The questions this week get right to the ugly bit about reforming the Church: There would be no need for reform if people weren’t doing things wrong.
To be a disciple of Christ is to concede that you do a ton of things wrong. That it’s your mission in life to find out what you’re doing wrong, and to change — through your own willingness, and through your cooperation with the grace of God.
All this would be unbearable if we were condemned for our sins. The reason to stick around for Christianity is because God does not demand our blood, He offers his own. We don’t have a religion that let’s us brush off our sins as “no big deal” or “not really hurting anybody” or “just a mistake”. It is a big deal. We do get hurt.
And we freely choose to do wrong even when we know better. Venial sin is worse than the measles, to quote the much-maligned children’s Baltimore Catechism. Mortal sin is worse than cancer, to quote I’m-not-sure-whom. You only die of cancer once; you die of mortal sin for all eternity.
I’m persuaded that Christians today, in addition to having a loose grasp on the reality of God and everything else, haven’t got much of a notion of forgiveness. We observe (correctly) that our friends are eminently likeable people, so we decide that must mean they are innocent. We observe (correctly) that God loves our friends, and therefore they can’t possibly be headed to Hell.
The results is that when someone really betrays us, or really commits some serious, shocking harm, we have to switch over to demonizing. I’m reminded of a murder I read about in the newspaper once. The neighbor observed that the murderer (a mother) loved her children dearly, evidenced by the fact that she made her children brush her teeth every night. Surely a mother who makes her children brush her teeth before bed wouldn’t murder them in the morning? Except that she did. The clean-teeth rule doesn’t hold.
I happen to like just about everyone, so the Do I Like You? method of moral theology doesn’t satisfy.
In our parishes, the reality that our leaders sin (and err) does not negate everything they do. A devoted musician, a kind catechist, or a generous priest, doesn’t cease to be devoted or kind or generous on account of this or that unrelated shortcoming. “How can you say Mrs. Beazly wasn’t prepared for her lesson! She loves the children so dearly!” Well yes, she does love the children, and that’s to her credit. She still needs to brush up on her theology. And since she loves the children, surely she’s willing to sit down for a quick review of the creed, to make sure she’s got her facts right, no?
And it works the other way. “How can you say that man is a good priest, when he presides over Disco Mass every Sunday?” Well, yes, the disco Mass really must go. But that doesn’t mean Father needs to go. May the disco Mass perish in the netherworld, and Father chuckle with relief in a safe, happy place where we’ll spend 10,000 years with never a glimpse of shag carpet*.
So on the one hand, sin and stupidity ought to be shocking. How *could* you spend all these years in church leadership, and not even have a personal relationship with the Lord? Seriously? And on the other hand, sin and stupidity are such part and parcel of our everyday lives, it gets a little boring.
Which is not to say we shrug and put up with up with it. Measles, remember? Vaccinate, prescribe, rest and fluids, visit the sick person, recover slowly, be careful about hand-washing and sharing cups. But you would no more hate your friend for catching the measles than you ought to hate your friend for catching original sin. It happens.
Forgiveness is that moment when we let go of the natural horror of realizing things are really, really wrong, and step in and help out the sinner in whatever way we are able. Sometimes all we can do is pray. Sometimes, for the eternal safety of ourselves and others, spiritual quarantine really is the only prudent option.
(Said with full force of the virtue on that ‘prudence’, not a wiggly fearful over-caution hiding behind the real thing.)
Other times, we can do something more. When we can, we do.
*This vision of Heaven has not been approved by the Church. But if there is shag carpet in Heaven, it will be some kind of Divine shag carpet that persons actually want in their homes. Purgatory, on the other hand? All bets are off.