Protestants Should Care Deeply about the Catholic Catastrophe

Pope Francis leads the Sunday Angelus prayer in Saint Peter’s square, January 29, 2017. (Osservatore Romano/Handout via Reuters)
The health of one Christian church is of massive importance to all the others.

As I watch the crisis engulfing the Catholic Church, an analogy one of my pastors once made comes to mind. It will likely make some of my Catholic friends uncomfortable, but it’s helpful for understanding the way many Protestants view the larger body of Christ, the “Holy Catholic Church” of the Apostles’ Creed, so here goes:

The Church is like a navy, a collection of ships united in purpose and in destination. Each denomination is like a different ship in that navy, and while each crew is primarily tasked with the health and well-being of its own vessel, it’s also deeply invested in the strength of the fleet. Each vessel is more vulnerable as the fleet weakens. Each vessel is stronger surrounded by its protective armada.

If the analogy holds, then one of the mightiest battleships in the fleet, the Catholic Church, is taking torpedoes left and right. It’s now rocked by allegations of wrongdoing that go all the way to the Vatican, to the pope himself. Here’s how the New York Times characterized the latest claims:

On the final day of Pope Francis’ mission to Ireland, as he issued wrenching apologies for clerical sex abuse scandals, a former top Vatican diplomat [Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò] claimed in a letter published on Sunday that the pope himself had joined top Vatican officials in covering up the abuses and called for his resignation. . . .

Archbishop Viganò claimed that the Vatican hierarchy was complicit in covering up accusations that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had sexually abused seminarians and that Pope Francis knew about the abuses by the now-disgraced American prelate years before they became public. Yet, the letter contended, Francis did not punish the cardinal, but instead empowered him to help choose powerful American bishops.

Protestants cannot and must not view these events with a kind of detachment or distance, for numerous reasons.

First, we cannot forget that each and every revelation of abuse is the revelation of a life-altering (and sometimes life-shattering) event for the victim and a faith-crippling moment for friends, family, and countless others.

Second, given the plethora of recent sexual scandals in Evangelical churches and seminaries, the Catholic catastrophe should remind us that perhaps only the lack of an equivalent hierarchy has spared Evangelical churches from similar, systemic sin. “Our” scandals are more fragmented only because our churches are more fragmented. Yet the entire church should be galvanized by what’s happened and diligently consider the extent to which our own congregations are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Third, reputational harm to the church can sweep far and wide — well beyond the guilty parties themselves. No one should presume that in an increasingly secular world our fellow citizens can so easily discern the good guys and the bad guys. I remember well moving from the Bible Belt to Boston in 1991, and being stunned to discover that my classmates painted the church with a very broad brush. In my youth and naïveté I had largely pointed and laughed at the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, only to discover that I was one of “them” until proven otherwise, a gullible congregant in a church of con men.

On Sunday, the Irish press reported that approximately 130,000 people attended a papal mass, roughly a quarter of the number of tickets issued — and down from the estimated 1 million who saw Pope John Paul II at the same venue in 1979. This is stark, sobering evidence of a church in decline.

Finally, and critically, there are immense theological stakes for the larger church. While condemnation of child abuse is universal, the recent spate of claims of consensual sex between two priests or between priests and other adults is leading once again to confrontation along the old fault lines, between traditionalists and those who seek greater “inclusion.” Again, here’s how the Times frames the conflict:

Factions have battled over the direction the church has gone under Francis, with conservatives, especially some American cardinals and bishops, warning that his pastoral and inclusive approach and emphasis on social issues dilute church doctrine and pose a mortal threat to the future of the faith. . . .

The willingness of the pope and his allies to reach out to gay Catholics has infuriated conservatives, many of whom, like Archbishop Viganò, blame homosexuals for the sex abuse crisis. The pope has argued that the abuse is a symptom of a culture of privilege and imperviousness among priests who value the church’s traditions over its parishioners.

Sexual scandals invariably ignite battles over sexual morality, and there are always factions who are ready to eradicate scandal by essentially erasing the existence of the sin. Is there homosexual activity in the priesthood? Then, some would argue, the real “problem” is the existence of doctrine condemning such activity, not the activity itself.

Matthew Schmitz, senior editor at First Things, describes the conflict in stark terms:

No matter what Francis does now, the Catholic Church has been plunged into all-out civil war. On one side are the traditionalists, who insist that abuse can be prevented only by tighter adherence to church doctrine. On the other side are the liberals, who demand that the church cease condemning homosexual acts and allow gay priests to step out of the closet.

But even setting aside (as if one ever could or should) the biblical and historic teaching of the Church, there is zero evidence that increased sexual tolerance somehow equates with decreased sexual scandal. It would be hard to find a more sexually liberated environment than Hollywood, yet one suspects we still don’t know the full extent of the exploitation and abuse there.

It’s fashionable for modern Christians to slide past the Old Testament and linger on the New. But as secular and religious institutions collapse around us, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we live in a period of Old Testament–style rebellion against God. Our Catholic cathedrals and suburban mega-churches alike are shot-through with the same sins that pollute the world. None of us has the luxury of believing “our” institutions are safe or that “our side” of the Christian divide has adequately guarded itself against the demonic spirit that stalks the land.

Ships in the Christian armada are ablaze. We must not simply sail on and leave them to their fate.

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