Friday, February 8, 2013

The Church in Los Angeles: The First Step is Admitting There's a Problem

It's the last week of Ordinary Time, and the 1st reading and the Gospel this weekend are all about self-awareness and mission. Both Isaiah and Peter find themselves in the presence of the divine, and their immediate reaction is to claim they are unworthy. No, not to claim -- to face the fact of their unworthiness.

And yet, out of that moment of truth, God missions them to be his messengers.  It's counter intuitive from our perspective, because down deep most of us believe most of the time that sinners don't belong here, that our Church is meant to be somehow separate from all that.  Much as though we read that Jesus ate with prostitutes, Pharisees and tax collectors (aka thieves), our image of the Church is vastly different.

What the Scriptures indicate instead is that being a Christian means knowing that on some level you're actually kind of monstrous -- and so is everybody else.  Our community has more in common with the inmates of a prison than it does with the shiny, happy etheria we tend to imagine as Heaven. (Think about that for a moment...)

St. Ignatius puts it this way: to be a Christian is "to know you are a sinner and yet loved by God."

It's an interesting set of readings in light of the situation in Los Angeles the last few weeks, and the church in the world more generally. We fight tooth and nail to bury the bad choices that were made, the hiding or protecting of abusive priests and others, obscure our decisions behind lawyers and power and blacked out names.  And while it is appalling, it has a sense to it, too, it's the instinct to protect an institution from complete collapse (even if past choices really demand that).

But according to Scripture that desire to hide and to preserve is actually an obstacle not only to our integrity as an institution but to our vocation as a community of faith.  We are Christians insofar as we face our sinfulness, not bury it away.  


Carol said...

So, if most of us think sinners don't belong in church, where are they supposed to go? First thought here.

For some reason, the behavior of the LA Archdiocese reminds me of a group of physicians closing ranks to protect an incompetent or impaired doctor from malpractice charges. You'll never, well, almost never, hear a MD badmouth another one. And I imagine that part of the coverup has to do with damage control.

Yet, if the Church is full of sinners, it stands to reason that so are the ranks of its leadership. So the attitude really doesn't shock me all that much, but I suspect that some of the faithful are scandalized, and I hate to see people using this as an excuse to bail out of the Church entirely.

I recall early in the days of Gulf War II the chair of the joint chiefs of staff making the remark, "You go to war with the army you have," when commenting about our readiness and supply level to fight yet another tarbaby mess. Right now the army the Church Militant has does have its share of scoundrels. It isn't the first time, and I doubt it will be the last time. Also, like an army, maybe it isn't the wisest thing to resort to complete transparency in dealing with the sex abuse scandal: As more issues are uncovered, there is a steady stream of tort attorneys with clients who may or may not have been victimized ready to descend on the fray.

But like an army, it isn't the wisest thing to leave in positions of power and influence incompetent or dangerous clerics. Nor is it the wisest thing to leave individual clergy in charge without more intensive training in these issues.

I'm thinking that a fair compromise might be to make the process more clear to the laity, without the names of individuals revealed until they are demonstrated to be guilty as charged.

Like an army, every soldier does not "need to know" everything.

Jim McDermott, S.J. said...

I'm with you, Carol. I think the Church would be a lot better if the people who made these decisions voluntarily stepped down. In some, maybe many cases they really didn't understand what they were doing, the prevailing attitudes being different in the 60s, 70s, 80s. But it doesn't matter; children were put at risk, and the right thing to do is to admit your mistakes and take the lumps.

I think the problem in the Church tends to be that our leaders -- and here I'm not just talking about bishops, there's lots of people this involves -- our leaders don't show the courage to admit failure (with all that comes with it).

And that's what I'm getting at with the blog entry, I think. The only forward is through admitting our sins, and accepting the consequences of that.