Church scandals: focus on the message, not just the messengers

Church scandals: focus on the message, not just the messengers

Fr Kevin Brannelly

Most of us Catholics have been well aware of the terrible scandals afflicting our Church over recent years, not only in Australia but elsewhere too. It is not a new phenomenon for the Church to be scourged by scandals created by its ministers.

Looking back over the centuries, the Church has both suffered and survived devastating experiences caused by errant clergy. Indeed, not a few of our Church traditions, methods and even much of our Canon Law were responses to scandals occurring long ago.

The scandals of recent years are something we Catholics have not witnessed within the contemporary history of the Church. The crime of paedophilia and other sexual abuse by priests have stunned faithful Catholics who have held the priesthood in such respect. These crimes have been hurtful, to say the least, to the victims of sexual abuse, but also cause hurt and pain to the whole Church.

Basis of faith

These revelations have caused much public comment, not only from those with genuine concern, but also from the constant critics of the Church.

A letter in an American newspaper from a Catholic stated: "I see two legitimate options for practising Catholics like myself. At the very least we can redirect our contributions to other deserving organisations. The second option is to register our discontent with our feet and leave the Church."

Unfortunately, many would echo these sentiments. However, these scandals can also present a timely opportunity for us to ask ourselves: "Upon whom is our faith based?"

When our faith is based upon the Church's clergy it can be destroyed when we see how flawed they can be. Yet the Scriptures amply demonstrate how flawed God's messengers often have been.

Because the people of God include all kinds of weak men and women, if we survey the history of our faith contained in the New and Old Testaments, we can appreciate how deeply flawed some of God's messengers were.

Abraham, whom we call our "Father in Faith" in the first Eucharistic Prayer, lied to the Pharaoh of Egypt swearing that his wife, Sarah, was his sister and virtually offering her to the Pharaoh to save his own life.

David, the great King and leader of God's people, committed adultery with the wife of one of his generals. On learning of her pregnancy as a result of their liaison, he treacherously contrived to have her husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed. The child of their illicit union was David's successor, King Solomon.

At the crucial time of Christ's passion, Peter, the Rock on which Jesus was to build His Church, denied Him three times. Peter's denial was equally as sinful as Judas' betrayal.

How many more chosen ones, down through the centuries, have done the same?

We might well ask ourselves - if so many of God's messengers have been flawed - what is the point?

The point of all such messengers and all Scripture is the message. The prophet Isaiah knew the power of the Word of God which, like the rain on the earth, nourishes the people of God. Isaiah was convinced that God's Word stood by itself and we must not allow unworthy messengers to get in its way.

In telling Christ's parable of the sower and the seed, St Matthew was responding to a situation of a scandal in his own Christian community. The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD as a result of the Judaeo-Roman War. In its chaotic outcome Judaism experienced very unsettling changes.

As Matthew's community still considered itself Jewish, they found it hard to understand their fellow Jews' lack of faith in Jesus as Messiah. This led to self-doubt prompting the possibility in their minds that they might be in error themselves. Divisions began to appear causing scandals between Jews.

In our Church today scandals have caused division, pain and even loss of faith. How could some of our spiritual leaders fail so miserably in upholding the Word they preach, in emulating the One they proclaim? How could His Word not seep more deeply into their hearts and souls? The simple answer is that, despite any psychological explanations, it is a mystery.

The sower and the seed parable points to the complex character of every Christian community.

Church of sinners

The Church is a Church of sinners always in need of conversion (semper reformanda). Although we have heard the Word of God, have prayed and meditated on it, and approach the altar of God to receive Christ's risen Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we nevertheless still sin.

How many Christian spouses betray each other; or Christian parents abuse and neglect their children? Among drug-takers and drink-drivers we find many Christians. Christian business people cheat and defraud; Christian employees steal and deceive. Others indulge in pornography and disseminate it. And what of the many who resort to artificial contraception and even abortion?

Isaiah contends that the Word of God is always effective. It not only produces change, as the rain upon the earth, but also provides seed for sowing in the future.

We must focus our gaze and the whole of our life on Christ. Our faith must be in Him alone. He will never fail us, He will keep faith with us and always be there when we need Him. He will be there to greet us as His own when our life on earth is ended. He must always be our Way, our Truth and our Life.

Fr Kevin Brannelly is a parish priest in the Canberra-Goulburn Archdiocese.

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