Scandal and Self-Definition: The Choice Between Fight or Flight

The past few weeks have been gut-wrenching for serious Catholics who must face the reality that the gates of hell had forged deeper inroads into the heart of the Church than our worst fears would have imagined.

We wonder how much outrage we can take.  How many unsatisfying platitudes and knee-jerk one-liners we must endure in “explanation” of houses of horror not outside, but inside the Church?

The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent_Monastery_of_St_Catherine_Sinai_12th_century - Copy
Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Descent (referenced in this podcast)

Pope Francis declared his shame, admitting in his Letter to the People of God that “to acknowledge the truth of what has happened, in itself this is not enough.”  We pray he means business.  New revelations force fresh doubts to rise and we must wait for his response to unfold.

Bishops have responded to the laity’s anguished demands that they do not remain silent about the abuse that took place Pennsylvania, now revealed by a graphic and grotesque Grand Jury report.

Faithful priests have, with reddened eyes and desperate hearts, filled the air not with silence but with their own anger: “it’s obviously like the worst thing ever…it’s the worst thing I’ve read about in my life.  It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard about in my life.  It is beyond comprehension….Honestly, I don’t understand it.”

Everyone who’s paying attention knows that more horror, not less, will be revealed as the faithful demand that silence and coverups cease.  The righteous anger, the warrior-mode of the humbly faithful is unleashed.  Wounded and outraged, they have been emboldened to fight for the Church’s purification.

Social media offers ordinary people an avenue of public expression, and I’ve seen so many heartbreakingly beautiful responses to this degradation that I have been brought to tears of solidarity, stunned still merely scrolling through my Instagram feed. Musicians Kevin Heider and Alanna Boudreau, speaker Chris Stefanick, artist Katrina Harrison and blogger Christy Isinger are among them.  They are helping us suffer together, giving voice to the pain and bitterness we’re all feeling.

519uNvR6Q2LBeautiful souls have responded to this tragedy in a way that illustrates a mysterious truth developed in Fr. Robert Spitzer’s book The Light Shines on in the Darkness:  Transforming Suffering Through Faith.

Suffering, says Spitzer (who is losing his vision and so has authenticity most of us cannot match), has a “self-definitional quality.” It provides a powerful moment of self-defining choice:  do we run, quit, sink deeper into self-pity, or do we rise, increase our trust in the Father, reach out to others, pray and act?

Do we choose fight or flight?

“Free will entails the possibility of causing suffering to others,” Spitzer writes (long before the current crisis); “therefore God cannot prevent us from causing such suffering without simultaneously depriving us of free will.”

Indeed, the exercise of free will for evil purposes was the cause of the degradation of the innocent at the hands of those they should have been able to trust.  It is the cause of suffering for all the faithful who must live with the results of their atrocities, but most of all of the victims whose wounds are reopened and whose scars are unimaginable except by those who’ve also been there.

But suffering, says Spitzer, presents a moment to define who we are. 

Life as Catholic Christians would definitely be easier had these crimes not been committed.  But we can’t change the fact that they did.  What does this moment offer us?

Scandal and Self-DefinitionA chance to “prove who we are and who we will become.”  An opportunity to prove our mettle and grow in virtue, to look once more at the bleeding, Incarnate God on the Cross and realize that God “had no intention of leaving us alone in this inevitable suffering,” but to “make Himself intimately present to us particularly in our times of suffering.”

I recently listened to four young priests in their moment of self-definition as they revealed their pain and worked through their response in The Scandal and the Scouring episode of Catholic Stuff You Should Know, and I felt my own warrior-mode flare as I listened to Fathers John Nepil, Nathan Goebel and Michael O’Loughlin call themselves to greater holiness and lay out exactly what they think the bishops need to do next to move through this moment of exposure and demoralization.

And then I felt my heart break once more, as Fr. Michael O’Loughlin tenderly prayed at the discussion’s close:

Thank You for allowing us a role in the healing where damage has been done…thank you for allowing us to surrender to You in the places that we can’t control and that we can’t fix…Thank You for our ability to suffer along with the suffering Church…”

Please, God.


Give us strength to triple our prayer and acts of beauty and lovingkindness, that the world may once again see something in Your Church besides the gates of hell.

sparrow.clrReads and Other Seeds

Haley Stewart’s What Can *WE* Do About the Abuse Crisis is a solemn, helpful reflection with action links worth considering.

J.R.R. Tolkien “said that he suffered from ‘stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests,’ but these are not reasons to leave the Church, because to leave the Church would be abandoning Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.” —J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lost Prophetic Message on Abuse in the Church at uCatholic.

Songs often rise up in my heart when I’m hurting.  I won’t link the less edifying ones coming to mind in recent days, but two that have given voice to my heart are Rich Mullins’ The Howling and Andrew Peterson’s How Long (The Reckoning).

Shortly after I published this post, I discovered Kevin Heider had written a song directly in response to the crisis.  We need music that “says it” for us.  Heider has used his gift in a magnificent way in The Body, which begins with T.S. Eliot’s lines from Little Gidding:  “from wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit proceeds,/unless restored by that refining fire/where you must move in measure.”

More on music’s healing properties at Sparrowfare’s Keep Your Eyes on the Prize:  How Music Helps us Rise when All We Want to Do Is Quit.

Photos by Sweet Ice Cream Photography and Milada Vigerova on Unsplash. Art courtesy of Wikipedia.


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