|G. K. Chesterton|
In the comment section of my most recent post on the clergy sex scandal, reader Michael R. asks ...
Got any advice for a Catholic who doesn't know where to stand with the clergy?Should one's Church life merely consist of the sacramental life, and taking clergy's statements with a pinch of salt?
This question merits a post of its own as a response, so I'll give it a go.
Michael, the situation you describe is part of a larger problem. The question is not only where to stand with the clergy, but where to stand with our fellow lay Catholics.
If we know anything about the Faith, we know that it should make a difference in our lives. And yet, generally speaking, the Faith either makes no difference in people's lives, or, in many cases, it makes people worse - priggish, judgmental and self-satisfied. This is, strictly speaking, not our problem. We are to tend our own gardens and see to our own salvation, witnessing to others in the process, while realizing that our relationship with God is not the same as our neighbor's.
But, of course, given what's going on around us, this is hard. Men grow closer to Christ through communion - communion with Him and with His Body, which is the Church - and communion is an aspect of community. But the Church these days is not particularly conducive to communion or community. I know of almost no parish in my archdiocese that functions as a parish should - "building up the Body of Christ", working as a community of people who are united in their love for God, and who are working to help one another become "mature in Christ" (Eph. 4:13). In most suburban parishes, you can't really even say anything Catholic is going on (other than sin, which is quite catholic). Many parishes are gathering places for Inconsequentialists, not Catholics.
Of course, I'm an idealist and I am much more prone to see the gap between where we should be and where we are than I am to see the simple good that's around me. But, in most cases, the good that people do around us they do naturally and not by grace - which is to say that people can be quite loving and kind without any conscious participation in God's redemption. They are good by nature or by habit or even by a great and deliberate sacrifice - but the sacrifice is not one that they understand to be united with the cross. And, while God's grace is always present to all people in invisible ways, it's not clear where Jesus Christ and His Church visibly fits in to all of this these days.
Meanwhile, getting back to the original focus of your question, when the bishops have, by and large, proven themselves to be scoundrels, cowards and man-pleasers, when their clergy are sometimes wolves in sheep's clothing, and when (at the parish level) the gay music minister is a scheming monster, the Director of Religious Education is a power-hungry Amazon, and when the Parish Nurse keeps a handy supply of condoms in her desk drawer to give out, along with lollipops, to the kiddos, you've really got to ask yourself (as you do), "Where do I stand with these people?"
Yes, the answer is to focus on the sacraments (which you mention) and on prayer life and spiritual reading and doing good works (which you don't), but all of these things can tend to be isolating, tempting those of us who are called to live in the secular realm and who cannot afford to be contemplative hermits to see growth in the Faith as more of an individual than a communal thing - when, in fact, it is both, and when we must admit that we suffer when we have no communities around us that we can trust, that we can function in, that we can develop in.
But, in fact, there are some. We have oases in the midst of this dessert, though mirages sometimes get in the way and obscure our vision.
In my case, I've experienced this tangibly and in a very profound way with the American Chesterton Society. Fans of G. K. Chesterton are a diverse and fascinating group, from all walks of life, from all over the world, and from a variety of backgrounds. We are all either Catholics in full communion with the Body of Christ, or Catholics who are stumbling and bumbling our way toward full communion with the Body of Christ, or Catholics who don't even know we're Catholic yet or what full communion with the Body of Christ looks like or feels like. We are united in our love for this tremendous writer and saint because he always pointed the way toward the Way - the way toward Christ, the Everlasting Man. We are united in our love of wit and humor and art and philosophy and beauty and nature and the great and dumbfounding gift that is Being itself. We are sinners and saints working to help one another by means of our love for one another, and by means of our love for Him, Christ, the Man in whom we are bound.
The Chestertonians are not only what the Church should be; we are what the Church is. And I imagine there are other communities out there that are similar - communities that may only gather in full once a year as we do, but that somehow (even if separated by great distances) worship together, suffer together, live and die together.
And yet, the second part of your question is troubling. If we can't trust the clergy should we take their statements "with a pinch of salt"?
If you mean by that, should we be wary of our bishops, priests and deacons? Yes, by all means! Mephistopheles, the demon in Dr. Faustus, spends his time going around dressed as a clergyman, after all, and there is nothing magical about a collar or a cassock.
But if you mean by that, "Since our clergy are sinners, may we ignore their teaching on matters of Faith and Morals?" the answer is a resounding no. God's great and mysterious wisdom was to give the keys of the Kingdom to Peter, an emotional, volatile, clumsy and fleshy sinner, who has ever since been speaking with the authority of God on matters of Faith and Morals, as have his clergy who are in communion with him and with Christ, who ordained him. They teach infallibly on certain things and have the power to bind and loose both on earth and in heaven.
My answer, then, is to stay humble and obey the actual authority these sometimes-scoundrels exercise (when they can be bothered to exercise it, which they are usually reluctant to do, preoccupied as they are with themselves and with their worldly matters). And find a community, a place of communion, a place that seeks to grow toward maturity in Christ. It might be a parish, a book club, a social group, a Facebook group. But if it's really a living cell of the Church, it will really be a channel of God's grace, and you will really find saints in the making right before your eyes - as I have.
Meanwhile, tend to your garden, and sanctify your job and your family, which is your domestic Church and which is the immediate and primary task you've been given.