Once again we’re living in scandal times. The “Long Lent” that the American Church endured in 2002 has now descended on the European Church. A significant difference is that this time Pope Benedict XVI has come under scrutiny. Once again, the news media are in a frenzy.
In preparation for a television interview, I spent an entire day reading almost everything I could find in both the American and international press and found the process dismaying, depressing and dispiriting. But what particularly struck me was this: Though the scandal has been analyzed legally, institutionally, psychologically and culturally, it has rarely been looked at biblically. And this is tragic, for the Bible, the Word of God, is the definitive lens through which the whole of reality is most rightly read.
What does a biblical reading offer? First, we should not be surprised that people behave badly. The Bible clearly teaches that we have been made in the image and likeness of God and that we are destined for eternal life with him; nevertheless, it teaches with equal clarity that we are fallen, marked by original sin that has compromised us in body, mind and will.
The scriptural narratives are remarkably honest about this. They make reference to rape, theft, murder, jealous rages, palace intrigue, naked ambition, family dysfunction, political corruption, adultery and, yes, sexual abuse. More to it, many of these crimes are committed by God’s chosen instruments: Saul, David, Solomon, Jacob, Peter, Paul and John, to name just a handful. An interviewer asked me, “How could this [the scandal] have happened?” I responded, “Sin.” I believe I gave, from a biblical perspective, the most fundamental and clarifying response.
Enemies at work
Second, the Church has enemies. St. Paul reminded us long ago that the Church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, carrying on in transfigured form the mission of Israel to be a light to the nations, the enduring sign of God’s existence and love. But it is clear from biblical narratives that Israel was not universally revered. Instead, it was enslaved by Egypt, harassed by the Philistines, overrun by the Assyrians, exiled by the Babylonians, conquered by the Greeks and the Romans. And Israel was often at war with itself: The prophets were regularly ignored, mocked or even murdered by the people they were sent to address.
The point is this: The message of God’s love is not one that is necessarily received with enthusiasm by a sinful world. Now only the blindest or most anti-Catholic of commentators would fail to see that, to a degree, enemies of the Church are operative in the coverage surrounding this scandal.
The sexual abuse of children is an international epidemic, and it is present in every aspect of society. In the United States alone, there are approximately 39 million victims of child sexual abuse, and around 50 percent of these were abused by family members. In the decade before 2000, nearly 300,000 children in the American public school system were abused by teachers or coaches. Social workers in Africa report that in many countries on that continent, the numbers concerning the sexual abuse of young girls runs from “very, very high to astronomically high.”
And this is to say nothing of the multibillion dollar a year pornography industry in the United States, which disproportionately abuses young people, and the even more shocking sex trade involving kids. Moreover, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study showed that, over a 50-year period, only 3 percent to 4 percent of Catholic priests were credibly charged with sex abuse. Yet, to watch the television networks or read the newspapers, one would think that the sexual abuse of children is a uniquely Catholic problem, one indeed facilitated by a wicked cabal of priestly and episcopal conspirators. There are some in the mainstream culture who are unhappy with many of the positions the Catholic Church has taken on sexual issues, especially abortion, and who would like to marginalize the Church’s voice or eliminate it entirely from the public conversation. Biblically-minded people should not find this the least bit surprising.
Call to reform, repentance
A third lesson provides a balance to the second. God regularly — and sometimes harshly — chastises his people Israel in order to cleanse them. On the biblical reading, God raises up figures who name the sins of the nation and call especially the leaders of the people to repentance and reform. Under this rubric, we might consider Samuel (who challenged Saul), Nathan (who called out David), Isaiah (who railed against the Temple establishment), Jeremiah (who took the leadership of Israel to task), and Jesus himself (who had a few things to say about “whitewashed sepulchers”). Not everyone who brought the clergy sex scandal to light is an enemy of the Church; many should be construed as instruments of God’s vengeance, who compelled a reluctant Church to come to grips with a problem that had been ignored, brushed under the carpet, or handled with pathetic incompetence. And for that matter, Yahweh sometimes used the enemies of Israel to work out his cleansing purposes. Might the Lord God be using the Boston Globe or The New York Times in much the same way?
I think that it’s good to study this terrible phenomenon as thoroughly as we can, but we should never forget that the most clarifying perspective is the one provided by God’s holy word.
Father Robert Barron, founder of WordOnFire.org is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary.