28 Jul

Why do we stay in the Church?

“Why on earth do we stay in a Church in which clerics commit sexual abuse?”

The question is asked by Dr Tim Stanley, a columnist and leader-writer for the Daily Telegraph and a contributing editor to Catholic Herald.

Let me reply with a question of my own: why do we continue to read newspapers when journalists tell lies, make up stories and drink too much? In fairness to Dr Tim, I should say that when he says clerics commit sexual abuse, he means some clerics. And when I say that journalists are liars and drunkards, I mean some journalists. I don’t believe for a minute that Dr Tim is a liar, and he’s probably not a drunkard – though he does admit to a session of over-imbibing. This was when he applied for the job of welfare officer at Cambridge university and explained: “This application is hand-written, because I was too drunk to write a manifesto.”

No doubt this was a singular lapse. In any case having a few too many – or even being a regular sot – is nowhere near as bad as being a sexual abuser of children.

But, well, you know, just in the interests of that most rare phenomenon in both Fleet Street and the Church – I mean logic – let me try to keep the conversation going for a bit. Just suppose that Dr Tim is a heavy boozer, a purveyor of fake news or even a paedophile, what the blazes has this got to do with the Daily Telegraph; and heaven forbid with Catholic Herald?

Those newspapers are not to be held responsible for the moral conduct of their journalists; and neither is the Church as an institution to blame for the behaviour of individual priests. And that is the crux: moral conduct is the responsibility of the individual; it is the expression of that individual’s freewill. The concept and the reality of freewill, Dr Tim, is the basis and ground of Catholic theology. It comes from the Bible, you know Dr Tim:

“They shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth a sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.” – Jeremiah 31: 29-30

Let me qualify what I have just written. In the light of all the abuse scandals, the Church as an institution should examine its own procedures, such as the training and pastoral guidance it gives its priests – what in the good old days we used to call Christian formation – but still the individual sinner is responsible for his own sins. And when I mention the Church as an institution, I must ask myself whether such a thing exists. And I suspect it doesn’t. What can the Church as an institution, including its hierarchy, be except individual cardinals. archbishops, bishops and priests? Furthermore, I think that, rather than convey the evil of child abuse, the Church’s obsession with its own supposed institutional shortcomings actually diminishes our sense of the wickedness of the occurrence of abuse in each particular case.

Institutionalising sexual abuse makes no more sense than institutional racism or institutional sexism. In fact it’s a cop-out. And it’s a cop-out of a very particular sort: the sort that belongs to bureaucracies which are the peculiar curse fallen on our times. Our institutions have collapsed into bureaucracies. And bureaucracies are conspicuously where the individual malefactor can easily hide behind the smokescreen of institutional culpability.

Why do I still listen to The Archers given that some BBC reporters tell lies? Why do I still patronise the taxis when I know of a taxi driver who clubbed an old lady to death?  

Or to return to Dr Tim’s question: “Why on earth do we stay in a Church in which clerics commit sexual abuse?”

Because the Church is not only a place  – I mean its parishes, seminaries, schools and even sacristies – where the sexual abuse of children sometimes regrettably takes place. The Church is a place for sinners – and we are all sinners. The Church is the custodian of the Sacraments and the source of all spiritual truth: the House of God and the Gate of Heaven. And for all its faults – and they are legion – the Church is still the Bride of Christ.