The Virtues of Catholic Anger


(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

 

The Virtues of Catholic Anger

In the face of the Pennsylvania abuse scandal, Christians should use their rage to combat evil within the church.

By James Martin

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is the editor at large of America magazine.

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CreditDesign Pics, via Getty Images

Every American Catholic I know is angry — with good reason. The recent release of a grand jury investigation into 70 years of sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania is appalling in its breadth and detail.

One priest had his victim wash his mouth out with holy water after being forced to perform a sex act on the priest. Another arranged an abortion for a minor he impregnated. Compounding these appalling crimes were years of documented cover-ups by church officials.

That most of these stories are decades old does not diminish the abject horror among Catholics today who read them today.

These disgusting reports come on the heels of revelations that one of the church’s most powerful clerics, Theodore E. McCarrick, for many years the archbishop of Washington, D.C., was accused of multiple incidents of harassing seminarians and young priests and of the sexual abuse of a minor.

Catholic wrath burns hot. Chief among those enraged are victims and their families, several of whom I know, many whose lives have been destroyed by sexual violence. Catholics not directly affected by the abuse are furious at both abusive priests and the bishops who covered up their crimes, and many have had their faith in the church severely shaken. Many believed that after the sex abuse scandals of 2002, the church had “moved on” and so feel poleaxed by these new stories.

Pennsylvania Catholics (of whom I am one: I grew up in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia) have shared their personal anger with me as they read about pastors they knew who had taken unforgiving stances with them on sexual matters while raping children. Some millennial Catholics, who were themselves children in 2002, are appalled as they read about sex abuse cases as adults for the first time.

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The Catholic clergy is furious as well. Like many priests, I have been deluged with emails from Catholics saying, “I don’t know how I can stay in the church.” To see a person’s faith shaken in the church is to know that they may be tempted to distance themselves from God, another tragedy.

And we are painfully aware that the financial settlements — justified, of course — mean slashing desperately needed programs at the diocesan and parish level: educational programs for the young, health care assistance for the aged, financial aid for the poor in the community.

Then there are more selfish reasons: These stories, even though they represent a fraction of the priesthood, cast every Catholic priest in the darkest light. During the 2002 crisis I was spat upon in the subway on two occasions and at times was embarrassed to wear my collar.

Lately, I have also been angry with the Catholic commentators who have been using these revelations to advance their own agendas, so that the suffering of children becomes an opportunity to stir up hatred, for example, of all gay priests, or L.G.B.T. people in general.

Or they use these stories to whip up what seems to be their boundless contempt for Pope Francis. One of the more absurd tropes has been far-right commentators blaming Francis for Archbishop McCarrick’s crimes, conveniently ignoring the fact that he was named a bishop by Pope Paul VI and rose in the ranks, and was named a cardinal, under St. John Paul II. Francis may be responsible for some failures in the church today, even when it comes to addressing sexual abuse, but Theodore McCarrick is not one of them.

All this anger may seem like an un-Christian scourge, tearing the church apart. In fact, it is good, healthy and clarifying.

In the Gospels, Jesus is described as angry many times, a stark contrast to the portrait many have of him as a doe-eyed man of peace. Jesus excoriates the disciples for their lack of faith (“You faithless and perverse generation!”). Most famously, he makes a “whip of cords” and chases the “money changers” out of the temple in Jerusalem, upending their tables in a dramatic act that helped to lead to his execution by Roman authorities.

Anger is an important part of the life and ministry of Jesus. And so anger should be part of the Catholic life — with Jesus as a guide.

Jesus’ anger is always a righteous anger, never on behalf of himself, but in reaction to how he sees others being treated. Even as he is dying on the cross, he refuses to be angry with the Roman soldiers who have crucified him, choosing instead to pray for them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus’ anger is, in a word, unselfish and constructive, intent on doing something, effecting a change.

Those Catholics who are feeling angry today are, in the Christian worldview, feeling God’s anger. This is, as I see it, God’s primary way of acting in the world: through our human emotions. How else would God act, how else would God intervene, how else would God move to change things, other than to rouse in us a burning desire to upend the tables of the clerical culture and chase out all those who have defamed and abused the trust placed in them?

What can Catholics do? Listen to your anger. Let it inform you. Let it move you to act in whatever way you think will most protect children and root out the clerical rot that gave rise to these crimes. I can only suggest a few specific actions: Speak to your pastor, write to your bishop, express your anger to the Vatican’s nuncio in this country. Most of all, work in any way that you can for real change, even at the cost of being seen as a troublemaker.

But more important than my suggestions is what each Catholic feels moved to do.

Buried within one of the central texts of the Second Vatican Council, “Lumen Gentium” (“The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”), a document of the highest teaching authority, promulgated in 1964, is a vivid call to arms, addressed to laypeople. The laity are, the Second Vatican Council said, “by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.”

Today their strong emotions should encourage them to follow the call of their church. In fact, their anger obliges them to do so.

James Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine and author of “Jesus: A Pilgrimage” and, most recently, “Building a Bridge.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Virtues of Catholic Anger. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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