April 19, 2010

What's At Stake: Sexual Abuse and Apostasy

Last night I received an email from an old friend, a sometime companion on the inner journey of prayer. He wrote to tell me that the scandals in the Church had become overwhelming for him, that he did not have much hope, and that he had apostatized from the faith and been received into another ecclesial community.

I don't know if I'm supposed to answer, and I don't think I will. It's not really any of my business anyway. What would I say? Shall I apologize for crimes and negligences for which their is no apology? Shall I beg him to return from error? I don't think either of these are called for; it's just that we were once important to one another in the Lord, and he only wanted to share his grief and let me know of the difficult decision he had made.

It raises the question for me: Do I have a limit? Could things get so heinous and discouraging that I would be tempted to apostasy? Of course I want to say no; but that would be vanity and bravado. My faith is imperfect, and my practice barely adequate; on the internal level I hardly live up to my vows. I only barely keep intact the prayer life I have promised through our Rule and Constitutions. I am not such a good Catholic and my faith is not so strong. I probably have a breaking point too, God help me.

But I just don't think I could leave the Catholic Church. How is it that I first heard the Gospel? What were the conditions of possibility of my having a Bible in my room on the hot summer night in 1991 when I first read St. Matthew with open mind and heart? It is that anyone can buy a Bible at Barnes & Noble? No. Is it because of the great work of translators, from the seventy-two rabbis of Alexandria down to the scholars who produced the RSV I held in my hands in those days? Not really. I heard about the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ because the apostles and martyrs gave their lives and suffered in order to keep it alive for me. It was this community of witness that produced the New Testament, and they have passed down the apostolic teaching, even into the hands of the bishops who ordained Fr. Larry and Deacon Ron, the first men to suffer the pastoral care of my stupid and distracted soul.

Without that faith I would be dead, or at least living some close approximation of death. And the world still wants me dead.

This apostolic tradition is all I have to stand on in this world. I'm sure that some of my teachers and confreres would judge me narrow-minded and hopeless in clinging to this sense of Catholicism after all the theological education they have given me in their generosity, but that's how I see it. And as much as my conscience is very troubled and I am very angry, I don't think I would ever try to seek comfort by settling for a facsimile of the Church and play-acting through 'sacraments' I knew in my heart to be invalid. Untethered from accountability to the Petrine ministry (or at least the ministry of some patriarchal see), Christianity has no defense against accepting and assimilating whatever errors or moral chaos happen to be the current worldly fashion. Indeed, sadly enough, this struggle is hard enough even within the apostolic churches, but it is hopeless without.

I don't mean all this in a triumphal way. I am upset too. I am increasingly convinced that the health and even the survival of my vocation depends on my making my life into some kind of integrated response to the issues raised by the sexual abuse scandal. When I, who was born with the name Charles L., decided to be baptized under the patronage of Charles Lwanga, I thought it just a matter of convenience. But it was no accident. St. Charles was martyred, at least in part, for his unwillingness to accept sexual abuse. Nor is it an accident that certain experiences of my own religious life and priesthood have put a harder edge on my own reflection on the festering illnesses behind the scandals. My own vocation is meant to be something with regard to this. I don't know what it means yet, and it might not even be anything external, but it has to be something.

I don't know if you ever look at this blog, old friend. But if you do happen to read this, please don't be offended. This post is about my conscience, not yours. It's not a condemnation or even a disapproval. It's my way to trying to encounter, in my heart, the same issues that you are working to take as seriously as you can. Oremus pro invicem.


Warren said...

Well, I hear you. I'm at the exact same point.

Sometimes, at meetings of our local SFO order, I wonder... Am I the only one who feels this way about the Church?

I feel that there are many Catholics out there with a completely different view of the answer to "why be catholic". Including many who would answer "well, it doesn't make much difference really". And yet, I find, it does make a LOT of difference.

Ironically, in their own minds, and in their own realities, they may make some analogue of what they are saying true, by fiat. And I believe the Grace of God is big and strong enough to rescue them, whereas I am so frail that I cannot even save myself from error, let alone them.

"There is a crack,
a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."
--Leonard Cohen.


pennyante said...

Here I am a cradle Catholic and I am struggling with some of the same issues you are.

I too, must remain Catholic despite all the sins I see among the leadership of the Church. I have to continually remind myself that we are all sinners. I have to think beyond the sinfulness of our members to the core of purity of our belief and practice...

Where else can I go when YOU, O Lord, have the words of eternal life.

If I gave up the Church, I could go nowhere else. I also could not pretend that another denomination has the fullness of the Sacraments.

Thank you for putting into words so many of my thoughts. You are not struggling alone... There are many of us out there... God is drawing us ever toward Himself...

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles - I'm sorry you got such a letter, and it seems to be weighing on you. I hope this friend made it to the Orthodox church. At least there is still hope for him there. But speaking absolutely from experience, the grass is always greener. There are the same amount of abuse problems in ANY church (statistically speaking). It's just that the media and the spotlight are currently on the Catholic church, as they have been for the last decade.

Regardless of the sins of SOME within the hierarchy (it is absolutely not a conspiracy or even a majority as the media insinuates) I find it hard to understand how a Catholic who is educated in his/her faith could leave the sacraments, the saints and the tradition passed down for millenia by God Himself. Leaving all of this due to the sins of mere humans seems almost ridiculous.

Anyway, take this as a virtual "there, there" Father.

Anonymous said...

