How can Christianity and the Catholic Church be true and yet containing so many scandals and injustices?
Answering this objection is the third column of a series aimed at helping young people who are questioning their faith or their membership in the Catholic Church.
G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic convert from the high Anglican Church of England in the late 1800s, is often quoted as saying, “The problem with Christianity is Christians.”
I agree, the record of the church is often tainted and Christians must address this challenge with humility.
First, we must admit that the church is a divinely inspired institution that is run by sinners in need of forgiveness. Pope Francis said something to this effect when he described the church, not as a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners. In the church there are only imperfect people finding their way to their heavenly home.
One of the most striking answers to this objection came in March of 2000 from Saint John Paul II with his famous act of repentance for injustices committed by the church during its 2,000-year history. He said: “We forgive and we ask forgiveness. We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth, and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed towards followers of other religions… confession of sins against the dignity of women and the unity of the human race… Let us pray for women, who are all too often humiliated and marginalized.” He then asked God’s pardon for those Christians who, “yielding to a mentality of power, have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.”
These words were an incredible act of humility. The world saw the church on her knees. I remember the awe I personally felt when the pope prayed this confession.
So, yes, there is a need to be humble about this objection, but there are also some problems that need to be pointed out.
We must be careful not to critique one historical time entirely from our 2016 perspective. In other words we can read into other historical moments our own bias. In 100 years we will probably look as foolish as we think others did 100 years ago.
Secondly, when Christianity fails or the church falls into scandal we mustn’t throw it all away but rather look for the deeper Christianity, the holier church. A prime example of this was the civil rights movement and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. The movement was a religious revival of Christianity, not primarily a secular movement. It was a Gospel-inspired conversion of and for Christians, filled with public appeals to the Bible and constant prayers to Christ.
Martin Luther King Jr. challenged Christians to live according to their own biblical principles of defending human dignity and the sacredness of each life. Quoting from the Book of Amos he famously said, “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In fact Christian principles are woven throughout his speeches: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” “To return hate for hate does nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Someone must have sense enough and religion enough to cut off the chain of hate and evil, and this can only be done through love.”
Martin Luther King Jr. never told Christians who were oppressing African Americans to give up Christianity. Rather, he said find your true Christianity and live out the Gospel that you claim to follow.
Thirdly, most people criticize the church while unwittingly utilizing Christian principles to do so. We are more Christianized then we realize. Forgiving your enemies and not repaying evil for evil are specifically Christian ideas. Princeton historian Peter Brown says the Christian idea that you should love the poor was a completely new idea in the history of the world, introduced by the Christian church. Many of our modern beliefs about the inherent dignity of each person and personal rights come from the Christian affirmation that all people are created in the image of God and therefore all are sacred and each valued.
Finally, in critiquing the church we should keep in mind the treasures she has deposited. In a booklet “Lumen: The Catholic Gift to Civilization,” two priest authors recount the gifts that the Catholic Church has brought to the world.
They write, “It is easy to overlook the extraordinary enlightenment that Catholicism has brought to the world. Much of our university system, art, music, legal tradition, charity and even much of our science have come from Catholic civilization and Catholic minds. So much of what we value in our society comes from Catholic civilization. Those attacking the Church could, of course, point justifiably to many sins, failings and omissions by members of the Church over the past two thousand years … But there is clearly an urgent need to bring these fruits of Catholicism to wider public attention for the sake of truth, justice and to prevent the channels of grace from being obscured.”
To finish with a quotation from Pope Francis: “You could say to me, ‘But the church is made up of sinners; we see them every day.’ And this is true. We are a church of sinners. And we sinners are called to let ourselves be transformed, renewed, sanctified by God.”