A Biblical Response to Church Scandal: What Can We Do?
In the face of scandals in the Church, Catholics are experiencing a wide range of emotions: shock, sorrow, anger, bewilderment. Many of the faithful feel helpless and wonder, “What can we do?”
The Church needs more than political, legal and crisis management solutions right now. We must go deeper, into the heart of the Gospel. The Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasize three ancient practices for times like these: the three main acts of penance, which are prayer, fasting and almsgiving (CCC, 1434). Think of these as small acts of love—visible signs and gestures that can express our sorrowful hearts, grieving over the atrocities committed by our fellow brothers in Christ.
We can offer these acts of penance in union with the whole Church in reparation for the suffering our brothers have caused. While no single act can possibly repair the harm done to the victims, their families and the larger community of Christians and non-Christians alike, we believe our small acts of love can reverberate throughout the Body of Christ and offer some consolation to those who are suffering.
How Do My Acts Make a Difference?
St. Paul said the Church is one body in Christ, but made of many parts. When any part of the Body suffers, we all suffer.
But at the same time, when love grows in one part of the body, it benefits the other parts. So by offering prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can ask the Lord to comfort, heal and strengthen the parts of the body that need his mercy most. Indeed, we can perform acts of love and sorrow on behalf of another.
Just this past weekend, my 2-year old daughter was playing with another toddler and was a little rough. We made our daughter say “sorry” to the little boy, but we as parents also apologized to him and to his parents. We had done nothing wrong ourselves, but wanted to express our sorrow on behalf of our daughter.
Similarly, the 2018 Marvel Studios movie Black Panther has at the center of its plot the main character King T’Challa wanting to do something to make up for the wrongs of his father. T’Challa himself had done nothing wrong, but sensed his responsibility to do something on behalf of his family to help set things right, to somehow makeup for his father’s mistakes.
This is what we are called to do in the Body of Christ (cf. CCC, 2412, 2487). We can offer prayer and fasting for others and on behalf of others in the Body. First, we can offer these penitential acts for the perpetrators themselves—for their conversion and sincere repentance, for their healing of whatever spiritual, moral or psychological maladies drove them to do these horrific crimes and for God’s mercy upon them.
Second, we can also offer these sacrifices on their behalf, as part of the mystical body of Christ, in reparation for their sins. These are small acts of love we can offer for the victims, their families and the many people who have been so wounded and dismayed by the actions of our brothers in Christ.
Many great heroes in the Bible did just this: They shared in the suffering of God’s sinful people and offered prayers and sacrifices on their behalf. The prophet Daniel was a youth sent into exile in Babylon. Even though he was not guilty of the grave sins of his people, he experiences their punishment of exile and prays on their behalf, confessing their sins and imploring God to rescue them (Daniel 9). Similarly, the priest Ezra led the people in a national day of repentance and covenant renewal. Even though he himself was not guilty of the grave sins of his generation, he confesses sin on their behalf, offers sacrifices for their sins and begs God for mercy (Nehemiah 9). The perfect example, of course, is Jesus: the Innocent One who on the Cross bears the sufferings of the entire world and offers his life in atonement for sin.
Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving
Now let’s get practical. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving should always be a part of our spiritual lives. But they take on greater significance in moments of crisis and repentance.
In our own troubled times, let’s devote some extra time to prayer: for the victims, for the Church, for the evil-doers. Psalm 51 might be a great place to start—a beautiful, heart-felt penitential Psalm which brings us humbly for the Lord recognizing the truth of our own sinfulness and the truth of his steadfast love for us even with those sins. We can pray it for ourselves and for the Church as a whole in these days.
The key here is not just saying a random prayer here or there for the Church, but committing ourselves to some extra time in prayer on a regular basis as an act of penance. It could be going to Eucharistic adoration once a week or offering an extra decade of the Rosary or saying a Chaplet of Divine Mercy or reading one Psalm a day. Or maybe we ourselves need time to grieve, express frustration and process with God in prayer all that is happening. Taking our sorrow to the Lord is always the best place to go.
Fasting is a second practice we can put into place. We can do something small like give up a favorite drink, snack or food once a week. Or cut back on how much time we spend on Netflix, with sports or on social media. As in Lent, fasting is a key act of penance.
Finally, almsgiving—the charitable act of giving to the poor—is another powerful way to respond to the crisis at hand. In the Bible and the early Church, care for the poor was one of the greatest ways to atone for sins. When the prophet Daniel gives the wicked King Nebuchadnezar advice on what to do to atone for sins, he tells him, “Redeem your sins by almsgiving” (Dan 4:27). The Book of Sirach even describes almsgiving as a kind of sacrifice like those offered in the temple (Sir 35:1-2).
Most notable is Sirach 3:30 “Water extinguishes a blazing fire; so almsgiving atones for sin.” I love that image! Imagine if in your dining room a small fire suddenly broke out. The first thing you’d do is get some water on it as quickly as possible to put out the flames. Do we have that same sense of urgency to turn to almsgiving as quickly as possible in the face of grave sin? We have a blazing fire in the House of the Lord. If we care about the Church and want to help put it out, we need to run to almsgiving as many of the earliest Christians would have done. “Water extinguishes a blazing fire; so almsgiving atones for sin.”
I admire what FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is doing this Fall. The organization is encouraging its 700 plus missionaries to dedicate the First Fridays and Saturdays of each month to doing some extra prayer, fasting and care for the poor and to invite the students on campus to join them. It is a small gesture and yet a beautiful way to respond in the face of much pain and heartache: turning to the Lord and serving those in need. As the New Testament teaches, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
Purify Your Own Heart First
Here are three other things we can do.
First, our faithful bishops and priests need our support and encouragement right now. Most were not involved in these atrocities. So many are innocent, godly men who are grieving over what their fellow clergy have done. Let them know how much you appreciate them. Let them know you’re praying for them. Tell them you are grateful for their faithfulness.
Second, let’s purify our own hearts. The Church is not immune to the horrendous sexual crimes prevalent in our culture today. In the wake of the sexual revolution, so many men and women are left scarred by the culture of use, the separation of life and love from the sexual act and the oversexualized world full of various addictions that make people slaves to their sexual appetites.
Most of us have been wounded in some way by this culture. In these difficult times, let’s make an extra effort to purify our own hearts—to commit ourselves to purity and chastity, to guard our glances and imagination and turn away from sexual sin in our own lives. The purification of the Church must begin with the purification of our own individual hearts.
My Faith is Not Shaken
Third, let’s remain strong in our faith. If someone were to ask me, “Is your faith shaken?”, I would respond with a whole-hearted, “No.” Sure, I am personally shaken—as we all should be—when confronted with these horrific crimes committed by priests. But my faith is not shaken. For my faith is in Jesus Christ, not any individual leader in the Church. And Jesus promised to be with his Church and work through his Church, even saying that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The Church is called the “Holy Catholic Church” not because all of its members are holy, perfect saints, as if the Church descended from heaven pre-packaged without blemish. Rather, the Church is a hospital, full of sinners who are constantly in need of being humbled, forgiven and purified. The Church is called holy because it has its origins in God and God works through the Church to give us “the fullness of the means of salvation” as Vatican II taught.
Indeed, the Church is both divine and human, and that human dimension can be very messy at times, as it was in Jesus’ own day. Jesus chose 12 weak, fallible men who all made many mistakes. One apostle denied Jesus three times on Holy Thursday night. Another even betrayed Jesus, leading to his arrest, condemnation and crucifixion. We put our faith not in these fallible men, but in Jesus who promised to work through the Church.