Letter to an angry young Catholic

Dear Jessica,

I’ve been thinking a great deal about your email over the past couple of days. I am honored that you would share your pain and confusion with me. I, too, am hurting. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I can share with you what is on my heart. I’m not saying my thoughts are right or wrong, or that anyone else should feel this way — it’s just where I’m at as I process the grand jury report.

To be honest, I haven’t slept well since the report was released. The report haunts and sickens me. The fact that the institution that I love and have dedicated my life to has been complicit in this evil has propelled me into agonizing soul-searching. My heart aches for the victims, for the faithful in the pews who are struggling with this horrific revelation, and for all the good and holy priests who have been betrayed by their leaders’ failure of integrity.

As horrified as I am, Jessica, I will not leave the Catholic Church or my post as a teacher of the Faith. I echo the words of St. Peter, “Where would I go?” (cf. Jn 6:68).

Sex abuse is in every religion. Every institution, for that matter. It is not just a Catholic problem. It is a human problem. Tragically, it is everywhere.

Probably the most disturbing part of the sex scandal for me is that the predator priests took the holiest gifts God has created and twisted them in the most diabolical way. A mentor of mine is fond of saying, “The devil does not have his own clay.” By that he means the devil cannot create. He can only take what God created as good and distort it. The devil targets sex and the Church.

Why sex? Because it is one of the most beautiful gifts God gave humanity. It is the foundational sign of God’s love for us. In Ephesians 5, right after Paul states that the “two shall become one flesh,” he writes, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31, 32). St. Paul is saying sexual union within marriage is a symbol God’s love for us. It’s a sign of how close God wants to be to us. Sexual predators take this sacred gift and pervert it into something evil.

Why does the devil target the Church? Because he knows it’s the real deal. His primary mission is to keep us from seeing that truth. In this technological age, many forget or deny the supernatural nature of the Church. We dismiss the Church as a product of human imagination and invention. If the Church were merely the product of men, it would have come and gone long ago. There have been plenty of corrupt leaders throughout the Church’s history and the Church has survived. Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church and I believe that promise (Mt 16:18).

The Church is not the hierarchy. It is the people. I truly believe that the Catholic Church is the Body of Christ on earth. At this point in history, that body is wounded beyond recognition, just as Jesus’ body was on the cross. We are at a Good Friday moment. Things seem as dark as they can get.

My soul-searching would not be complete without examining my own complicity. I have never covered up sex abuse, but there are more times than I’d like to admit when I’ve missed opportunities to start a conversation about the harmful effects of our culture’s objectification of the human person and pornification of just about everything, from car ads to deodorant. To really understand the root causes of the sex scandals that have rocked the Church, the military, entertainment, sports, politics, etc., we need to face the reality that sex has become completely divorced from its original meaning and beauty.

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The antidote to the pervasive sexual brokenness in our world is the teaching of St. John Paul II on the Theology of the Body (TOB), but these teachings are relatively unknown, even by many Catholics. I speak from experience when I say studying TOB is hard work, but the graces that flow from it are freeing, healing and of ultimate importance. God has given us these teachings for a time such as this, Jessica! And to paraphrase St. Joan of Arc: “You were born for a time such as this!” You are searching for light amidst the darkness. Thank God your heart is still open and searching! I urge you to learn more about the Theology of the Body. A good place to start is tobinstitute.org or corproject.com. Prepare to have your eyes opened.

Kathy Alton teaches theology at Lancaster Catholic High School in Pennsylvania.