abuse,  Catholics Do What?,  current events,  Evangelization

2 things I believed about the Catholic Church that were totally wrong (and why anyone would stay Catholic)

How about a little remedial ecclesiology today? (Trigger warning: if you don’t like going past 1200 words, this piece might stretch you 5 uncomfortable minutes past your limit. I know, I know. Same! I tried my best to rein it in.)

The summer of shame is well in the rearview now, and we’re underway into a whole new calendar year. As 2018 waned, the days shortening and the nights darkening, it seemed that there would be no end in sight for the rage and pain felt by faithful and lapsed Catholics alike; how could this vile evil be seeping forth from the Church we knew and loved?

For survivors of abuse – men and women who knew all too well the evil that often lay hiding in plain sight – this pain was compounded by perceived silence and cowardice from high. Where were our pastors and shepherds back at the height of the summer’s scandalous and widely-splashed headlights?

Little by little we began to grapple with the ramifications of too few pastors speaking out due to, perhaps, their own lack of credibility. It’s awfully hard to condemn the log in your brother’s eye when you’ve got a telephone pole sticking out of your own retina. Others held back out of fear, perhaps at the advice of legal counsel. Still others felt – rightfully – personally horrified and enraged by the failures of their brothers when they had themselves been struggling heroically, often with little support, to walk the walk.

Many Catholics left. Some had distanced themselves eons ago, but made their separation a public affair after ingesting the wretched evil laid bare in the Pennsylvania report.  

Others quietly stopped trusting, stopped believing, and stopped attending.

For those who stayed, each of us have had to answer, if only for ourselves, why we did.

Peter, do you love me?

God knew that each of us who profess a faith in Jesus Christ and the Church He founded would need to dig deep in these days “to give an explanation for the hope we possess.”

It’s not like this was a curveball to the Almighty. He tells us plain, “Whatever is done in the dark will be brought into light.”

In other words, truly private sin is a human fantasy. Maybe it’s one of the oldest fantasies – I wonder if Eve thought, somehow, that the same God who had fashioned her from nothing, breathed life into her lungs, would somehow fail to notice her small act of rebellion? Like He was super busy checking on the mountains and fish and stuff.

Anyway, I’ve had numerous conversations with Catholics and non-Catholics alike over the past 8 months. Answered hard questions from strangers about why we’ll stay, about why we’ll never, ever leave.

But I can’t say I haven’t considered it. Back in July when revelations were coming to light seemingly faster than the Internet could link to them, I was daily overcome with rage and sorrow. And confusion. What I knew about the Church, the papacy, and the gates of hell all seemed, well…wrong. And I felt adrift.

I am a JPII Generation Catholic, as they say. I fell in love with the mystery and the history of Catholicism during the early years of Benedict’s papacy, called home by a mysterious grace seemingly wrought just for me in the final hours of St. John Paul II’s life. My conversion solidified and matured at Franciscan University of Steubenville where I encountered the word “theology” for the very first time. I probably know more about Catholicism than the average Sunday Mass-going Catholic, if only because of the Aquinas and Kreeft and Hahn and DeLubac I was assigned to read.

And I still considered leaving.

It turns out you can’t reason your way into continued belief. Faith is, at the end of the day, a gift. And an act of the will.

I am becoming increasingly aware that faith is both gift and choice. And that, having been handed the gift, I will be asked over and over throughout my lifetime to reaffirm my choice, and to continue to grow both in love and in knowledge of the Faith with a capital F.

Catholicism isn’t mine to interpret or define as I see fit. A radical notion for a postmodern mind, but one that we all fall prey to from time to time. My impoverished philosophical foundation led me to believe some fairly common fallacies about the Church which greatly intensified my pain and confusion this past year. Here are two of the errors I didn’t even realize I was carrying around in my brain; consider this a sort of “Ecclesiology 101” (ecclesia = church, ology = study of).

Myth 1: The Holy Spirit picks the Pope.

I don’t know that I literally thought this was what happened, but I certainly behaved as if I did.

Standing in a sodden St. Peter’s Square and breaking into wild jubilation with a hundred thousand strangers while watching that white smoke billow out of the Sistine Chapel chimney on the night of Pope Francis’ election didn’t do much to help dispel this myth. The papacy has always felt big and kind of magical to me. Probably because of the circumstances of my awakening to the Faith, and because of the big moments we’ve shared as a family with different Holy Fathers.