I think you need to respond. He wouldn't have told you unless he either wanted your support/validation or he wanted you to talk him out of it. Why risk failing him if what he's really looking for is a hand to pull him out of his misery and back into the loving folds of the Church?

I also doubt he left the Church solely because of the scandals. There are probably deeper issues--spiritual struggles, dryness, pre-existing doubts or confusions.

precious cup said...

I have to say the first thing I had to do when I read your blog is look up apostasy. I feel that I was never very good at vocabulary. I have to confess that I am a Secular Franciscan and in my private thought I have wondered if I should ask permission to leave my order. I actually spoke to someone about it. This has all been so strange to me. I wanted to profess because of my love of Jesus and as soon as I did I realized that I have almost nothing in common with most of my professed brothers and sisters. Why did Jesus wait until after my profession to bring this all into the light? I am so confused. I have found comfort in another parish instead of my Franciscan parish. What does that mean? I feel that people have become lax in different things and I don't want to judge, so I go somewhere else. I feel like I am letting my Franciscan family down. Don't get me wrong this is nothing as big as what you speak of, but many, many little things. I can't focus at my church. It is way too loud and distracting. My friends wonder why I am not there. I go to mass every single day so not being there is noticed. I just don't feel at home in this parish anymore. It is tearing me apart. Do I stay as a sacrifice? This morning I made a Holy hour at this other parish. The regular adorer didn't show so I was alone. I fell apart sobbing uncontrollably. I need a strong shepherd to guide me. I am not smart enough to understand about all that the scriptures teach us. I desire to be taught about practicing virtues daily especially against my greatest weaknesses. I am a sinner trying to be more like Jesus and maybe I do understand what he, this prayer friend of yours is going through just a little bit. I wish the best for him and for you and for now, I am very thankful that I was able to find what I need in a different Holy Catholic church.

Sara said...

I'll pray for you and your friend, Brother Charles.

I too have a very dear friend who has lost hope and left the Church. I know that as sad and worried as I am for him, the grief he feels in his own heart is worse. He's full of anger and fear. All I can do is listen and pray that at some point, the anger will subside and he'll be able to see clearly again.

Ad Abolendam said...

Father, thank you for putting into words far more eloquent than mine some of the struggles and questions I've been facing. I truly believe that we are all being called to more intense purification during this time so that we can be granted greater illumination and perfection. The "Springtime of the Church" must begin as all springs do: with the tempests of late March and early April.

As to your friend, I have to agree with Anonymous. Clearly, this friend sent this to you because he was seeking a response of some kind. Everything happens for a reason. Perhaps our Lord is calling upon you to deliver some word of grace.

Tina aka Snupnjake said...

Your friend needs to turn off the media. My attitude towards the Church gets immensely better when I do that.

Also, if you respond, remind your friend of the good priests. Remind him that every where has issues, there is no perfect church.

Read this speech. It's from 2002, but it is awesome.


Hidden One said...

As a convert who converted intellectually months before he ever went to a Mass, I have thus far been immune to any temptation to leave on account of any evil action done by anybody. Catholicism is true, so here I stay.

That said, I shall be praying for your friend.

Qualis Rex said...

Hidden One - although I am a cradle Catholic, I share your mindset. If I weren't convinced on an intellectual level, I don't think I'd be nearly as unaffected othersise (but not immune).

Tina - I agree with you 100% and was going to make a comment to that affect. However, in my case, I DON'T listen to the mainstream media. But I DO hear about this from a number of blogs which talk about it from time to time (like this one). And I'm not griping about it; as painful as it is, I think it is better we know the truth even for collective penance.

Sharon said...

There is only one reason to leave the Catholic Church: if one comes honestly to believe that it is not the Church Christ founded and one has found the Church which Christ founded.

Everything else is a bonus.

Father I think you owe it to your friend to tell him that he is leaving the Church Christ founded. If you don't then you are saying that one church is as good as another. One doesn't leave Jesus because of Judas.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Fr. Charles, I believe that the body of Christ would lose something precious if you were to leave the Catholic Church. The media is using the sins of a few to taint the many, but we should not accept that kind of bad thinking.

Brian said...

The Spirit must be at work. I do not read your blog but did today. I am your old friend who emailed you. Your reader's comments are interesting. However, you who know me read me correctly. There was never a need to reply to me. I just felt an obligation to let you know the result of a long decision process.

I appreciate as well your thoughts on why you endure in your vocation and in the faith. Your readers also make many interesting comments. However, you know the chronic egg-head that I am. I have thought, read and studied hard. Arguments appealing to Tradition come up against assertions that the Orthodox and Anglican Churches share in that heritage. Truly brilliant minds far greater than mine have also struggled with these issues and have come to the same conclusions. I believe the current hierarchy has abandoned the Tradition and has betrayed its vulnerable members. It still shows little signs of reforming. Its responses have been largely ones that have a political ring of "double talk"--acknowledging the issue while not quite accepting blame. The situation will not change unless people turn their backs on those in the hierarchy. The only way to do so in the current church is to leave.

Peace to you Charles,

Brian said...

You might be amused by what brought me to read your blog rather randomly today. I recalled reading on facebook that you were being interviewed for some sort of metal magazine. I presumed the interview took place and wanted to see if I could find it. I pulled up google and searched for the terms "Charles Sammons metal," and your current blog entry about this situation was the firs item in the list. It is odd how things work.


Brother Charles said...


I saw that search in the referrer log and was intrigued, of course. Noting the location, I thought it might be you, but still wondered. If the interview ever ends up anywhere, I'll let you know. It was explained to me as simply "background" for a book that might be written.