This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 5th October 2018
Reading the newspapers and watching the news on television recently has become a painful experience for Catholics. Every day seems to bring more stories of child abuse perpetrated by priests, nuns and bishops. Priests have been sentenced; bishops have been accused of covering up abuse and we have looked on, aghast, wondering how this could have happened.
Child abuse has been exposed in other churches as well. Politicians and others in power, staff in children’s homes and youth groups have all stood accused of abuse. That’s bad enough but surely it should not happen in our Church. After all, we are supposed to be the good guys. The world that was brought up on priests played by Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien who turned youngsters away from crime and brought them back to the fold in those old films is shocked to find abuse in the Catholic Church. I’m shocked too.
My idea of the good guys was fashioned in my Saturday afternoon visits to the Greens Cinema with all the other boys in our street. Every week we were treated to cowboy films. We recognised the good guys by their white hats and the bad guys by their black hats. Life was simple then. Sometimes the plot would take a different turn and one of the good guys would fail to live up to expectations, a bad goodie. Then one of the bad guys would do something honourable, a good baddie. That sometimes prompted arguments about whether one character was a good baddie or a bad goodie. It can be hard to tell in real life too.
I was brought up to respect all clergymen, priests, ministers or whatever. We expected these people to be above anything bad. It comes as a shock to find that they might just be bad goodies or even good baddies. What we have failed to recognise is that they are just human beings like the rest of us. Being good does not come with the collar, it is the same struggle we all have, worse because so much more is expected.
The most recent trend has become the finger pointing in the hierarchy. Even Pope Francis has been blamed for not having dealt with these problems, even those that occurred well before he became pope. Now this idea that someone out there should have dealt with this and it must be all their fault doesn’t seem to fit well with what I think the Church is. The Catholic Church is not a large corporation where the board of management decide everything and tell the rest of us what we should do.
The Church is the Body of Christ, alive and working in the world. We are all parts of that body. Just as problems with my foot affect the rest of my body (especially in the mornings) problems with any one of us affect the whole body of the Church. It seems to me that we all bear some responsibility for the health of the Church. The revelations of abuse, while painful, are vital for the health of this body. When I read of the abuse of children in homes run by the Church it reminded me of the violence that was meted out to children in our schools. It is only in recent years that corporal punishment was banned in our school system. Before that it was acceptable to belt pupils for getting an answer wrong. That was the norm in Scotland. The Church’s failure, our failure,
to oppose this attitude is the disgrace. We all accepted this as normal behaviour. Abusing children was OK. This was not a problem with priests and bishops. This was a problem with the whole of society.
How can it be that people who repeatedly heard Christ’s teaching about how to cherish children accepted cruelty? It makes me wonder about the real depth of our belief in the Gospel. Have we been going through life paying lip service to Christ’s teaching while accepting the moral values of the world? Is it any wonder then that young people accept the world’s views on sexuality, abortion and materialism, rejecting the Church’s teaching?
I was brought up with the view that the priests were the spiritual descendants of the apostles. They had to carry on the work of evangelisation in the world. I’m now beginning to realise that this is too simplistic. We are all the spiritual descendants of the apostles and it is our job to bring the Gospel to the world. The priests and bishops have a special role in that as they bring us the sacraments but we are the main bringers of the Gospel. In my daily life I have contact with people who will never meet a priest. Who else will bring Christ into their lives?
Now I hear you saying, “Who are you to bring the Gospel? You are just a sinner like everyone else.” and that’s true. I am a sinner, just like everyone else in the Church is a sinner. That’s the whole point. Christ came to save sinners, us. As an individual I’m not really equipped to go out to the world and convert it to the Gospel. As part of the Body of Christ; as part of a Church strong in faith and committed to convert ourselves into the people God wants us to be, I can have an effect on the world.
Really, these current abuse scandals should make us take a good look at ourselves. Do we just observe the letter of the law or are we imbued with the spirit of the law? Are we obsessed with the minute details of Catholicism and blind to the big view of the ministry we are baptised into? Trotting out to Sunday Mass and sitting there, chatting to our neighbour, while Christ Himself becomes present on the altar seems to be missing the point. Opting for macaroni cheese for dinner on a day of fast and abstinence but ignoring those who have no food is a sign we have lost the plot.
As long as we rely on our own strengths and abilities alone we will fail in our mission of evangelisation. We can only succeed when we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us. We can’t put priests and bishops on a pedestal where we see them as possessing supernatural powers. We are all fallible. On our own we fail to match up to the Gospel. We can only succeed when we allow the Spirit to use us. For that to happen to me I must change the way I look at the world.
I must become more aware of my dependence on the Holy Spirit. I must think of the gifts I have been given as tools. I have eyes to let me see. I must look critically at what I see. I have a brain to let me think and I must think about I see and make a judgement on what is right and wrong. I must act on my judgements and use the gift of speech to speak out against what is wrong and speak up for what is right. Our school motto in Columba High School was ‘Speak out for Justice’. If we all do that there will be fewer scandals in the future.