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Contemporary Catholic Belief and Action


The mission of ARCC is to bring about substantive structural change within the Catholic Church by seeking to institutionalize a collegial understanding of church where decision making is shared and accountability is realized among Catholics of every kind and conditio n.
Once people start to believe change is possible, 
the drive to achieve it accelerates. 
                                          -   Patrick Sullivan, ARCC President
Stone Throwing. Or Not.
Joseph Martos, PhD
Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone. (John 8:7)
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

Many of the articles I read about the Pennsylvania grand jury report are-and indeed the report itself is-casting stones. Condemning priests for sexually abusing children, condemning bishops for not defrocking priests, and condemning the Catholic Church for being an organization that protects itself instead of protecting children.

I don't think that's the Jesus thing to do.

At the same time, I hear a lot of hand wringing and breast beating from Catholics, including priests and bishops, who feel ashamed that their church has behaved so unethically, and who feel angry at the priest perpetrators and their episcopal protectors. In addition, I hear genuine compassion for the young people who were psychologically and spiritually damaged by men they thought were moral and even holy.

I think this is short sighted.

While not denying the unethical behavior of church leaders, and not denying the anguish of those who were used for the sexual pleasure of those leaders, we also need to take a longer view. I say "also" because the short-term work of listening to victims, acknowledging their pain, and addressing the systemic causes of unethical behavior by clergy certainly need to be addressed.

The moral development of Christianity has followed a very human pattern. First, good Christians behave immorally because it is socially accepted. Next, some people denounce the behavior as sinful and morally abhorrent. Finally, society accepts the denunciation as justified and agree that such behavior has no place in a Christian society.

One historical root of this pattern was the invention of the creed as a summary statement of Christian beliefs. In the fourth century, Constantine sought to unify the Roman Empire by compelling the new religion's bishops to come up with a statement of belief to which they could all subscribe, and to which they could compel all Christians to subscribe. The result was the Nicene Creed-the first of many-against which orthodoxy and heresy could be judged.

Unfortunately, the creed told Christians only what they had to think, not how they had to behave. Although the early church, and indeed Jesus himself, emphasized behavior over beliefs, the imperial church and its subsequent incarnations in medieval Europe and the modern world emphasized beliefs over behavior. One was a good Christian if one had the correct thoughts about God and Christ and the Church, even if society condoned behaviors that contradicted gospel values.

Consider the following:
  • In the fourth century, St. Augustine taught that war could be justified.
  • Charlemagne gave conquered peoples the choice to be baptized or be killed.
  • Pope Urban II called on Christians to crusade against Muslims and conquer the Holy Land in the name of Christ. The Crusades lasted for five centuries.
  • When Europeans discovered the Americas, natives were killed and enslaved, and their wealth was carted off to Europe.
  • After the Protestant Reformation, Catholics and Protestants waged wars of religion for about a century, aiming to kill those who did not believe as they did.
  • Christians in America, including priests and religious orders, owned African slaves for centuries until secular authorities declared slavery to be illegal.
  • People of color have been oppressed by Christians in the southern United States for over a hundred years.
  • The countries on both sides of both world wars in Europe were Christian countries.
  • The ecological devastation of the planet Earth has been, until recently, the prerogative of Christians living in the industrialized world.

Today we reject the notion that people should be converted to our religion by force. Today we recognize the evils of colonialism. Today we think it immoral for people to be bought and sold like animals. But it was not always so.

Today we still think that the followers of Christ can go to war and kill people. Today we still think it is all right to make as much money and own as much property as we can. Today we still think that we can consume the planet and turn it into garbage.

Not long ago, we Catholics believed that sin was an individual matter, and that if it was confessed to a priest, it could be forgiven. Not long ago, we were not aware of the emotional damage that was endured by victims of sexual abuse by men, whether they were married or celibate, and whether their victims were female or male, adults or children. Not long ago we thought that homosexuality was a choice, and that homosexual behavior should be punished. Not long ago, we believed that sexual deviance could be cured through therapy.

Most of us don't think that way any more. But it is a mistake to judge past behavior by today's more enlightened standards. If it is not a mistake, then we must be willing to be judged as immoral by future generations for doing what we believe is morally acceptable-things such as putting people in prisons, regarding workers as commodities, treating women differently from women, consuming more than what we need to sustain life, and eating animals.

All have sinned. We have done so in the past, and we will continue to do so. Throwing stones does not solve the problems of the past, even the ones that persist into the present. If we want the Catholic Church to change, and if we want our society to change, we need to do more than talk about it. We need to start doing something about it. Each of us, in our own way.

Joseph Martos, Ph.D. is a retired professor of philosophy and theology and author of books on history and  theology of the sacraments. He is an ARCC Board member.
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