Reflections on the Crisis in the Catholic Church

by frankbeswick

The Roman Catholic Church is a resilient organisation in need of reform

Problems in the Catholic Church get into the news, quite justly because the Church is large, significant and assertive. It is a body that makes good friends and bitter enemies,some of whom are in positions of power and influence in politics, academia and the media. This means that the Church's mistakes and the wrongdoing of individuals and groups within it will be ruthlessly exposed. The Church should not fear exposure, but it has a right that the exposure should be truthful and fair and that any legal proceedings be just.

Picture, creative commons.

The Best and the Worst

Writing in Nichomachean Ethics in  about 340  B.C. the philosopher Aristotle outlined his moral theory which was that evil is always a corruption of the good. He gave  us the powerful aphorism, "The corruption of the best is the worst." This theory of good and evil was later to be taken up by Thomas Aquinas, who believed that evil was always a good that was used in a disordered way, perverted from its true purpose.  The implications for religion are serious and profound. Just as religion is capable of great good, it can also be responsible for great evil. Moreover, just as religious ministers are persons who must work for the highest good, the perversion of their ministry serves the cause of evil.  I strongly believe that this principle should be applied to an analysis of the problems facing Catholicism at the present time.

The three great values are the True, the Good and the Beautiful, and Catholicism seeks them in God. You can  sense something of the spirit of a religion from its art  and music. Catholicism has produced the exquisite heavenly music of Gregorian plain chant, and the art that has flowed from the Catholic faith's inspiration is glorious. There are also great works of charity performed by the church. In many parts of the world the church is the prime provider of health care and education, and anti-slavery work is ongoing. Furthermore, the Catholic Church is counter-cultural. If it thinks that the spirit or ideas of the times are wrong, it will oppose them, no matter what the pressure is. For the church truth matters. There are many Catholics living lives of personal holiness, and conducting their personal relationships according to high and demanding moral standards. The Catholic Church has always produced great saints. Moreover, it has produced people of great scholarship, not only in religious thought, but in all other disciplines, including science, philosophy and history. 

But as we know only too well, lurking within the institution and community there have been individuals, some of them in office, at times high ranking, who have seriously misused  power and done grave harm to others and the Church, causing scandal and damaging the church's mission to do good in the world.  The only possible word to describe those who sully the church's mission is to say that they do evil. Secular thinkers eschew the word evil as non-scientific, but when humans confront some levels and forms of moral wrongdoing, the enormity of what has been done demands that a special term be used, and that in agreed parlance is evil. 

Christians disagree among themselves about the existence of  power of evil operating in the world against God, but such  a being would be working against the church, instigating persecution from the outside and corruption as an attack from the inside. This is what seems to be happening in the world today: Christians suffer attacks for their faith, such as the recent bombings in Sri Lanka, but individuals within the church are sometimes corrupt and misuse their office to the detriment of all.

Corrupt Individuals

We must analyse to ascertain the roots of the problem. It is to be broken down into corrupt individuals and flawed ideas. I will begin with corrupt individuals.  The church has always had problems with individuals who enter the religious ministry for the wrong reasons, and this problem probably began to be significant in the fourth century when Constantine established  the church in a privileged place in society. Soon a position in the church came to mean an opportunity to have power, social status and all the opportunities that these bring. Thus, while  the church still attracted and produced holy people dedicated to their mission, it also drew cynics keen on ecclesiastical opportunity for the wrong reasons. We have seen how at times there have been bad popes. The numbers have been exaggerated, and they mainly occurred in the ninth and fifteenth centuries, but they wrought great damage on the church and its mission.

The problem still exists today, though not to the same extent as it was in the Middle Ages. It tends to be localised to areas such as Europe and America, where the ministry is quite comfortable and priests do not have a hard life. We can note that the corruption does not seem to occur among missionaries and members of strict religious orders, such as the Cistercians, for they do not attract the corrupt. 

The problem is exacerbated by another issue, that we are all capable of sinning. Priests are supposed to maintain a strict prayer life and personal discipline, which fortifies them against the temptations that will beset them. But if they let their discipline slip, it is easy for them to deteriorate and let their standards drop. Such a slip will be all the easier if they have entered the priestly ministry with a mixture of motives, for despite the very real desire to do good as a priest there lurks a tendency to vice, and if this is kept secret and unaddressed it will lurk as a constant pressure in the person's life, and it is easy to slip, and once the slip starts the behaviour can begin to become habitual. St Augustine was right to warn of the dangers of habituation, and he spoke as a repentant sexual libertine who even after his conversion struggled against his tendencies and ingrained habits.   

