Saturday, July 28, 2018

Apostolate of the Wrathful? A Reflection on Going Past Anger to Find Just Solutions

Preliminary Notes: In these times, it is easy to accuse those don’t jump on a bandwagon over what should be done of indifference, complacency, or even support of the evil done. I want to make clear that anyone who thinks this article advocates any of these things or is making excuses for wrongdoers has rashly judged me. I certainly don’t support a status quo. The point of this article is to sort out the difference between rightly directed anger and misdirected wrath that some pundits seem to be promoting.


The fallout from the recent McCarrick revelations and Latin America continues. There’s no doubt that wrongdoing exists. The problem that I see is that, among the legitimate shock and anger against wrongdoing, there are some Catholics who are publicly presuming that all of the bishops are guilty through negligence or deliberate coverup. That’s what needs to be investigated, not assumed to be true.
(This news broke during the writing of this article. It’s a reminder that
just because we don’t hear about something doesn’t mean nothing is being done)

While the case of McCarrick himself was handled until the canonical process is finished and more serious censures are handed down, we still have to deal with the arguments over who actually knew and were silent (as opposed to guilt by association).

In terms of logic, the contradiction of “all are guilty” is not “none are guilty.” The contradiction is “some are not guilty.” [§] Recognizing that, the task is to identify the ones who are actually guilty and the failures that allowed them to get away with it. This should be done with the intention of seeking justice for past and current wrongdoing while trying to prevent future wrongdoing. Doing this requires meticulous investigation to avoid punishing the innocent and preventing rushed policies that are either ineffective or do more harm than good.

The danger of that approach is that it can be stonewalled or can have the appearance of stonewalling if we don’t get immediate results. Of course working on stopping this evil cannot be done at a leisurely pace. The fact that these problems were revealed after we were assured that the problem was solved rightly inspires shock and anger.

Anger and Response 

The problem with anger, however, is that it can lead people to unreasonable and unjust responses. Think about the concept of “frontier justice” where an angry lynch mob would take the law into their own hands, assuming guilt and demanding their own standard of punishment. These mobs were often wrong about the guilt of the accused and always wrong in exacting their own punishment apart from the law.

While nobody is advocating literal “frontier justice” (though a few Catholics on social media are using reckless rhetoric that might eventually spark it) against the bishops, some are getting out of hand in their anger, assuming guilt where an investigation must happen first. Badly written articles and blog posts make accusations of widespread or even universal guilt without proof and people believe them without discernment, believing “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

The Church cannot rush to judgment, even when she must act swiftly. Letting the guilty go free is an injustice. But so is punishing the innocent. Being so lax that predators operate freely must be stopped. But being so strict that it hinders the mission of the Church is wrong too. In other words, the Church cannot be unjust in seeking justice.

Dealing with Delays 

And this frustrates people. Deliberations can be seen as stonewalling, and no doubt some would like to turn deliberations into stonewalling. Real harm was done and must be stopped. But while identifying the evil that must be stopped is relatively straightforward, finding the cause and solution is not necessarily so. After the rise of Protestantism, the Catholic Church began the Council of Trent to root out the abuses that led to it. But the Council of Trent ran from 1545 to 1563 (around 18 years!). Some of that length was due to slow moving (reading the early sessions, we see a lot of “let’s reconvene later” decrees). But some of the length was due to the need to identify the best possible response and decree how it must be done.

(There’s a lot of this in the earliest sessions)

Likewise, in dealing with the current crisis, we can get angry with unnecessary delays. There were problems with the 2002 policy that never thought to investigate allegations about those who rose high in the Church—problems that should not have happened. But in solving them, we must discern between unnecessary delays and unavoidable delays that come with seeking truth and just solutions.

The Apostolate of the Wrathful 

Adding to the confusion is the fact that among the rightly offended are what I call “the apostolate of the wrathful.”  I see this collection of factions as already being angry at the Church for one reason or another and seeing this scandal as justifying their previous anger. These factions (and I have no intention of pointing fingers at specific individuals) have carried out private wars against the Church and see their perceived enemy as the cause to this current crisis. Some allege celibacy, a male priesthood, or the Church teaching on homosexuality as the problem. Others see Vatican II, liberal clergy, or Pope Francis as a cause. There certainly seems to be a strong anti-clericalism present, assuming Church-wide corruption of the bishops and cardinals, fueling the claim that it’s impossible that they could be ignorant of the problem.

Distinguishing Mistakes From Malfeasance

While the Church receives her authority from God, she remains governed by finite human beings. All of them, like us, are in need of salvation and all of them can be mistaken (barring the areas where the Pope is protected from error). This means that even a good bishop can be deceived by a lie from someone they thought was trustworthy. It means that even a saintly bishop can make a decision that seems right to them but is actually flawed. Other bishops might do wrong out of cowardice or a desire not to “rock the boat.” Some, sadly, do participate knowingly in evil. That’s inevitable.

However, the fact that this happens in general is inevitable does not mean we can be apathetic about the specific wrongdoing in our time. For example, heresy will inevitably arise, but that doesn’t permit apathy or complacency to the rise of a specific heresy. Rather this means we will never achieve a state where no evil, cowardice, or mistakes occur within the Church, but we will have to deal with each case when it comes along to prevent loopholes or vicious customs from thriving.

Distinguishing the Authority of the Church from her Shameful Members

With that in mind, we have to remember that the Church herself, led by the magisterium continues to have the authority to bind and loose and we have the obligation to give religious submission of intellect and will when they teach (see canons 752-753). We cannot withdraw obedience from that authority when we are offended by the members of the magisterium. We still have the obligation to follow the precepts of the Church. So, when someone invokes a scandal as an excuse to ignore obedience, that remains wrong. Jesus binds in Heaven what is bound on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18).

