I have watched now over the past few weeks as each awful page is turned in the growing sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s been bad for years now, but what’s come out just recently is looking even worse.
I have been very hesitant to say much publicly on this, because it is so fraught with possible missteps. So forgive me if I misstep here. The reason why I am writing this is because it occurs to me that some Catholics will probably be looking to change churches in the wake of all this.
I have friends in that communion, and there are many elements in its history and its good works in the present which I love and admire, even while I have many criticisms for its dogma, theology and praxis. I am so sorry for what my friends are experiencing, and have even known some who were touched directly by this evil, including in my own town.
It horrifies me to see that trust has been broken again and again and the evil committed against both children and adults by those who are supposed to be caring for their souls.
Standing outside and looking in, I don’t consider myself qualified to make any criticisms in terms of a programme for reform other than to say that I believe that any clergyman who has committed any of these acts or aided or covered for those who did ought to be deposed and their cases referred to the appropriate law enforcement. And that is of course consistent with official RC teaching. And it is what I expect in my own church and from other Christians, as well.
I have little doubt that many Catholics will simply stop coming to church. I wouldn’t agree with their decision to abandon any kind of Christian worship, but I would understand it. When you feel like where you want to be is simply not safe, it is hard to bring yourself to go there in spite of that.
And I’m sure that for many this will be the end of their Christian faith. Christianity becomes simply less plausible when those who are its leaders fail so utterly in their duties. They do not become an argument against faith, but rather make it so that no argument for it will be convincing any more. Again, I hope that doesn’t happen, but I get it.
It will be easy for those of us in other churches to suggest to heartbroken Catholics that they ought to come to our churches instead. But I have three thoughts on that score:
- I believe that it would be both crass and cruel to exploit the scandal to entice Catholics to join our churches. Yes, I believe that everyone should be an Orthodox Christian, but I don’t believe that that is the right way to bring people into the fold, because it is a kind of deception. But I am sure that some are going to come on their own.
- We should not pretend that we are immune from these sins. (We are not.) At the same time, we should take what is happening in the RCC as a warning to be extremely vigilant in our own communities.
- If any former Roman Catholic wishes to become part of our churches, we ought to be sure that they will as time unfolds come fully to accept our own teachings and practices and not be offered merely a safe haven for those whose hearts are not truly with us.
If someone comes to our doors and asks to join our church — with whatever motivation that got them there — we cannot turn them away. But we can and must shepherd them just as we would anyone who wishes to become part of our community, assuring their full integration into church teaching and life. That will ultimately mean coming to believe and practice things differently from their former church.
We have to avoid the twin temptations of either 1) welcoming them without assuring that they truly are becoming part of our community in every way or 2) effectively turning them away because their broken hearts are not the “right” motivation that got them to our doors.
I have sometimes heard the idea that no one should be allowed to convert to Orthodox Christianity who has not done so essentially by means of a journey through reason, history, dogmatics, etc. But in my experience such converts are fairly rare (most, I think, come because of a marriage).
For me, the question is not what brought them to my door but about what comes next. In a sense, everyone comes with a mix of motivations. I have to trust that the reason they’re standing at my door is because the Holy Spirit brought them there.
If someone comes to us seeking Christ, we must receive them. It will take a lot of care and probably a lot of time to receive them in a way that will be for their healing and not to provide a religious “rebound relationship.” The key is to weep with those who weep, to give them Jesus Christ, and to keep giving them Jesus Christ.