I have been following with some interest and melancholy the news that has come out recently about the scandals in Ireland. Along the way I came upon this article from the Telegraph website. The extent is quite extraordinary. 70 years! Was even Boston in 2002 as bad as that? Utterly shameful.
In the midst of all this, the soon-to-be Archbishop of Westminster said a few words, which addressed all the issues perfectly- or as perfectly as one might manage in a soundbite (certainly better than almost anybody on any of the scandals I've heard so far). This portion is particularly apt- 'Asked why abuse seemed more prevalent in the Catholic Church than other faiths, he said: "Every time there is a single incident of abuse in the Catholic Church it is a scandal. And I'm glad it's a scandal. I would be very worried if it wasn't a scandal... I hope these things don't happen again but I hope they're never a matter of indifference."'
This reminds me of these words of Chesterton: "This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed... So it does not matter (comparatively speaking) how often humanity fails to imitate its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitful. But it does frightfully matter how often humanity changes its ideal; for then all its old failures are fruitless."
We may fail at our standards but we are doomed if we lower them. Scandal, as the future Archbishop speaks of it, is in one sense a sign of health. Like pain, it tells us something is wrong with the Body. Hearing of things like these makes one's heart lurch and one's stomach turn. It would be better if we didn't hear of things like this- that they did not happen. But given that they have, our reaction is healthy. To hear of such things and take it in our stride would be the ecclesial equivalent of leprosy, the Body of Christ falling apart and us oblivious to the gravity and danger of it. It is true, statistically, that these kinds of things happen in public schools, hospitals, colleges and all sorts of places to roughly the same extent as in the Catholic Church, give or take. I recall that something similar (albeit consensual) took place during my time at high school, causing great scandal, and that was a non-denom Christian school. But it is proper that the public scandal should be greater when it happens in the Church. That means that, even if many have not lived up to the gospel standard, the standard at least remains high, higher than any other institution.
Our hope and prayer, of course, is and should be that these despicable failures should be fruitful, as Chesterton says, rather than fruitless. We may hope that the bishops in Ireland see things as clearly and honestly as Archbishop Nichols. For we believe firmly in two things: the concrete reality of sin, and a God Who can undermine our sins by bringing good out of them. That takes faith to hold onto in scandals like these. But once, long ago, we murdered God, and out of that He forged the redemption of the whole of creation. He can do anything!
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