American pentecostal evangelist Bob Mumford, whom I’ve mentioned in these pages before, once defined secular humanism as “what happens when the world evangelizes the church”. I don’t think he was far wrong in that assessment. More and more often, one sees churches and denominations behaving just like the world around them, ignoring the clarion call from the Divinity, in whatever way they proclaim him, to be a “sign of contradiction” to the world, the flesh and the devil.
I should acknowledge that, as a former Catholic priest, I have a partisan perspective on this issue. You’ll find my story in a series of four articles I wrote about my decision to leave the priesthood (which was solely and precisely over the issue of clergy sex abuse of children, and the way in which the Church handled it – or, rather, failed to handle it). The core article is here; it contains links to the other three. That’ll help you understand where I’m coming from.
Two news articles in particular have stung me over the past week or so. First, there’s this report.
Across the country, attorneys … are scrambling to file a new wave of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by [Catholic] clergy, thanks to rules enacted in 15 states that extend or suspend the statute of limitations to allow claims stretching back decades. Associated Press reporting found the deluge of suits could surpass anything the nation’s clergy sexual abuse crisis has seen before, with potentially more than 5,000 new cases and payouts topping $4 billion.
. . .
This is the day the Catholic Church has long feared.
The church spent millions of dollars lobbying statehouses for decades, arguing it would be swamped with lawsuits if time limits on suing were lifted. That battle now lost, it is girding for Round Two, by turning to compensation funds and bankruptcy.
Compensation funds offer payment to victims if they agree not take their claims to court. They offer a faster, easier way to some justice, and cash, but the settlements are typically a fraction of what victims can get in trials. And critics say the church is just using them to avoid both a bigger financial hit and full transparency.
New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan set up the first fund in 2016, pitching it as a way to compensate victims without walloping the church and forcing it to cut programs. It has since paid more than $67 million to 338 alleged victims, an average $200,000 each.
The idea has caught on in other states. All five dioceses in New Jersey and three in Colorado opened one, as did seven dioceses in Pennsylvania and six in California, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest in the U.S.
Such funds, Dolan said in a newspaper op-ed piece last year, “prevent the real possibility — as has happened elsewhere — of bankrupting both public and private organizations, including churches, that provide essential services in education, charity and health care.”
. . .
But bankruptcy has become an increasingly more common option. Less than a month after New York’s one-year lookback window took effect, the upstate Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy, the 20th diocese or religious order in the country to do so, listing claims from alleged abuse survivors and other creditors as much as $500 million. Assets to pay that are estimated at no more than one-fifth that amount.
The Diocese of Buffalo may be next. It has begun paying victims of the 100 priests it considers “credibly accused” of abuse, tapping proceeds from the sale of a lavish $1.5 million mansion that once housed its bishop who is facing pressure to resign.
When a diocese files for bankruptcy, lawsuits by alleged abuse survivors are suspended and payments to them and others owed money — contractors, suppliers, banks, bondholders — are frozen while a federal judge decides how much to pay everyone and still leave enough for the diocese to continue to operate. It’s orderly and victims avoid costly and lengthy court cases, but they often get less than they would if they were successful in a trial.
. . .
Bankruptcy can also leave abuse survivors with a sense of justice denied because the church never has to face discovery by plaintiff lawyers and forced to hand over documents, possibly implicating higherups who hid the abuse.
There’s more at the link.
Take note of the methods and techniques the Church is using to deal with the renewed flood of lawsuits. They have nothing whatsoever to do with the Biblical standards for church leaders. Instead, they’re what lawyers, administrators and bureaucrats do. They’re secular, not religious actions.
Some may say it’s disingenuous to expect anything else. After all, the Church must function as part of a secular society; therefore, she must employ the tools of that society to defend her existence if necessary. On the other hand, I can’t find a single mention of such an approach in the words of Christ or the apostles. Instead, I find vehement admonishments to be different from the world.
- Jesus is presented as “a sign which shall be contradicted“. To be a “sign of contradiction” is a cornerstone of Catholic theology.
- To be a bishop, as Paul instructed Timothy, is to “preach the Word … in season and out of season“. It is not to be a good lawyer or bureaucrat! Too many bishops see their role as the latter, rather than the former.
- Paul also warns Timothy to beware of men “having a form of godliness but denying its power“. Is that not precisely what bishops who rely primarily upon administrators, bureaucrats, lawyers and insurance companies, rather than the grace of God, are doing? There’s a need for secular specialists, to be sure, but a bishop is not supposed to be one of them, or allow himself to be ruled by them!
