Catholicism's Curse

I have a little bit of time this morning, so I'd like to make a few comments about Frank Bruni's New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled "Catholicism's Curse." Bruni begins with the bromide, "I admire a lot of priests, but I can't stand the institution." You know, tip your hat to the select "men of genuine compassion and remarkable altruism" and then go on to excoriate the institution to which they belong.

Drawing on the soon-to-be released book by Garry Wills (Why Priests? A Failed Tradition) Bruni draws his reader's attention to recently released documents showing Cardinal Mahony's role in failing to address adequately, if not concealing, the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Bruni excoriates the Church for its arrogance, for its being out of step with the "rest of the world" and those who dissent from "the all male priesthood...[or] the commitment to celibacy that priests are required to make." Not to sound cynical, but these latter are very first-world problems: in the Congo, or in Syria, I doubt Catholics are much concerned about clerical celibacy. They're more concerned about whether they are going to be killed.

In short, in many parts of the world, dissent is an unimaginable luxury. Issues like gay marriage, married clergy, male priesthood, these are issues that are almost impossible to discuss when your family is starving, when you're walking from refugee camp to refugee camp, or your burying a loved one who has been killed in another senseless attack in a war you neither supported nor understand.

There is no question: The Catholic Church has messed up. A lot. It has been arrogant - just as the Boy Scouts, School Districts, and Corporate America - has been arrogant. The Church failed to play by the rules of the God's Kingdom and chose, instead, to put the institution and its security over honesty and transparency. For failing to live its mission to be the sacrament of God's Kingdom on earth, it suffers today.

I can only speak for myself, but I am frequently appalled by the "ornamental and somewhat irrelevant distractions" of life within the Church. Sometimes, I roll my eyes and think that it's a strange place that has such strong feelings about human sexuality yet garbs its priests in spectacularly colored and elaborate robes. Indeed, I don't quite get all of the lace and incense, titles and clericalism that seem to enthrall others. I just learned last night, for instance, that there were multiple degrees of monsignor. I barely understand what a monsignor is, let alone that they come in different flavors.

All that said, the problem with Bruni's piece is that it says a lot of nothing new with quite a few words. "It can't admit to error, the church hierarchy" he quotes Wills. We live in a country where to say "I'm sorry" is an admission of guilt and opens you up to law suits. Our litigious culture does not permit authentic expressions of remorse....in the USA, "I'm Sorry = Please Sue Me." Again, I'm ashamed to say it, but in this the Church plays by the same rules many of us play by.

And there's the rub: we are the Church. In every generation, as we receive the Gospel that has been handed down and try to live that together, we do so as we are. Becoming a priest doesn't make you perfect or pure, just as getting married doesn't prevent you from thinking other people are really attractive. We are, all of us, struggling to live out what we feel is a call to be together and live together and walk together as God's people. If the Church errs, it should come as no surprise: we screw up all the time, too.

When we look at the corruption of the Church, we too easily miss the enormous good that it does and how much an instrument of grace it has been, is, and can be into the future. Nevertheless, I think we need to look at the failings and realize that as we peer into the muck and mire of institutional corruption...we see, all too often, a reflection of ourselves.



Mr. Bruni, as most of us who sometimes feel alienated from or angry at the Church, would do well to reflect on the following words from Louis-Marie Chauvet:
The true scandal is ultimately this, the path to our relation with God passes through our relation with human beings and most especially through our relation with those whom the judgment of the mighty has reduced to "less than nothing."
Many of us remain with the Church not because we have no place else to go, but because we have found within the Church, that is her people, the living presence of Jesus Christ who calls us, and continues to call us, because we recognize our sinfulness and know that none of us has the strength to respond to this call all on our own. Church scandals have left many in the Church reduced to "less than nothing" but now, more than ever, must we realize that this reduction may be the opening through which many may experience the bounty of God's grace re-creating us into the people we have the potential of being.
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