A Permanent Scandal to the World

By Chene Richard Heady
New Oxford Review
September 24, 2010

Chene Richard Heady is Assistant Professor of English at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. His articles have been published in Touchstone, Renascence, The Catholic Digest, and other periodicals.

The son of a Pentecostal father and a lapsed Catholic mother, I was received into the Catholic Church in 1993, largely under the influence of John Henry Newman. I was a Bible-college student when I first encountered Newman's case for Catholicism, so I'd already been in the habit of studying Scripture and pondering the nature of the early Church. Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) convinced me that the Catholic Church is the organic heir of the Church of the Apostles. He demonstrates convincingly that the Catholic Church possesses a unique ability to develop through time and expand across space, assimilating new philosophies and cultures, while still preserving intact the vision and type of apostolic Christianity. Like many before me, I was — and remain — persuaded by his ideas.

But one of Newman's apologetics for the Catholic Church always troubled me. It actually struck me as an argument against the Catholic Church, or at least against the Catholic Church as I had witnessed her in my lifetime. In his Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (1851), Newman asserts that if the Catholic Church is spiritually legitimate, then she ought to be under continual assault by secular governments and the secular press. In this work Newman describes a cultural environment that should be familiar to American Catholics in 2010. In Victorian England, the Catholic priest was commonly portrayed as a sexual predator preying on youths of both sexes; this was a polemical inversion of the argument for clerical celibacy, as many scholars have noted. Many Victorians even believed that priests kept their sexual victims locked in underground cells, and Newman narrates with some dark comedy how his own attempt to construct a vegetable cellar came to be reported in the popular press as proof of the legend!

Contempt for Catholic clergy ran so high that Newman felt sure that if he were to tell an Englishman "of ordinary intelligence" that "priests can live in purity," he would meet the incredulous reply, "What is the world coming to?... So, Catholics are to be whitewashed! What next?" This attack on Catholicism was carried out most vigorously in the Victorian news media, which were armed with a ready-made narrative of the iniquities, acts of oppression, and corrupt conspiracies of that arch-enemy of progress and enlightenment, the Roman Catholic Church. Each newspaper rushed to rake up, print, and publicize any incident — past or present, reliable or unreliable — that seemed to confirm this fable.

Newman's words could have been written this morning. He laments "those ever-growing files of newspapers, whose daily task...has been to cater for the gross palate of their readers all varieties of...invective against us.

"Oh, what would not our enemies have paid for only one real and live sin in holy places to mock us withal!... O sweet tidings to writers of pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines...who have now a weary while been longing, and panting, and praying for some good fat scandal, one, only just one, well-supported instance of...fraud or immorality, to batten upon and revel in!"

Newman is no ecclesiastical optimist. He expects trouble in the world, and trouble in the Church. He advocates, as we all must advocate, firm action to eliminate abuses in the Church wherever they exist. Newman knows that when clerical scandals occur, they do not represent an accurate portrait of the priesthood as a whole. But he also knows that, because human nature is sinful and the Catholic Church is large, if the newspapers look hard enough and wait long enough, they will eventually get their story. He soberly reminds his readers of the words of Christ: "It must needs be, that scandals come; nevertheless, woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh" (Mt. 18:7). In these matters, Newman suffers with us.

Newman, however, differs from nearly all contemporary Catholics in that he proposes no "fix" for the "publicity problem" he so ably diagnoses. He tells us that we just have to steel ourselves and get used to it. Newman, remember, is the great theologian of doctrinal development, who astutely traced the continuity of the present Church from the Church of the first four centuries, despite the changes and alterations that necessarily must come in the intervening millennia. In these attacks, he finds a clear witness that the Church of the present is identical to the Church of the Apostles and Fathers.

Newman recognizes that, like the Catholics of his own time and place, Victorian England, the early Church in ancient Rome faced a sophisticated and hostile world eager for tales of Christian misdeeds, real or imagined. He saw the contemporary Church as facing a situation "like [that in] the first age of the Church...when we were despised and hated by the great and philosophical as a low rabble, or a stupid and obstinate association, or a foul and unprincipled conspiracy." People will readily believe any charge against the members of an organization they consider to be an "unprincipled conspiracy," as Newman found out after watching his vegetable cellar turn into a headline. So also in the Church's first centuries, Newman says, quoting Tertullian, "no limit could be put to the brutishness of the notions then entertained of us by the heathen. They believed we fed on children; they charged us with the most revolting forms of incest."

