The widely publicized disordered lives of too many clerics and bishops, plus the way this problem has been handled at all levels, have eroded the confidence of many Catholics in what they believe and in the clerical orders designated to uphold it.
People often ask me: why should I stick with the Catholic Church? It is a legitimate question. In recent years, we have seen a large-scale exodus from the Church in traditionally Catholic countries like Quebec and Ireland. Evangelical churches are filled with ex-Catholics dismayed at the visible condition of the Church. Media reports about the Pope confuse many. We may deplore this situation, but we cannot ignore its existence.
Dismay at the presence of evil intensifies when we consider the fate of good men in the Church. Raymond Ibrahim estimates that eleven Christians are killed each day in Muslim lands. Martyrdom is a frequent thing for many Christians in the Middle East.
And when we see the bloodless martyrdom of Australia’s Cardinal George Pell in what we had always assumed was a fair and democratic society, we wonder if we will ever live in a society where good always triumphs and evil is punished or whether we are doomed to die in this chaotic welter of good and evil.
Long before Christ, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato asked the same question. In The Republic, Socrates asked two questions. (1) What would happen if a just man appeared in an existing city? His answer is that “the just man will be scourged, racked, bound, will have his eyes put out, and will at last be crucified (literally impaled)— and all this because he ought to have preferred seeming to being.” And (2) what would happen to an unjust man in the same city? “He can marry where he likes, trade where he likes, help his friends and hurt his enemies,” Socrates continues. And “having got rich by dishonesty he can worship the gods better, and will therefore be more loved by them than the just.”
These two common opinions of ordinary men bothered Plato to no end. Surely the world could not, in its very foundations, have been created for injustice. Yet, from all we can tell, it seemed that way. He concluded that, since no justice would be forthcoming in this world, we each must have a soul that was immortal. This soul, as the locus of freedom, bore the burden of our moral responsibility, of how we lived our actual lives. Thus, what was not requited in this world and its concept of justice would be resolved in a judgment after death.
The Catholic Church, from its own background in the Old Testament, has affirmed the soul’s immortality and God’s judgment about how we lived our lives. Without this teaching on ultimate justice, no free human action means anything as no ultimate consequences would follow our human actions. Without a sense of responsibility for our actions and the possibility of judgement and punishment, human life becomes nothing but a long sequence of trivial and meaningless events.
Both pagan Greeks and Christians accepted the immortality of the soul because they needed to establish some continuity between this life and the next. What Christianity added is the resurrection of the body, not just the immortality of the soul. It was clear even to Socrates that man was more than a bodiless soul. As he told us in his last words to the Athenian jury that found him guilty, Socrates expected to carry on his conversations with great men or with whomever he met.
It was Plato’s most brilliant student, Aristotle, who understood that the relation of body and soul was in one being or person. This difficult teaching was made visible in the life and death of Christ. Christ was not just a soul. His soul is made visible by and through His body. He claimed to be both man and God. He gave clear indications that He was both without confusing His humanity with His divinity.
In retrospect we owe the teaching on the immortality of the soul to a political realization about justice and injustice rather than to a philosophical reflection on the immaterial nature of human knowledge. Both approaches to immortality are valid. They both imply that those who are guilty of sin will indeed be punished and that those who are just will be rewarded.
Immersed as we are in a world of injustice, we can only repel a temptation to black pessimism by returning to the fundamentals and reviving our confidence in an ultimate justice.
Without being overly dramatic, what I want to suggest here is that those of us who are Christians take the Incarnation and the Redemption seriously. Christ came among us because of sin. This is the immediate reason for his insertion into human history. Behind human sin is the overall purpose of creation, God’s invitation to a rational creature to join Him in His own internal Trinitarian life. The rejection of this gift set in motion God’s redemptive “plan”, as St. Paul called it.
The central feature of this remedial plan was the Cross. The redemption of mankind’s sins was not through avoiding suffering but by embracing it to show the consequences of sin even on one who was sinless. Here Socrates’s “just man” joins the Christian Redeemer in attesting to the difference between sin and suffering.
Even though “all things are possible to God”, God cannot contradict Himself and remain God. To redeem us after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, He cannot remove man’s free will, for that was His own creation. Removing it would make us automata and not humans. He must work without contradicting Himself. That is, both on God’s human side (the Incarnation) and on man’s freedom side, redemption of sin must respect the order of being. Thus when Christ did enter the world, He did so among sinners who needed a redemptive way out of their sins, but one that did not prevent them from sinning if they chose to reject God’s redemptive plan.
What I conclude from these reflections is that we fail take sin seriously enough. (See Schall, A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven). My insistence is not a matter of dogmatic pessimism. The first step in realizing our situation is to understand that redemption was proposed to us as a way of dealing with our own sins. It is the refusal to admit, preach, and consider the intrinsic evil of personal sin that causes individual and public disorders in our world.
We have made mercy, sincerity, and compassion into excuses for not accepting the truth that Christ came into the world precisely in order to redeem us from sin, a redemption that is made visible only through the Cross, a redemption that respects our freedom. This redemption, once achieved, restores us to the Trinitarian life for which we have been created and in which we hope to achieve eternal life. Such considerations make it intelligible why we can still be Catholic in a world in which sin, including our own, abounds.
The fact that we often disguise sins as “rights”, or “freedoms”, or “duties” only makes them more difficult to identify. But this does not change the injustice that they put into our world nor the reason why we need redemption.
So, I would suggest, the disheartening image of a Church spattered with the filth of sin presents us with a teachable moment. For the last fifty years or so the Zeitgeist taught us that we were OK, that sin didn’t matter too much, that governments would deliver us from all evil. But the eruption of sin in all of its dreary repugnance reminds us of our desperate need for redemption. It is, or can be, a good moment, a kairos, as Plato might have put it.
Rev. James V. Schall SJ taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of numerous books. Last year he published The Universe We Think In and On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.