scandals in the Church

Light of truth

Question: Fr Jacob Thomas

As a teacher of theology what do you say of erupting scandals in the Church?

Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS

From time to time we hear about scandals in the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches and indeed it upsets us. In the past too there were scandalous happenings in the Church which affected the Church’s credibility as the moral conscience of the world. The negative impact of some scandals was limited to a specific geographical area or to a limited number of people. But today the number of scandals are on the increase and with media sensationalizing them for their business or other interests they affect the credibility of the Church. They bring terrible distress to the believers who love their Church and do not want to make the Church a laughingstock for those who try to discredit it in many ways. Eruptions of scandals in the Church certainly affects negatively. Yet every scandal is a painful reminder for the Church to be constantly self-critical and self-purifying as well as it calls for a deeper commitment of the Church to seek to be faithful to its foundational vocation to live Christ and proclaim His values of the Kingdom.

What the Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard observed about preachers or priests seem to be relevant in this context of scandals in the Church. He says, “People have an idea that the preacher is an actor on a stage and they are the critics, blaming or praising him. What they don’t know is that they are the actors on the stage; he is merely the prompter standing in the wings, reminding them of their lost lines (and God is the audience)!”

Church on Scandal and Church’s Scandal
Based on the Scripture and Tradition, the Catholic Church has clear teaching on scandal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains what scandal is and then goes on to say the consequences of it. It says, “Scandal is an attitude or behaviour which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbour’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense” (CCC 2284). The seriousness of the scandal depends on who or what causes scandal. “Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: He likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing (CCC 2285). Further it says that“Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion.” (CCC 2286). So there is clarity in the Church’s understanding and teaching about the originators of any scandal, its seriousness and its consequences. The gravity of the scandal and its negative impacts are determined by the position of the one who causes any scandal and the level of the spiritual maturity of those who are affected by it.

It is a grave offence when the persons involved in a scandal are holding leadership positions in the Church like priests and bishops or persons who have committed themselves to an exemplary life following the evangelical counsels like the religious. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouaged. “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!” (CCC 2289). It may be a surprise for many people who are members of the Church as well as those who are not the members that in spite of the great care taken to select and elect leaders of the Church as priests and bishops with long years of formation that no other profession in the world is given or requires how such persons of respected position indulge in criminal and sinful activities that are unbecoming of them and their vocation?

There can be many reasons for the failure of some of the Church leaders who indulge in wrong activities that cause scandals. Many believers do not take them seriously and consider them as affecting their faith in the Church and its priesthood because they have experienced the goodness and credibility of many priests and bishops. Many dismiss criminal offences like sex-abuse cases attributing them as human weakness and condone them as a possible failure of a few among those committed to a celibate life. While admiring and appreciating the vocation of some for celibate life they know that the sexual drive is such a strong force and a few may not persevere in their vow of celibacy till the end. While they do not approve the scandalous actions of some priests or bishops they are not seriously scandalized. But there are two other categories of faithful who would not tolerate any type of scandalous behaviour from their priests and bishops. A large majority of them are of infantile faith. They make priests and bishops as demi-gods and mystify their spiritual authority to such an extent that they are not able to see that it is possible for the unscrupulous among them to misuse, abuse their spiritual authority to secure power and position to manipulate institutions and persons to indulge in criminal practices. When the spiritual leaders are not honest to themselves and God, they under cover of spiritual leadership can do harm to the community which they lead. There are others who would not tolerate any priest or bishop to indulge in criminal activities and they vociferously argue that they must be treated as criminals and be punished according to the law of the land as they can destroy the lives of many who become their victims and submit to them out of fear. There may be only a very few who indulge in such unlawful activities but they discredit and bring disrepute to thousands and thousands of those who follow faithfully the demands of their vocation with struggles and pains.

The greater problem of scandal is when the Church as an institution becomes scandalous through the actions and policies of some of its members and leaders. Since the Church became the religion of Roman Empire after the edict of Milan in 313 AD it has adopted most of the symbols of secular power and style of leadership. The liberative movement of wholeness established through the death and resurrection of Jesus became a well structured institution which gave too much emphasis to its organizational power structure, rituals and laws. Certain institutional structure is needed to preserve and to continue the charism of living and proclaiming the good news of wholeness and liberation. But an over-emphasis on the institutional structure with money flowing into its coffers through offerings and the patronage of the wealthy and the powerful, the community of the poor and the marginalized evolved into a kingdom of spiritual and secular power. Money power and its obscene manifestations in magnificently built churches, palatial buildings for the spiritual leaders, facilities for their comfortable life, vast properties and huge buildings of the church-run-institutions etc. are the fertile grounds for corruption, abuse of power and scandalous life. The present situation of the Church with its huge institutional structures is itself a scandal. It destroys the positively challenging scandal of the Cross!

A Positive Response to the Scandals
The Church as a mystery of God in which authentic communion is lived and proclaimed cannot be destroyed by the scandals that are erupting in the Church from time to time because it is not a secular society built on worldly values. It is a sacrament of Christ for the transformation of the world into the household of God. The betrayal of Judas and his suicide were the first scandals of the early community of the Church. Then onwards we have a number of terrible scandals in the Church created by priests, bishops and even Popes. In spite of them all, the Church continued to grow and fulfil its mission because it is not built on humans and their wayward nature which is prone to commit ungodly and inhuman acts. Having the Holy Spirit in the heart of the Church as its teacher and guide to build the Body of Christ for the glory of the Father and for the communion among humans, in time of crisis like the eruption of many scandals involving some leaders of the Church the entire Church must become more self-critical and self-examining. It must learn to stop its flirting with Mammon and the evil power that it brings. The Church must choose to become poor and not try to compete with the worldly powers that are willing to sacrifice moral and spiritual values at the altar of power, money and prestige. The more the Church becomes participative in the ministry of leadership and transparent in its administration and the building of the community the more it will become a credible sign of God’s reign. A God-given authority to lead without accountability to the community of the faithful and a false understanding of authority in the Church as an absolute power make it vulnerable to abuse and all forms of corruption. Any other leadership style other than that is modelled after the servant leadership of Jesus defeats the mission of the Church and exposes it to all possible scandals. The Church must learn from her Master the art of dying by self-emptying in order to rise to a new life of glory.

Those who are weak and infantile in their faith are vulnerable to scandals. The faithful need to be challenged to grow into adult faith which cannot be destroyed or weakened by those incidents of scandals involving priests and bishops whom they hold in high esteem. What is required of the Church authorities is to shed their false sense of protecting faith of the people by hiding the incidents of scandal and letting the perpetrators go unpunished. While loving and forgiving the sinner, the crime must be condemned and the one who does the criminal acts has to be brought before the law of the Church and the law of the land. The Gender Policy published by the CBCI, the first of its kind in the entire Church, demands that parishes and Church institutions need to set up Redressal Cells which would deal with issues of sexual abuses and acts of gender discriminations in the church premises and Church related institutions. How many of our Church institutions have taken the CBCI directive seriously? One wonders, how many are aware of such a document from the CBCI. Scandals are sure to come but woe to the Church which ignores them, denies them and hides them! It is imperative for the Church to shed its triumphalism, arrogance and institutionalized piety and listen to the Spirit and return to its vocation to be the humble servants of the Kingdom of God!

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