The Catholic Church Must Strive For Virtue in Light of Sex Abuse

The Catholic Church Must Strive For Virtue in Light of Sex Abuse
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The Vatican dismissed the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the clerical state for his sexually abusive behavior.

Has the Catholic Church put the great scandals of 2018 behind it?

Hardly. 

The McCarrick case is about more than McCarrick’s grave failings as a priest. Stripping the former Cardinal of his rights as a priest still leaves bigger questions about the Catholic hierarchy both in America and in Rome unanswered. How did someone who engaged in such evil rise to become a prince of the Catholic Church? What happened in this case and others? How can we ensure it never happens again?  

Yes, disciplining McCarrick is an important step in reforming the Church, just as the protective steps taken already by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have made Catholic churches and schools some of the safest places in the nation for children thanks to the Dallas Charter. In 2002, the U.S. bishops agreed to permanently remove from ministry any priest who committed even one abusive act against a child, to report every abuse accusation against priests to government authorities, to conduct background checks on all church employees who work with children, to establish abuse prevention programs and to appoint special ministers to help abuse victims as well as lay committees known as review boards to assess accusations against priests. The Vatican now must do more than simply throw out a predator priest like McCarrick so that the Catholic Church throughout the world can walk in the path of the good, true and beautiful.

Pope Francis summoned presidents of the world's bishops' conferences to Rome this month to address the matter. While deference to the regional needs of the faithful has marked Francis' pontificate, "zero tolerance" of sexual impropriety and abuse has to mean the same thing in Lima, Peru as it does in Portland, Oregon. And it must mean the same thing for seminarians, priests and members of the church hierarchy. 

Fortunately, the U. S. bishops' conference’s current leadership has already shown its interest in working with the faithful to develop pragmatic, countrywide solutions to compliment any greater Vatican oversight. These new proposals, along with the continued implementation of the American bishops' 2002 protocols, will help restore confidence among American Catholics. 

Getting "our house in order" with institutional safeguards, however, is not the end of it. The Catholic Church is not merely a human institution like a television network worried about its public image. The Church ultimately stands as a great moral authority in a growingly secular and troubled world, attending to the needs of the orphaned, the hungry, the sick, the most innocent and the vulnerable. Above all, the Church is in the business of caring for souls. More than ever, the Catholic Church has to be present to those wounded by sexual abuse in the workplace, the home and even the Church itself. 

But how can Catholics work together in such noble causes, and how can the Church stand against the barbarities of our reeling, sex-ravaged age when faced with so many open wounds and so much distrust?

Years ago, a priest from Mexico gave me some advice on how to deal with a particularly difficult group of people: "Live the virtues that others lack." Simple. Powerful. In regard to the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis, we can all start by (re)committing ourselves to virtue —especially purity and humility. 

Saint John Paul II, in the late pope's famous talks on the theology of the body, said "purity is a capacity centered on the dignity of the body." Such purity applies to the human body and the Church – the Body of Christ. A commitment to purity also guides our intentions. It’s a check on living inauthentic double lives.

The other virtue to adopt is humility, which Mother Teresa called "the mother of all virtues." "If you are humble," she said, "nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are." Humility allows for a prompt and effective correction when behavior starts to cross the line. And it guides the powerful to act in the service of others. 

Church leaders from prelates to Pope can follow up on McCarrick's defrocking this month and beyond by making plain the Church’s teaching on and commitment to purity in behavior and intentions. And they can model humility by acknowledging any role they played in allowing McCarrick – or other McCarricks – to find a home in the hierarchy and purging anyone unwilling to faithfully live out their priestly vocation.  

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation.

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