The Crisis of Evil in the Church

In the combox on an earlier post, commentary table member and Lutheran blogger, Pastor Mark Henderson, made this comment:

There you go, David – you don’t mention it.
The pope’s resignation is not the crisis, my friend – it’s symptomatic of the crisis.
The crisis is __________ . Fill in the blank, David.
Out of the mouths of babes – today my wife and eldest son and I drove past St Patrick’s Cathedral here in Toowoomba. I remarked “There is no Pope. Sede vacante -the see is empty.” My son, typical teenager, said, “Oh yeah, why did he resign?” My wife, a former Catholic from abroad whose leaving of the church some 20 years ago was directly related to loss of confidence (the plausibility problem) in the priesthood because of personal experience of the sexual abuse scandals, remarked, “He resigned because he discovered all the evil in the church and it broke his heart.”

I wrote out the following reply and decided to make it a blog post in its own right, rather than getting lost somewhere down the commentary list. Here it is:

What, you wanted me to say “sex abuse”? Happy now? No. I don’t talk about it very often. Because my reaction to it is just what your wife thinks Benedict’s was: it breaks my heart.

And yes, I am sure that it did break Benedict’s heart too. I am sure he knew a lot more about the evil in the Church than you, or I, or your wife or anyone could possibly know.

But to say that this is the reason he resigned? I don’t think so. He has had to deal with that particular evil his whole papacy. I am sure it wore him down, but… some other needle must have broken this particular camel’s back.

If “the crisis” to which you refer, Pastor Mark, is “evil in the Catholic Church”, well, then that truly is a crisis that has been with us since the beginning. It is the very same crisis that I find every time I look into my own heart and see what is there – more than you, or anyone else other than God, could know.

But perhaps one of the greatest evils that has come as a result of this particular evil is the fact that it has become the only evil we can see. It is like the person who goes to confession again and again and confesses the same sins each time. This particular sin becomes the only thing he can think about, the only thing he thinks he needs to repent of – and he does not realise the other more subtle evils affecting his life.

Yes, evil exists in the Church. This is not something to be accepted (“well, it has always been so, so why try to change it?”) but it is certainly not something we should be surprised at. I would have it that the whole world could look at the Church and see nothing but holiness and love – what an evangelising moment THAT would be! Instead the body of Christ is shamed and spat upon because of the betrayal of her members.

But should anyone stand like the pharisee in the temple and say to himself “God, I thank thee that my church is not like that one over there in the corner etc” – well… Pastor, if you and your wife and family have found a Christian community in which there is no evil, no crisis, I wish you luck.

I didn’t choose to become a Catholic because Catholics were more holy than other Christians. I wish it were so, but on balance I know that probably they are not. I chose to become a Catholic because I was convinced that the Catholic Church is the visible society upon earth in which the Church of Jesus Christ fully subsists. That is something quite different.

All that having been said, I do remain convinced that if one is seeking to become holy, then the Catholic Church is the place where the means of attaining holiness are most fully to be found. For all the dreadful, horrific evils committed by members and priests and leaders of the Catholic Church over all the centuries, yet I can name you so many more whose life here on earth, by the grace of Jesus Christ working within them, enabled them to reach that perfection of holiness in this life that there was no sin at all left in them from which they needed no be purified after their death.

Does that sound horrific to you? Does that scandalise you? It should not. Because I used the words “by the grace of Jesus Christ”. One thing you must say about us Catholics: we believe in the power of God’s grace – perhaps more than the most ardent protestant – because we believe that God’s Grace in Jesus Christ really CAN change lives and make sinners into saints.

That is – now and always and world without end – the answer to the crisis of which you speak: the crisis of evil in the Church.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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22 Responses to The Crisis of Evil in the Church

  1. Tony Bartel says:

    What will poor Mrs Henderson do when she discovers evil in the Lutheran Church?

