By Eric Sammons
Catholics are angry. The revelations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and of subsequent cover-ups by bishops continue. So they’re angry, primarily at negligent bishops (and, of course, the offending priests), but also at the media that exploit these sins to further their own anti-Catholic agenda. And this anger can be justifiable; after all, innocent children have been terribly harmed, and the Church’s mission to preach the Gospel has been severely hindered.
Anger has a role in the spiritual life. Jesus, after all, was angry when he witnessed the abuses occurring in his Father’s house. But being angry can be playing with fire. Without the proper perspective, it can quickly lead to questioning God’s loving providence. Faced with evil in the Church or injustice against it, our anger, unchecked, persuades us that the problems the Church faces today are the worst it has ever suffered and might be beyond God’s ability to overcome them.
Today’s scandals are magnified under the lens of the 24/7 news cycle, while problems of the past are either forgotten or studied in a clinical, detached manner. We follow every new scandal with bated breath, desperately hoping that this latest humiliation will not be the one that permanently damages the Church.
We then compare our sad times to previous supposed “golden ages” when saints like Francis of Assisi or Ignatius of Loyola walked the earth as spiritual giants. We forget that these saints lived in deeply corrupt times themselves — we study the saints of the past, but ignore the sinners.
A survey of history can be a sure means of obtaining the proper perspective, showing us that every age has had to struggle against great evil both outside and inside the Church. The doctrine of original sin gets proven in every generation. Saints are the exception, not the rule. The reason the saints fill the books of history is that they stand out compared with their contemporaries. There has never been a time during which members of the Church have not been full of avarice, lust, pride and gluttony.
There has also never been a time during which the faithful did not have reason to be critical of their Church leaders. In the fourth-century Roman Empire, St. Athanasius was the only bishop resisting the Arian heresy, and in 16th-century England, St. John Fisher was the only bishop who stood against King Henry VIII’s thirst for ecclesial power. And their lonely faithfulness among the ranks of the bishops has been too often the norm since the beginning of the Church: At the cross, only one apostle remained with Christ.
Yet even with that poor track record, the Church has endured, saints have been produced, and God’s grace continues to be poured into the world.
Acknowledging the sins of the past and the present does not excuse them, but rather reminds us that the lure of sin is extremely powerful in each person, no matter what position in the Church he holds.
The failure of people to live up to the Gospel should therefore not surprise us; Christ himself warned us that it would be much easier to follow the way of the world rather than the way of truth: “The gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (Mt 7:13-14). The gate of destruction has always been wide, and many have entered through it, in our age and in every age.
Being deep in history thus changes your perspective: You see the problems of today in light of past crises. When The New York Times produces (yet another) factually flimsy anti-Catholic article, you remember the terrible persecutions that Christians of past ages (and even today) have endured to pass on the faith. When a bishop appears to cling to the trappings of power rather than the power of the Gospel, you recall the times in history during which Churchmen blatantly abused temporal power. Recognizing these past sins doesn’t mean that we can’t have righteous anger today, but it does put that anger in proper perspective, keeping it from disturbing the peace that, as Christians, we should have at all times.
The Catholic who allows anger to be his controlling emotion is a Catholic who is full of fear. He sees the serious crises afflicting the Church and can see no clear solution to these problems. Then, in the inner chamber of his heart, he fears that God cannot — or will not — overcome them. He fears that perhaps it is possible that our sins really will rule the day and that the gates of hell will in fact overcome the Church.
Yet the more one surveys history, the more one sees that no matter how terrible man can be (and terrible, indeed, he can be), God is still at work in the world, and he cannot be overcome. The Church endures, saints still live in the world, and the Gospel is still preached to the ends of the earth. There is absolutely no reason to fear, as we already know what happens in the end: God wins.
All this is not to say that we should be passive in the face of evil; on the contrary, we are called as disciples of Jesus to proclaim the Gospel even when the world attacks it or his bishops or priests fall short of living it. St. Catherine of Siena did not sit idly by when the Church was being torn apart by the pope’s abdication of his Roman diocese. Yet she resisted evil with a joyful and peaceful spirit, and we should too, because we know who the victor is.
St. Paul likewise urged his fellow Christians to not let anger overcome them:
“No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. [And] be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ” (Eph 4:29-32).
Lest we think St. Paul was an idealistic dreamer who lived in a bubble, a study of history will again give us needed perspective. The great apostle faced tremendous pressure against his ministry, both internally and externally. He waged a decades-long battle with forces within the Church called the Judiazers whose teachings threatened to undermine the entire Gospel. And to make matters worse, the person whom Christ appointed to lead the Church, the “rock,” Peter, was helping Paul’s enemies by his weakness in standing up to them. It got so bad that Paul had to confront Peter to his face (see Gal 2:11). And if the problems inside the Church were not enough, Paul also witnessed the rise of persecution from the Roman Empire, which eventually led to his martyrdom. Yet he still urged his fellow Christians to get rid of all bitterness and anger.
The foundation for St. Paul’s advice was not positive thinking or naive optimism, but a rock-solid faith in God’s providence. He knew, as we should know, that God will never abandon his children, and even when scandals rock the Church — as they do in every generation — the Lord will never forsake us or leave us orphans.
Let us take the advice of the Psalmist, who tells us, “Put no trust in princes” — even princes of the Church — or “in mere mortals powerless to save. When they breathe their last, they return to the earth; that day all their planning comes to nothing. Happy those whose help is Jacob’s God, whose hope is in the Lord, their God” (146:3-5).
Eric Sammons is the author of the upcoming book “Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew” (Our Sunday Visitor). He blogs at ericsammons.com/blog.
“Our pain and anguish could dehumanize us, for it has the power to close us in upon ourselves such that we would live always in chaos and confusion — if we do not remember that Christ — our hope — has been raised for our sakes. Jesus is our Pasch, our hope and our light.”
— Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Okla., during a April 24 Mass at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.