Scandals and the Scandalized

Light of truth

Question: Fr Paul A.V.

What is happening to the Church with so many scandals?

Answer: Subhash Anand

Yes, we in India have to live with scandals one after another, scandals not only in the society at large, but also within the Church. Even people who have vowed poverty and chastity seem to be caught up in the whirlpool of evil. Somebody, who knew what is in man (Jn 2:24-25), warned us two thousand years ago: “Woe to the world for scandals to sin! For it is necessary that scandals come, but woe to the man by whom the scandal comes” (Mt 18:7). Perhaps heaven is the only place where there are no scandals! When Jesus speaks of scandal He is talking about behaviour that can lead others to do wrong. Even Peter, whom Jesus trusted so much, turned out to be a scandal for his master: he advised Jesus to forget about the cross (Mt 16:23). Today the word has acquired a slightly different meaning: criminal behaviour attributed to person\s who, for some reason or the other, rightly or wrongly, are held in high esteem. There is still a third possibility. When Martin Luther first spoke of what he considered was wrong in Church life and teaching, many were shocked and scandalized. I believe we need such ‘scandals,’ otherwise we do not see the dirty linen we are carrying on our backs. Those who are familiar with Church History know that the Church has survived very great scandals. She has even outlived Popes who could be the main characters in today’s pulp novels.

A King as Rapist and Murderer

The Holy Bible is not free of unholy events. It is the story of the dealings of the faithful God with His unfaithful people. Perhaps the most tragic incident is the David- Bathsheba episode. The king observes her while she is bathing. His passion gets the better of him. He arranges for her to visit him. An ordinary woman dare not say ‘no’ to a king. She and her family would be in danger. David’s action amounts to rape. When he is informed that she is carrying his child, he tries to hide his crime by asking her husband to return from the battle front and hosts a dinner for him, and provides him good wine, hoping that he would go home and sleep with his wife. Uriah was more religious than his king. He knew that he was on a holy war and therefore had to abstain from sexual intercourse. When David sees that his trick did not work, and that were Uriah to remain alive, his crime would become public, he gets him murdered on the battle field.

David was infatuated by feminine charm, blinded by passion and intoxicated by power. He was sure that nobody would dare to point a finger at him. In those days there were no investigative journalists, but there were prophets. Nathan visits David and tells him a story. On hearing it, David is filled with righteous anger: “That man deserves to die!” Then Nathan points a finger at him and tells him: “You are that man!..[therefore the Lord says] I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun.” What disturbs me is that God seems to be balancing one scandal with another. David repents for his crime and Nathan assures him divine pardon: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” This judgement scandalizes me. How can an innocent child be considered a scapegoat? I cannot accept such a judgement from God. The role of a scapegoat in religious discourse is deeply irreligious. Sometimes I think that narratives that emerge from organized religions cannot be totally free from scandals. Even the good Lord is dragged into our mire. Then even our ‘holy’ books can scandalize us. We need to read these texts with the eyes of Jesus.

A Bishop as Criminal and Protector of Criminals

Some of you may have read the novel or seen the movie based on that novel The Thorn Birds: the story of a young priest who befriends a young girl, and eventually consummates his love for her. He ends up by becoming a cardinal. This is not totally fictional. On June 20, 2018, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (1930 –) was removed from public ministry by the Vatican. “Once a globe-trotting representative of the Catholic Church worldwide and one of the architects of the Church’s policy on sexual abuse [a thief catching a thief!], McCarrick’s precipitous fall over the past month has shocked Catholics, especially in Washington, where he was a popular archbishop from 2001 to 2006.”

Let me mention only the case of John Cody of Chicago (1907–1982). The uproar that erupted when the press carried a report about his affair with Helen Dolan Wilson, and the diversion of Church funds in her favour, “could rival a Medici court—or the Vatican under the Borgias—in its unseemly intrigue.” During his tenure “approximately one million dollars of Church funds went missing, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops lost more than four million dollars in a single year while Cody was treasurer of that organization.” Many believed that the money went to Helen. As a result, “there were persistent rumours that the Vatican wanted to remove him from office.” If Cody were to become the Pope, what would have happened? What could the bishops do were the scandal to surface after his election? In his In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I (Corgi, 1997) David Yallop, maintains, that Cody had a hand in the murder of John Paul I. He was afraid the Pope would ask him to resign.