    • You’re missing the point, Tony, perhaps because you didn’t follow the original discussion, which concerned the impact of the various sexual scandals on the plausibility of the Catholic Church in the postmodern world (hate the term po-mo, prefer “late modern”, but it doesn’t carry the same freight). If you think this is not a problem – not just for the Catholic Church but in some degree for all of us in ministry- you are in denial. The existence of evil in the Lutheran Church is, I would maintain, incidental and not systemic, as it appears to be in the CC – a crucial difference – and therefore it does not have the same impact. We are also rather more modest in our claims about ourselves! For further background, you might like to watch this interview Emma Alberici did with a former Catholic sex abuse investigator (if it is still available): http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-02-26/sexual-abuse-in-the-dna-of-roman-church/4541866 in which he claims sexual abuse is “in the DNA” of the Catholic Church (his words, not mine!).

      • Schütz says:

        “Incidental and not systemic”… That’s an interesting distinction. “Incidental evil”… “Systemic evil…” I will have to think about that.

        Just tell me (I’m curious). If you did manage to check out all the doctrines of the Church, and found them all to be true (by your estimation and lights), would the sexual abuse scandal stop you from entering full communion with the Catholic Church?

      • Tony Bartel says:

        If by systemic evil you mean the desire to cover up sexual abuse for the sake of the institution, then that too exists in the Lutheran Church. I say this not to denigrate the Lutheran Church, for which I maintain a great affection, but simply to warn that we should take the log out of our own eyes before we try to take the speck out of others.

        No Church comes to this matter with clean hands.

  2. Stephen K says:

    This is an interesting subject and an interesting way to characterise the current circumstances of the Roman Catholic Church in particular or the persistent condition of churches in general: is there really a “crisis of evil”? Or is it better understood as something else? If we really accept as starting premises, that all humans are fallible and peccable (i.e. they will often be wrong and often be sinful), then perhaps, in a sense that does not trivialise the real pain and hurt experienced by people, we should not see the current scandals and the current turmoil and divisiveness as anything but ‘par-for-the-course’ or something very close to it. As you say, David,we should not be surprised.

    Nevertheless we constantly do get surprised, or scandalised, and express our dismay – very often – as if we were somehow quarantined from what horrifies us. The fact that we still have the capacity for horror – selective though it may sometimes appear to be – is actually a healthy sign that we have not descended into complete cynicism or at some level lost all concern or aspiration for the good or better, however we conceive it.

    Over recent years, the turmoil within the Catholic Church has been termed a crisis of “authority”, or a crisis of “faith”. “Crisis” here can mean “critical re-evaluative moment” but it often is used by some to mean “rejection” of authority, or “loss” of faith. They may be both or one and not the other. The same, I suggest, applies to the term “evil”. The same sun at a given moment is both a rising and a setting. There will be some disagreement that this or that will be evil, or more evil than another, but there is, as you have pointed out, goodness and holiness that often arises from or because of the shadows that have our focus.

    Personally, and without intending for a moment to imply that, like Paul Keating’s economic recession, the abuse or the post-Conciliar turmoil are the “crises” we had to have, I think that these things have salutarily shattered or dented what I think was a kind of corporate complacency and reliance on problematic structures and theology. They haven’t shattered or dented, however, the better sides of human nature or intent or that mysterious operation of God we call by the name of grace.

    • Schütz says:

      Just a thought on the meaning of the word “crisis” – it is the Greek word for “judgement” (and used in the Gospels as such). You suggest that the word “crisis” is sometimes used as a synonym for “rejection”, eg. a “rejection of authority”. But if we take the Greek meaning, a “crisis of authority” is a “judgement of authority” – that “judgement” could go either way. Think of it as a coming to a Y-junction: there are only two ways to go forward, and they will lead in critically different directions. (I think the word “critical” might be the adjective of “crisis” – so that is interesting too).

      The other interesting thing about the notion of “crisis” is what happens when you combine it with an a kind of existential or realised eschatology such as you find in the Gospel of John. Then the “crisis” is not a momentary or unusual event in the course of history (ie. a series of crises) but it is just one long crisis – in Christian terms (and terms which Joseph Ratzinger used it in his Eschatology and Deus Caritas Est) the crisis is what happens when we encounter Christ, or, in Johannine terms, when the light of the world shines into the darkness – the darkness resists the light, but cannot overcome it either.

      So, a “crisis of evil” is just what the Church has faced since day one and will continue to face – a “jugdement” of evil, a “judgement” of the darkness by the Light.