So, when determining the proper response to scandal and corruption, disobedience is not an option. Dissent remains a sin. Catholics who advocate disobedience on account of the scandal are doing wrong, and we cannot do evil so good may come of it (CCC #1789). That can be hard to bear, but we must trust that God protects His Church in this case.

The Obligation of Mercy

Another thing we must remember. The Church is not a business that can simply fire an incompetent or wrongdoing employee. The Church exists to carry out the mission of bringing Our Lord’s salvation to the world, calling the wrongdoing sinners to be reconciled to God. No matter how heinous the sin, there is not one person whom we can “write off” as irredeemable. Wrath tends to sacrifice the mercy for notorious sinner in the name of punishment. It tends to presume guilt must be present and insists we move onto the punishment phase

Consider Genesis 18:22ff.

22 As the men turned and walked on toward Sodom, Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there were fifty righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from you! Should not the judge of all the world do what is just?” 26 The Lord replied: If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.

Abraham kept pleading down to ten just men, with God promising to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if they existed. As it turned out, they didn’t, so God spared Lot and his family. The problem is, unlike God, the Apostolate of the Wrathful seems willing to sacrifice the innocent so long as they get the guilty. They are willing to presume guilt and if a few innocent get swept away, they were probably guilty of something. If a bishop was an associate of a wrongdoer, that bishop is presumed to be complicit in the evil through association. But the Catholic Church cannot act that way. She cannot punish without proof of wrongdoing and she cannot arbitrarily change her rules to behave mercilessly. The Church must work to bring salvation even the most heinous sinner. The punishments issued must not drive the person into despair or defiance. Yes, a wrongdoer might be defiant anyway, but the Church herself must not drive them to that point or erect roadbloacks in the road to salvation while imposing penalties.

“But Everybody Knew That...”

Hearsay is not proof.

If a victim comes forward and provided credible and usable evidence, and a bishop refused to pass it on or attacked the victim for coming forward, that is wrongdoing that must be investigated. No excuses can be made for that. It is also true that the victims can be too ashamed or otherwise traumatized to come forward. That’s understandable. I would not blame the victim for being unable to come forward.

The problem is, some Catholic pundits are saying that these bishops and cardinals must have heard rumors and should have acted on them. The problem is, rumors themselves (what “everybody knows”) are not always true, and sometimes even false [†].  

Of course if a lot of rumors come from different sources in the same region, all saying the same thing, there should be an investigation to see if they are more than mere rumors and a failure to do so is a problem that must be corrected. But we need to remember that the existence of rumors in themselves are not proof. Bishops cannot build a case on hearsay. So hearing these things does not automatically mean that they have enough to act on. 

An investigation into what individual bishops knew and were silent on must determine who had the responsibility to act and whether they had the information necessary to act. It’s not enough to say, “everybody heard of this, so bishop X must be guilty.”

The Search for Truth, Justice, and Mercy

I don’t want anyone to think this is easy. But I also don’t want anyone to think this is impossible. The closer someone is to a victim, the harder it will be for them to deal with a wrongdoer getting away. I can’t even imagine what an actual victim must have gone through seeing Cardinal McCarick, Bishop Barrios or others being elevated despite wrongdoing. I can’t imagine their frustration if the case turns up unable to establish guilt. One can understand this anger is justified. But if we are going to truly find a solution to this problem, the Church needs to be clear on why this is happening, investigate how it can keep happening, and where the system we have is ineffective or unjust, we must make reforms. In other words: People understandably and justly want reform. But there’s a vast difference between calling for an undefined reform and making actual reforms.

We cannot make unjust reforms. We cannot have the Spanish Inquisition kind of injustice (I actually saw someone advocate this!) to be more efficient in punishing the accused. We must make sure that the accused is guilty before punishing and make sure the procedure does not let the guilty get away. We must make sure that the penalties are aimed at protecting the innocent from harm and inspire seeking repentance.


I think it should be clear that going from “something must be done!” to actually fixing the problem is going to take a lot of difficult work and difficult soul searching. For example, I get the impression that the reason there is a bishop sized hole in the protection of minors is because the bishops found it hard to believe someone reaching that level in the Church was capable of this evil without being caught before that point. Clearly that thinking was wrong, and it must be corrected as quickly as possible. 

But it also must be corrected justly. And that’s the difficulty. It’s easy to pass a law. But it’s harder to pass a just law. No doubt the bishops believed they established a just solution in 2002. We now know that belief was false. But we should keep that failure in mind. We do not want to rush through a solution that turns out to have numerous flaws in another 15 years or so. But neither do we want to be paralyzed into inaction.

That’s why it’s the wrong approach for pundits to just say “We must do X.” We must consider all the consequences of X and make sure we don’t do a rush job we will later regret. That means we need to pray for the Church to guide the magisterium to find the right solution. We must make known our concerns (a la canon 212 §3) respectfully. But we must not reduce the process to mob rule, committing injustice in our attempts to reform. Nor can we behave like rebels against the legitimate authority which the Church exercises.

On social media, I see a lot of anger and a lot of desire to accuse people of complicity. But unless we go beyond slogans and determine real culpability we’re not helping find a solution. We’re merely behaving like a mob and that will not solve the problem.


[§] This also applies to anger in the Catholic media towards this scandal. Only a fraction of them are doing what I am writing against and I have no intention of saying ALL are guilty.

[†] I suspect one of the reasons the original response was so slow was people believed the perpetrators could never do this because the reported perversion was so evil. Sadly, it turned out that some clergy could be that vile.

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