When I studied church history at Rochester’s St. Bernard Seminary, a particularly wise professor, the noted author Rev. Robert F. McNamara, had us begin the semester by reading “The Human Element in the Church.” He knew from much teaching experience that many students would be shocked by material of the course, such as Pope Alexander VI, a Renaissance Borgia pope, buying his papal election, or the forging of the Constantinian Decretals, which falsely claimed that the emperor ceded civil rule to the church. And there is much worse. He wanted us to understand that the church has never been morally perfect in its two millennia. This is timely since many are leaving their church membership because they are scandalized by modern crises, such as the clergy sexual abuse of minors, or the cover-up.
We needed to start with the premise that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church has been ruinously unholy many times in its past. And yet this should not discourage members tempted to withdraw from it in horror. Today they ask how the church, which seems to them excessive in its always propounding chastity, can allow priests to abuse children, disciplined only by a transfer to a new assignment where the people are deprived of the information they need to protect their children.
But it has always been so, starting with the New Testament itself. We know to consider the 27 books of our original and inspired Christian literature the work of its earliest members. It gives what they approved for later generations about what life in the nascent church was like, blemishes and all. Evangelists did not hesitate to jar us, when they could have edited out the bad news to give us a sanitized text. While the early church could have written Madison Avenue boilerplate lauding the followers of Jesus, it instead told us that his hand-picked leader denied to a slave girl even knowing him. They could have passed over the scandalous 30 pieces of silver and the mass desertion by most of the apostles when Jesus was arrested. And this so short a time after the institution of the Eucharist.
Was my professor’s motive to shock callow Catholic young men with the truths and realities of the church’s past? It was rather to rid us of the notion that either the church is morally perfect or else it’s a fraud. If it can be found to have erred morally, in earthly head or members, that would identify it as a holy hoax. To many skeptics, it must be one or the other.
We say there is middle ground since the basic premise of either/or is false and has been so since the beginning. We the church are sinners trying to become saints. If we are said to be holy, it is not because we ourselves are morally irreproachable but because our founder is holy. Only that makes us holy.
We students needed to see why the church of the 16th century so badly needed a morally reforming Reformation, an uprising of protesting Protestants to call us back from selling indulgences and so many other benefices. We needed to retire the one-sided partisanship of viewing Martin Luther and the other reformers as evil malcontents out to disgrace the church. We needed to see that Luther and others were disappointed at the institutional church’s failure to address its own many faults: the 1517 ecumenical council known as Lateran V concluded without calling for correction. Soon after, Luther posted his 95 theses.
The psychology of people invoking the sins of the church to excuse themselves from further responsibility to it is faulty. How may the sins of Peter or Judas, about which the New Testament is shockingly candid, justify my disconnecting from their successors’ church today? If I invoked the crimes of past American political leaders, would that justify my abandoning my civic responsibilities, such as paying taxes or obeying civil law? Few people who do the first think to do the second, and fewer even see any parallel.
No doubt we need to root out any and all corruption from the church. We may not pretend it is not there and we may not minimize it, saying it is not so serious or that it is found in the Boy Scouts or among public school teachers. Root out theirs, too. Then reconnect so that both church and state behave less badly thereafter. Desertion for another’s even undeniable sins solves nothing.