It seems apropos at this difficult and strange hour for the Church in the United States to write about how scandals in the Church can deter people from becoming Catholic and discourage already practicing Catholics from growing deeper into their faith. Many responses are possible to disclosures like those released by Archbishop Viganò. Which responses will lead to Christ, even in the midst of such turmoil, and which will lead away from Him?
The just anger, sorrow, and fear that people are experiencing should be acknowledged. This is not weakness, but only acknowledges the harm done. At the same time, however, it is not helpful to anyone—not the victims, nor those seeking to make reparation—to stay focused on the emotional response we have. Instead, allow truth to bring healing. The work that must be done goes far beyond the emotions, and they cannot bear the brunt of the labor. We have to use our minds and wills to make choices about what to do next.
Many voices have called for accountability. The faithful have a desire for faithful, integral leadership. Accountability and responsibility ought to be established in the clearest and most direct way possible. It seems that we need to answer three questions: What happened? How did it happen? How does the Church ensure that it does not happen again?
As an individual member of the Church, what are some possible choices that can be made? One is to leave. But this strikes one as wrong-headed and more destructive, rather than salvific and life-giving. Why? The Sacraments are not at fault—Our Lord is not at fault in all this mess. To avoid Holy Mass, the Sacraments, and the Eucharist especially, is to deny oneself the One Person who can help make sense of evil in the Church. Not only that, but in difficult times a “back to the basics” approach can be very helpful. What is the Mass? What are the Sacraments? Are they still valid if the priest or bishop who is celebrating is bad? The Church has given a resounding “yes” to this question—the principle is that the Sacraments give grace ex opere operato. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1128:
This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister.
Less drastic, but still damaging, is discouragement and disappointment. This is understandable, but discouragement is never from the Holy Spirit. Discouragement and sorrow at the good that the Church is, underneath all the sins of her members, drag us away from God and deaden our relationship with Him. Everything becomes gray and drab, rather than vibrant and full of life. What is the proper response to discouragement and desolation? Fight it. Don’t avoid it, and don’t avoid the root of it. Again, truth plays a major role in healing the sorrow of discouragement. One can put the mind to work about the truth, like what can be done to help my own faith and the faith of those around me right now? That may be more time for prayer or a specific prayer or fasting for those who have suffered abuse. It may mean taking a walk to lift your spirits or talking with a friend that you trust. Don’t be afraid to face discouragement squarely and act against it.
Related to discouragement is resentment, which breeds bitterness. Our Lord wants healing to reach to all the members of the Church. Resentment and bitterness will block that, and Satan wins again. He had a role to play in all this, and anything destructive to the Body of Christ only adds to his victory.
A fruitful response in the face of a grave trial of faith is precisely to make acts of faith, hope, and love. The virtues of faith, hope, and love have been given to us to be used and enjoyed. Now is the time to engage them. It is as easy as saying, “I believe in you, O Lord. I hope in You. I love you, my God.” The battle for truth is a spiritual battle, and we have the weapons to fight for the truth effectively. That starts by activating the virtues that have God as the source and final goal.
As a Catholic, you might be asked in the next few months why you are still in the Church after all these scandals. Saint Peter told us, “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence…” (1 Pt 3:15). In other words, don’t get defensive. Simply be ready and ask yourself: Why am I Catholic? Why do I believe? Why have I been created? How have I come to know God over the course of my life? Does any of this change with the revelation of sin? No, it does not. Belief in God, hope in Him, and love for Him are personal acts that no one can take away from you and no one but you can make.
Finally, make a space in your heart for hope and integrity. Integrity needs to be recovered and embraced. Hope needs to be placed in God alone and deepened there. Perhaps these words from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, his meditation on the 9th Station of the Cross on Good Friday 2005, need to be heard once more:
Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan is with the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Alma, Michigan.