On prayer, the lessons of history and a vulnerable Church tempted by blind rage in a time of crisis

Jules Michelet was a French historian not known for his love for the Church. Nevertheless, when he wrote what he called the “memoirs” of Martin Luther, he admitted sympathy for the “poor old mother” whose doctrine was “more judicious, more fertile and more complete.” Even more insightfully, he said her universality was a source of her weakness.

“She has embraced all of humanity and therefore includes all of humanity’s miseries and contradictions.” Michelet said that a mountain brook could say to the ocean, “ ‘I come from my own mountain; I know no other waters than my own; whereas, you have been polluted by the impurities of this world.’ ‘Yes,’ is the answer, ‘but I am the ocean.’ ” 

The French historian saw that the Church’s grandeur was related to its weakness; her comprehensiveness makes the Church vulnerable. James Joyce supposedly said something like that. “The Catholic Church: here comes everybody.”

Jesus has a parable with a similar point found in Matthew 13:24-30. 

An enemy sows a farmer’s field with weeds. The servants of the owner are upset to see both the wheat and the weeds growing. They suggest that the weeds be pulled up. But the farmer says no, because of the damage it could do to the harvest. Better to wait to the harvest. That is to say: wait for judgment day. 

I wonder if  there is a hint here of what to do in the Sturm und Drang we are presently experiencing in the Church in America. Suddenly, the weeds and the wheat are in the same field, and some people seem bent on tearing up the whole field. 

However, all will only be sorted out at the end-time when Christ appears to judge us. Bill Donahue of the Catholic League for Civil Rights has cautioned some outraged critics that precipitous action and the acceptance of every accusation as true can lead to the innocent being punished with the guilty. 

The tar pots are boiling and bags of feathers are ready, but, beyond the emotion, what does the Church benefit from tarring and feathering?

Jesus said scandals are bound to happen, and suggested that those who scandalize the little ones would be better off if a millstone were hung around their necks (Luke 17:2). But he also talked about throwing stones, as in who gets to throw the first at the sinner (John 8:1-10). The stones have certainly been flying every which way, but I question if blind rage is the proper response.

My father used to listen to Country Music before it was mainstream, and I remember an old vinyl record he would play with a song that lamented, “I heard the wreck on the highway, but I didn’t hear nobody pray.”

In the blogosphere, it seems that there is a contest about who can be more venomous than the next web page, left, right or in between. It’s like the modern version of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. 

Whole stables of high horses have been called out of the dark barns of resentment, and I fear that we are acting or reacting according to secular models. We are playing into the hands of a media that is constantly searching for a way to stir up the false catharsis of outrage. 

The personal immorality of the clergy is a tragedy, not just for the victims but for everybody. Our first response should be prayer.

Then we should not forget some important distinctions. These include the difference between accusation and proof; between necessary publication of the faults of others and detraction; between devotion to the truth and the desire for settling scores; between genuine concern and schadenfreude (malicious delight in the misfortune of others). 

We are obliged to make public the private faults of others only in cases of danger, but what I see is too much information about the scandals. Do we need to go over all the gory details? Yogi Berra had it right: déjà vu all over again.  

Have people forgotten that Ham was cursed because of his reaction to his father’s drunken exhibitionism (Genesis 9:25)? Also, I wonder at all the quick connections that are speculated about, which seem to get close to the sin of calumny, insinuating faults in others by what we call guilt by association.

A Victorian writer accused the atheist Edward Gibbons of being a “prurient prude.” It certainly didn’t die with Gibbons. In general, our media likes to have it both ways: shock at anything sexual and delight in the details. 

Three American cultural currents have met in the reporting of the scandals: anti-Catholic and anticlerical sentiment; Puritanism that makes public private immorality and a thorough-going prurience, an obsession with sex.

I am currently reading a history of the Council of Trent, and it shows why Cicero was right when he said “historia magistra vitae est” (“history is life’s teacher”). Some Catholic reformers wanted to get the doctrine correct and let the personal morality issues correct themselves. Others wanted to deal only with the scandals of the clergy. 

The Council compromised by dealing with both, slowly but thoroughly and without things going viral. The book pointed me to an old story, found in the second chapter of Decameron that I found apt in terms of apologetics in the midst of a media firestorm.

The story is of Abraham, a Jewish merchant from Paris, whose friend Jehannot tries to convert to Catholicism for many years. Abraham finally says that he will become a Christian after he sees Rome. 

The medieval writer says that this made Jehannot very nervous because he knew that all roads leading to Rome meant a lot of people there might scare his friend away from the Faith. Abraham returns and announced to his surprised friend that he wants to be baptized immediately. When Jehannot asks why the sudden belief, the merchant says if the Church can survive what he saw there, it must be the work of the Holy Spirit.

The poet A.E. Housman said, “The troubles of our proud and angry dust are from eternity and shall not fail.” The troubles of the Church are since her beginning.  

But we live by hope (Romans 8:24). That is the subject of Pope Benedict’s encyclical, “Spe Salvi” (“Saved in Hope”). We find our solace in the God of Mercy. The Lord is our default program. We have a banner in our parish church that says, “If you can’t stand your problems, try kneeling.” 

That’ll work in this crisis, too.

Msgr. Richard Antall is a Cleveland priest. He was a missionary in El Salvador for 20 years and served as moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of San Salvador. He is the author of “Witnesses to Calvary: Reflections on the Seven Last Words of Jesus” (Our Sunday Visitor, $13).

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