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When The Church Fails

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Frank Bruni has an op-ed in the NYTimes this morning that is nothing short of savage concerning what Bruni sees as the “privilege” granted the Roman Catholic Church in investigating the child abuse scandals that have haunted it in recent times.  Bruni is so dismissive of the role that religion plays in our society that I find myself in the unenviable position of seeming to rise to defend the indefensible.

But then that is not really the case.  The Roman Catholic Church is without defense when it comes to both the abuse that occurred and the cover up of that abuse.  Theologically, such is the nature of our sinful state.  There is no excuse, no defense – There is but the grace of God.  It is my hope and my prayer that this ugly, ugly situation will result in the church rediscovering its reliance not on itself, but on that grace.  The Roman Catholic Church, or any other institution claiming to operate in God’s name, should be naked before the world in the face of such wrongdoing.  As the confessional opens the penitent for grace, so will exposure open the Roman Catholic Church to it.

What I rise to defend is religion in our public life.  Bruni’s argument in the piece that, “Many journalists, parents, police officers and lawyers didn’t want to think ill of men of the cloth,” has some validity.  (Says the protestant whose denomination was founded in much the same argument.)  It is when he argues:

But if anything, the church had been coddled, benefiting from the American way of giving religion a free pass and excusing religious institutions not just from taxes but from rules that apply to other organizations.

that he takes a step too far.  The constitution and its amendments are specific in setting religion apart from other organizations.  No, that does not give religion license to abuse children, but such abuse does not give us license to turn the constitution on its head.

Have you read Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists? – the source of the oft quoted phrase “separation of church and state.”  Jefferson wrote it not because the church was meddling in government affairs, but to protect the church from government interference.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

This nation indeed gives deference to religion.  The priests that committed the abuse should be subject to prosecution.  Those that engaged in cover-up, provided sufficient evidence, should be prosecuted for the crime appropriate.  Those are actions, which Jefferson points our are subject to government reach.  But the church is an institution whose primary purpose is to preserve and promote a set of beliefs and as Jefferson also points out is therefore outside that reach.

The failure to think ill of clergy is also an individual, not an institutional matter.  It is tempting to use that as a springboard to discuss one of the great Catholic/Protestant divides, for the role and even sanctity of clergy is indeed among the greatest differences.  But such is really an inter-religious discussion, not a discussion about religion in relationship to government.  Each individual who ignored evidence of individual wrongdoing out of deference to the institution must examine their conscience which is “a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.”

There is much ugly, bad, filthy and just plain wrong in what has happened in the abuse scandals that have plagued the Roman Catholic Church.  There is much shame to go around.  But such is not reason to undo the founders intent and render the Roman Catholic Church, or any other church for that matter, no different than the Rotary or the local hot rod club in our law or consciousnesses.

The founders realized that the success of our experiment in self-government relied on us being a good people.  They also realized that even with its flaws and failures the church represented the best means by which we could live up to being the good people the nation needs.  If a specific church fails irrevocably in the endeavor to make us better people they believed that the marketplace of ideas would see to its demise.  In these abuse scandals the Roman Catholic Church failed – miserably – but not irrevocably.  On balance it has done far more good for this nation than the real wrong that occurred in these instances.

If our nation is to survive as we know it we need the church.  We dare not make it subject to our even more flawed government.


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