Nevermind that the Church, in 2,000 years of Petrine ministry had numbered in her ranks countless ineffective popes, weak popes, mediocre popes and outright evil popes. Because my Church history was an inch deep and my love for the modern popes was a mile wide, I was primed to be deflated by any shortcomings in a Roman Pontiff, either perceived or actual.

Reality: The Holy Spirit inspires the actions and deliberations of the College of Cardinals, assuming they are actively seeking His Will and living lives of virtue. (If I could double bold that last line, I would.) And then the Holy Spirit guarantees that whomever is elected can’t make a fatal mess of things.

As best as this armchair theologian can figure, the Holy Spirit really does this heavy lifting when it comes to preserving and protecting the Deposit of Faith:

The apostles entrusted the “Sacred deposit” of the faith (the depositum fidei),45 contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. “By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practicing and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.” CCC 84

…And in preventing heretical or erroneous teaching being promulgated “ex cathedra” or “from the chair” of Peter. Translation: The Pope cannot err when proclaiming, with the full weight of the Magisterium and in keeping with the revealed Tradition of the Church, the truth of something pertaining to faith and morals.

Can the pope have a mistress? Father illegitimate children? Be a heretic, privately? Give dumb answers to questions journalists ask? Believe wrongly that the superior flavor of gelato is crema? All yes. Which is so freaking hard to believe. But bear with me. Because myth number two which I believed was:

Myth 2: the Pope is the head of the Catholic Church

I mean, we do have a hierarchy, do we not? As an American who lives in a society of rules and laws and order, familiar with the organizational structure of human institutions, this is another one which I, frankly, sort of took for granted. Hence the outraged tweeting for the Holy Father to DO SOMETHING. FIRE SOMEONE. WHAT IN GOD’S NAME IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING??? last summer.

But, um, guys…the Church is not just a human institution.

Protects, defends, and transmits? Occasionally, when it suits, and sooner or later.

He is the leader of the Church on earth. The head of the Church’s hierarchy, the shepherd of the Universal Church on earth. But it isn’t Pope Francis’ Church, any more than it was Pope Benedict’s, or Pope Innocent’s, or Pope Gregory’s, or Pope John Paul II’s. 

Reality: Jesus Christ is the head of the Church.

“Christ is the Head of this Body:” Christ “is the head of the body, the Church.”225 He is the principle of creation and redemption. Raised to the Father’s glory, “in everything he (is) preeminent,”226 especially in the Church, through whom he extends his reign over all things. CCC 792

Jesus died for us, for His Church. Jesus had to forfeit His life in exchange for ours, hot mess that we were/are. And in an interesting throwback to myth number one, Jesus only personally chose the first pope: Peter.

So why have a pope? Why have a Church? Why have a Bible? Why not start from scratch every generation and do archeological and anthropological research to try to piece together anew what the OG Christians of Corinth circa 67 AD must have practiced and believed?

Is that what Jesus willed for us? To have to start from zero every time the saving water trickles over the brow of a new Christian, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son…”

The Trinitarian formula for baptism, by the way: how are we sure that’s a thing? Should we each be researching and verifying and making sure for ourselves way out here in 2019 that we’re practicing Christianity as Jesus Christ intended? If that’s the case, thank God for Google, rising adult literacy rates, and the printing press, right?

But the Church is for all people, for all times. The Church is not only for moderns with internet access and small group Bible studies. The Church is not only for white people with comfortable sanctuaries and good youth programming. The Church is not only for prisoners in need of mercy, for orphans in need of fatherhood, for prostitutes in need of conversion and redemption.

The Church is for all of us, for all of humanity, past, present, and future. The God who promised “I will not leave you orphans” has not abandoned us to our own devices.

We do not have to rely on our own wisdom, our own clever understandings of theology – or our not-so-clever understanding, for that matter – or even on the goodness of one particular person who holds a position of power at a given time in history.

St. Jerome says “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” The words of the Old and New Testaments wash over me every time I go to Mass, whether I’m sitting in recollected silence or wrangling an nasty toddler. I am steeped in Scripture when I sit in the church, which is mysteriously both a building and the Body of Christ, of which I am mysteriously a member and an essential physical component. I am brought into deeper relationship with Jesus Christ through the ministry of His Church and the encounter of His Word. The Church is both guardian and guarantor of the written, living Word of God.

