More than once since becoming Catholic, I have had conversations with people who have been burned by fellow Christians and declared in their anger, “I was a fool to believe in these people. I am determined not to get fooled again.”
Not a few people, acting on this resolve, have left the Church. It’s a great loss all round and my heart has been saddened to see it.
At the same time, I have to add that alarm bells always go off when people speak of “believing in” the Church’s members, as though Christians were going to be something other than people, or the holiness of Holy Church was somehow due to us and not to her Head.
Here’s the deal: God, and God alone, is why the Church is holy. It is not holy because of us. Because Christ is the Head of the Church and the Holy Spirit is Her soul, you can trust Holy Church completely.
But (and mark this well) only a fool would trust the Church’s members merely because they are her members. To be sure, we extend each other the normal charity we should extend strangers. We don’t presume the worst or live in constant paranoia. But we can’t uncritically assume that Sr. Thingummy, Fr. Whosit, Bishop Whatsit, Pope Whoever or our Christian parents, spouse, friends, boss, or employee could not possibly sin or be incompetents or radically betray us. Radical sin is possible for each and every one of us till we assume room temperature. To refuse to acknowledge that is to treat people like gods. That’s idolatry.
At the end of the day, Christians are merely people. So, for instance, the priest abuse scandal ought to appall us, but not shock us. If we place some ultimate trust in mere mortals—-including ordained mortals—-we can be certain of disappointment. But that will not be God letting us down: it will be our own idolatry doing the job. We ought never to have “believed in” the various culprits by placing some ultimate trust in them. That is reserved for God alone. None of that is to say criminals should not get exactly what they deserve. Nor is it to say Christians are not expected to be holy and good and loving. It is to say that the existence of Christian criminals—even ordained ones—tells us nothing whatever about the falsity of the gospel. It merely bears out the fact that sin is indeed a dreadful thing requiring the dreadful remedy of the Cross.
To be sure, there are people I trust with ordinary human trust. But that’s because I believe the command to be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove and to “test everything” and hold fast to what is good. There are Christians (and others) to whom I would entrust my kids, my car, and my wallet. There are also Christians (and others) to whom I would never entrust any such thing. That’s because I know grace is grace, not magic.
American culture—-immersed as it is in Protestantism and a post-Protestant world view—tends to have a model of conversion that is Pauline: “I was a sinner, sinking down to the depths of degradation. Then Jesus knocked me off my horse, saved me, and my life was radically transformed! Now I am walking in victory over sin and I go from glory to glory! Hallelujah!”
It’s a real model of conversion and the good thing about it is that it demands a lot of us and produces a lot of heroes (like Paul). The bad thing is that it can create people impatient with failure–and failure is our middle name. That’s why there is also the Petrine model of the Long Slow Schlep Toward Holiness Over Time. And indeed, for most of us, this is how it goes. The average Christian is average: part of the big family of cowards, shufflers, snobs, hypocrites, and general all-around mediocrities. That’s us, homo sapiens, the species Christ came to save.
That’s why resolutions to “not get fooled again” seem to me like climbing up and falling off the horse on the other side. Both credulity and skepticism are blunders of the intellect. They blind us, in opposite ways, to the nourishing truth of the Faith. Skepticism is the foolish insistence on not believing what is so if it conflicts with our philosophy, just as credulity is the foolish desire to believe what is not so if it confirms our false hopes. Instead of ordering our intellects toward avoiding human philosophies or false hopes, the more excellent way is to order our minds toward the light of Christ’s revelation. That revelation tells us that Holy Church can be trusted completely, but not its weak and very human members.