  3. Matthias says:

    The Parish Priest at St dominic’s made the comment in his annual report that ,whilst abuse scandals could shake us ,we should trust in Christ . Like you David “I chose to become a Catholic because I was convinced that the Catholic Church is the visible society upon earth in which the Church of Jesus Christ fully subsists. ” I still sometimes have doubts about Papal infallibility,indulgences etc, but I am conscious that when I am awaiting to receive the Eucharist,I am in continuity with our spiritual ancestors ,who all were or are there awaiting the Sacrament because of the “grace of Jesus Christ”.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, Matthias – I think too many people – in particular, Protestant pastors – because of this or that teaching of the church with which they have difficulty, or of which they are not quite certain. This is the number one priority for them (and one can understand this, of course) – that each teaching of the Church be examined in its smallest detail lest one of them be wrong. Only if the entire Catholic tradition passes muster will they then enter the church. For me, and I suspect for you, the greatest attraction was the reality of “communion” in the Church – with our Lord, with the past saints, and with all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. One then realises that the Church’s teachings on faith and morals look somewhat different from within than without the Church.

    • Schütz says:

      Or let me have another go at that.

      In order for a sincere Protestant Christian, who really looks into the matter, to maintain any real excuse NOT to enter communion with the Catholic Church, two things are necessary:

      1) they must believe that the Catholic Church is NOT (as she claims she is) that visible society upon earth in which the Church of Jesus Christ fully subsists.

      2) and that therefore all the other teachings of the Catholic Church are open to question, and liable to be erroneous.

      I put it in that order, because I think (2) depends on (1) one way or another.

      That is, a sincere Protestant Christian may say they remain outside the Church because they cannot accept the Church’s teaching in one or a number of areas (eg papacy, Mary, prayer to the saints, the Eucharistic sacrifice, justification etc.), but the real reason they cannot bring themselves to answer the call of Christ to be one with their Catholic brothers and sisters is because they do not believe, and cannot bring themselves to believe, that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ.

      They may indeed tell you it works the other way around. They may say to you “Because the Church teaches X on the matter of Justification” or “Because the Church does Y in their prayers and devotions”, the Catholic Church cannot be the Church of Jesus Christ.

      Yet if they were to try to go through every official teaching of the Catholic Church, testing it by whatever other authority they have decided is above the Catholic Church, they still will not find themselves in a position to answer the call to full communion UNTIL they have overcome that one barrier: belief that the Catholic Church is who she claims to be, namely the Church of Jesus Christ.

      Once they reach that point, there can be no more doubt about the Catholic Church’s authority to teach in matters of faith or morals because it is the Church of Jesus Christ we are talking about.

      Is that too simplistic?

      • Joshua says:

        No, quite right: the real reason not to enter full communion is one of ecclesiology (or lack thereof).

        After all, if all “true Christians” form an invisible society, dispersed hither and thither, then what need to belong to any one denomination?

        On the other hand, if Christ did establish a Church to be a visible sign and foretaste of the Kingdom, then to be in it, as opposed to out of it, becomes very important indeed. (This reminds me of one of my favourite quotations about the Church, because of what it says about her permanence, compared to “states and kingdoms new and old” – the Church, says someone, a visible society, as visible “as the Kingdom of France or the Republic of Venice”.)

        To the extent that the Church really makes visible and tangible what she really is – the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Ecclesia, the gathering-of-those-called-out(-of-darkness) – then she is a light to the nations, as the Bride and Body of Christ; what makes present revelations of sin and wickedness so scandalous is of course the way they subvert the very nature of the Church, and so drive away souls, who rightly fear and reject a Church that appears as anything but Holy.

        • Schütz says:

          But the ecclesiology of an “invisible church” was invented as an answer to the problem of a visible church with whose doctrines agreement was found impossible.

          • Joshua says:

            So a new doctrine was invented to explain away inconvenient doctrines! Hmmm.

            These days, the doctrines upon which all stands or falls seem to be:
            1. that women can be ordained;
            2. that men can marry men, and women women (in clear violation of Romans 1, though I do recall a Jesuit in Melbourne going out of his way to argue otherwise);
            3., 4., 5., etc. ad nauseam [insert current heresy here]…

            • Schütz says:

              There is actually a common thread here – and it is the theology of the body.

