After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him (6:66)
These days many are speaking of leaving the Catholic Church, and stopping going with her, not because of her divine teaching, but because of the sins and infidelities of her official representatives. The latest revelations about clerical abuse, both in this country and in the United States, fill us all with shame and revulsion and anger. We can scarcely blame those who say in the light of all this that they will never again trust any Catholic Priest or Bishop. How horrible it is that apparently the Church will only put her own house in order when forced to do so by secular authorities. How horrible too that just when our society most desperately needs strong, clear, consistent teaching in the realm of human sexuality, the voice that should give that teaching seems to have forfeited all moral authority, and even all respect.
Everyone here will have his own thoughts and ideas about all this. I hope you might forgive me for offering one or two of mine now. I quite see that many would prefer to draw a veil of silence over this whole sordid subject, pretend that everything is fine, and carry on as normal. But in some circumstances silence is what is most of all to be condemned. Silence can, on occasion, be a symptom of moral cowardice, of complicity, of a refusal to confront pressing but difficult subjects. The silence of a preacher can signal a shirking of clear duty, out of desire to remain always positive, and popular, and comfortable.
Some voices these days are loudly raised, from within the Church as well as from outside, calling for the wholesale abandonment of Catholic teaching and ideals on sexual matters, and the substitution of prevailing secular standards and opinions instead. Let us, they demand, do away with Priestly celibacy, and a male only Priesthood, and - as suggested in the Tablet - the Rule of St. Benedict. And let us open ourselves at last to divorce and remarriage and homosexual marriage and contraception and cohabitation and all the rest. The trouble is that if we do all that, we still won’t have touched the problem of abuse, and in the process we’ll have become radically unfaithful to Jesus Christ, and to his Gospel. Better, it seems to me, to take the path of fidelity, and purification, and whole-hearted renewal; to recover our lost sense of sin, and of penance, and of the call to true holiness and consistency of life in Christ.
Unfortunately a big part of this problem, which we ourselves are entirely powerless to address, is the corruption of the Bishops. And here I find myself impelled to mention not only the systematic and deliberate covering up of crimes, and intimidation of victims, and collusion with abusers, and misuse of funds given in support of works of religion, or for the relief of the poor, but also the teaching of false doctrine. You’ll know that many of the German Bishops these days are proposing to teach officially that you don’t have to be a Catholic to come to Holy Communion. This is rather analogous to another suggestion we’ve been hearing a lot about recently, that if you like you can come to communion, even if you’re in a state of public, grave and unrepented sin. And the world and his wife applauds, because this all sounds tolerant and non-judgemental and inclusive and compassionate and merciful. But to people like me it represents a direct attack on the heart of our faith. These Bishops, whatever their motivation, are capitulating to the spirit of the age, and trivialising the Holy Eucharist: reducing it to something merely subjective, emotional, individualistic. But they have no authority to do this. They were ordained to promote and defend our faith, not to change it, or water it down, or compromise it. We may be confident that no efforts to do that will prosper, or further the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, or give glory to God, or save souls.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says that it is the Spirit that gives life: while the flesh avails nothing. To apply these words to this context: holy communion does not work by magic. External reception of the Sacrament, without faith or commitment or even the desire for conversion, will not profit us anything. St. Paul even warns that by a sacrilegious communion we can eat to ourselves condemnation (cf. 1 Cor 11:27-32).
So it’s surely worth mentioning now those people who suffer very greatly from their longing to go to communion, while aware of some impediment that prevents that. They would love to resolve somehow their situation in life, but at present they don’t see how they can. Perhaps an individual Priest will offer them the easy solution of cheap grace. But they know this is wrong, so they continue to abstain, motivated in doing so by their faith and their love. This seems to me to be beautiful. Surely the Lord smiles on such people, and blesses their spiritual communions, and their honesty: please God also he will enable them to come to full participation in the Sacrament before they die.
Oddly enough I was much helped last week when someone gave us a copy of the Times Newspaper. It had an Editorial asserting that “the Catholic Church has lost all credibility”. And immediately I was consoled, because we know that’s false. The Church as such will never lose credibility. She remains now, as she always has been, and always will be, holy and immaculate: the spouse of Jesus Christ, indissolubly united with him (cf. Eph 5:27,32). She is holy in her Scriptures, and her Sacraments, and her doctrine, and her Saints. She is holy also in her worship, and her works of charity, and in the lives and the prayer and the love of all her holy people. As such she will always be attractive, and always fruitful. If many fall away today, others will continue to come. They will be drawn to the Catholic Church, as they are drawn to Jesus Christ, by God the Father (Jn 6:37,44,65). For we Catholics believe that you can’t have Christ without his Church, any more than you can have him without his Mother. She mediates him. She is the one through whom he becomes flesh and dwells among us. The two have become one Body, and they are not to be separated.
In every age, and I suppose in every region - alas! - throughout the history of the Church, there have been worldly, compromised, cowardly, unfaithful Bishops. Really we shouldn’t be too surprised if we find some still about today. But also in every age of the Church there have been some few great Pastors, holy men on fire with the love of God and of his People, men who are ready to lay down their lives for their sheep, in imitation of their master. We pray now that the Lord will raise up more such men in our own day and situation. But in the meantime we will not abandon the Church. On the contrary: we will love her all the more; pray for her, and with her, and in her. For we know there is nowhere else for us to go. She is our Mother, and in union with her divine Spouse she bears for us the words of eternal life.