"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The necessity of scandal

We need to meditate more on Matthew 18:7. To loosen you up for that, I start with a real-life story of the sort I love.

In 1801, Pope Pius VII sent his secretary of state, Cardinal Consalvi, to treat with Napoleon. That was a grave necessity at the time: Bonaparte boasted that he could destroy the Church, and threatened Consalvi with just that. Consalvi's reply is said to have been to this effect: "Excellency, you cannot succeed where many generations of bishops have failed." A concordat was signed not long afterwards.

I believe both the story and what Consalvi is said by that story to have said. Almost everybody over the age of majority knows what Consalvi meant. I won't belabor that. Why should I, or you? My own Catholic faith has never depended on my opinion of the clergy. In my observation, most are no better and holier, as human beings, than other Christians. Many would say that such a fact, if it is a fact, is quite an indictment. In my callow youth, that's what I said. But I no longer think it's true.

I now think that that very fact is just what one can expect if salvation is God's doing not man's, and if the Church, the Body of Christ, is truly of divine origin. "Many of the last shall be first, and many of the first shall be last." People are already way too inclined to think that God needs them, so that he owes them something if they meet his needs. We'd rather not believe that "all is grace," and that our highest calling, as co-workers in the Lord's vineyard, is to get ourselves out of the way. If the clergy have a special failing, it is forgetting that. But given their office, that failing is also quite understandable. It's "human, all too human."

I got to pondering all this after a couple of things I read last night. One was a report of the result of a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, released a few days ago, indicating that
Most churchgoing Catholics say their feelings about the Church are unaffected by the Vatican’s handling of recent child sex abuse reports. Among all Catholics, more have a favorable opinion of Pope Benedict XVI now than they did in March. They tend to believe the media reports are blown out of proportion and harder on the Church than others.
Well of course. Most "churchgoing Catholics" know quite well that the secular world hates the Church. That is why they make allowances for the feeding-frenzy factor so evident in the recent attempts to implicate the Pope in the sex-abuse-coverup scandal. I wrote about those attempts myself a few weeks ago, but this is not the place to rehash all that. I'd rather focus on something that most churchgoing Catholic grownups also know, and that is still more pertinent.

When I read Jonathan Deane's post over at Called to Communion entitled "Drawn Closer by Scandal," I was struck by his opening quotation from Flannery O'Connor:
My cousin’s husband who also teaches at Auburn came into the Church last week. He had been going to Mass with them but never showed any interest. We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible, he knew there must be something else there to make the people come…

From The Habit of Being, Collected Letters; to “A”, August 22, 1959.
That was on the eve of Vatican II: the eve of all the roiling changes, of the sexual revolution, and well before the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal. The same reaction as O'Connor's cousin's husband's is what got me through the cultural and spiritual wasteland of the post-Vatican-II Catholic Church in America: the intellectual vacuity, the painfully bad music, the liturgy alternating between the godawful and the plain silly, the horde of homosexual priests, the priests and nuns who weren't even Catholic, really...I could go on, but churchgoing Catholics who lived through that time know exactly what I'm talking about, even if they don't share the full range of my experience. I encountered much good as well as much bad. I learned that there was something in the Church that human sin and, worse, human fatuity could not destroy. That imperishable something was often obscured, mightily, of course; that is why so many Catholics had to leave the Church to develop a personal relationship with the Christ whose very body and blood were made present to them every Sunday. But that Body and Blood were and still are there every Sunday, indeed every day. And so is the Truth they are, because they are He who is Truth itself. I can't find that anywhere else but in the Orthodox Church—which, of course, has its own problems.

I recommend Jonathan's post in its entirety. It is that of a recent convert coming to grips with what ought to be obvious but which, like so much else in the world today, isn't obvious. It is necessary that there be scandals. That is not because we should do evil so that good may come, but because, being sinners, we are going to do great evil, and God permits it for the sake of respecting our freedom, but even more to make his power—i.e., his mercy as well as his justice—the more evident. We can learn to accept that, within the Church as well as out in the world, once we realize that the whole sorry and glorious panoply of human history is more about what he is about than about us.

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