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Meditation on the continuing scandal at the University of Notre Dame

As a Roman Catholic, when I think of the moral and spiritual challenge that faces the Church today, I grieve and pray. I grieve and pray for the many faithful, decent members of the clergy for whom this crisis adds to the weight of the cross they already bear for Christ’s sake. I grieve and pray especially for the innocent victims of scandal, who have suffered and still must endure lasting physical, emotional or spiritual damage from abuses perpetuated on account of misjudgment and neglect by the very people who should have been the guides and shepherds of their safety and spiritual welfare.

Thanks to my participation in the events that transpired at Notre Dame last year, I identify with them in a special way. Like all of those who bore peaceful witness against the scandalous behavior of Notre Dame President John Jenkins and his colleagues, I encountered and still live under the deep shadow of the Church’s tolerance for the perpetrators of grave scandal . Like them, I may yet lose freedom and livelihood on account of it.

Some people say that the present crisis in the Catholic Church is about repressed sexuality among the clergy. Others say it’s about homosexuality. Still more focus on the dereliction of bishops and others responsible for decisions that allowed abusive behavior to continue and spread. But Christ shared the profound insight that external facts and actions are the manifestation of evil, not its source. That lies in the heart. (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21) For those who hear and heed the words of Christ, the love of God is the first priority of the heart. (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27) This priority leads to a commitment to do God’s will; to heed His commandments. (John 14:15, 14:21, 14:23, 14:31; Matthew 21:28-31) Because our flesh is weak, this commitment of the heart can be confused or overwhelmed by materialistic inclinations and passions. As the Apostle observes, when we are in the flesh, the sinful passions, which are known as such through the law, work in us to produce deadly results. (Romans 7:5) Knowing what is right, we nonetheless do wrong. “…the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do….For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” (Romans 7:22-23)

All Christians profess to love God and therefore to serve Him through Jesus Christ. This common profession of love, arising in faith, is what makes us all members of the Body of Christ (Ephesians 5:30; Colossians 1:18); his Bride (Ephesians 5:22-32); his brothers and sisters (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 19-21); his Church. But among us are those called to dedicate themselves to this profession with an especially purified devotion. They formally commit to represent the Christian vocation, in word and deed, in order to awaken, inspire, guide and instruct other members. They are called to be true teachers of the word, in whom, by the power of the Cross, what is spoken is done, and what is done verifies what has been spoken. Like masters of the dance, by the example of their actions, by the pattern of their lives, they demonstrate that in and through Jesus Christ we can aspire to be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect. We can escape the captivity of sin. We can stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. (Galatians, 5:1)

The members of the clergy who are true to their vocation literally represent the authority of Christ and God his Father because we may see in them the image and likeness of God in Christ. So they remind us, as Christ did, of the nature of our humanity, not as it appears to us in consequence of humanity’s first sin, but as it truly is for us according to God’s goodwill, His original intention. As they take us back to the Author’s intention for us, they represent His will. Because they are carrying out the Author’s will they speak and act with authority. But though the authority shows itself through them it is not of themselves that they have the authority, but of God through Jesus Christ. Because they walk in Christ’s way, their way represents his authority to others who are called by their own rebirth in him to do the same, i.e., to be his followers.

Members of the clergy who are true to their vocation walk the way that Christ did, and so follow him on the one and only path that delivers us from evil. It is as if we walk through a mine littered field where Christ’s footsteps guide ours onto safe ground. Our nature confuses and distracts us, making it hard sometimes for us to make out the true impressions we should follow. By praying, by concentrating upon God’s word, by devoting ourselves with all our heart to the practices inspired by our love of God, we can neutralize the effect of these potentially fatal distractions. These resources are for all Christians and available to all. But the hearts of the true clergy respond to a special calling, to devote themselves to the exclusion of all else to the special disciplines that keep in focus the impressions Christ has left for us. They are like living signposts, blazing the trail that Christ has cleared for us. They become like Christ, living proofs of God’s Providence. Though the path of our errand lies through the wilderness of original sin, we can trust in the Lord and safely return to the home our God prepares for us.

If we carefully consider this presentation of the authority of the clergy, we can easily understand the true nature of the crisis that now besets the Catholic Church. Members of the clergy who forsake their vocation depart from Christ’s path, and so lead those who follow them to stumble, falling down or away from the high and narrow way Christ’s leadership marks out as the sure path to salvation. This bad effect corresponds exactly to the definition of scandal as it has been understood for centuries within the Catholic Church:

As Jerome observes the Greek skandalon may be rendered offense, downfall, or a stumbling against something. For when a body, while moving along a path, meets with an obstacle, it may happen to stumble against it, and be disposed to fall down: such an obstacle is a skandalon.

In like manner, while going along the spiritual way, a man may be disposed to a spiritual downfall by another’s word or deed, in so far, to wit, as one man by his injunction, inducement or example, moves another to sin; and this is scandal properly so called. (Thomas Aquinas, Of Scandal)

The essence of scandal lies in its spiritual effect. The clerical calling involves a special commitment to imitate the priority of Christ with respect to the spiritual effect of their actions. Those who are true to this calling merit the trust of others who are stirred by the grace of God to welcome Christ into their lives. But for these latter the transformation of their lives is still a new growth, not sure of its ground or proof against the assaults, deficiencies and thorny encounters of temptation. As Aquinas and others suggest, they are the little children of faith, using that term in its most comprehensive biological sense (i.e., to include the substance of life which involves the Spirit of God.) They are the ones of whom Christ speaks when he says:

And whoever receives such a child for my name’s sake receives me. And whoever scandalizes [trips up] one of these little ones who trust in me, it would profit him more to have a millstone fastened about his neck and to be thrown into the depths of the sea. Alas! For it is, necessary for scandals [stumbling blocks] to come into the world from scandals [stumbling blocks], except, alas, to that man by whom the scandal [stumbling block] comes. (Matthew 18:5-7)

As translated above from the Greek, Christ’s words suggest that scandal spreads into the world in a domino effect. One fall leads to another and another for everyone involved except the one who initiated the sequence of events. Christ’s anguish at this prospect explains the bleak fate he predicts for the initiator. Though to the world he appears to escape the fate he occasions for others, Christ, who sees as God sees, understands that he will suffer a fate worse than death. The fact that the initiator stands outside the chain of worldly consequences suggests a supernatural being, the same perhaps as the one whose initiative occasioned humanity’s original fall away from God.

This would mean that the essence of scandal is for us what it was for the first woman, a choice. We can trust the instructions that arise from God’s goodwill towards us. Or we can act on the evidence of our own understanding, informed by the scandalous half-truths revealed to us by someone who lures us to question God’s goodwill. Faced with this choice, it is our own lack of faith that makes us susceptible to scandal. We trust to our own judgment of what is good, rather than simply acting upon the judgment of God. The initiator of scandal is like a skillful con man. He first reveals and then plays upon the fault within us. He tempts us to believe that we can procure the remedy for it by exceeding the provision of God. By taking account of the fault in this way, we bring it upon ourselves. By contrast, God’s provision takes account of the fault before it is made, and so spares us its consequences.

Of all the institutions in which human beings participate, the institutions of the Church stand in particular for the commitment to seek, trust and follow the provisions of God’s will. At what point in what the public hears of as the scandals affecting the Church did members of the clergy first consciously depart from that stand? That question has been obscured by that fact that in the public discussion even some high officials of the Church have too easily slipped into the common parlance. They use the word “scandal” as if it refers simply to the public knowledge of misconduct and wrong behavior, rather than its objective effect on the spiritual life of those who have chosen to be followers of Christ. Did this conceptual corruption contribute to a corruption of perception and judgment as responsible officials in the Church dealt with charges of scandalous behavior?

It appears that at least in some cases people who were the victims of such behavior were plied with inducements to keep silent about it, rather than to seek justice by means that would lead to wider public knowledge. If and when this occurred, the spiritual corruption already occasioned by the individual clergy’s betrayal of trust was compounded by the appearance of institutional complicity arising from the apparent sanction of high Church officials (bishops, or those responsible for the spiritual welfare of members of particular orders.)
Though restricted at first to a few, this appearance of institutional complicity potentially compromised the spiritual objective of countless others, for the reserve of trust that humanly supports the Church’s authority has been accumulated by the faithfully observed vows of innumerable individuals over the centuries of its existence. The problem therefore wasn’t just a matter of inaction. It was a matter of the disordered priorities that gave rise to the inaction. Whatever pain arises from public knowledge of individual transgressions, so long as the Church’s adheres to the priorities of Christ it respects and increases to that reserve of trust. When, by the action or inaction of its officials, the Church appears more sensitive to the opprobrium of the world than to Christ’s stern admonition regarding scandal, the fall of some becomes, as Christ appears to predict, the fall of many.
The pattern which leads from conceptual corruption to the corruption of perception and judgment appears to be confirmed by the Church’s institutional reaction to the scandal at Notre Dame University. There, from the start, the influence of people claiming and profiting from their identification with the Church’s moral and spiritual authority has been abused in a fashion that consciously encourages children of the faith (in the physical and spiritual sense) to call good evil and evil good. The abuse involves perverting their understanding of God’s will with respect to the sanctity of life. From the very beginning, the Scripture makes clear that the Spirit of God is the source of life in every sense, so this perversion goes directly against the Holy Spirit, in the most consequential defiance of God’s will. Because of the circumstances of the perversion the violation involved spreads scandal throughout the worldwide community of faith. Since their open perversion of truth those responsible have publicly reaffirmed their commitment to their actions. Thus they continue to do harm, and they do so with a will that is openly contumacious, and self-consciously impervious to their knowledge of the spiritual damage it involves. Yet no steps have been taken to stop the perpetration of scandal, inhibit its effects or in any way curtail the spiritual and material damage it has done, is doing and threatens to do to followers of Christ within and outside of the Catholic Church.

In the context of the child sexual abuse crisis, high officials of the Church now profess their willingness to let civil justice takes its course against heretofore hidden violations of human law. But what confidence can this inspire when they take no steps to correct the Notre Dame administration’s public defiance of God’s law and the integrity of Holy Orders? The means to do so are entirely within the purview and discretion of the Church.

Urgently now some seek to address the damage being done by the often unfair assault of biased propagandists in the media. But the ongoing corruption of the children of the faith at Notre Dame is a festering wound. It suggests that the disorder priorities that are the root of the crisis continue unattended. In the end, the willingness to do what it takes to correct those priorities is not something to be done to defend the Holy Father, or the reputation of the Catholic Church or the worldly image of Catholic universities. It is something to be done for Christ’s sake, and in order to serve his Father’s will for the salvation of all who hear his word and who, for the love of God long to follow in his way. When Church leaders move decisively to end the spiritual abuse of the children of faith at the institutional level, they will have regained the clarity of purpose and vision needed to see and put an end to the travail of those whose physical, emotional and spiritual suffering at the hands of individual clergy they should have addressed long ago. For as scandal comes of scandal, so do justice, peace and healing come of seeking first to satisfy the righteousness of God.

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