If anyone is cause of scandal to one of these little ones who believes in me, better for him that a great millstone be put round his neck, and he be thrown into the sea.
The language of Jesus is so violent! A great millstone round his neck! Then: cut it off! Amputate it! Tear it out! Burning fire; gnawing worm; eternal punishment in hell. Does Jesus ever employ the figure of speech we call hyperbole? He does. But admitting that softens none of his words. His language is ferocious, violent, shocking, because he has such horror of sin, and especially of this particular sin, so utterly heinous as it is. To lead one of the little ones astray, to corrupt their faith, or deliberately to harm them in any way: the gravity of such a sin can only be compared with that of Judas Iscariot, who sold his Lord for money, and then, rejecting the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, hanged himself. Better for that man, said Jesus, looking straight into the eyes of Judas, if he had never been born (Mt 26:24).
When I realised that it would be my turn to preach today, my spontaneous first resolve was to avoid any mention of the abuse scandal, of which we are all so weary, or to say anything rude about Bishops. But then the text of today’s Gospel confronted me. And I suppose there is no investigative journalist in the world, however bitterly hostile to the Church, however harshly anti-Catholic or anti-clerical, whose condemnation of the crime of abuse could match that of Jesus.
We all cringe as each new damning revelation hits the headlines. What enormous damage all this does to the mission of the Church, to people’s trust and confidence in her, to the morale of the faithful! We can only hope that from so much evil, good will be drawn. And so, please God, it will be. May the Holy Angels intervene to direct all things to this end!
What good, you cry, can possibly come from such evil? Much good, perhaps: because that’s the way God typically works (cf. Gn 50:20). In the first place, good for the Church as a whole. If there has been endemic corruption festering away at her heart, then let it all be exposed, and let us take the consequences, however painful: so long as the corruption be rooted out. Good also for the perpetrators. If they are now publicly humiliated and punished, they can rejoice that opportunities for further offences have now been taken away from them. And they can seize the chance, providentially given, to do real penance, to offer what reparation they can, to prepare for death in true sorrow for what they have done, trusting in the Divine Mercy to save them from hell. Some good also for the little ones who have suffered. Of course nothing can ever undo what has been done to them. Still, at least now please God they will always be taken seriously. At least now they will know that what happened to them cannot ever be considered acceptable, or of light moment, and that blame for it cannot in any way be transferred to them. We pray too that they will be helped to turn again with complete trust to Jesus, who calls them with such preferential care to himself, who identifies himself with them, and who reveals to them the possibility of a love that is perfectly pure.
I wonder if we dare hope also for another sort of good for the Church? Might the present crisis bring about some sort of sea change in a form of clerical culture that has established itself all over the West, over the past half century or so? The culture I speak of applies across all the denominations. It has produced Christian leaders whose whole training has rendered them of all people the least fitted to deal adequately with our current crisis.
The sort of Church leader we have nurtured, wanted, chosen, all this time, is above all a manager. His business is to keep things running smoothly, and everyone as far as possible happy. He finds himself most at home in the committee meeting. He is informal, chatty, easy going, good natured. His great fear is to be thought out of touch, or behind the times, or old fashioned. This man - please believe I have no individual in mind - but let us say anyway - this man rarely if ever goes to confession. He is aware that many of his Priests rarely if ever go to confession either, and for the majority of his people confession simply doesn’t happen. This doesn’t bother him, because he’s not that bothered by the idea of sin. Old style clericalism is no temptation to him, but he fits perfectly into the mould of the new clericalism. That is: he is very comfortable within his own clerical clique. He happily assumes power he does not have to dispense people from the moral law. He takes it upon himself to soften or even do away with elements in the faith perceived as difficult or unpopular. He causes division and confusion among his people by preaching strongly in favour of certain causes which are no part of the Gospel, but which belong properly to the field of political or personal opinion.
Today’s Gospel is an embarrassment to this man. He would never say in public that he doesn’t believe in hell, but he easily assumes that if it exists then it must be empty, and that everyone will go to heaven, because God, like himself, is nice. And so both the mystery of iniquity, and the mystery of divine wrath remain far beyond his comprehension. Faced with evidence of an abusive Priest, his instinct is to cover it up, to smooth it all over, to manage the situation, so that no one will be upset.
The present crisis strongly suggests that now we need a different style. We also need Church leaders who will have the courage to denounce those who continue to scandalise the little ones. What shall we say of those who protect and promote the abortion industry in our country, and who even persuade people to have their unborn children killed? What of those who legislate to weaken the institution of marriage and the family; who prefer the sexual preferences of parents to the good of children; who make divorce ever easier, and any life time commitment ever more difficult? What shall we say of those who foster promiscuity among young children, and confusion about who they are? What of those who preach gender ideology in schools, and even promote the practice of irreversible, life changing mutilation among those who are most vulnerable? Of course other people besides children are vulnerable in our day. There are not wanting those, for example, who will facilitate and even encourage the suicide of severely depressed people. These things and many like them are happening all around us. May God then grant us strong, authentically holy Christian leaders who will dare to preach the truth boldly and effectively in our day; who will live according to the truth they preach, and who will attract today’s lost, unevangelised generation to Jesus, to his Kingdom, to life in Him.