We knew it was coming. Months before the recent release of the report of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy, my fellow seminarians and I were forewarned on two separate occasions that the findings would be disturbing. We were told that the survey would give a detailed description of the extent of the damage that was done by predatory priests, who were in some instances enabled by episcopal wrongdoing.
As seminarians, we are used to defending our decision to pursue the priesthood, so we immediately anticipated the obvious questions that would follow. Why, for example, would anyone want to give up a wife, a family and a career to commit himself to such a contaminated, if not hypocritical, institution?
It is true, of course, that the problem of child molestation is societal, not denominational. It is also true, however, that most of us expect more from the Catholic Church—especially from her priests and bishops—than we do from the rest of society. For this reason, today’s Catholic seminaries are not what they were when they allowed men like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley to slip through the cracks. Today’s seminaries are characterized by careful psychological screening, one-on-one spiritual direction, in-house access to psychotherapy, attention to human formation and frank discussion of human sexuality and celibacy.
But we have changed more than our seminaries. It used to be the case that Catholics spoke triumphantly about their church. Traditionally, the church itself was said to be “a moral miracle” and an outward indication of its own credibility. The idea was that the church, as a visible sign—with its countless hospitals, schools and various charitable initiatives—made it easier to believe in an invisible reality.
Today, in light of all that has happened and that is now known, this sort of boasting seems almost untenable. As Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., once put it, the church has become both the object of and an obstacle to the faith of many Catholics.
As a first-year seminarian, I found the report hard to read. But I was glad to be in Rome when I read it. Here, hope is almost effortless, because more than anywhere else in the world, the church’s dynamic depth and diversity are everywhere evident.
I take courses at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which was established in the mid-1500’s. It is now an international university. During a coffee break, one can hear any number of the world’s languages and dialects. The crowded halls stir with African nuns and Asian friars, missionaries and monks from every corner of the globe, as well as diocesan seminarians and lay women who have consecrated their lives to celibacy.
These students represent the face and the future of global Catholicism. They are young and acutely aware of the church’s promise and possibility. They are not afraid of the modern world or of their own ancient heritage. They believe they have something important to say, and that they have good reason—despite doubt, danger and even violence—to stand firm.
While I worry about the pain and betrayal revealed by the recent report, another seminarian from the Sudan worries about the fact that his family—the parents who raised him and the brothers and sisters with whom he played as a child—still lives in a country where 2.5 million Christians have been killed, and another five million remain refugees.
His experience adds breadth to my own perspective. It reminds me that I belong to a church that is much larger than the United States. Because of this, I can see that across a world characterized by racial and religious tension and conflict, the church has overlaid its own remarkable unity—shaped by faith, solidarity and the bonds of love.
Despite the obvious external differences, the students with whom I study have been called together from all over the earth, impelled by the same interior conviction. We do not believe because of good arguments, good priests or even because of the church itself, but because our deepest desires and expectations have been met in the depths of our souls, where we are alone with God.
It was a responsible action on the part of the U.S. bishops to commission this unprecedented report, and it was reasonable for them to release the results. We are now talking about the ways in which we can learn from the past, and the church’s new policies and procedures are at the forefront of institutional practices aimed at protecting children.
For many of us, however, that is only half the story. Although they are gravely disturbing, the results of this report do not affect the reason for my being Catholic, or even for being a seminarian.
At a time when skepticism and despair disable many of our peers, my colleagues and I are embracing a religious tradition that says life can have purpose and meaning. In an era of insecurity and injustice, it provides us with age-old norms of conduct. It offers deliverance from the burdens of guilt, and, most important, it opens a vast horizon of hope.
In the end, the scandals might weaken the credibility of the church’s leadership, but they strengthen the credibility of the church itself, which goes beyond any one location or moment. History and the John Jay report underscore the fact that despite incompetent management and imprudent stewardship, the church has endured for more than 20 centuries. In spite of the human evil and corruption that consistently threaten to subvert it, Christianity has never ceased to expand, inspiring and improving every culture and society that it touches.
History has shown that the church’s unusual staying power does not depend on the sanctity of its members. I believe that this is because the source of her life—her interior principle of unity—is neither human nor easy to explain.