A few illiterate or sequestered folks in distant corners of the world may not have heard of the internal problems of the Catholic Church. Both those who hate her and those who love her have opinions about the matter. And well they should. The Church has been almost the last living connection with our distant human past, as well as the one institution that has insisted that truth is possible, objective, and a central good for all civilizations.

The range of dismay within the Church over its own scandals is wide and articulate. No doubt the uproar is much larger within than without it because Church members are closer to the hearts, goods, and duties that people live by.

When Pope Francis went Ireland recently to address a world meeting on families, one writer called it simply a “fiasco”. The Pope’s message of sorrow for the victims rang hollow for many because he did not address most of the concerns of real families. The Pope had promised to clean things up within the Church but, in fact, they seemed to most people to have become steadily worse. William Kilpatrick notes the relative silence of the Pope about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.

Publicly, as of now, the Pope has chosen to follow his policy of remaining silent when fundamental questions are addressed to him. Other people, however, think part of a pope’s job description is to clarify and decide on major issues that affect the Church itself. The Attorney General of Pennsylvania’s report makes the issue something beyond internal Church policies. The Pope himself often calls for what is called transparency. Cardinal Cupich, however, maintains that the Pope is concerned with greater things like environmentalism and immigration.   

What are we to make of these astonishing events? A friend of mine thinks that we have seen nothing like this since the Reformation, if then. The Renaissance popes were sometimes high livers, but there were few intimations of heresy surrounding them. Catholics have long been warned from Scripture itself of their own sins. They were also told that they could expect the hated by the world. The late Cardinal George of Chicago once famously predicted that his successor would be put in jail and the one following him would be a martyr. Catholic League President, Bill Donohue, sees the devil at work in all of this controversy.

But in Scripture this recurring hatred of the world for the Church was thought to be directed, not at the believers’ own sins, but at their virtues. They were most persecuted when they were most believing, not when they were lax. In both the Old and New Testaments, we do find many warnings of unworthy shepherds, meaning priests, bishops, and popes. From this point of this view, today we are not really witnessing something new or totally unexpected. In the Old Testament, when things went bad for the Hebrews, it was usually seen to be a result of their own sins. The solution was usually imposed by outside powers in the name of Yahweh. In today’s world, the concern is with those Catholics who simply do not follow the basic tenets of their own faith.

In an article on PowerLine, Steven Hayward wrote that he often considered joining the Catholic Church. Ultimately, he decided against it. 

Among the reasons I decided against becoming a Catholic was my worry that someday they might elect a pope like… Francis. I loved John Paul II and Benedict XVI. My fears are that what has come to pass has come to pass. It’s bad enough that Francis is a left-wing liberationist theologian (liberation theology being merely Marxism with salsa), but there is credible testimony that he has covered up for pedophiles among priests, bishops, and cardinals.

By now, it is well attested that the central problem is not pedophilia. It is rather the life and practice of adult males seeking relations with younger males both under age and of age. This issue involves more than just the Catholic Church.

What makes this fact especially interesting is that the culture itself has accepted the relation of consenting males to be a “right”. If there is nothing wrong with this male-male relationship as such other than age, there should be no problem. The effort to normalize the relation of male to male in their sexual relations has succeeded in public opinion. The result is that the Catholic Church is caught in both ways. It finds its male abusers paying enormous fines for what would otherwise be a “right” for adults in the civil order. Other institutions, like the public schools or business enterprises, that have much the same problems, are usually bypassed or dealt with on an individual basis. Many have rightly dubbed this a “cultural war”, because at bottom the issue really has to do with the purpose of sex and its relation to marriage and children—is it natural with its own norms and duties or something we can create of our own will to look like we want it to look?

Meanwhile, many people call the Pope to resign. Ross Douthat, in the New York Times has argued that, even if Francis is guilty of this cover-up surrounding the Cardinal McCarrick case, the Church cannot afford another resigned pope in one century. Francis should stay and clean up the house as he promised. In general, those advocating that Francis remain in office are now largely those belonging to the political left.

As most people recognize, Francis has espoused most of the left social agenda. Even on things like abortion, which he opposes, Francis has downgraded the intensity with which its correction ought to be pursued. His famous remark on his return trip from Rio, when asked a question concerning a male-male relationships, was: “Who am I to judge?” It is fair to say that the general public, rightly or wrongly, took this statement as a sign of tolerance, if not approval.

Looking at this most upsetting morass that the Church seems to have gotten herself into with the election of Pope Francis, a friend of mine said that, in a hundred years, historians would look back on this era as a cleansing period. In fact, things were working themselves out in God’s providence. We can hope this is true. Others see this situation as the end times that are pictured in Scripture when God has had enough and decides finally to judge all of us and be done with it. We hear of people who stop giving money to Church institutions or attending Mass. Recent converts who came into the Church to escape the liberalizing tendencies of their own sects are now having second thoughts about the wisdom of their conversion. Still others think that it is a tempest in a teapot and wish that it would just evaporate and go away.

This panorama of issues in the Church is spelled out here because what happens to the Church affects everyone, even those who disagree with it or hate it. Nor is it a Christian virtue to minimize the scope of the problem facing the Church itself. What is new, as I have tried to sketch here, is the fact that many of these problems are not threats from the outside but from personal disorders arising inside the Church itself.

The Church, indeed, exists to forgive sins. It has never taught that its members, clergy included, were untouched by sin, though it did demand that they avoid it. It recognized the need for penance, repentance, forgiveness, principles, grace, and virtue, none of which can be ignored. Many think that the Church can no longer reform itself. The issue can no longer be set aside. Few want it to be. The one thing the Church in turmoil brings to the attention of everyone is the question of how he lives. If we are without sin, we are free to cast the first stone, to recall a famous passage in Scripture (John 8:7). That being said, we are, no doubt, witnessing a drama unique in world history, the end of which none of us can see clearly.

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. This year he has published The Universe We Think In and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 

Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books.