Many Catholics much more profound than myself have already commented on one of the most obvious facts about the leadership of the Catholic Church: Catholic leaders are sometimes — perhaps often — horrible, horrible, evil men. Catholic Priests, Bishops, and even Popes have been responsible for a number of intolerable scandals, crimes against humanity, and profanings of the Holy Name of the Father’s only Son, Jesus Christ. It’s no accident that a saint has commented to the effect that “the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of Bishops”, or that one of Western civilization’s finest poets was plausibly able to place a Pope in Hell for his trilogy on eschatology.
How do we deal with this? One answer is schism, in which the enduring validity of the institutional Church (i.e., the Bishops) bestowed upon her by the gifts and calling of Christ (Romans 11:29) is denied. This is the approach that the Protestant Reformers took. But there’s another answer, too, and that’s what I want to talk about for a minute.
The Catholic faith stands or falls with one very important claim: the Catholic Church, including its institutional structure of Popes, Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, was intentionally founded and established by Christ. Catholics believe that Jesus literally and directly founded the institutional Catholic by appointing Apostles with the ability to elect successors for themselves, namely, the Bishops. If the Bishops do not have authority from Christ to govern the Church and, overtime, by means of a process of doctrinal clarification through Oecumenical Councils declare what a Christian must believe, then the Catholic Church is simply another institution of messed up people and nothing more.
On the Catholic view, a Church scandal — much like those faced by the author of 2 Corinthians — is an opportunity to remind ourselves of who our faith is in. Our faith is not in people but in a Person, namely, Jesus Christ. Sometimes (always?) the people in Jesus’s Church dont represent Him as well as He deserves. But that fact alone doesnt change Jesus. We can’t make Jesus fit our mold. We need to fit Jesus’s mold.
These horrible events and people need to be called out. I’m glad that the corrupt leaders of the Catholic Church are being exposed. For some of them, this moment should have come a long time ago. Despite all this, I am confident that Jesus established this institution. He didn’t do it because He knew that the Bishops would do a good or even a mediocre job at being Christians. To be honest, I’m still not completely sure why He did it. But based on what I know about history, He did do it. The primary documents are there to support the Catholic view. As one of my new Catholic friends says, this may not be the Church we wish that Jesus founded, but it is the Church that He actually founded.
If that’s true, I’m not free to leave when my leaders commit atrocities. Rather, the possibility of radical human sin makes me only more deeply aware of my own need for forgiveness and for this Church. Without the Eucharist, my life is meaningless. Without baptism, I am born into death and privation. Without the confessional, I am left to myself and to my sins. Without confirmation, I am weak and in need of the inner strength that comes from the Holy Spirit. Without the sacrament of Holy Orders, the Bishops are just regular dudes and cannot feed me the Bread of Life. And really this is why I remain Catholic: because I need Jesus, and I’m confident that this is the place where He wanted us to meet Him.