              In the early church, the doctrine most opposed was the incarnation of Christ – God appears in True human flesh.

              For the last five hundred years, the most opposed doctrine has been that of the Church, that she is truly the Body of Christ in the world.

              The modern heresies you list are a denial of bodily reality.

            • Stephen K says:

              You make four statements here, David. The first needs some unpacking but may well be true. The second and third are greatly condensed, but appear on their face to be true enough.

              But the fourth strikes me as wild hyperbole. I cannot see how you can possibly dismiss these modern propositions wholesale as a “denial of bodily reality”, David. They may be a denial of theology that characterises the body and uses it in particular symbolical and ethical ways. But “reality” is a controversial or disputed term, especially when it is applied to theological formula. They might be opposed to what you think is “bodily reality” but I think they are based on what their proponents define as reality.

              All you had to do was phrase your fourth sentence thus: “The modern heresies you list are a denial of the traditional Catholic view/teaching of bodily reality”.

            • Schütz says:

              Stephen, if ’twere possible to accept your qualification of my final statement without falling into the trap of subjectivism (“what’s true for you isn’t true for me”), I would.

      • “That is, a sincere Protestant Christian may say they remain outside the Church because they cannot accept the Church’s teaching in one or a number of areas (eg papacy, Mary, prayer to the saints, the Eucharistic sacrifice, justification etc.), but the real reason they cannot bring themselves to answer the call of Christ to be one with their Catholic brothers and sisters is because they do not believe, and cannot bring themselves to believe, that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ.”
        Yes, that is too simplistic, David. It is the Catholic Church itself which proclaims its doctrines as ‘de fide’. That invites examination on the part of outsiders/inquirers, and I believe one owes it to the Catholic Church and oneself to examine what it teaches as ‘the faith’. “And they searched the scriptures daily to see whether what Paul said was true”. I don’t question your commitment to the Catholic faith as you understand it, but it does amaze me that you could enter ‘the church’ and entrust the destiny of your soul to it without being convinced of the truth of its teachings, if that is in fact what you are saying you did.

        • Schütz says:

          Right. Demonstrates my main point. Truly sincere, Truth-seeking Protestants such as yourself attempt “Path One”. Good luck on that one. Apart from checking ALL that the Catholic Church has ever taught (you never know what those pesky historians might find in the Vatican Archives from the 8th Century…), could you please share with us what your standard for checking on our doctrines are? How do you determine “what is true?”? Just give us a short list of your authorities in this matter.

  4. Stephen K says:

    With all due respect, David and Joshua, you cannot have it both ways. First you say that contrary to what some might say, the refusal to embrace the Roman Catholic Church is not because they do not agree with particular doctrines but because they do not believe it is the unique Church founded by Christ, then you say that they do not embrace the Roman Catholic Church so that they can avoid inconvenient doctrines. These two assertions contradict each other. I happen to think that the first is correct, but I think your reduction of the origin of the idea of the invisible church to the desire to avoid inconvenient doctrines IS simplistic and also not a little unfair. Such a reduction paints all who do not join the Roman Catholic Church as disingenuous or insincere or self-deceiving, or all three. I think that’s wrong.

    Moreover, the idea of the Church as “invisible” is not – at least to my understanding – so simple as to exclude all dimension of visibility. A truer characterisation of the doctrine of invisibility appears to be that it belongs to the order of the spirit and of action of believing, and living in purity and faithfulness and is not identified – in a static sense – by particular persons or government. At the same time, traditional explanation of this doctrine recognised that the Church was visible in the sacraments and acts of people in communities or churches, in effect, the “light to the world” to which you referred Joshua. But the “light” is not an organisation but something more dynamic – the action of people through whom Christ is encountered. It is the exclusive identification of the visible Church with the particular legal society and tradition that is the Roman Catholic Church that appears to be rejected. In other words, the doctrine appears to be very solidly grounded in a view that the Church is the kingdom that Jesus preached, and that this kingdom is a spiritual mystery of love of God and neighbour in action, not an organisation.

