Of Scandals and False Scandals

Prepare to be muddled. Down the tracks we see in the distance another bundle of contradictions coming our way. By the time you read this it may have already trundled over us into the pages of history. Hopefully we will cope with it and use it to all our advantage rather than allow it to demoralize and dishearten us. (Alternative intro: “It must needs be that scandal cometh” No doubt about that. Just open your newspaper. “But woe to nevertheless, woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh.” Now that gives food for thought. That’s all out of Matthew 18.7) The report of the Commission of Investigation of the Archdiocese of Dublin into child abuse is imminent. Ireland is bracing itself for a scandal. But scandal is a funny thing – “funny peculiar”, that is. More often than not it is rooted in the ignorance of the scandalized, an ignorance which in this case will be fed and nourished by the fourth estate which should be working to remove it. What is the scandal – and scandal, we need to remember, is not the evil that may or may not have happened but the effect of the perception of that evil on others? What is the ignorance at its root? It is the idea that the Church of God, founded by Jesus Christ nearly 2000 years ago, has been responsible for unspeakable crimes and has in some way failed in its duty of care to the most vulnerable of its members. This is the scandal and it comes from the muddled thinking about the true nature of the Church which is being perpetuated constantly. If only the commentariat would clear its collective mind on the basic facts about which it holds forth so readily, there might be less of a muddle, less confusion and consequently less scandal. If that happened we might all then be in a better position to make a more effective response to the horrors that as human beings we all have to and always will have to deal with in keeping ourselves together as a civilized society in this world. Last October 15, speaking at his general audience, Pope Benedict went back to St. Paul to clarify for us the true nature of the Church. He showed us that there are two senses in which we can use this word “church”, one of which is central and transcendent, the second of which is more peripheral and earth-bound. The failure to recognize and acknowledge the first of these is and will be at the root of much of the misunderstanding and scandal which inevitably follow the revelation of the crimes and misdemeanors of members or officials of the Church on earth. This failure was typified by an editorial in The Irish Times last year after the announcement that the Eucharistic Congress would take place in Dublin in 2012. Rather patronizingly we were told: “There is a touch of the masterly where the Catholic Church is concerned about the announcement that the 50th International Eucharistic Congress will take place in Dublin in 2012. It gives a battered, bruised and demoralized institution here in Ireland a positive focus for the immediate future, while also allowing it to redirect its gaze from horrors past.” The Church of God is not “battered, bruised and demoralized.” Her members may feel so but they must never lose sight of the truth that the Church of God is and always will be as triumphant as Christ promised she would be. The only battering and bruising will come from outside – in the form of persecution. We know that the gates of hell may rail against her but will not prevail. We know that from within there will be betrayals and weakness – as evidenced by the betrayal of Judas and the weakness of Peter – but that she herself will remain unblemished until the end of time. This is the Church which will get no recognition in the headlines of our newspapers and news bulletins. What did Pope Benedict say last October which helps us to be clearer about all this? The word “church”, he explained, has a multi-dimensional meaning: “it indicates a part of God’s assembly in a specific place but it also means the church as a whole. And thus we see that the “Church of God” is not only a collection of various local Churches but that these various local Churches in turn make up one Church of God. All together they are “the Church of God” which precedes the individual local Churches and is expressed or brought into being in them.” He then pointed out that it is important to observe that in St. Paul’s writings the word “Church” almost always appears with the additional qualification “of God”: “she is not a human association, born from ideas or common interests, but a convocation of God. He has convoked her, thus, in all her manifestations she is one. The oneness of God creates the oneness of the Church in all the places in which she is found” – and that includes Dublin, Ferns, and anywhere in the world. The sins of those who strive to be members are not sins of the Church. It is in its failure to recognize this and in its constant confusion of aberrant individuals, or even the human inadequacy and poor judgment of their leaders, with the Church itself that we are ill-served by our media. Pope Benedict explained the two dimensions further when he elaborated on the Pauline concept of the Church as the “Body of Christ”. One is sociological in character, according to which the body is made up of elements and would not exist without them. The Pope notes that in this interpretation St. Paul uses an image which already existed in Roman sociology – “a people is like a body with its different parts, each of which has its own function. But all together, even its smallest and seemingly most insignificant parts, are necessary if this body is to be able to live and carry out its functions.” Clearly – as indeed happened in the early Church – when things go wrong and people act badly then they have to be dealt with. This does not, however, indict the Church itself. The enormity of the error of attempting to do so becomes clearer when we look at the second dimension of the Pauline concept of Church as the Pope explained it. The Church is the actual Body of Christ. “Paul holds that the Church is not only an organism but really becomes the Body of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, where we all receive his Body and really become his Body. Thus is brought about the spousal mystery that all become one body and one spirit in Christ. So it is that the reality goes far beyond any sociological image, expressing its real, profound essence, that is, the oneness of all the baptized in Christ, considered by the Apostle ‘one’ in Christ, conformed to the Sacrament of his Body”. If we can remember these explanations of the reality and the mystery of the Church then we will be able to deal more effectively with the problems we create for ourselves as human beings trying to live up to the standards set for us in this awesome Communion. In dealing with our inadequacies, our crimes and misdemeanors, there will be pain and plenty of it. There will be sorrow in the face of the pain we inflict on each other and sorrow for those who fall away in doing so. There will also have to be correction. We will remember that no man is an island and that all of us can share some responsibility for the failings of each other. St. Josemaría Escrivá once said something to the effect that there were no bad priests; there were priests who failed to live as they should because the rest of us did not pray enough for them. There need not be scandal; there need not be a falling away from the Church because of a false scandal at the crimes of its members. When we truly understand why all this has happened we will realize that the only true solution is to be found in a renewed and deeper commitment to the Body instituted by Christ himself, his Church.

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