A third source of the problem is the temptation inherent in the structure of the ministry, by which I mean compulsory celibacy. For some, i.e. monks and nuns, celibacy is a necessary part of the lifestyle, but  it only became a rule for diocesan clergy in the twelfth century, though it was encouraged from earlier centuries. The popes have regarded celibacy as one of the church's  jewels, because of the commitment to the ministry that it  expresses, but the problem is that celibacy does not suit everyone. There are priests who yearn for some sexual expression, and the desire does not go away. This is a recipe for trouble. 

The factors outlined above combine into a powerful pressure for problems  in the church.

Problematic Ideas

In my three year and uncompleted spell training as a Catholic priest I became concerned about the intrusion of non-Christian ideas into the church. I was disturbed by those of my colleagues who seemed to like power more than a Christian should; and I was seriously disturbed by the minority who were fellow travellers with Communism and the more extreme forms of Socialism, whose violence is alien to the gospel. I was also bothered by some clerics who were unaware that their strong nationalism was a form of racism. But there was one problem that I completely overlooked, the influence of the  sexual revolution on the the church. 

The sexual revolution was not a revolution, but a return to old,long-practised bad habits. But from the early 1960s it promoted a "why not" approach to sexual behaviour. It discarded long established principles based on human experience, for a "liberal" conviction that we could start afresh from first principles, the classic liberal mistake of discarding past experience. The lax attitude to sexuality seeped from society into the church, I believe.The virtue of chastity is and was easily forgotten, not by everyone, but by some. Many, indeed most Catholics remain committed to Christian values, but an element in the clergy absorbed the false values of the age in which they live. 

We were always taught that the three sources of temptation were the Devil, the world and the flesh. In the pressures caused by the sexual revolution the world and the flesh combined to make a poison brew.   

Contradictory to the falseness of the ideas of the sexual revolution is an ancient idea that somehow being married was spiritually less worthy than being single. The priesthood as the highest way of Catholic life, should therefore reflect the highest values and therefore be celibate. This idea is alien to the true spirit of Christianity, which does not think in terms of power and status. There is nothing more holy about remaining celibate. Yes, Jesus was celibate, but he did not demand celibacy of all his apostles. St Peter is known to have been married, for his mother-in-law is mentioned in Mark's Gospel. But the belief that celibacy must be compulsory for all priests has combined with the pressures on the clergy from the outside world to create an extra source of temptation.  

Another false idea is clericalism, not long ago severely criticised by the pope. It is the idea that the clergy are a professional class entitled to dominate and domineer the laity. Not every cleric is guilty of this, but those who are form a self- defensive group who have covered up their colleagues crimes.But this behaviour is alien to Christ's teaching that authority is for service not self-gratification and empowerment, [Mark 10:35-45.]

In conclusion I will quote "Sancta ecclesia semper reformanda" which translated from Latin means "Holy church always to be reformed." As an organisation committed to the pursuit of perfection the Catholic Church must commit to endless vigilance to ensure that evil does not sneak its way into a community that should be the light of the world.  

Updated: 04/26/2019, frankbeswick
 
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frankbeswick on 04/27/2019

Henry was never a doctor of the church. But he was given the title of Defender of the Faith. The British monarchs use this title still, and you can see it on British coins.

Doctor of the Church is a title only awarded after death.

frankbeswick on 04/26/2019

The holier the person, the worse the temptations. You are right about hermits, and we can see the terrible temptations that Christ suffered when the Devil threw everything at him in the wilderness.

Henry was never truly holy, his book on the sacraments was probably written or dictated by Thomas More. Henry sought glory by making unjust war against France and he was a serial adulterer. He was always an evildoer.

frankbeswick on 04/26/2019

Yes, stress is a serious cause, but we are all vulnerable to slipping and losing our standards. People can slid into bad habits, and evil can become addictive once it has a grip on someone. Sin can be seductive.

blackspanielgallery on 04/26/2019

There is a point of view that a very holy person is subjected to intense temptations, which is why the Catholic Church currently does not condone hermits except possibly in rare cases, And only certain people are considered strong enough to perform exorcisms.

As for priests not marrying, the Byzantine rite does allow married priests, but if the spouse dies the priests are not allowed to remarry. Also, converts who are ministers such as Lutherans or Anglicans remain married while entering the priesthood. The rule will probably fall soon.

As for holy people turning to evil, there once was a man who, as I was taught but could be wrong, was given the title Doctor of the Church. He broke with Rome and made his own religion. I know the name Henry VIII is familiar to you.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/26/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the presentation and the products, particularly the compendium and Saint Joseph devotional. Doesn't it seem like such constant, incredible stress that a person so close to beautiful, good, true deeds, music and words such as the Mass in essence would pass the ensemble on badly, uglily and untruly? How is it possible to begin, and keep going down, that path with the beautiful, the good, the true so at hand?

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