as St Paul wrote, ‘where sin increased, grace abounded all the more’ (Romans 5:20).

‘Sanctity’ can often seem like a gauzy, abstract concept. It’s hard to know what it would look or feel like to ‘grow in holiness.’

It’s not hard to wonder if all the effort of Mass-going and personal prayer and Confession and self-denial ever really amounts to anything tangible.

What the continuing crisis in the American Church has demonstrated is what happens when we don’t commit to holiness—and the effects are terrifyingly real.

There’s no standing still in the spiritual life: we’re either growing closer to Christ or receding from Him. It is the difficult but unavoidable truth that a great deal of Church leaders have been receding from Him, and for quite some time.

We have witnessed the terrible damage done by powerful men who have spurned holiness—but God, in His strange and wonderful providence, is fashioning from this tragedy a gift. As manure fertilises the fields, the evidence of the wages of sin which the faithful have been given is preparing our souls, God willing, for a bountiful harvest.

 

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