A Spotlight on Memories

I started this post two months ago, after watching the movie, “Spotlight.” I wrote some, but then stopped.  The movie brought back a flood of old emotions, because its story intersects with mine in a couple of places.  I tell the story of my journey of faith here, and so won’t now repeat everything.  For purposes of this article, know that I was a member of the Catholic church from 1992 to 2007. I joined that church through profession of faith on November 11, 1992.  Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was instrumental in me taking that step, and in helping me transition.  Priest friends in the Vermont National Guard were also instrumental–one of them, my brigade chaplain, Jim McShane, would later be removed from ministry for sexual abuse of minors.

I joined the Catholic church because, fundamentally, I came to trust it.  As a college student, my faith had been rattled by doctrinal questions; my ministry was rattled by family crises; and my education at a liberal seminary and service in a liberal denomination that accepted the historical critical method led me to question the Bible.  I found comfort in the arms of the Roman church–in its liturgy, in its resilience, in its claims.  I trusted it, so much so that I stepped out in faith, resigned from ministry, and went without a full-time job for nearly two years.  I got part time jobs writing and preaching parish missions.  It got a full-time job as a parish DRE, then as a campus minister, and then, in 1999, as a diocesan director of campus ministry.

That’s where I was when the revelations of sexual abuse in the Catholic church came rolling in.  That’s when I saw friends and mentors fall from grace. That’s where I found out what it was like to work for an institution that talked of holiness, talked of truth, but was rotten to the core.

In the narrative account of my journey that I preached in 2007, my story came to a climax at this point.  I wrote that this part of my story went from accepting the Catholic church’s authority, and trusting it–to having that trust betrayed.

If you accept the authority of the Catholic Church, everything else falls in place. You will listen to her teachings and seek to conform yourself to them. Many Catholic teachings have no other foundation than the Church’s claim to teach with authority: purgatory, Marian dogmas, saints, indulgences, the papacy, etc. These are not Bible doctrines.

But as in Luther’s day, Catholics today are asked to let the Church interpret Scripture—and to listen “with docility” when it goes beyond Scripture. Never are the Gospel or the Scriptures allowed to criticize the Church and her teachings. The message is always, “Trust us.” “Trust us,” not the Jews, was the message when the Sabbath was denounced. “Trust us,” was the message when the Church justified crusades and the execution of heretics, and when it stifled criticism in the Middle Ages. “Trust us,” was the message when bishops shut their ears to the cries of abused boys and their parents; when they moved priests from place to place; when they now ask members to pay the cost of legal settlements. That has weighed very heavily on me.

The New Testament speaks a different message. Paul, didn’t say, “Trust me,” he said, “Search the scriptures.” He didn’t say, “Trust Peter”—he rebuked Peter in public, because, he said, “he was clearly in the wrong.” John didn’t say, “Trust the church,”—he could see churches whose candle stands were removed, and a woman who was unfaithful. But he also saw a remnant that will be saved, because it will trust in Jesus and keep his commandments.

Eventually the scales fell from my eyes and I asked, “How did I get here?”

Some Catholic friends were critical.  “You must not have really been a Catholic.”  Or, “You trusted in people instead of The Church.”  Others were more understanding and sympathetic.

The movie, “Spotlight,” shows how it wasn’t just the Catholic church, but the legal system, and the police, and therapists — there was rottenness and complicity to share.

Apologists for the Catholic Church have insisted that the Church itself must be free from criticism.  Catholicism was not on trial in this crisis.  But of course it was!  This institution set up a sacramental and hierarchical priesthood.  It said that the priests were separate from the laity; they had the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  They had an “indelible character.”  They were “ontologically changed.”  And it was this that led the priests and the bishops and the hierarchy to cover up for their crimes, and to refuse to let them be judged by the laity, and to shuffle them from place to place, without regard to the cries of victims or their parents.  They were special.  And the laity had no business criticizing the clergy–not the victims, not their parents, not the judicial system.  The basic principle is maintained in the current Code of Canon Law: “The First See is judged by no one.”  That’s an idea that goes back to Pope Boniface VIII, in both Clericos Laicos (1296) and Unam Sanctam (1302).

In the sex scandals of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Catholic Church has been acting consistently with the theology of ordination and the rights of the clergy as articulated in the Middle Ages.  It is this theology that the Catholic Church excommunicated the Reformers for questioning.  It is this theology which guided Cardinal Law, and Archbishop Weakland, and Cardinal Mahony, and other prelates and pontiffs in protecting those who used their office to prey about the weak, the innocent, the vulnerable.  They have to protect this above all else.  Because this is the foundation of the whole sacramental and ecclesial system.  This is the foundation of its authority.  If that goes, the whole system goes.  Luther saw that in his tract, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520).  And when I saw it, all the romanticized understanding of authority I had accepted that made me Catholic vanished as a dream does when you awake.  That was nine years ago this month.  And like Luther I can say, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”