I cannot turn away in solitude from the Body of Christ while clutching the Word of Christ to my heart.

What I read in Scripture casts new light in what I practice on Sundays. The liturgy is rooted in – not added on to – the Bible. Without the Church, we’d have no Bible.

Without the Church, we’d have no Sacraments. Without the Church, we wouldn’t know what to believe- we need the Church’s authority to teach, lead us, and sanctify us.

Because we can’t live without Jesus.

No matter how badly we humans behave. Perhaps because of how badly we humans behave; we need Him all the more. Come hell or high water – and perhaps the water will come right up to the gates…we need Him.


  • Sara Larson

    Thank you for this. I’m a fellow “JPII Catholic” who has been hit really hard by all of these revelations, and it has caused me to question so much of what I believe. I am convinced that we have to be firmly rooted in Jesus Christ first and foremost if we are going to weather this storm, because the betrayal by those we loved and trusted hurts so much.

    I wrote a blog post in a similar vein, about the story I told myself about abuse in the Church. It turns out, I was wrong: http://www.inspiritandtruthblog.com/home/i-was-wrong.

  • Jennie

    Often I find it difficult to defend the Mother Church whom I love so dearly, though disappointed by the circumstances, my faith in Christ, has not shaken. I totally share your views and thank you for putting across so convincingly. Men can fail, but God never fails.

  • Cat

    I really love your writing and am touched by reading your articles. My brother has fallen away from the faith a long time ago , but recently had his son baptized and was making steps back toward the Catholic church. That is, until the horrific accounts of abuse with in the church were revealed. Nearly every week he sends me the latest news articles about continued revelations of abuse and cover-up. I want him to see that all of this matters deeply and yet, does not take away from the love of God, the truth of Jesus and his message, and fullness of faith. I struggle with how to respond and wondered if you have any suggestions. Thanks you!

  • Mark Rager

    Jenny, thanks for your comments above. While I don’t adhere to the Catholic faith, I do have roots in the church. (Baptized as an infant…my mom’s side of the family is Catholic.). I do want to wholeheartedly affirm two things that you stated above. 1. Jesus is, indeed, the head of the church! And no one will ever usurp that position from Him. He is the only One who bled and died to provide for us the opportunity to be saved from sin when He went to Calvary’s Hill. 2. Yes….we cannot live without Jesus! It is my prayer that all Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, and every other religious or non-religious person would come to this same conclusion. The Apostle Paul said it like this: “…that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation…for Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-10,13). Please continue to share with your readers the urgent importance of a saving relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ! Blessings to you as you continue to write!

    • Dan

      Faith without works is dead. Do for those who are less fortunate, just as our One True Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church has done for over 2000 years. Serve the poor and let your effort be a worthy expression of leaning into the light, the light the Catholic Church has kept shining all these hundreds of generations. Peace be with You!

    • Morrie

      How do we have a saving relationship with Jesus? Prayer? Catholics and Orthodox love to pray. Reading scripture and meditating on the Word? Well, lectio divina has been around a long time. The Rosary combines both and is nothing more than a deep meditation on scripture. Worshipping together as part of the Body of Christ? Nothing is more transcendent than the Holy Mass and Divine Liturgy.

      Finally it is too bad Jesus did not teach us to abide in him or did he? John 6:51-58: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat? Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eat my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.

      And St. Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30: Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.* A person should examine himself,* and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment* on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying.

      And St Justin the Martyr in 150 AD in His First Apology which he wrote to the emperor to defend Chrsitianity wrote: And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.

      So yes I think Catholics and Orthodox have saving relationships with Christ. Please investigate our claims and join us. You have been partially initiated into the Catholic Church. Please think about coming all the way.

  • anna_chronistic

    I’m saving this post – so full of insight, and it articulates some of my thoughts way better than I ever could have done. One of the reasons I’m staying with the Church despite the horrible acts perpetuated by some leaders, is that I, too, am the Church. Maybe it’s my stubbornness coming to the fore, but I won’t be pushed out by people who profess to represent the Church but do not represent it in a true, holy way (or, worse, by people who paint the whole Church with the same brush and say, “how can you stay with the Catholic Church when it is rotten to the core?” Well, it’s not rotten to the core, because I am part of that core.) And I won’t walk away and wash my hands of it, because I know I can make a difference. If everyone who can make a difference leaves, who is left to be the Church?

  • CJ

    Take heart. The holier that something is, the more aggressively evil will try to stamp it out.

