Sometimes, the “good news” in the Church is not so good, especially when tarnished by the bad behavior of those entrusted with the Gospel proclamation. Headlines and the stories that accompany them can often startle and disturb, disappoint and discourage us, can even shake our faith.
At those times, we need to remember that the Church is of divine origin, founded by Christ upon his Apostles, but placed in human hands. The Church’s mission is to hand on God’s Word and to inspire the community of believers to deeper faith in the Lord Jesus.
Despite the disbelief and denial of many over the centuries because of human frailty, the Lord Jesus did tell Peter and his brethren that they were the “rock” upon whom he would build his Church. “And,” he added, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16: 18).” The Lord Jesus made this declaration to Peter in response to his confession and conviction of faith in Christ – a confession and a declaration that remains rock-solid and sure.
Let’s look at the Twelve Apostles the Lord Jesus chose. Largely uneducated fishermen, often unsure of themselves and their calling, one was called “beloved;” another was a tax collector, despised by his countrymen; another betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver and then committed suicide. Even Peter himself denied his association with the Lord Jesus when the going got tough.
But the Lord Jesus called these twelve men – flaws and all – to follow him in pursuit of his divine mission. He built his Church upon them. They gave their lives for him. They were and always will be the Lord Jesus’ “Twelve Apostles.”
It is interesting to ask ourselves, “why THESE particular men?” The Lord Jesus never gave reasons. Surely, he knew them and their thoughts; all four Gospels say that. With that knowledge, nevertheless, he called them, he chose them to build his Church.
Yes, the Lord Jesus was and is the Son of God. Yes, the Lord Jesus founded the Church upon twelve very human men. Yes, the Lord Jesus shared his divine mission with them, giving them the “keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 16:19),” commanding them at his Ascension “go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that he commanded,” and promising them “I will be with you always even to the end of time (Matthew 28:19-20).” Yes, he assured them that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against his Church (Matthew 16:18).
In the Profession of Faith, Catholics have long proclaimed “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD up to the present day, the Creed highlights the apostolic foundation of the Church by the Lord Jesus.
Throughout the long history of the Church, from the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD forward, debates about the tenets of the Catholic faith, theology and doctrine have regularly occurred among the Apostles and their successors, often to correct misinterpretations and misunderstanding occasioned by those debates. Even St. Peter and St. Paul had their disagreements! When heresies arose, however, the leaders of the Church gathered to settle internal arguments and to assert the truths of the Catholic faith and Church teaching. And that is what they handed on to successive generations.
In the fourth century, a heresy developed within the Church asking whether the validity and efficacy of the Sacraments depended upon the moral character of the priests who administered them. This controversy was known as “Donatism,” named after Donatus, Bishop of Carthage, who argued that less than noble and sinful clergy could not validly administer the Sacraments to the faithful. Gaining in popularity, this heresy was submitted to the Emperor Constantine in 316 AD who rejected the heretical position being proposed by the Donatists.
St. Augustine ultimately ended the debate, denying the Donatist argument and upholding the conviction that Sacraments are the grace-filled actions of God, effective and valid regardless of moral state of the particular clergy administering them. That is not to say that the Church encouraged or ignored the sinfulness of the cleric – quite the contrary is true. The Sacraments, however, derive their power and grace not from the human minister – be he saint or sinner – but from God. That is what the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church believes, affirms and teaches.
Why do I bring this up?
Fast forward to the present day and all the scandals that have recently confronted the Church, wherever and whenever they occur. Popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons and other Church ministers should be held to the highest moral and spiritual standards. That’s the goal the Church strives for. Personal sinfulness or immorality are never acceptable and should be addressed head on by the Church and civil authorities as well when warranted.
The sexual abuse of minors by clergy that has come to light in the last two decades are among the most egregious and tragic offenses that have occurred within the Church. They cannot be excused and have no defense. But their occurrence does not invalidate the Sacraments that offending clergy may have administered to the faithful or the other good works of ministry they may have performed. I get that question often.
Such offenses may, indeed, shake a person’s faith in an individual offending clergyman, but they do not change the Lord Jesus’ intention in establishing his Church or the Sacraments administered in his name. Our faith is in the Lord Jesus. He is present in and with the Church all days, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it, despite the wounds that unworthy clergy may inflict upon it. Those wounds may be doctrinal – for example, attacking and questioning what the Church believes and teaches – or those wounds may be moral, questioning and attacking how the Church asks us to live. There is no doubt, the sexual abuse of minors by clergy is a deep moral wound upon the Church and its faithful, especially upon those who are its victims.
The Church has always witnessed saints as well as sinners at every level of participation in the Church. The saints among us inspire, encourage and deepen our faith and its witness to Christ and his Gospel. They will, gratefully, always be there. The sinners among us, sadly, have the opposite effects. They, too, unfortunately, will always be there. Good and evil have always struggled for predominance in human life and in the Church from the time of the Garden of Eden. Our faith should help us recognize the difference and affirm what is still good in the Church. We cannot “throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The Lord Jesus, his Good News and his Church will always hold the gates of hell at bay. That was his promise. Those with evil hearts or intentions, those who do evil may slip through those gates at times, but they will be crushed under the weight of faith as those gates crumble upon them because of those who are good, who are faithful. Even in the face of darkness, there is still light, the Light of Christ. We all must seek the Light.
Sensational headlines and salacious stories, whether true or exaggerated, will surely attract attention and influence public opinion. The Gospel alone, faithfully proclaimed and lived in the Church, always true and worthy of belief, the Light of Christ will ultimately triumph. We must never forget the words of the Lord Jesus in St. John’s Gospel: “In the world you will have trouble but take courage, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).” And we need to believe it.