The recent revelations regarding sex scandals in the Catholic Church have me thinking a lot about the nature of grace and the consequences of our misdeeds. God’s grace is often misunderstood to eliminate the consequences of sin, but nothing could be further from the reality. God’s grace transferred the consequences of our sin onto Jesus, but it did not eliminate them. Furthermore, while we may, depending on your particular theological outlook and acceptance of Christ as your Savior, no longer suffer from eternal consequences for our sin, the temporal ones still remain.
The second assertion above should be obvious enough. If I engage in too much vice, I am depleted in some fashion. Too much alcohol and I fail to function well, to provide for myself and my family. Thus I suffer temporal consequence for the sin of gluttony regarding alcohol, even if God forgives me and allows me into heaven. Thus permitting a pedophile priest to retain his clerical status does not exercise grace – it cheapens it.
But there is something even more practical in play here, God’s grace is not intended to permit us to continue in our sin, but to allow us to overcome it.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!
Paul then goes on to an extended argument in deeply theological, and metaphorical, terms saying essentially what I said earlier – the purpose of grace is not to permit sin, but to permit us to overcome it.
What is most interesting about the passage is the metaphor Paul uses. He claims that through baptism we die, and are resurrected, with Christ. Which supports the first assertion I made. Our sin still has a death consequence; God’s grace did not eliminate it, it is simply that Jesus bore the consequence for us while we suffer it only metaphorically in baptism.
The bottom line is this – sin is real, death is real and we have to stare both of them squarely in the face and deal with them. And so, the ultimate question is, “How is God’s grace exercised in a situation like the one faced in the Catholic Church?” The priest’s involved certainly need grace, not just forgiveness, but the grace that allows them to overcome their issues. The church needs grace because of the stain these issues have left on it, and subsequently on God’s reputation. Most importantly, the victims need grace, and grace again. There is a huge need for grace in this situation.
Last Tuesday I said the church has to “to show a better life, not just a life in a different bubble.” I can think of no better way to show that better life than by the proper and through exercise of God’s grace in situations just like the one we are discussing.
Defrocking the priests involved is a deep, abiding, and broad exercise of God’s grace. In my first post on the recent revelations I said, ” Bear in mind the victim needs much help and assistance as well, and the church should have tried to offer that. Though understandably many a victim might be hesitant to accept it – particularly when their victimizer was not, from their perspective being properly excoriated.” Allowing the priest’s to remain in office in any fashion is a deep impediment to ministering to the victims. It is just that simple. Grace towards the victims MUST be the church’s first priority and that is nearly impossible with the priest’s still in the fold.
Their removal is, of course, graceful to the church. As the current level of vitriol demonstrates, hiding the sin, which is always a temporary thing at best, is a PR move, not a grace move. The church can only move forward and repair the damage done to it and to God’s name by removing the problem and making sure it does not come back again. Ministering to the victims is a huge part of that repair and as we have said that is blocked by retaining the priest’s in office.
But importantly, it is also graceful to the priests so defrocked. In that same first post I told a bit of the story of my friend that was encumbered as these priests are – and how he achieved, through decades of hard work and accountability, redemption. Had he retained his clerical status, much of the work necessary for the redemption he achieved would have been impossible. If a person is failing at something grossly, asking them to continue to fail simply illustrates their failure, it does not allow them to improve. Consider, if a person passes out at mile 15 every time they try to run a marathon – asking them to run it again is only asking them to pass out. Clearly they are missing something that makes them a marathoner. Now, if they stop trying to run a marathon and perhaps run shorter distances it is possible that they will develop sufficient stamina to run a marathon – but until that time they are not a marathoner.
My father had a hard time rendering punishment – it hurt him as much as it hurt me as his child or anyone else he was required to admonish in some fashion. When he first became Executive Vice President of a company and took over day-to-day operations he had a really difficult time firing people that clearly needed firing. When the President of the company came to him to discuss it, my father expressed his desire to help the people, not hurt them. The President looked at my father and said, simply, “First you fire them, then you help them.”
The result of that was that my father started a ministry at the church to the unemployed. Unlike most unemployment ministries which seek to find employment for the people coming, my father worked with the people that came to him to help them discover why they were unemployed and overcome those issues before they sought new employment. My father did so initially so that when he did have to fire somebody he had a place to send them for help. But it grew and it grew and it grew. Through that group for so many people a firing became not a burden, but a blessing. Some years after my father’s death I ran into the pastor of that church and we had dinner. That pastor, by then retired, told me directly how much of God’s grace was dispensed through people losing their jobs.
There was no grace in retaining and repositioning those priests. Sometimes what looks ugliest is most graceful. After all, can you think of anything uglier than the crucifixion of Christ?
ADDENDUM: I wrote the post above on Saturday and it was automatically published very early Sunday morning. When I awoke (west coast time) on Sunday, there was this horrific news:
In an extraordinary 11-page written testament, a former apostolic nuncio to the United States has accused several senior prelates of complicity in covering up Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s allegations of sexual abuse, and has claimed that Pope Francis knew about sanctions imposed on then-Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI but chose to repeal them.
In other words, this stain reaches to the topmost point of the Catholic Church. Now, I am not a Catholic. I am also not opposed to Catholicism as some of my Protestant brethren. But, not being Catholic I want to limit my comments carefully. I do not want to comment with too much specificity, I am ill-equipped to do so.
That said, as someone who has worked both professionally, and on a volunteer basis, in Christian ministry my entire adult life, I have grown sadly too accustomed to scandal of various sorts, and cover-ups of various degree. It has been my experience that when scandal and cover-up gets this bad, and reaches this high, there is one factor that can universally be found at play – theological liberality. That observation was at root as I wrote the post above, but with this revelation I think it needs to be addressed more directly.
“Liberal theology” is a broad term, but there are two specific points common to most of its expressions that plainly lead to scandal of this depth and breadth. The first is a misunderstanding of grace, as addressed above. Somehow, in liberal thinking, grace moves from what it is to an absence of sin and consequence. This movement is rooted in several causes depending on the particular school of theology being liberalized, but it always ends up in the same place – a failure to acknowledge sin and any consequences thereof. If you do not worry about sin, you do not worry about scandal. If God’s grace is universally applied and without requirement or necessity of response when something bad happens, you just move on.
The second point of liberal theology that leads to scandal is a view of God that minimizes, and in some cases denies, His sovereignty, His omniscience, His holiness, and His supernatural essence. This then leads to too much focus on the material. Thus the primary concern in a scandal becomes the public relations consequences rather than the actual sin involved. Thus monetary compensation becomes the focus rather than spiritual healing and emotional wholeness.
This morning, if you are Christian, I don’t care if you are Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, Protestant, Evangelical…, please take some time to examine your own life, your own views of God, and your own understanding of how this whole thing works. If God is your buddy instead of your Lord, pray to fix that. If you find yourself repeating some sin over and over, relying on how easy it is to just ask forgiveness, remind yourself that there are still consequences for your actions.
If you go to church this morning and your are comfortable, then may I humbly suggest you are doing it wrong. God’s purpose is not our comfort, it is the world’s redemption and recreation. That is a beautiful and good thing – but it is most assuredly not comfortable.