Very early in my spiritual life, I was brought up short by the offhand remark of a wise old priest: “You’re a strange sort of Christian if the sins of others disturb you.”
Like many in my generation, I was raised to think that Catholicism was about achieving perfection and I should do everything I could to be perfect. In fact, I thought it was up to me to be perfect.
Wrong. That’s a heresy condemned in the early Church – Pelagianism – and it led St Augustine to develop our understanding of grace and its action in our lives, which has remained unsurpassed in 1,600 years.
So, we are fairly undeveloped Christians, perhaps with an outstanding blindness to our own failings, if we get upset when we hear or see other Christians demonstrating vividly for us the weaknesses in all humans.
This has relevance to the flow of news from and around the Vatican this past month.
There’s an old saying that does the rounds in many variants. But they all come down to this: “Don’t go to Rome if your faith is shaky.”
And if your faith is shaky and you’re easily shocked or surprised, there would be enough actual or unfolding scandals happening in Rome or with reference to Rome to send a shaky faith crumbling.
There’s the latest, where leaked documents reveal the misgivings of the current papal nuncio to the US who wanted to stay at his post as second in charge of Vatican governance to clean up the City State’s financial and business practices.
Archbishop Vigano wanted to see through the task of reforming the Vatican’s business systems and processes rather than accept an apparently more prestigious position. And, as if to compound the problem and confirm the skeptics in their cynicism, the Vatican’s spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, prescinded from considering the documents and did what amounts to shooting the messenger: He lambasted the media for releasing hitherto confidential documents.
After that, what still remains is the question: Are the Vatican’s business processes incompetent and corrupt? Is there a smoking gun there?
Then there have been a couple of other stories with Roman reference – the Pope’s acceptance of the resignation of a bishop in Los Angeles who was found to have two young children and the case of the bishop in Australia fired by the Pope, who is now accused of denying the Australian natural justice and of breaching Canon Law .
I’m puzzled when Catholics and their critics get on high horses about this sort of stuff.
The critics like to step up the ladder and sneer down at us Christians because these sorts of things just go to show what a pack of hypocrites we are.
And, on the other hand, worthy Catholics, who also seem to be humorless, say such things shouldn’t be reported or discussed because “they will do damage to the Church” when , in fact, hushing them up or covering them over only intensifies public interest, inflicts its own damage and is sometimes also criminal.
But in the end, denying facts comes around to blight those in denial. And how many times in the last three decades have Church authorities had to learn that lesson throughout the world over sexual abuse?
But beyond developing smarter tactics in the 24/7 cycle of global media, how do we ordinary Catholics cope with the fact that we are a community that is both sinful and holy?
For me, it’s pretty simple. My faith pivots around the two main feasts of Christianity – Easter and Christmas. Jesus was born in mess and he died in dereliction. He entered a sinful world and he died that we might be saved from our sins – mine, yours, everyone’s.
Far from being surprised at our own and others’ sinfulness, we should recognize the existence of sin as the reality that makes the message and person of Jesus relevant to humanity. And the precondition and first vocation we all share with the rest of humanity is just that: we are human.
Catholics and our community – the Church – don’t have a secret hiding place from sin. That Jesus has saved us doesn’t mean we have somehow stopped sinning. We all know we keep doing that. That’s why we keep asking for God’s forgiveness. And that God does forgive us is the Good News we have to share with all people, non-Christians included.
So back to the advice of my wise old friend 40 years ago. We would be strange Christians if the sins of others disturb us. We would also be less than human and show a practical disbelief in both Christmas and Easter.
Rev. Michael Kelly SJ writes for UCAN.