Frankly, I wouldn’t care if a diocese – or the Church as a whole – were to be reduced to penury by lawsuits and damages. The Church is not defined by her land, or buildings, or possessions. For centuries, she existed under oppression and persecution, where to be identified as Christian meant almost certain death, and at the very least the loss of one’s possessions and wealth through official confiscation. The Church survived that. She can survive this too . . . if her faith grows as strong as it was in the early Church. That’s very questionable. In the absence of strong apostolic leadership by her Bishops and priests, can she regain that faith? I guess only the Holy Spirit knows the answer to that question.
This also poses a daunting question for every priest in the Church. A priest functions at the pleasure, and with the dispensation, of his Bishop. He receives faculties from the Bishop, without which he is not permitted to administer a parish or celebrate any of the sacraments within that diocese. He functions as the eyes, ears, hands and mouth of the Bishop within his parish, conveying to his people the guidance received from the diocese, and informing the diocese of his people’s concerns.
The question now becomes: if a diocesan Bishop is so grievously mishandling the situation, and demonstrating a secular humanist approach rather than a godly one . . . how can any priest worthy of the name be willing to be his mouthpiece? If he tries to act independently, he is no longer being faithful to the Bishop to whom he has promised obedience. If he falls into line with the secular humanist approach, he effectively betrays his priesthood. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place, with no real alternative but to choose one path or the other.
That’s why I decided I had no choice but to leave the priesthood. I was caught on the horns of a dilemma, with no way out. I could not, and would not, misrepresent the facts of the matter to my people, or to my Bishop. It was, and remains, a crisis of conscience for me: but in all sincerity, if I had to face that choice again, I’d probably do the same thing. Anything less would have seemed grievously and culpably dishonest, on the level of serious sin. (No, I’m not trying to play the injured martyr-for-righteousness here. I’m as much of a sinner as the next man. I’m simply trying to illustrate the depths of the dilemma confronting me, and every priest in the Church. Others made different decisions. We’ll all have to live with the eternal consequences of our choices. May Almighty God have mercy on us all.)
(For another perspective on the role of a Bishop, see “Advice for a new bishop“, an article that appeared in 2011. I can’t find much in it to which I’d object!)
This leads directly to the second article that’s disturbed me. It concerns the Catholic Church in Britain, but I’ve no doubt a similar program is being prepared here in the USA.
Catholics are being urged to divulge their ‘eco-sins’ during Confession as Bishops launch a new environmental campaign.
As part of an initiative to ensure that the Catholic Church plays a role in tackling the climate crisis, it is encouraging congregants to go to Confession, or “reconciliation services”.
. . .
The initiative aims to “create a sense of urgency towards our ecological crisis and those suffering from its ill effects” as well as promote confession of environmental sins.
As a result, it has created a toolkit for church leaders to help Catholics confess their environment-related sins and is sending out its resources to parishes across the country.
Before entering the confessional, sinners will be offered an environmental ‘examination of conscience’. This works like a checklist that people can go through before confession with prompts, such as ‘have you taken flights unnecessarily?’
Again, more at the link.
I’d have no problem incorporating a solid, scientific perspective on climate change in general sermons on our responsibility as Christians to look after the world in which we live. That would not include doom-and-gloom propaganda that can’t be scientifically proven – and by that I mean actual numbers and experiments, not models or assumptions! To classify an action as a “sin against the environment” is stretching the authority of the Church extraordinarily thinly, particularly because the science is not settled, and there is no true consensus over the causes or effects of climate change. To jump in and try to force the Church to adopt a politically correct eco-warrior perspective is not theologically appropriate or justifiable. In fact, it’s secular humanism all over again!
I look at these goings-on, and I shake my head in utter disbelief at the current situation within, and of, the Catholic Church. I still believe that it’s the “original” church, founded by Christ through his apostles: but it seems to have wandered awfully far from those roots. Can it find its way back? With God’s help, I believe so . . . but in the meantime, millions of Catholics have fallen away from the Church, driven to despair by its inability – or refusal – to conform to the standards Christ established for it. The people of God are not stupid; nor are they blind to reality.
As I’ve said before, I’m irresistibly reminded of Mary Magdalen’s experience on the first Easter Sunday morning.
But Mary stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”
The Bishops, in their collective, determinedly secular administration of the Church, “have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him”. That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever had to say in my life . . . but it remains a reality for me, and for millions of other formerly faithful Catholics. I certainly don’t see His hand in the Bishops’ collective words or actions. Instead, I see only “the world, the flesh and the devil”, to quote an old aphorism. Would that it were not so!