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Recently while visiting the sick I spent some time in a section of the hospital for dementia patients waiting to be transferred to a nursing home. It is one of my favorite sections to visit. On this particular day, a group of nurses were gathered around talking to one patient with a heavy British accent, while I began to chat with an older man from Iran, using my newly downloaded google translate. Suddenly, the British lady leans over, looks at me and says “Father, do you realize how much damage your Church has done over the centuries?” Why she referred to me as “Father” is uncertain—for I was not wearing any kind of clerical attire. But I said to her: “I certainly do”. She immediately replied: “Well, I’m glad to hear you agree with me on that one”.

I was immediately reminded of the time my priest friend asked me to speak to his RCIA group on Church history. I said I would, but that I’d have to prepare, which I did, over the Christmas holidays of that year, doing my best to include the most important aspects of that history. But I did eventually ask him: “Father, are you sure you want me to do this? There’s a lot of sin in our history; there’s no hiding it. I’m afraid I might scare someone away from becoming a Catholic”. But he insisted.

Studying Church history can make a person dizzy, because of how often we find ourselves shaking our heads at the sin and stupidity that we find therein. And of course, things have changed, but in some ways they have not—we’ve all heard the old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since ordination to the diaconate, I’ve been shaking my head more than I did prior to that, because I see more than I otherwise would have seen—bad behavior from clerics who should know better; nothing criminal, mind you, but rather profound immaturity, clerical envy and jealousy, inordinate need for control, a sense of self-importance, stubbornness, condescension, audacity, and an inability to engage in healthy conflict resolution, etc. I’ve always said to my students that Catholicism is not about us, it is about the Person of Christ. Unfortunately, not every cleric really believes this, at least not on a practical level.

There is no doubt in my mind that things have improved tremendously since the 1950s and 60s, but I’ve been reading Med Kissinger’s While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence, which also gives us a peek here and there into the Church of the early 60s, and there is a great deal in this book that has me wondering once again what factors account for some of the behavior that drove so many people away from the Church. She writes:

Reflecting on the night her sister jumped in front of a train, Meg recalls her father’s fear that the bishop would not allow the family to have a funeral Mass for her or bury her in the family’s Catholic cemetery plot. She writes: “His best friend’s son had died by suicide the year before, and the family was heartbroken when the pastor refused to allow the boy’s body inside their church. On the night of Nancy’s wake, a nun from our school walked into the funeral parlor, pointed to my sister’s casket and croaked, ‘She’s going to Hell, you know.’” (When my siblings died by suicide, the church failed us. Now, it’s finally listening).

Thankfully, very few clerics think or talk like this anymore. Nonetheless, one has to wonder what it is that accounts for such audacity, such overconfident boldness that has not entirely disappeared. I know enough about investigative reasoning to know that the causes are far too complex to be reduced to a single factor, but I can think of two factors that are an integral part of the equation. The first is prosperity. Human beings are at their moral worst in times of prosperity. We see this repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, as well as in the history of any nation. When times are prosperous, we gradually become cocky, ungrateful, and we forget the limitations that constrain us, both moral and cognitive. The 1950s and 60s were a very prosperous time in the Church’s history. On the other hand, human beings, individually and collectively, are at their best in times of suffering, difficulty, and adversity. Perhaps things are somewhat better today because, for the Church at least, times are not as prosperous. Difficulties, adversity, struggles, persecution, conflict, etc., cause a person to face his or her own limitations, the limits of his patience, the limits of his own knowledge and ability to acquire knowledge, his moral limitations and the delusions he’s harbored about himself over the years, his limited ability to relate to others in a way that does not put them off, etc., and so the easier life is, the less likely it is that a person will acquire the skills to be a perceptive, prudent, and compassionate pastor who relates well to the average person, especially those not so well off financially or psychologically.

The other factor is ignorance. There is not a great deal that can be done about this, because all of us suffer from deficient information. There is always so much we don’t know at each moment of our existence, and this was especially the case in the 1950s and 60s when it came to mental illness, among many other things. And so, although there isn’t much we can do about the fact that we are always information deficient, a deeper appreciation for the tentative nature of truth and the difficulties of acquiring knowledge can help us to learn to speak with less of a rhetoric of certainty and confidence. As Bertrand Russell once said: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”. A more updated epistemology and an appreciation for plausibility theory will go a long way to help young clerics not to fall into the same mistakes that were made decades earlier, when it was much easier to believe that one’s understanding of the world was far more comprehensive than it actually was in reality. The fact is our grasp on things is tiny and narrow, for our conclusions are formed on the basis of very limited data, but every day brings new experiences that translate into new data, which, if we are reflective enough, cause us to make revisions to the views we held onto at one time. When we become more explicitly aware of how often this happens, it is much easier to see that there is a significant difference between speaking in a spirit of fearlessness, which is rooted in perfect love and humility (1 Jn, 4:18), and audacity rooted in a condescending spirit made possible by an inordinately comfortable existence with very little opposition.

It should also be said that there is a glorious thread running through our history, and that is the history of the lives of the saints. But these are who they are in part by virtue of great suffering. When we immerse ourselves in this history, our head indeed spins, but with exhilaration and inspiration. In short, ours is a fully inclusive Church in that it contains saints and sinners, and everything else in between.

Image: Letterhead of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Lk 18:9-14), in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. From Wikimedia Commons.

This essay was originally published at the author’s website here.


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