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Please, not more humanity

| Monday, September 24, 2018

I am a Catholic, but in light of the sexual abuse perpetrated by other Catholics, I am ashamed to be a Catholic.

The Greeks considered music an essential component of a person’s education. The ability to recognize and orchestrate harmony from separate melodies was a human skill in a universe that, for all its imperfections, was still ruled by reason. But Greek culture was disintegrating when Christianity’s reconciling habit outbid Greek philosophy to win Rome’s heart. Philosophical clarity, though never quite achieved, aged into a sterile cynicism that eclipsed the mythology that birthed it.

Any Catholic volunteer today is too familiar with the particular melody of “Safe Environment Training” that responds to the ever-unfolding sex abuse crisis in the Church. To volunteer at a diocesan middle school, I must watch a series of videos, defining sexual abuse and training recognition, introduced by Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who was recently accused of “improper” behavior with a former parishioner before a private investigation found the claim immaterial. Our bishop chants an odd strain, asking us, earnestly, to help “protect our children.” The cold reality we are waking up to, of criminal priests and complicit bishops, makes trustworthy bishops a piece of mythology. Cynicism seems the only responsible posture when so many other bishops have promoted the same formula.

But Christians are not cynical! The Church conquered Rome through love! Thus, many today, as an alternative to cynicism, choose rather to do something about it. Rather than idle critique on the one hand, or unfeeling tribalism on the other, some have decided to be love.

Enter the phrase, “I am ashamed to be called a Catholic.” It rings with a would-be heroism that nonetheless strikes an awkward note.

While the world moves on, unsurprised by clerical immorality (surely those stubborn traditionalists will be forced to give up that unnatural medieval habit, celibacy!), Catholic consciences congregate in an echo-chamber of horror. Concerned faces check in with their fellows, fearing to find the other’s faith as damaged as their own. Sermons play upon “these difficult times” the way a child’s nervous fingers reluctantly hit piano keys for a heartless instructor: over and again, the same tune, with solicitous, sideways glances. Christian love goes out to the world, but the incestuous nature of on-campus dialogue is not because everyone on campus is Catholic.

I do not mean to suggest that concern for other Catholics is wrong. But there is a difference between charity and feeling, but ineffective commiseration. Have we convinced ourselves that we are performing true charity — the kind that Jesus preached and did — when we bandage the wounds of our brother in Christ inflicted by the Church herself? Do we see ourselves marching bravely on in this bleary world of sin, sustaining brothers and sisters cruelly united by an abusive Mother? Do we find ourselves over-eager to beat our secular friends to the quick, finding some security in the fact that we condemn the Church’s scandal before they can condemn us and our faith? Do we take new pleasure in certain priests who, through gentle loosenings of liturgical rites and bold, though not unrefined, insertions of jokes and personality into the Mass seem to emphasize the priest’s humanity over his office? Do we nourish a bias for those priests who humbly abdicate their position of authority, offering ever-softer sermons on the level of the laity, as if to suggest that the recent cruelty were a function of a proud clericalism? Whether clericalism causes evil, it is not a priest’s humanity that saves the world. It is his participation in Christ’s life, through the Eucharist, that saves the world.

When the discord of human nature inevitably shows us who we are, shows us what the Church is, what is needed is more faithfulness to the liturgy, more fidelity to the Church. To parade one’s shame at being a Catholic is a nice gesture that indicates one’s sensitivity, and perhaps through translation, that of the Church. But underneath these good intentions lurks a Pelagian misunderstanding of grace and the Church. To act as if the Church is failing is to not understand Christ’s promise. And to seek in one’s own humanity (or in the humanity of good priests) that grace on which the Church has defaulted is to affirm the false opposition between the Church and her components that is troubling American Catholicism.

The inhumanity of pedophile priests does indeed call for more humanity. But when compassion competitions turn against that humanity that is our only hope, it is not a harmonizing chorus.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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