    We must believe in an evil one – Christ himself said that he saw Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Seems to me that this evil is becoming increasingly desperate.

  • jeanette

    Great post, Jenny. Love your passion for the faith.

    As for the beliefs about the pope which you discussed: In the New Testament, Jesus clearly states that He is establishing a church and placing it under the leadership of the apostles to carry on his work. We are all likely familiar with Matthew 16:18 we hear Jesus tell Peter: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” We believe that the Apostolic succession from Peter onwards in our history of the Church guarantees that we are living within the one Church founded by Christ. So, if we follow Christ, we are to follow the Church He founded. That is what He gave to us, not conditionally on whether or not we approve of the leadership. We are to trust Jesus on this one.

    In Acts 20:28, we read in Paul’s farewell speech at Miletus where he summoned the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus: “Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers, in which you tend the church of God that he acquired with his own blood.”

    Yes, Jesus is the Head and we are the Body. The Church is all of us, not just leadership, but the leadership was placed there by Jesus. Purposely. And you are correct: we trust this leadership to lead us into the truth. And we are not followers of Jesus Christ because of the leaders, we are followers of the leaders because of Jesus Christ.

    Our love is primarily for Jesus, and through Him, our love is for one another. Without love, we are nothing. It is our love for Him and our love for each other, even the sinners among us, whether leaders or laity, that keeps us committed to and united in the faith. We cannot allow ourselves to be shaken by sinners, even when sinners are leaders. We are to help one another to continue to live faithfully no matter what the circumstances are that surround us. One important work of mercy is to “admonish sinners”…in a spirit of fraternal charity…and that is what the Church needs to do when her leaders fail.

    We as parents know more than anyone we don’t dissolve our families when one member fails to be perfect, even if it is the husband or wife. Oh, people do that, it’s called divorce, or abandonment, or rejection, or estrangement. But it doesn’t build up the family to respond that way. It destroys and wounds further and creates brokenness. Healing is a work that takes time and effort. If we don’t understand Jesus as healer in our lives, most especially within the heart of the Church, then we really don’t understand Jesus. To be a Christian I think really means to believe in the healing power of Jesus Christ to overcome sinfulness and restore what has been broken. When people walk away, maybe they cannot handle the brokenness of it all, but Jesus does not ask us to handle it, He asks us to turn to Him and allow Him to be the source of healing. Let Him handle it. Just cooperate with Him.

    You are so right to point to the fact that a pope is with us for a slice of time in history and not the final word on the Church. I see a lot of news stories that speculate about what Pope Francis will do or say in given situations before they occur, such as the upcoming meeting to discuss the sex abuse scandal. Sometimes they twist what he does or says. This undermines our ability to see truthfully. He is our visible leader, and at times we won’t understand his actions.

    How many of you recall being young and questioning the authority exercised by your parents, for instance. At the time, what they said or did made no sense and didn’t seem to be the right thing. But in retrospect one can see the wisdom. Or maybe they were wrong, but somehow because of that, not in spite of that, God made use of their weakness or error to carry out His will in things. There are things which we simply cannot see, and one of them is inside the heart or mind of the pope. We have to trust that God is working through Him, and trust that God works in the timeframe and manner in which He chooses, even through seemingly the behavior of a pope that leaves doubt in our mind.

    As for persevering in the faith, I think reading Chapter 8 of Romans is a good place to find some helpful words from St. Paul on these troubling times in the Church, especially in Romans 8:28-39.

  • TJ

    That any Catholic would consider leaving the Church even in the wake of a horrible scandal such as this baffles me and speaks to the total lack of catechisis and understanding of the faith in our day. To leave the Church because of the sins or failings of some of its leaders, even the Pope himself, is akin to leaving Jesus because of the betrayal of Judas or the denial of Peter. Why would I leave Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and the rest of the Sacraments because of the human failings of those in His Church? Are these terrible scandals for the Church? Yes, but why would I cut off my nose to spite my face? “To whom would we go Lord? You alone have the words of everlasting life” should be our response.

    • Jeffrey Job

      As one who tried every path except Truth and virtue I finally had no other option but to return to Christ and His Church. I’m glad that was 20+ years ago. After studying the Fathers of the Church I am Catholic for one ultimate reason. I believe ALL the Church teaches to be Divinely revealed by God. If the Church is a Truth telling thing then I don’t have to debate within myself what is and isn’t true. Or should I stay or leave? To quote arch heretic Martin Luther: “here I stand. I can do no other!”

