"Do not be surprised, beloved, that a trial by fire is occurring in your midst. .... See to it that none of you suffers for being a murderer, a thief, a malefactor, or a destroyer of another's rights. If anyone suffers for being a Christian, however, he ought not to be ashamed. He should rather glorify God in virtue of that name. The season of judgment has begun, and begun with God's own household. If it begins this way with us, what must be the end for those who refuse obedience to the gospel of God?" -- 1 Peter, 4: 12-17.
"Jesus...is 'full of grace and truth' (Jn. 1:14): he can read every human heart, he wants to condemn the sin but save the sinner, and unmask hypocrisy. St. John the Evangelist highlights one detail while his accusers are insistently interrogating him, Jesus bends down and starts writing with his finger on the ground. Thus, Jesus is the Legislator, he is Justice in person. And what is his sentence? 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.' These words are full of disarming power of truth that pulls down the wall of hypocrisy and opens consciences to a greater justice, that of love, in which consists the fulfillment of every precept." -- Benedict XVI, Angelus, March 20, 2010 (ORE, March 24).
Let me see if I can spell out reasons for the latest publicity about clerical abuse, particularly what it has to do with the Church's legitimacy. Some think we have here an issue that can finally carry out Voltaire's famous exclamation about the Church: "Crush the Infamous Thing." Of course, behind Voltaire was the counter position of the Lord's own guarantee that the same Church teachings would last even to the consummation of the world.
This assurance, however, did not mean that no Catholic, no priest, would ever sin again. Nietzsche was rather scandalized that Christians did not live exactly as Christ did. But they did come to live as Christ actually expected, lives often in need of forgiveness. It is, in this sense, difficult to fault the Church for finding in its ranks those whom Christ also expected to find there. This situation was, after all, a main reason why He came in the first place, that we repent and have our sins forgiven, not repeated ad infinitum.
We are seeing repeated on an international scale what we first saw on a national scale. We see cases in Norway, Chile, Germany, and Ireland. No doubt, as it says in Scripture, everything will be shouted from the housetops until we become completely bored with it all. It is a growth industry. The history of the Church (and mankind) in every century sees similar things recurring.
In principle, it is a good thing that we know the extent and destructive nature of these disorders, to the individuals concerned, both victims and perpetrators, as well as to the public and to the Church. Christ died to save sinners from their own free choices. He evidently did not come to prevent the possibility of sinning. Had he done this latter, He would have come to make men cease to be men.
If Benedict XVI has brought anything to the fore in Catholic theology, it is the nature and necessity of "judgment" of the acts we put into the world. This judgment is what Spe Salvi, among other things, is about. It is also very much what Plato is about. Augustine had said that Christian revelation was not necessary to learn what virtue was. The pagan philosophers understood this already. What mystified the great pagan thinkers was not the definition of virtue but its practice.
What we quickly learned both during and after the life of Christ was that the practice of virtue, even with grace, would still be quite difficult. Christians, along with everyone else, would still too often be sinners. One does not become a Christian in order to guarantee that he will never sin again. He becomes a Christian in order, should he sin again, that he need not despair of his soul's eternal fate, provided he is willing to respond as Christ in the Church asked him.
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