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dianoigo blog

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Why join the Church that produced the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal?

Since becoming a Catholic earlier this year, I have had correspondence and conversations with a number of relatives and friends who believe I have made a big error in judgment. They expressed their concerns with care and candour and even a degree of perplexity—joining the Catholic Church is not just inadvisable, it is not worth a moment’s thought. My relatives and friends raised various specific reasons why becoming a Catholic was such a bad idea, such as (what they perceive to be) unbiblical doctrines and a wooden, ritualistic approach to religious life. For most, though, a very clear deal-breaker is the Catholic Church’s shameful history. Questions were posed like, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” A list would then follow with items such as the usurpation of temporal political power, the Crusades, the Inquisition (and many other acts of persecution targeting Jews and nonconformist Christians), the stubborn resistance to non-geocentric models of the universe, the sale of indulgences and other corrupt practices that precipitated the Protestant Reformation, and—in our own time—the still-unfolding clerical sex abuse scandal. Those who really know their history could undoubtedly add many more examples, but these suffice to make the point: the Catholic Church has a very checkered past, to say the least. Is it not obvious that this is not the true Church but a corrupt distortion? Who could be so na├»ve as to think otherwise?

Now, I doubt that any non-Catholic has converted to Catholicism in recent times without first having seriously wrestled with this issue. And there are various ways one might try to “get around it,” so to speak. One could dig up dirt on other ecclesiastical traditions to show that their track record is not much better. One could argue that once one understands the historical context, various people and events were not as bad as they first appear. One could point to many positive contributions of the Catholic Church in areas of public health, poverty alleviation, social justice, education, human rights, etc. Or one could disown those who commit(ted) such atrocities as not real Catholics, and dissociate oneself from this past. After all, I didn’t go on the Crusades, and I didn’t burn anyone at the stake. Don’t blame me for things that happened long ago.

There are elements of validity in each of the above approaches to the problem of the Catholic Church’s unsightly past, but in my view none of them comes close to a satisfactory answer. The first three approaches risk denying the seriousness of the problem. The fourth approach risks compromising the catholicity of the Church, which would by definition be un-Catholic. It also risks falling prey to the fallacy of "guilt by association" and its obverse, purity by dissociation. The problem of disreputable doings in the Catholic Church’s past (and present) is addressed not by denying, downplaying or disowning this history, but precisely by owning it. Wait—are you saying you approve of filling the streets of the holy land with Muslim blood, devising elaborate torture machines to “encourage” repentance, or sheltering pedophile priests from justice? Absolutely not. So what exactly am I saying?

To take ownership of the past means three things. It means, firstly, to acknowledge the past. “This happened, and it was terrible.” In this we follow the lead of Pope John Paul II, who offered many apologies on behalf of the Church during his reign. Caution is needed, since some accusations raised about Catholic history may be exaggerated, embellished or downright false. Moreover, negativity cannot be allowed to govern the narrative such that the positive aspects of our Church's history—above all, the faithful saints of all ages—are neglected. All the same, one must not make excuses or whitewash the past, but face it head on.

It means, secondly, to resist dissociating oneself from that past. “This was done in our Church, by our brothers and sisters. It is part of our collective story.” That is not to say that all Catholics, either today or at particularly difficult points in history, are individually guilty of these historical sins. (This would be analogous to the crude anti-Semitic claim that all Jews past and present are Christ-killers.) However, the Catholic doctrine of a visible, concrete Church rules out any ecclesiological gerrymandering whereby we redraw the boundaries of the Catholic Church—past or present—to exclude those popes, bishops, priests, nations or eras that don’t correspond to our ideal. The Catholic Church houses all Catholics, warts and all. As Catholics, we recognize Church history as our history, not someone else’s. As Pope John Paul II said:
Hence it is appropriate that as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close the Church should become ever more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.” (Tertio millennio adveniente 33)
Thirdly, it means learning from past mistakes. As the saying goes, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.” If that is true of human history in general, how much more is it true of our communal history as the One Body? And it is precisely at this point that the Catholic Church’s checkered past becomes an asset rather than a liability. We have far more mistakes to learn from than any other church, denomination or sect! And learn from them we have. The hard lessons of the past have become part of the Church’s communal memory, part of the Church’s small-t tradition. By owning them the Church ensures they will never be forgotten.

If one needs a biblical justification for this approach to Church history, one need not look far. The Israelites provide an excellent parallel. The Old Testament exemplifies the principle of owning the past, warts and all. The Hebrew Bible was written about Israel, for Israel, by Israelites who fervently believed Israel to be the special people of God. Yet the biblical history of Israel is full of shameful episodes and deeply flawed characters! Even among the heroes of the Bible you find incest, deceit, adultery and murder. The historians who chronicled the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel couldn't find a single king whom they could call “good.” It wasn’t just the leaders, either. The privileged people whom Yahweh had delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand murmured against His servant Moses. Through the centuries they repeatedly forsook Yahweh for foreign idols or mingled Yahweh-worship with abominations. Yet, looking back on such history, the biblical writers make no attempt to disguise it or dissociate themselves from it. It is the history of their people and, paradoxical though it may be, God’s people. Thus they preserve this history for posterity so that Israel can remember what Israel has done and learn from it. In the New Testament, perhaps no passage exemplifies the ownership of a troubled past more than the Matthaean genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17). Matthew gratuitously highlights several women of ill repute in the Saviour’s pedigree: Tamar the incestuous seductress; Rahab the scheming prostitute; Ruth the Moabite; Bathsheba the adulteress. The ignominious “deportation to Babylon” forms one of the historical milestones around which the genealogy is structured. Matthew seems at pains to emphasise that Jesus’s family tree is anything but impeccable.

If the Catholic Church must take ownership of shameful episodes in her past and preserve their memory in order to learn their lessons, this is a feature she shares with her forebear biblical Israel. One must add that this is not simply an unending circle of mistakes. When one studies the Book of Judges, one becomes acquainted with the cycle of blessing, followed by complacency and sin, followed by punishment and suffering, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance and blessing again. However, the full history of Israel is not one of going in circles, of futility. In the post-exilic period, for example, Israel definitively overcame the vice of cultic idolatry that had plagued her for centuries. The Jewish people survived a harrowing test of their religious loyalty in the Maccabean period and Jewish identity became synonymous with monolatry thereafter. Observant Jewry has never since been ensnared in cultic idolatry.

In similar fashion, many values embedded in the Catholic Church’s DNA have been refined through the hard lessons of history. Peace activism, opposition to capital punishment, the Just War doctrine (which makes vanishingly small the circumstances under which war is permissible and then restricts almost to impracticability the means by which such a war can be waged), advocacy for religious freedom, an intense ecumenical programme with non-Catholic Christians and conciliatory dialogue with Jews and Muslims—all of this has emerged from the shadow of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Catholicism is a truly historical religion. It engages thoroughly with its own history, celebrating the good and lamenting the bad and the ugly. As Catholics, we cannot whitewash our past, because it is part of us. We do not smugly denounce bad people and events from our Catholic past at arm’s length as though they are the Other, something remote and strange. They too belong to us; they are part of our family tree, just as Judah and Tamar and Rehoboam and Ahaz and Manasseh and Jehoiachin were part of Jesus’s family tree. When we denounce their actions it is with a posture of humility, knowing that if they fell, so could we. Therefore we are—paradoxical though it may be—thankful to God for all of our Catholic history. Not thankful that bad things were done, but thankful that we have such a vast communal experience from which to learn.

So, to the question, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” my answer is, “So that I can take my place in the Church's long and checkered history, take ownership of it and learn from it.”

Further Reading: International Theological Commission (1999). Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.

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