Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Archbishop, A Mormon, and an Atheist Walk into an Airport...

Greetings, Coffee Talkers!

Some of you may have seen this post by Archbishop Timothy Dolan regarding a recent encounter that he had with a man in the Denver airport, and the discussion that ensued over the clerical sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. I was impressed with the Archbishop's boldness in defending the dignity of each human person from undue attacks based on the transgressions of a few, and for his willingness to stand up for the Catholic Church and for the ministerial priesthood. And so I shared his article on Facebook.

A number of my other Catholic friends had also shared Archbishop Dolan's blogpost, and so having seen widespread support for the Archbishop's bravery in defending the faith, I was caught almost as unaware as the Archbishop himself had been that day in the airport when the comments started rolling in on my posting of his article. Comments like this:
I'm not totally satisfied with his response. The proportion of child sex offenders among the clergy, while commensurate with that among many other professions that work closely with children, is still far higher than that among the general population. And to say "We, the Roman Catholic Church, didn't handle this crisis much worse than the bureaucracy of the New York City Public School System," also seems to be setting the bar rather low.
 And this...
He definitely deflected the criticism, and the basis was that "These other groups are worse, and don't get press about it. See, we're not that bad." I just don't think that's a valid response. Where is... "You're right. Priest Bob committed a grievous sin and we excommunicated him over it because we just don't stand for that." ????
When a conservative Mormon and a liberal homosexual atheist come to a place of agreement, it could mean only one thing: everyone hates the Catholic Church.

Now, it may seem a bit unfair of me to label people like that, and in fact, it is! Because there are actual people with human dignity beyond those labels. But hey, since we're talking about the labels, here is my ficticious airport encounter with one of the characters mentioned above:
Leslie sees a young married man, his wife, and many young children. She says to the man, "Hey, I know that not that many Catholics are on board with the Church's teachings on contraception these days, so you guys must be Mormon, right? Where are the rest of your wives?"

The man is stunned, but quickly recovers and says, "Leslie, you might be rude, but you're right to label me based on the indiscretions of a few, and because I appreciate personally taking on criticisms that are based largely on ignorance I will now disclose the indiscretion of another former member of my religion (whose situation I actually know very little about, truth be told) as a way to both defend myself and distance myself from the situation. Elder Bob was a polygamist, but we excommunicated him because we don't stand for that kind of thing. Hey, look over there -- a liberal atheist! Why don't you go bother him?"
Now, I hope that the crass and ridiculous example I have just given will be taken a a spirit of humor and charity, and I hope that it makes it clear that no one should be labeled and judged based on misperceptions and ignorance.

I do want a few other points to be understood clearly: 1. I am in no way defending the abuse scandals within the Catholic Church; 2. neither was Archbishop Timothy Dolan; 3. the abuse scandals should have been handled very differently than they were in many cases in the Catholic Church, and that is nothing to be proud of; 4. to defend the Catholic Church itself is not to endorse either the indiscretions of a few nor to support the poor handling of very serious abuse cases; 5. I love all of my friends, from conservative Mormon to liberal atheist and everyone in between.

And there's something else I want to say (I know, I know, there's always something else!) -- while nothing can compare to the tragedy and injustice of people having been abused and those egregious acts being deliberately covered up, far fewer people are aware of the devastation that goes on in the lives of those (clergy and lay people included) who are falsely accused. Priests are absolutely considered guilty until proven innocent and are immediately removed from their public ministry with so much as one false accusation. And the truth is that, even if the claims are shown without a doubt to have been completely false, an accused priest can never really be proven innocent. Never.

Priests, Bishops, Cardinals, even the Pope are human. They are fallen men. In a word, they are sinners. This is one of the reasons that I admire Archbishop Dolan -- he knows himself to be a sinner in need of God's mercy like all of us. In fact, he likes to walk to various parishes to go to confession on Saturday afternoons with the regular people of those parishes.
Because I’m dressed in street garb, and, since I prefer to confess behind the screen, the confessor does not know who I am. Fine with me.
Once, though, as I was leaving the church, another priest of the parish did recognize me, welcomed me, and we chatted for awhile. When he discovered that I had just gone to confession, he blushed.
“But, archbishop,” he remarked, “I’ll send a confessor to your house! You shouldn’t have to come down here, stand in line, and wait like everybody else!”
Well, as a matter of fact, yes I should. While I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, I explained that I really wanted to make the trip to the church, I preferred to stand in line, I wanted to be “just like everybody else!”
Because, as a sinner, I am! And one of the places I most sense being an intimate part of the Church, a member of this community of faith, is when I’m in company with others, head down, waiting in line for God’s mercy in this beautiful and potent sacrament of reconciliation.
‘Look not on our sins, but on the faith of the Church!”
But the point of all of this is not to defend Archbishop Dolan or any particular priest; in fact, the only way that the Catholic Church or her priests can be defended is insofar as they draw grace from Christ. As we consider the difficulties of our modern times, we see that there is nothing new under the sun. Consider the situation of the Catholic Church in the 300s:
In the 4th century, a group of fundamentalist/radicals broke away from the Catholic Church to found their own Church.  Their beef was that during a persecution by the Emperor Diocletian some bishops had acquiesced and had handed over sacred books to imperial officials.   The radicals, called Donatists, concluded that because the bishops sinned they were tainted and could never again confer valid sacraments.

Augustine observed that such a view could be spiritually dangerous.  It lead to a destructive fantasy about the person of the priest.  It could produce spiritual envy.  It could, more seriously, lead to a marginalization of God, God’s holiness and God’s intervention, in favor of that of the priest or bishop who is, materially, right there.
To counter the Donatist materialist approach and obsession with the sinless, Augustine counters that the only true holy one is Christ.  Only Jesus is the true High Priest free from any stain of sin.  Only Christ’s sacrifice atoned for sin.  The bishop and the priest are themselves pardoned sinners.  Priests must not be seen as being entirely apart but as standing together with people as they also strive for holiness.  But they should not be imagined to be holier than a mere human being can be.

When Augustine comments on how the Lord washed the dirty feet of the Apostles, he explains that Christ was pardoning the Apostles for what they had done wrong in their ministry.  When Peter then asks that Christ wash not only his dirty feet (i.e., the sins he committed in ministry) he asks Christ to wash also his whole body.  Christ responds that his whole body had already been washed and he had no need for it to be washed again, a reference to baptism.  The washing of feet represented forgiveness of post-baptismal sins committed by the Apostles, Christ’s priests, in ministry.

In other words, post-baptismal sins can be forgiven and the one forgiven can still minister.

It is a great concern today that many people are deeply shaken in their faith because of the sins of a very small number of priests and bishops.  It is right and proper to be angry about their crimes when they are proven to have committed them.  It could be that an idealization of priests and bishops leads to a disproportionate disillusionment when they are revealed not to be perfect, especially when they are shown to be sinners of the gravest sort.

We have to be reminded constantly what Augustine stressed in that controversy with the Donatists: Christians who left the Church because they were disillusioned with its outward appearances of perfection and holiness.  Priests and bishops are sinners in need of a savior.  Augustine said to his flock, “I am a bishop for you, I am a christian with you.”

Turning priests or bishops into idealized icons of holiness is fraught with spiritual peril.  Admire the admirable, of course.  But we need a necessary corrective in our admiration, namely, that the sole Holy One of God is Jesus Christ, the only perfect High Priest and actual minister of all graces which Holy Church’s ministers have the honor to mediate.
Let's pray for our priests, and for one another that we may not only fall, but rise again.

Peace and all good,

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