    At least, this is my brief précis of the article on the theme in “The Protestant Dictionary” (H&S, 1904). It is not dissimilar of course to some non-traditional scriptural scholarship. But, the important thing is, that understood this way, far from being a frivolous or disingenuous response, a rejection of the Roman Catholic Church as the unique Church of Christ is a response often motivated by a very differently emphasized insight into the meaning of the Christian economy or the nature of things.

    There are of course various reasons why people come to their conclusions about what the Church means, where and what it is, and where it is not or cannot be. It is not my intention to argue the correctness of any particular conclusion here, and in any case I would not be at all confident I could do so beyond my own satisfaction. All I wanted to do was to point out what I considered is a contradiction in what you have both said in the space of two or three paragraphs, and unjust to many people of sincere religious conviction.

    • Schütz says:

      Ooooh, so much here, Stephen.

      First: “Such a reduction paints all who do not join the Roman Catholic Church as disingenuous or insincere or self-deceiving, or all three”

      On the contrary, it is precisely Protestants who are sincere and truth-seeking that I am characterising here. It is their concern for Truth which requires them in true sincerity to remain outside the Church.

      I don’t want to paint that as a weakness by any means! I fully respect it. But here is where the second problem comes in:

      Second: “First you say that…the refusal to embrace the Roman Catholic Church is not because they do not agree with particular doctrines but because they do not believe it is the unique Church founded by Christ, then you say that they do not embrace the Roman Catholic Church so that they can avoid inconvenient doctrines. These two assertions contradict each other.”

      They don’t so much contradict each other as accurately describe the “chicken or the egg” merry-go-round that sincere Protestant seekers after Truth find themselves on. When one considers this merry-go-round, it is amazing that any truly sincere Truth-seeking Protestant would become Catholic. Because, at some point, one of the other of these assertions has to give way. I guess what I was trying to say is that the path to full-communion with the Church is unlikely to be the complicated one of checking out 100% percent of all aspects of 100% of the Church’s teachings – that would take forever. There is a much simpler and straight-forward path: that of answering positively the only crucial question: Is the Catholic Church the visible society in which the Church of Jesus Christ fully subsists? However, for our truly sincere Truth-seeking Protestant, the greatest hurdle to accepting this one doctrine is all the other doctrines of the Catholic Church which they still hold in question.

      As for what the “invisible Church” means, I know that there are a variety of ways of approaching the problem, and few of them truly teach that the Church is completely invisible. My own tradition of Lutheranism had what can be described as an “event ecclesiology”: the Church becomes visible in the congregation gathered around the celebration of the sacraments and the preaching of the Word. Another approach sometimes takes the Word and Sacraments (and often some other things, such as Charity) as the “marks” of the Church – like the movement of leaves on a tree which show the presence of the wind.

      But I think we should be very careful about equating “The Church” (which is a social phenomenon even though spiritual) with the Kingdom of God. That’s a big topic and too big for a combox. Your 1904 dictionary is a bit outdated here, as studies in missiology in the last few decades have rather exhaustively approached this topic. The Church and the Kingdom of God are intimately connected, but are not the same thing.

      Still, as everyone today acknowledges, the two issues in ecumenism are authority and ecclesiology. Which comes right back to my original statement, which was precisely formulated as being about the authority of the Church to teach.

      • David,
        I should point out that the Lutheran doctrine does not regard the church as “invisible”, as you should know (Lutheran Theology 101: CA VII!). Any Lutheran who maintains the church is invisible has lapsed into a non-Lutheran way of thinking about the question.

        Stephen comes close to Lutheran thinking on the question when he writes, “the idea of the Church as “invisible” is not – at least to my understanding – so simple as to exclude all dimension of visibility. A truer characterisation of the doctrine of invisibility appears to be that it belongs to the order of the spirit and of action of believing, and living in purity and faithfulness and is not identified – in a static sense – by particular persons or government.” Lutherans would point to the Word and sacraments as how & where the “order of the [S]pirit” manifests itself to us.

        • Schütz says:

          I know. It’s what I meant by an “event ecclesiology”. The Church is visible in the “event” of the proclamation of the word and the celebration of the sacraments.

  5. Stephen K says:

    David, I came across this article at http://americamagazine.org/issue/article/shape-church-come and thought it relevant to the subject of this thread.

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