Disgust, Dismay, and Genuine Reform

Nowadays, Catholics around the world, if they live in any sort of awareness of what has been going on in their church, feel a profound sense of disgust, dismay, and discouragement.

They feel disgust, no doubt, because the church, the institution that they long thought of as a bulwark of resistance to the contagion and corruption of the world, has been revealed to be just as contaminated with the same rot (Pope Benedict has used the word “filth”) as secular or worldly society and even worse for having pretended that it was somehow different. Perhaps American Catholics may have gotten a bit used to this scandal since the first disturbing signs of this problem began to float to the surface in the American church even as far back as the 1980s. Even then, it was only after the U.S. bishops were finally forced, in the face of widespread and costly lawsuits to begin, that they began to take, early in this past decade, some drastic steps to try to finally put their house in order. Meanwhile, American Catholics had begun to believe that all this was a peculiarly American problem, triggered by the sexual revolution of the 1960 and 1970s. 

That initial disgust has turned to dismay as we have seen that this contagion has not only spread to the Catholic Church in Europe — in fact was long known to exist there but was repeatedly ignored or covered up. Now we finally know better and that knowledge has been devastating. We know now, for example, that the pope who only five years ago so many wanted to be instantly declared a saint immediately after his death had for years stonewalled efforts to expose and discipline one of the worst ecclesiastical con-men to have ever have inflicted himself on the church and who bribed and promoted his way into influence among the highest ranks of the Vatican. Why? Because that man himself, and the pope who admired him, were apparently unable to recognize the problem that exists at the heart of the whole clerical system.

Finally, Catholics are becoming even more discouraged  when they see their leaders failing to speak out openly with more concrete and realistic plans as to how to remedy the situation. While a careful study of church history reveals that this problem has dogged the church almost from its very beginning, nevertheless, periodic attempts at reform have generally not been, at least for very long, very successful. Sooner or later the same rot returns, often even worse than before. All this would seem to suggest that there is a basic problem that previous attempts at reform have failed to address.

At its root, I think, it is the refusal to admit that we are all human or that something is fundamentally wrong with our basic understanding of human nature and the role of sexuality in human life. It has been our illusion that through high ideals and strict rules and self-discipline that we can somehow change, or even ignore human nature, and that somehow we can be magically transformed, by a sacrament, or a vow, or whatever, into angels and we have fooled ourselves into thinking this somehow works if we simply pray hard and put our minds to it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t, or at least for long.

Centuries ago, the great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, insisted that “grace builds upon nature” — not against it. So if we keep imagining we can ignore nature, especially our own human nature and its evolutionary origins, and the psychological baggage (which we have called “Original Sin”) we have inherited, we are inevitably headed for deep trouble. And we should not be surprised that this wrong-headedness which too often has been the result of a willful ignorance has led to the kind of disaster that we are now witnessing. God’s grace or help cannot destroy human nature, and when Nature is ignored, it comes back to haunt us, often in very frightening ways.

When the churchmen finally get around to admitting this (and remember it took nearly 300 years for them to openly admit that Galileo was right) maybe then, and only then, will they be able to make a fresh start at getting things right. Otherwise, Catholics who are involved with grassroots organizations like Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action, and similar groups in Europe that are calling for accountability and real change on the part of the Church’s leaders, as well as millions more Catholics who are anxious to see genuine reform, are likely to join the millions of others who have lost patience with the Church and have already gone elsewhere for their spiritual nourishment.

R W Kropf   5/15/10                                                    Reform2.doc