There may be few greater hindrances to believing in God and loving His Church than the offence caused by sexual clerical abuse.
The latest scandals, and the arguably equally offensive attempts to cover them up, have involved a scale of abuse of nuns that has been hard to accept as possible let alone process for the ordinary Catholic.
The Pope’s fellow Jesuit, the artist Fr Rupnik, has been accused of the salacious manipulation of nuns on a scale that most films directors wanting to produce a controversial movie about religion, would hesitate to put into the script. His connections with senior members of his order, including Pope Francis, and his artistic prowess and international reputation have counted for more than the complaints of his victims, more than justice, truth and accountability. They have counted for more the promises to exercise zero tolerance from now on.
The scale of sexual abuse by priests in the last 70 years in particular has been truly horrifying and has had such a visceral effect on lay Catholics and other observers that it has turned people away from Catholicism, and made belief in God for many, very hard.
After all, how is it possible to believe in an organisation which aspires for the highest possible standards in terms of sexual and moral probity and at the same time appears to fail them so spectacularly?
Nothing can be said in defence of the moral failure of those clergy who had the responsibility for the vulnerable and young and allowed their lower appetites to overcome them and prey on those who should have been protecting.
But something can be said about the probity of the Church as an institution and the way we evaluate spiritual authenticity on the one hand and failure on the other.
Liberal secularism, the default world view of our culture, has smuggled into the public mind an over-optimistic view about human nature that is neither Christian nor realistic. It flatters the secular ego by assuming that people are essentially good and capable of achieving their moral aspiration if they choose to. From a Christian understanding this view has two serious flaws: it is based on an over-inflated view of human moral capacity and perhaps ever more significant, an underplaying or a disbelief in the reality and corrosive power of evil.
This ignorance of evil is an essential component in the unrealistic and almost infantile optimism about human nature. It is fuelled, in fact it is only possible, with an ignorance of history and literature, and religious or spiritual illiteracy.
How can anyone who has encountered the inhumanity of man to man in the 20th Century, and particularly in the light of the unspeakable and almost unimaginable atrocity of the final solution in Nazi Germany, not suspect that a partial cause was the influence of a perverting and polluting force of metaphysical evil; an evil that has its origin outside humanity but finds a way of taking up residence inside the human heart and will?
The Christian view is more realistic and congruent with history and politics than this liberal secular optimism (which provides the foundation for all utopian exercises in totalitarianism). It is that humanity is created in the image of God but is undermined by a deadly flaw; and that this flaw (original sin) is exacerbated by a constant pressure of spiritual perversion and temptation.
If we turn back to the Gospels, to the earliest days of Jesus forming the Church from his apostles, one of the chosen 12 failed catastrophically. The other 11 had their ups and downs – but Judas failed completely. Perhaps it should not be a complete surprise to us that this might not only by a unique historical betrayal, but also set a pattern.
Jesus’ own commentary ought to be provide a framework of reference; “Did I not choose you 12? And yet one of you is a devil?” (John 6.70). This wasn’t only about mistaken judgement. It was also about the struggle of evil to destroy the good.
One in 12 constitutes an eight per cent failure rate from the earliest moments of the foundations of the Church. It’s not an excuse; but it might shape our expectations.
The Church has never ceased to be a place where both achievement and failure happen. It’s an amphitheatre of moral and spiritual struggle. But in assessing how we weigh its virtues and its vices much depends on what expectations we carry with us when we judge it.
If we compare it to a political party, to a school of philosophy, a life-style movement, how have other movements, religions, organisations done better? Human nature, the, mixture of aspiration and flawed performance remains the same in all paces and at all times.
But we may not be asking the right question. A more perceptive way of interrogating the Church ought to involve the astonishing phenomenon of holiness.
What ought more rightly to surprise its critics is that a spirituality than invites devotees to a path of self-sacrifice that includes the injunction to pick up your own cross, and will the destruction of ego and taming of appetite, continues to flourish across every continent in every age.
It should not be surprising that people fail to forgive their enemies without limit, fail to turn the other cheek, fail to love God with their whole being, and fail to struggle endlessly with their lower appetites and proclivities? But what is astonishing is that having failed, so many encounter a forgiveness and compassion that reinvigorates and inspires them to try again, and again…
Of course that the public eye is drawn to the catastrophic moral failures who corrode the Church’s image in every generation. But sin and failure is not all that happens in the Church. It is also gives birth to holiness. In fact the phenomenon of the saints is a tribute to this perpetual effervescent of the Spirit and heroic self-sacrifice in the presence of an encounter with divine Love.
St Teresa of Calcutta is one obvious recent and well-known example; a devotee of Jesus whose life of prayer, self-sacrifice and defence of the undefended drew the attention of a worldwide audience.
We should not be astonished at the sexual manipulations of the Fr Rupniks; we might however be astonished at the outbreaks of sanctity – like that the example of Carlo Acutis, that Nike-wearing, jeans-preferring, Eucharistic-Miracle-devotee, teenage computer programming video gamer, was so caught up with the love of Jesus that his life (and death) transformed all the people who came into contact with him.
Critics of the Church take some pleasure in pointing out the peccadilloes and immoral enormity of religious figures who have crashed, but they make no calculation and offer no explanation about the relationship of astonishing holiness as a counter-balance to the corruption.
But this is not a zero-sum game. There is no calculation to be made, and perhaps that’s the point? The sexual abusers, manipulators, addicts, hypocrites, are not the monopoly of the Church. They are to be found in even greater numbers in families, government, charities, Non-profit agencies, political parties, secular youth organisations, sports clubs… in fact everywhere.
The critics of the Catholic Church are right to be disgusted and disturbed by the moral failures they point to. But they are mistaken to respond by saying that this provides a reason for disbelieving in the Church of God. The more pressing question is not one to do with the universality of moral corruption, but with the constant, unstoppable, heart-warming, inspirational, self-sacrificial, astonishing outbreaks of holiness the Catholic Church gives birth to in every generation without fail. They should be perpetually astonished by the phenomena of saints in every generation.
The prevalence of moral failure ought to disturb the complacent secular optimism in their assumptions about human nature. It ought to open the windows of speculative thought about the existence of good and evil. It ought to provoke a re-evaluation of the role of evil in human affairs, both corporate and personal. And when that is done, that would be the moment to be astonished at the power and prevalence of holiness in an organisation where such things cannot be created or configured by any human managerial or strategic intervention, but only be explained by the existence of God and the effect of his love.
The intelligent, unbiased and informed response to the abuse crisis, would be to take the danger of evil more seriously in our own lives, and to be ready to be astonished and inspired by an organisation, a church, a community perpetually irradiated with forgiveness, love, self-sacrifice and above all, holiness. A reason to not disbelieve, but believe.