We serve the church best with honesty

By  Michael Higgins
  • July 14, 2008

On the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul I found myself attending Mass at a church in Toronto whose current pastor is an old friend. We had lunch afterwards and talked about the state of the church but nothing that emerged from that discussion matched the perspicacity of his morning homily.

Fully aware of the often parlous nature of today’s public debate around matters Roman Catholic, he was nonetheless willing to brave potentially stormy seas to speak candidly about the papacy and the responsibilities that attend on institutional membership. The congregational sea was serene, however, precisely because the pastor enjoys the confidence of his parishioners, speaks to them as adults, does not shy from speaking his mind and yet remains reverent withal. But not obsequious nor deferential. Just respectful. And faithful.

My friend began his sermon by observing how often we hear people differentiate between being spiritual — which is good — from being religious–which is bad. It is an insidious and false distinction but one easy to understand when you consider how reluctant we are to identify the weaknesses and failures of our church. We are an incarnational church, fully fleshed, abiding in God’s grace, but wounded. When we face the underside of our church we do not cease to love, abandon hope or abjure our faith. When we appreciate the marks of holiness, the genuine charism of authority, the liberating and not constraining power of dogma and the efficaciousness of authentic discipleship it is not because we turn a blind eye to our communal sins and structural deficiencies as a community of believers. It is because we recognize the consequences of being an enfleshed reality and not an abstract entity.

So, when we speak of the perfidies of a Pope Alexander, or an Innocent, or a John, who brought, at a minimum, dishonour to the Petrine ministry, it is not because we consider the papacy a dispensable feature of Roman Catholic life or hopelessly “irreformable.” It is to set it against the backdrop of sincere and effective leadership and to demonstrate to a more often uncomprehending than hostile world that the ministry of Peter is vital, healing, relevant and credible.

In other words, when we are honest about our sins as a church — as Pope Benedict was most recently with the sex abuse victims in Washington — it does not diminish our fidelity to the Gospel or compromise our commitment to the church. On the contrary, it renders our discipleship more credible.

In a recent issue of The Catholic Herald of London, England, historian Christopher Lee (not to be confused with the horror film actor and Lord of the Rings villain of the same name) recounts his reasons for conversion in an article appositely named “Becoming a Catholic without illusions.” They are refreshingly frank and sane: “As a historian I have few illusions about the way of this persuasion. Schisms; internecine conflict; difficult to understand factions. Dogma that could easily be questioned when faith has more answers. Moreover, in present times a friend left his Franciscan order because he could not tolerate a cover-up of sexual abuses; his penitence did nothing to soothe my uneasiness. . . . So what does bring me to Rome? First, I feel at home in its structure, its ritual. . . . It is a personal experience that is both frightening and a blessed excitement. . . On May 11 the Church of Rome welcomed me home — mucky taps and all.”

Lee understands as well as my priest friend that it is not the imperfections and sins of the church that sunder its credibility but the relentless denial of them, preventing the cleansing work of truth to do its job.

After all, it isn’t the “mucky taps” that saves us.

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