When someone or some group (think Tiger Woods, John Edwards, the Republican National Committee, the Catholic Church) screws up, has done bad things, and is in trouble, there are two basic ways we can respond. We can say, "Thank God I am not like him/them." Or, we can say, "There but for the grace of God go I."
Taking the first tact, we are quite sure we have nothing whatsoever in common with the guilty party, and we may condemn them loud and long. Taking the second, the failures of another will cause us to grieve for them and lead to some self-examination for us.
Of course, the Catholic sex-abuse crisis is not new. What is new are allegations that Pope Benedict, in earlier ecclesiastical posts, passed on or protected bad priests. And there is the way the church has reacted — defensively — to these new accusations. This has renewed the concern that the church has long dealt with these problems slowly and ineffectively.
While a great deal of current comment has focused on particular qualities ('weird-nesses," many would say) of the Catholic Church, including its non-democratic and non-modern culture and values, its male-dominated hierarchy, and its requirement of celibacy for its priests, what I see is a more common failure: making the institution and its survival more important than anything and everything else.
That is not a Catholic problem, it is a human one. Think of the towns, universities, hospitals, churches, and companies that, when faced with an embarrassing internal failure, have closed ranks and said, "We can't let this get out. This will undermine us. It will destroy everything we've built." Institutional identity and survival trump truth, doing the right thing, and dealing forthrightly with hard or embarrassing problems.
The groups and institutions that don't fall into this trap are the unusual ones.So throw stones at the Catholic Church if you want. They probably deserve it. Or heed the guy who said, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.'
Even if the institutions that we are a part of haven't been in this particular spot (yet), many make daily choices that put institutional advancement and public perception ahead of commitment to their stated mission or values. Teachers unions say it's all about kids, but then do everything they can to take care of teachers, including lousy ones. Doctors associations speak of the high calling of medical practice but guard their member's bottom line and security. Churches and denominations trumpet their commitment to the cause of the gospel while their actions suggest that institutional survival is the real name of the game.
So throw stones at the Catholic Church if you want. They probably deserve it. Or heed the guy who said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
At this point, my own hope for the Catholic Church and its leadership is that they will read and take to heart a little parable in the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. There two men enter the Temple. One thanks God that he is not like other people, who are murderers, thieves, and adulterers. He also notes, in case God missed it, that he performs his religious duties flawlessly. Meanwhile, the other guy, a highly compromised man, says one thing only, "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner." This man is so aware of his failures that he will only stand in the back of the Temple and never lifts his head off his chest.
Jesus says, 'êI tell you this man (the penitent sinner) went home justified."
In other words, we don't get on God's good side by our self-regarding perfection. God comes to our side when we know that we are not perfect, when we know we, too, need mercy and grace.
My hope is that the Catholic leadership might say, "We have failed. We must do all that we can to repair the damage. But we too depend, in the final analysis, on God's mercy." In doing this, the Catholic leadership would hardly stand alone. In fact, it would join the rest of humanity.