  • Annette

    There’s scandal in other denominations, also. Some have been made public, others swept under the rug. You are steeped in faith more deeply than many (should I say it) young people. Stay the example and thank you.

  • Dan

    Good Catholic parents like good warrior priests are always devastated by evil, surprised. It is their burden and their gift and the proof of their goodness that they are baffled by evil deeds and those who help or look the other way. As priests and parents alike lay down their war weary shield at the end of another day, they thank the Lord for perseverance and ask St. Michael the Archangel to continue to defend them in battle. All the faithful of goodwill need to continue the discussion as you do here. We need our Mother Church!

  • Francis

    It hurts to see that we have ‘sheep in wolves clothing’ in the church. It hurts that I listened to the pulpit by aggressors, it hurts that the innocent were betrayed, it hurts to see that what I considered holy was blemished, it hurts that we have the ‘powers to be’ in the church who silenced or did not speak up…. all of them exactly opposite to what the bible teaches, BUT, I take recourse to Him alone, this too shall pass, the catholic church will come out stronger, hope the Papacy comes clean – can he Shepherd…. May he have the strength.

  • Tom Davidson

    Just one point of clarification.

    Christ is indeed the Head of the Church, and a reading of Mystici Corporis Christi, the encyclical of Pope Pius XII on The Mystical Body of Christ, given on 29 June 1943, makes very profound reading.

    However, the Pope is His Vicar on Earth, and I think you will find that dependence on being part of that Mystical Body in that we are in communion with the pope; if we are not in communion with the pope, then we are not part of that Mystical Body … so whilst Our Lord is Head, if one should find oneself loyal to Our Lord, but against the pope, then one would find oneself potentially excommunicate.

    Having said that, being in communion with the pope does not mean agreeing with everything he says, but conforming to those matters that are declared doctrine and thus binding upon the Catholic community. Thus the pope might hold views and opinions that you disagree with, and you are within your rights to disagree, but when it comes to matters of doctrine, there is no room for dissent.

  • Reuben

    I think this is how Jesus is cleansing His body. In the long run we learn, grow and persevere. It seems that we do not learn unless we experience the consequences. Same as infanticide. When do we learn how to love?

  • John F Jackson

    Dear Jenny,

    First, let me say that this article has helped me tremendously. I sat last night reading about what seems to be the continuing arrogance and inconclusiveness of the McCarrick situation and became fearful. I did so, because I am, at age 66 preparing to enter the Catholic Church and from a journey that has included being a Baptist (of several sorts since the number of permutations are legion), brethren, anglican, etc., general nondescript evangelical….you get the idea. But, I found myself, regardless of the feeling of temporary despair, thinking back on my study of Church History and ‘comforting’ myself that I was doing the right thing. Then I re-read an email that Bishop Strickland sent me recently, answering a question that I put to him and thought, well, Paul had some pretty difficult crap to deal with, ala, Corinth and Galatia, so, maybe, just maybe this is the right thing. Then I thought of my own local priest (who I wish could be cloned), our Bishop, Chesterton, Aquinas and some very good and faithful friends who were inspirations in sending me this direction and felt better still; and then, your article. Your reminder of what a close friend of mine at Oxford told me was timely, well written, from the heart and real, and for that I thank you. I’m almost across the Tiber and will continue swimming. Thanks.

  • Mark

    All of the recent Popes have been deficient on how they handled the clerical abuse scandal uncovered in the last 20 years, which is really decades old. Every time I see an article about Pope Francis being complicit in the McCarrick matter with little discussion of the role of prior popes, I believe that is a Francis hater talking. If that is the case, so were Pope Benedict and Pope JPII, who elevated him to Cardinal when there was credible evidence of his issues, complicit. So they are not infallible in all things for sure.


    Thank you, Jenny,and all you guys who responded; made my day! I’m staying a Catholic because of Of Jesus’ promise: “I will be with you until the end…” He, the Way, the Truth and the Life is the reason why I am where I am, not because of the personal virtues or lack of them of the Pope, bishops and priests. We are the church, and here I stay.

  • Remie Kayla

    To stay a Catholic can somehow appear as a stigma for especially with everything we are reading from the news; however, the question is that, are we Catholic because of any other reason than loving God? If we can find our purpose in God, we will stick with him come rain come shine.

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