Victims of abuse have been emotionally traumatized and deeply scandalized—lead to loss of faith and even unacceptable behaviour. One victim of McCarrick said: “I was raised in a way to trust priests, to trust the Catholic Church. I was to believe they were always going to help me…What he did to me was he ruined my entire life. I couldn’t break the hold. I couldn’t live up to my ability—to stay employed, married, have children. I lost all those opportunities because of him.” As a teen this victim became an alcoholic; he is sober now, but still haunted by the past. Another seminarian “who had gone on to become a priest, admitted in the 1990s that he had touched two minors himself. He said his confused sexual behaviour was the result of the abuse he’d suffered by McCarrick in the 1980s and other clerics while he was a seminarian.” Indeed he was scandalized: lead to inappropriate behaviour. The Cardinal’s misdeeds harmed many young people. “Sister Katarina Schuth, considered one of the country’s leading experts on priest training, said the lofty position of McCarrick is shaking even Catholics left cynical by the crisis. ‘This is not one more thing. I think it’s having a stronger impact.’”

Criminal behaviour creates a shock. It surely hurts people. Sad to say, so often some who are more concerned about their institutions than for people, try to hush up crimes which could damage the ‘reputation’ of their institutions. They try to negotiate with the victims, confusing them with half-truths, and often use their authority to intimidate them. Thismost inhuman and therefore deeply unchristian reaction is found in the Holy Bible too. In the original account, the story of David and Bathsheba begins with “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle” (2 Sam 11:1). The next episode is reported thus. “Now Joab fought against Rabbah of the Ammonites, and took the royal city (12:26). The author of the first book of Chronicles whitewashes David. He totally omits the mention of the David-Bathsheba episode. His version reads. “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle, Joab led out the army, and ravaged the country of the Ammonites, and came and besieged Rabbah” (20:1). He rewrote history from a Davidic perspective. The biggest scandal is how religious writers make even the Holy Spirit, who is believed to have inspired the sacred texts, party to their crime!

A classic example of how religious leaders hide the truth is seen in the tsunami of child abuse that flooded the Church in the West. Educated Catholics saw that as the bigger sin. In 2009 the Vatican admitted that at least in twenty-three countries “the Catholic clergy have been exploiting their financial and spiritual authority to gain sexual favours from nuns, particularly those from the Third World who are more likely to be culturally conditioned to be subservient to men.” Some reports of this abuse had reached the Vatican at least seven years before this admission. The Vatican maintained an unholy silence.

God as Vulnerable and Powerful

Some devout Catholics may ask: Is God really concerned about the Church? If He is, then how is it that we have so many scandals related to sex, power and money in His Church? After the Nazi Holocaust many Jews and Christians thought that God was dead! When God made us, He took a big risk. He became vulnerable. We can abuse our freedom and crucify Him. Without freedom we would cease to be human, cease to icons of God. God makes us partners in His project. We have to be responsible in our use of freedom. Then his power reveals itself in and through us.

David thought he could rape Bathsheba and murder Uriah because he was intoxicated by power. Priests and bishops indulge in criminal activities because they too think nobody can touch them: they have money and power. If we want fewer scandals in the Church, then the first thing we need to is totally overhaul the organization of the Church. Right now people with practically no skills in organization and finance and with little moral credibility are invested with tremendous administrative and financial power. Second, we have to educate our laity. I have a feeling that the pastoral clergy by and large resists this proposal. The religious ignorance of the laity is precisely one source of their authority and security. Third, we need to radically restructure our seminary formation. Jesus said: Many are called, but few are chosen.” My impression is that many bishops think that Jesus said: “Few are called, but many are chosen.” As a result, many who are priests and bishops today are more a liability than a blessing for the Church. As long as our present situation does not undergo a profound change and renewal, scandals will multiply.

The Church has to be confessing; it has to become not a commune of self-righteous proud people, but a community of sinners pleading for forgiveness, being received in to a holy communion of Christ’s mystical body. For St Augustine, God is “the physician of my intimate self who stirs up the heart to seek to know God, do good works, and strive for the eternal happy life” (Conf. X.iii.4).

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