Monday, October 17, 2011

Church as Hospital for Sinners and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion in the Blogosphere

The past ten years have been a constant Calvary for the Catholic Church. One revelation after another of abuse, manipulation and cover-ups by priests, religious and bishops have made us a punchline for third-rate comedians. And even though we can point out rightly that we share our problems with other groups and institutions all over the world and throughout history, that message does not seem to convince anyone. Faithful Catholics and self-described “recovering” Catholics alike are disappointed, angry, and tried in their devotion to the Church. It seems like every time a man with a collar opens his mouth, it just makes it worse. The Catholic Church’s witness as the most powerful moral authority in the world has been disastrously compromised. The ongoing revelations of the problems that some of the most well-known voices of that authority have had, have done nothing to make the situation any better.

So why are people so angry? Why is there so much attention to the sins of the Fathers? Why can people not seem to distinguish between belief in Jesus and His Church on the one hand and the failures of the members of the Church on the other?

Because we want to believe. Man was made for truth, tends towards truth like a dry weary land without water. The Catholic Church, the pillar of truth, shines as a beacon for that truth which she has received from her LORD. So whenever the face of the Church is marred by weakness, sin and dysfunction, it is harder for the children of God and men to see that Truth which the Church reflects from her Divine Teacher. They despair of the Truth, of the very thing for which they are made.

There is not a man alive who does not believe with every molecule of his being, The truth shall set you free. The entire world is demanding the truth, and nothing but the truth, from the Catholic Church. The entire world demands that the Church be coherent with the truth that she teaches.

Part of that search for truth has gotten caught up in the continuing revelations of wrong-doing by members of the Church. And when that wrong-doing is wrought by a man we all call “Father”, then the damage is immense. So when it turns out that the Fathers who have lent their voice to the Truth also have their own struggle to be freed by truth, everyone from daily Massgoers to anti-religious pagans feel the need to bring everything to light, in a desperate search for that freedom that comes from truth.

Yet there are two things that come to mind which cause me to reflect. First, it is a truth of our Faith that the Church is spotless, yet made up of sinning members. My favorite image of the Church is that it is a hospital for sinners. Her doors are open to all who, like the publican, strike their breast and say, Have mercy on me, a sinner. Her doors are also open to those who, like the Pharisee, are convinced of their own righteousness and their mission to point out the fault of the sinner. But her Table is not. And her clergy are not gurus, models of spiritual perfection upon which their fans are to model their lives. Instead, they are like the angels God sends with a message, angels with the fallible and dirty feet of men. It is for that reason that St Augustine said, “I am a Bishop for you, and a Christian with you.” Not because he wanted in his clericalist arrogance to excuse his past and his present faults, but to point away from himself to the One who can change the lives of us all.

Second, the heart of man is a deep mystery which nothing can adequately fathom. None of us can know the whole story, even with the tools of the best objective reporting. The Church is full of those who want to blame for the obfuscation of the Truth. But, given that the Church is a hospital for sinners, it is like the patients are all self-diagnosing, prescribing medications for others, and slinging blood, guts and infected pus all around.

We must remind ourselves that Ideas must be engaged, challenged and discussed, especially when they threaten to darken the apprehension of Truth by men. But we must be careful when we speak of those who formulate those Ideas. For there will always be a discrepancy between the value of the Ideas and those who put them forward. The Church is a scandal to the world because it is full of people who are sick and dying of sin, and still loudly sings a hymn of hope that all will be well. Because Our LORD is the Divine Physician and He is working His purpose out in the publican and in the Pharisee that both dwell in all of us.

How easy it is to think we have the whole story, and make value judgments, not about the Ideas before us, about the Image and Likeness of God who lay before us on his sickbed. We take what we see and hear and make presumptions, extrapolate based on them, and then reject people because of the carefully constructed hermeneutic of suspicion we have built around them.

I often tell my penitents, “As soon as you say the name of another person, you have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I saying this?’!” The virtue of discretion is one which has been caricatured as an obstacle to the pursuit of that truth which frees. Yet, as Christians, all in the hospital for sinners as we are, we depend on each other more than we can know. The bonds of Baptism which unite us as members of One Body are so strong that we are all saved together in the One Faith and the One LORD. It takes little effort to point out the faults and failings of another man who is ill, especially if they are true. But it is much harder, in fact it belongs to the long road of Calvary, to walk with another man on the way and encourage him to virtue. It is much harder to climb to Mount Tabor with him, to bear his burden, and to share with him the secret places of the human heart that God alone can make well and fill with joy.

I have been on the receiving end of misunderstanding, of calumny, of detraction. I also have taken the parts of another Christian and made out of them a whole according to my understanding, a whole which revealed more about myself than the one I sought to dissect and analyze. The name of other people has passed my lips, not in reverence for the Image and Likeness of God that they are, but for other reasons, some that I am not sure I understand myself.

One of the most powerful books I have ever read was Ian McEwan’s Atonement. In it, a bright young girl named Briony sees and reads into a situation. She is morally certain, and also scared, that what she has seen and read could destroy the life of her sister, Cecilia. Out of love, she presents what she has seen and read to the proper authorities. She seeks for the Truth which will free her sister. But her hermenutic of suspicion also happens to be wrong. And it results in a chain of events in which her sister’s lover is exiled and the two live out the rest of their lives frustrated by the absence of their true love, and each one ends in tragedy. The young girl realizes far too late that her perception was not reality, that her partial truth had compromised the whole truth. And so she spends her life in one grand act of atonement for her error.

Now, of course, we know as Christians, that we do not make atonement for our sins. But we have hope, for Jesus Christ was offered as The Atonement to make us at one again, not with the partial truth of our own understanding, but with the whole truth which liberates and alone empowers. It is because of that act of atonement of the God-Man Jesus Christ, it is on account of our praise to Him for that fact, that we do penance and offer, insomuch as we can, reparation for our sins.

We live in an angry world. We live in an angry Church. Those of us who participate in the Blogosphere who love the Church must recognize that there are deep spaces in the heart of each one of us, that we cannot fully understand, and that, often, in our search for that truth which frees, we set into motion events which hurt, mutilate and destroy. There is a lot of naming names and calling out demons in the Blogosphere right now, and a lot of moral certitude as to the justness of causes. May the example of Briony illuminate us as to the reparation we need to make for our own hermeneutic of suspicion and want of discretion and compassion. And more importantly, may the grace of Christ help us to look at the other patients in the hospital of sinners with love, and recognize our own inability to be freed by truth, except by Him.

The Litany of Humility

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved...


From the desire of being extolled ...


From the desire of being honored ...


From the desire of being praised ...


From the desire of being preferred to others...


From the desire of being consulted ...


From the desire of being approved ...


From the fear of being humiliated ...


From the fear of being despised...


From the fear of suffering rebukes ...


From the fear of being calumniated ...


From the fear of being forgotten ...


From the fear of being ridiculed ...


From the fear of being wronged ...


From the fear of being suspected ...

That others may be loved more than I,

Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I ...


That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...


That others may be chosen and I set aside ...


That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...


That others may be preferred to me in everything...


That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

Amen.