Wednesday, June 26, 2013

An End to Being Scandalized

Glibness is the great danger in answering people’s questions about religion. I won’t answer yours because you can answer them as well yourself but I will give you, for what it’s worth, my own perspective on them. All your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to come from an incomplete understanding of sin.

This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh.

The Holy Spirit very rarely shows himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in; you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth, and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners.

Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith.

The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature.

God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this, but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being

Reflection – O’Connor often corresponded with people who struggled with the Catholic Church for one reason or another—disgruntled lapsed Catholics and the like. Intellectuals and artists in particular were fascinated with this woman who produced such masterful and intelligent fiction and yet was one of those weird Catholic type people.

Here is her response to someone complaining of all the Church’s failures and scandals and the sins of its members. And her response is deeply, profoundly realistic. I think in our day, when the scandals of the Church are laid bare in such humiliating, excruciating detail for all the world to see, we have to go into this a bit more radically. Perhaps part of our struggle now, besides the scandals themselves which are horrific, is that we really don’t have much sense of the reality of sin in the human picture.

In other words, I don’t think we fully grasp the extent of that ‘radical human pride that causes death’ and just how vigorously we are resisting grace on any given day. When we don’t see clearly just how opposed humanity is to God until his grace miraculously and mysteriously overcomes our resistance, then of course we are continually shocked, scandalized, tripped up by the spectacle of human failure and human wickedness.

Personally, I was never ‘scandalized’ by the scandals in the Church. Now, understand what we mean by the word ‘scandalize’. Like everyone I was deeply pained, angered, saddened by the actions of a small percentage of priests who sexually abused minors, and by the cover-ups and mendacity of their superiors. But that’s not what ‘scandal’ is. Scandal means being tripped up, brought into doubt about the faith, having a stumbling block placed in the path. With all the painful emotions we all have had over the sexual abuse crisis, I was never scandalized in that sense.

Why not? Because I understand this grace business and how it does or does not work. God does not force His help on us. His help is poured out, lavishly, abundantly, with infinite mercy and infinite generosity. The Eucharist, the Confessional, are laid open for all to receive. And his grace is flowing in myriad other channels constantly.

But if a man or woman declines to accept that help and sets him or herself on a course of wickedness, God will not intervene. As Flannery says, we don’t really understand why God has set things up this way, but we reject it at the price of rejecting life. So there will always be sexually sinful priests, and avaricious priests, and wrathful priests, and vain priests, and gluttonous priests (not to mention a few lay people who-cough-may struggle with these vices too, and not to mention more than a few genuinely holy priests and laity throughout the Church).

There will always be this, and there will always be God dispensing his grace and his truth through the Church, and there will always be the fierce terrible struggle to accept all of this as it is, until the kingdom of God comes in full, and all is made well in the light of that kingdom.

1 comment:

  1. God grant me the serenity to accept the things
    I cannot change; courage to change the things I can ; and the wisdom to know the difference.

    Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the way to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
    trusting that God will make all things right if I surrender to God's will; That I may be reasonably happy n this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen
    Reinhold Niebuhr


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