I officially began my journey into the Catholic Church the year Pope Benedict XVI resigned, and came into full communion under the pontificate of Pope Francis. I have to say, becoming Catholic in the age of social media has been rough – and not just because of attacks from outside the Church (which have always been commonplace). It’s bad enough we have a Pope who has to deal with tweets and selfies – those can be chalked up to reaching the tablet generation. The problem has been defending a papacy riddled with gleefully reported gaffs and eye-rolling press reports of potential heresy. Many of these have proved groundless, of course. However, even ignoring the more dubious examples (such as Scalfari’s claim that Francis denied the existence of hell), the evidence that the Church was being led by a rogue Pope has continued to mount.
Francis’s Flaws and Flops
No one on either side of his fan base denies that Pope Francis has made positive contributions to the Church’s life. His commitment to the new evangelization, promotion of compassion toward the marginalized, and humble lifestyle choices, have garnered respect from both sides of the political spectrum. These features, though, are often abstract and open to contrary interpretations.
Once Francis’s concrete actions are taken into consideration, the picture becomes one of confusion and contradiction. From his celebrated “Who am I to judge?” statement on homosexuality to his affirmation of doomsday global warming in Laudato Si to his questionable and confusing footnote 329 in Amoris Laetitia to his equating of migrant care with abortion activism to his attack on conservative Catholics to his implied assurance that an atheist father was in heaven to his most recent act of altering the Catechism in a suspiciously-timed denouncement of the death penalty, Pope Francis seems bent on upholding his “honey badger” reputation.
And now this…
During the ongoing exposure of clerical sex abuse cases, it has been asserted that Pope Francis had a role in covering them up and that there has been a conspiracy operating since the very beginning of Francis’s pontificate. Incredibly, the Pope’s response was to “not say a single word” about it. (Really? NOW he stops talking to the press?)
Time will reveal the outcome of these allegations. What is telling, however, is that many who have stood by Francis’s side and attempted to do papal damage control in the past seem to be giving it up as a lost cause. Indeed, some prominent defenders of the Catholic faith are starting to sound like writers for Church Militant. These are not rats jumping a sinking ship, they are more like the crew desperately trying to hold it together without a trustworthy captain.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Will Pope Francis fall? If he does, will the Catholic Church go down with him? Despite the severe blow the Church would likely sustain, the Church would remain. Scripture and history have already answered that question. As vile, putrid, and horrible as all this is, it is (sadly) nothing new. Fallen humanity spreads evil everywhere it goes, and it continues to make up the vast majority of membership in the Church. While we might wish that evil could find no place in the Church and was limited to atheistic political regimes or occultic false religions, it simply is not the case.
Nor has it ever been.
Jesus began with numerous disciples. Most left when he began teaching on the miracle of the Eucharist (John 6:66). Of his closest apostles, one betrayed him and committed suicide. Another verbally apostatized three times on the same night. By the end of the night, apparently only one remained with him at the foot of the cross (John 19:26-27). Jesus said he would build his Church and the gates of hell would not overcome it (Mt. 16:18). The chief cornerstone was Jesus himself, but it was these apostles that formed its foundation (Eph. 2:19-22). Despite the fact that the very first rock he laid for this foundation was weak and untrustworthy (John 21:15-17), the Church survived. Indeed, in a few centuries it overcame the greatest empire the world had ever known.
Since then there have been dark times for the papacy and other Church leaders, yet the Church done more than merely survive them. It safeguarded the civilization it helped build, developed the university system, built hospitals and orphanages, and pushed science, philosophy, and art forward. It remains the greatest charitable organization on planet earth. The very fact that the Catholic Church has accomplished all this amidst the occasional downfall of its leadership has itself been cited as proof of its divine nature (its success certainly can’t be explained by the people who run it!).
Nearly every New Testament author spoke of persecution and suffering for the faithful in God’s Church, and fallen humanity has fulfilled those predictions time and again from inside and outside her walls. This does not make these times easy or pleasant, but it should make them somewhat unsurprising.
Whatever the outcome of this debacle, it seems we have entered another dark time in Church history. Those responsible for this vile scandal (whether through perpetration or cover-up) need to go. They need to be punished. Severely. But even in a time when many of us wish we had bought stock in millstones (see Mt. 18:6), the Church should not be judged by its unfaithful members whether they wear a collar or not. The guilty are, in fact, a very small percentage of the Church’s clergy – who themselves are a very small percentage of the Church.
They are also not why I entered the Church, and they will not cause me to leave the Church. I became and remain Catholic because Jesus Christ died for my salvation and built a Church to help me attain it. This Church came into existence, and its nature was settled, millennia ago – long before any of its living members were born. And – like the apostles it was built upon – despite its considerable flaws, it abides.
The Pope is not the Church. Neither are his Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Deacons, or the Laity. The Church is the entire body of Christ past, present, and future, in heaven and on earth. It will outlast these men, and outlive this season – just as it has for 2,000 years.