I have much, much more to say about this new round of scandals in our clergy that is causing so much turmoil among the faithful. But before I delve deep into my own personal feelings, I thought first about my students. As you know, I am a religion teacher at a Catholic high school. It is hard enough for adults who are mature in faith to come to terms with these events. It is most likely harder for the searching, questioning teenagers to understand.
Below are my suggestions about how to talk about the Church scandals with Catholics who are high school age.
1. Listen to the students
If it is brought up in class, ask them what they have heard and what their thoughts are on the matter. Allow them to express what they are thinking and feeling so long as it is not belligerent or sacrilegious. Some of the details of the abuse are so incredibly horrific that you will have to use your judgment as to how much detail is appropriate for the classroom setting.
2. Validate their feelings when appropriate
Many of us are feeling fear, betrayal, sadness and many other things over this latest round of scandals. Many of your students may desire to have their feelings heard. Especially if they are in great confusion, they may be worried about how these feelings impact their faith. Please reassure them that those feelings, in general, are appropriate and do not necessarily mean that their faith is in danger. What we feel and what we believe are not always in line with each other.
3. Acknowledge wrongdoing when it is certain
There are a lot of accusations that have been made. Some are true and some we are still investigating. When the wrongdoing is reasonably certain, as in the case of Cardinal McCarrick, do not shy about acknowledging the wrongdoing and labelling it as wrong. Some students may want to see if we will cover for the Church. We must remind them that Christ is always on the side of truth. Remind them that it is a good and holy thing to hold our clergy to the honesty Christ demands of us. Some may use these scandals as an opportunity to attack the Church. If they are using the scandal as an opportunity to attack a legitimate part of the Catholic Faith, make a distinction between what is the scandalous activity and true teaching. For example, the Catholic Church used to sell indulgences from Purgatory. Martin Luther attacked the selling of the indulgences as a corrupt practice and he was right to do so. But he also attacked the doctrine of Purgatory, which made him a heretic. Today we acknowledge that selling indulgences was wrong, but we defend Purgatory and indulgences. In the same way, we should acknowledge that the abuse on the part of the clergy is wrong, but we should defend the priesthood itself.
4. Be cautious speculating about the future
Some students may ask about your own thoughts about what is going to happen. Use your judgment here. New revelations about the scandal seem to come forth every day. Be careful about speculating too specifically in case things do not go as you predict, as you may lose credibility with students. But always remind them that you are on their side in standing against the corruption present in some of the clergy.
5. Remind them that we have had scandals from the beginning
One of the important things about our Church history is that it is one filled with scandals. From the very beginning, Christ’s chosen Apostles showed the weakness of men when those He ordained as priests abandoned, denied, and betrayed Him to death. Holy Thursday Night shows us that the sinfulness of the Church’s ministers would be something we would always deal with. And throughout history we have seen the worst abuses and corruption plague those who claim to minister in Christ’s name. And through it all, the Church is still the Church. We have always been a hospital for sinners. When making this point, go out of your way to emphasize that this does not in any way excuse the scandalous behavior. This point is only made to show that scandal in and of itself is not a new problem for the Church and She remains the Body of Christ.
6. Show them God is at work in His Church
For every horrible abusive minister, there are many more holy ones. Though we have scandalous people, we have saintly ones too. There is light that shines in the darkness. We have many great reformer saints to hold up as models who loved the Church and confronted Her sinfulness. St. Catherine of Sienna hounded the pope to leave the more worldly court in Avignon to return to his rightful seat in Rome. Pope St. Gregory VII fought corruption in all ways to the point where he was driven out of Rome by evil forces. While the darkness in the world is ever present, their light shines past their earthly lives. Even now in their own lives, help your students see the good and faithful people around them. And remind them of the wonderful Sacramental presences of Christ in the Eucharist.
7. Invite them to a deeper prayerful relationship with Jesus.
I tell my students all the time how Fr. Larry Richards was instrumental in my conversion. Once I had a student ask me if my faith would be shaken if I discovered that Fr. Larry was an abuser. I told that student “no,” and he was incredulous. I explained that, while instrumental in ways I cannot express, Fr. Larry is not the basis of my faith. Our faith is not in men. It is in Jesus. Fallen human beings will always disappoint and let us down, even great men like Fr. Larry. If we place our faith in them, that faith will be shaken. But we must show them that even though we are saddened/hurt/outraged by this scandal, our faith does not waiver. My faith is not in any particular priest, bishop, or pope. My faith is in Jesus Christ. And with Him as my rock, my faith cannot be shaken by scandal. Witness this faith to your students and invite them into that deeper relationship. With that strong foundation, the gates of hell cannot prevail against their faith.
Copyright 2018, WL Grayson