The main threads of conversation about the Clark situation seem to have settled on the question of what does an incident like this mean for our faith? The question can be broken down into two more:
1) Does it discredit faith to the outsider?
2) Does it strike a blow to the faith of one who is Catholic?
Take the first question first. The way this usually comes out is that when a hardliner falls, the line he or she preaches is seen as pretty much instantly discredited in the eyes of many. We can make a list from Jimmy Swaggert through Newt Gingrich to Monsignor Clark with countless in between, including a closeted homosexual or two or three. "Ah," the comment goes, "Here we go again. Another conservative proving that what he preaches is a lie. Even he can’t live by it."
Well, the only thing to say to that is probably – if the minority who flagrantly fail are an argument against the truth of what they say, what about those who spectacularly succeed? Wouldn’t they be an argument for it? Is it necessary to privilege the witness of the former over the latter? Not for an honest person, I would think.
But it’s a caution, nonetheless. If you’re going to be out there railing about morality, try to be no more than the most ordinary, run-of-the mill sinner, will you?
Some people have a hard time understanding how this kind of thing happens – not how people fall, but how and why people who are living deeply contrary to their own stated values get up inthe morning get up in front of audiences or congregations, without cracking up.
Well, a lot of times, they don’t. A lot of times people who are leading those deeply bifurcated kinds of lives are, believe you me, deeply self-medicating in all kinds of ways that make reality conveniently fuzzy and easier to cope with.
It’s the ever-present peril of ministry as a job, as a profession, as something you go and do to get paid rather than something you do because you are following Jesus. Those of us who have been in professional ministry talk about the risk of losing your faith in the midst of it, and this is one of the ways it can happen. The swamp of bureaucracy, routine and simple human dynamics can put an enormous distance between your present reality and the lively, on-fire soul that started out, thinking that this was the life, that it would be so easy to keep your faith strong and alive in a church environment, surrounded by church people 60 hours a week.
Not so. And in that context, an alternate reality can take root and grow, in which people do odd things that to them, don’t seem odd because of the ways they’ve insulated themselves and deadened their souls.
But what about us? Should this present a crisis of faith? I have no idea why it would, even if I were a devoted parishioner of St. Patrick’s and Monsignor Clark had baptized my baby after inspiring me to come back to the Church.
Easier said than done. Much easier. We’ve all been disappointed. But let me share with you two ways to look at this.
When the clerical scandals first broke back in ’02, Nancy Nall interviewed me for the local paper, and asked me how I would talk to my own kids about shortcomings of church employees. I really didn’t know what to say because you know, for most of their lives, I was a church employee, and my shortcomings were blindingly clear to them. The idea that someone dedicated to ministry could also be a flawed human being would not exactly be big news. So that’s what I said to her.
I’ve worked in the Church. In my own way, I do a lot of preaching. And I live with myself, I know myself, and I know what a sinner I am, and that impacts what I say and how I say it. For example, I feel that one of the most important messages of Jesus is to put God first, above all other things, including material things and hope for worldly success. I believe this to my core, but it’s something I struggle with, constantly, myself. So what do I do? Keep silent on that issue? No – but as I talk about it, I can never speak as though I’m above it all, as if this isn’t my issue, too, or that I am in a position to simply condemn others who don’t seem to live out this aspect of the Gospel – because I don’t either.
I know what I believe, I know what I know is true, but since I’m a flawed sinner believing these things, does that mean they’re not true any more?
I know that’s kind of tangled, but do you see my point? Forget other people’s failures. What about mine? Do my own failures invalidate what I belive to be true? I believe that real love demands sacrifice. Do my own hesitations or outright refusals to sacrifice mean that love no longer requires sacrifice?
Secondly, as a person with an interest in history, I tend to see things across time, culture and space. If the alleged events really did occur, Monsignor Clark’s sins don’t impact my faith in Christ any more than do the sins of a 14th century bishop or a 19th century abbess. It’s all exactly the same to me. How can I co-exist with sinful leaders? Even if every single person in a leadership position in the Church was instantly purified, right now, I would still be co-existing with sinful leaders – 2000 years worth of them.
This is not to say we shouldn’t expect more from those in leadership – Jesus lets us know pretty clearly what is expected of them. He also speaks clearly of the impact of unfaithful leadership, as did prophets throughout the history of Israel. The call to accept reality is not a call to settle or to accept sin. In the past week I have seen stories on a Brother/principal arrested for public lewdness in Florida, a Kentucky priest arrested and charged with same, a priest in Indiana charged with molesting a developmentally disabled man, and a Dallas priest charged with DWI, with a background of serious problems. These things exist, are awful and the Church hierarchy has not yet proven its mettle in dealing with them, nor have we in responding to them. But here’s the thing: such was the case ever and always. But you and I didn’t know about it. Priests have always sinned, and sinned terribly. Priests have done awful things to people to anger and hurt them and turn them from the Church. But because of secrecy, different standards of reporting and public conversation and simple parochialism, the vast majority of Christians could live their entire lives without a thorough education in the sins of the clergy, such as we have now. But it was there. Read a history book, if you doubt me.
But why does that invalidate the truth of the faith? I can see how someone could respond that way, but in the end, you have to make a choice. Who is your faith in? Our call is to pull our eyes away from human leaders and, with a tremendous jump of faith, let them rest on Christ, trying to live with the confusing mystery that is Church, that is the fact that these human beings have taken us so far, in pointing the way to Him…but they can only take us so far.
Comments will open on this in the morning.