Just as in the first age of the Church, when "the chance of the hour brought the Pagan Romans upon us," so in Newman's times "there is ever a predisposition in the political and social atmosphere to lour and thick­en.... Some accident — ...a sudden scandal among our priests...or some bold and reckless falsehood, may raise all England against us" (emphasis added). This parallel between the status of the Church vis-a-vis the world in apostolic and modern times is no mere coincidence; it possesses metaphysical weight. It is an element of the eternal Church's permanent identity, semper idem, that she must be slandered, and cannot simply be ignored or tolerated, by a hostile culture. "The Church of God cannot change; what she was that she is," Newman explained. Neither can the opposition to the Church fundamentally change, for it too is no accident of historical contingency. It must be expected, Newman warned, "as long as the Prince of the power of the air retains this sovereignty." In short, because the Church, like Christ, is a sign of contradiction, she must remain a permanent scandal to the world. As long as she stays true to her identity, she will be under attack.

This was Newman's argument that had bothered me since I first read it back in the 1990s. Having been raised in a Pentecostal family, I'd known what it's like to belong to a religious community that is an object of common mockery. I was a teen during the height of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart sex and embezzlement scandals. The popular image of a Pentecostal minister in the 1980s was that of a huckster salesman, peddling snake oil he had personally extracted from the snakes he so enthusiastically handled, a sexually aggressive moral hypocrite who bought silence from his victims when it couldn't be coerced with fear and shame. As a Pentecostal, I became aware that the popular media could depict supernatural claims only in terms of fraud and abuse; our scandals were news, but our good deeds were unnarratable.

It had always nagged at me that when I converted from Pentecostalism to Catholicism, I converted to comparative respectability, to the faith of six of the nine Supreme Court justices, of the Speaker of the House, of pop singer Celine Dion, of late-night talk-show host Carson Daly. Recent polls indicate that twenty-five percent of German Catholics are considering leaving the Church due to the recent European sex scandal. If I have occasionally questioned my decision to convert, it's because Newman taught me that there should have been a perpetual press scandal against the Catholic Church — and to me that didn't seem to be the case.

Until May 9, 2010.

That's when an Associated Press news report of abuse allegations against a single missionary priest in Sierra Leone had garnered a spot atop's most e-mailed articles. That's when I finally felt secure in my Catholicism. At long last I knew that the Catholic Church held the position vis-a-vis our popular culture that Newman had asserted that she always should. Public taste dictates what is considered newsworthy. All too few Americans followed Sierra Leone's nine-year civil war (1991-2000), but now that a Catholic priest had committed sexual abuse there, Sierra Leone was suddenly news.

The story itself — titled "Catholics Sent Predator Priest to Remote Village" — is an example of a narrative style all too familiar to Newman: A real, but exceptional, scandal is portrayed as typical of the Catholic experience. The article's title itself suggests that all Catholics played a role in abetting this wayward priest's actions. The Church's disciplinary actions are minimized and largely suppressed: The crucial information that the priest in question had already been laicized, for example, is withheld through the first three-quarters of the article. And it concludes with an appeal to ignorance when it asserts that there are a million more scandals where this one came from: The last sentence speaks of the "many, many, many people" with tales of abuse who have yet to come forward.

This is not to say that we should take claims of clerical abuse lightly. Certainly, the Church should take aggressive measures to root out scandal in her midst. But, as Newman knew well, a Church of a billion people can never be entirely free of scandal. There will always be scandals, and they will cease to be newsworthy only when we have surrendered our Catholic identity.

As Episcopalian historian Philip Jenkins has argued persuasively in more than one book, America's cultural elites benevolently tolerated Catholicism from the 1960s to the 1990s because they believed that the Church was in the process of abandoning her oppositional stance toward the dominant culture. The day when American Catholicism would become simply a mirror in which America worshiped itself was always just around the corner, or so they imagined. Wildly inaccurate caricatures of John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII were central to this contemporary mythology. Under the pontificates of John Paul II and, especially, Benedict XVI, however, this expectation has collapsed, revealing the Catholic Church to be, in Newman's words, "what she always was." Consequently, the secular press again finds the Catholic Church to be what it had long suspected her to be, a perfidious international conspiracy against progress and enlightenment.

When the media daily go to and fro on the earth, walking up and down on it — all the way to Sierra Leone — to dig up another story of a perfidious priest to add to their tally, we should take it as an inverted compliment, as evidence that the secular world is finally awake again to the distinctiveness, permanence, and ubiquity of the Catholic Church, in which it cannot help but find a threat. Let us rejoice: The Church has not been assimilated; she remains, as always, a sign of contradiction.


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