Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Are Christians Just Like Everybody Else? Should They Be?

Rebecca Hamilton over at Patheos struggles mightily to come to terms with the common problem for Catholics: what are we to do when one of our own causes a scandal?

In this case, she focuses on Archbishop Carlson, who shocked normal people (though, sadly, not enough Catholics) when he said, in a sworn deposition, that he wasn't sure if he knew that child rape was a crime or not when he was 40 years old and auxiliary bishop of St. Paul, and who has since insisted that he misunderstood the question put to him, a claim that a simple reading of the relevant part of the deposition does not support.

I've tried to be fair to Archbishop Carlson, who is my archbishop, and who (ironically) was actually waving red flags about the abusive priest in question back in St. Paul, and who did more than most others in the chanceries at the time, though certainly not enough.  That he should compound his bad testimony (which amounts, in Christian terms to bad "witness") with a denial that should rather have been an apology, is a shame.  That he should go so far as to attempt damage control by distributing a letter to every parish in the archdiocese (when he's never done that here on any doctrinal or moral issue), repeating his rather far-fetched denial while boasting of his own value as a bishop, is sad.

Hamilton reminds her readers - rightly enough - that we are not to put our trust in princes or in the sons of men (Ps. 146:3), but in the Son of Man; that we are all sinners, including our bishops, and that we must therefore avoid a kind of clericalism that serves only to bring us down when our clergy lets us down (as they inevitably do).

What she misses, however, is the flip side of this truth, which is the source of the tension she's feeling, and which is at the heart of the Catholic Faith (much more so than it is in Protestant versions of the Catholic Faith).  As I wrote a while back during another scandal ...

When a man becomes a priest - or even when a man becomes a Christian - we are expecting more than mere hypocrisy. We are expecting him to become holy - because that's really the point of following Christ, after all - to become like Christ.  
Expecting our bishops and priests and deacons to be holier than we are - expecting even our Catholic media celebrities to model Christ - may be foolish, and is certainly doomed to disappointment.
But it is part of the yearning that points us to Christ.  That our hearts should seek Him in fallen and sinful men is a great and painful tragedy - but it's part of God's plan; for God Himself became a man.


God became a man, and the Catholic Church is the one place left that insists that the Body of Christ (the Church, meaning you and me) is in fact the ongoing Incarnation (and hence the ongoing Crucifixion) of God.  We sinners are infused with God's grace at our baptisms, at confession, at Mass, and, really, throughout each ordinary day.  We are supposed to die with Christ that we might be new made with Christ.  St. Paul, in particular tells us this, many times.

And so we are right to be disappointed in public sinners, even when they're bishops.  Rebecca Hamilton's article is entitled "He's Just Like Us", meaning the archbishop is a sinner as we are sinners.  True enough, but what she fails to articulate (though I'm sure she realizes it) is that We are Not Like Them.  We Christians are not like the unbaptized.  In other words, by virtue of the sacraments and of God's grace, we are set apart, made to be holy, sanctified by the presence of God's Spirit in us.  We are dead to our old selves and living to our new selves.

And even if we choose to ignore this fact and turn our backs on God's transforming grace; even if we want to give up on our fearful calling and take it easy; either way, we Christians witness for Christ - giving good witness or bad witness, whether we realize it or not.  There's no way around that.  And every time we sin - especially in public ways (my own sins, thank God, are mostly private) - we serve as examples that we have other gods before the True One, that we put our own pride and fears before the One Thing Necessary, that we are just like everybody else, except for the fact that God died on a cross so that we wouldn't be.

We should be angry and disappointed with bad bishops.  We should be angry and disappointed with bad Christians.  We should be angry and disappointed with ourselves.


Kevin Tierney said...

Nowhere is the correct response implied:

The Bishop's conduct was reprehensible and scandalous, not becoming of a priest of Jesus Christ. As a result, he needs to perform serious penance, and the Pope should remove him as an ordinary.

Now does that happen? Almost certainly not. But the commentariat needs to start being honest about it. Yes, we are all sinners. Yet when I do very bad things, I don't get people writing in public about how the behavior of others should mitigate my condemnation.

Benjamin. said...

Doesn't the Pope have the authority to excommunicate these archbishops?
Why are they not excommunicated?