When I read the accounts of the grand jury report, accusing three hundred Roman Catholic priests in western Pennsylvania of abusing a thousand children, I felt nauseous.
Let me tell you about that nausea, that I might share it with you, that you know that you are not alone in the depths of what must surely be your own anguish, that just as surely as Immanuel (“God is with us”), I am with you.
You are my friends: from high school and college. You were my fellow students in the Doctor of Ministry program at Princeton Theological Seminary. You were my students in the Doctor of Ministry program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. You – a gentile, kind, wise nun — were my co-teacher in that program. You were my fellow faculty members at Molloy College, a fine Catholic institution, in New York.
So, too: the theologians whom I admired, the authors whose books I read, the worshipers in the countless churches in so many countries that I have visited; the creators of the sublimely beautiful art in those churches and in countless museums all over the world. I have admired and understood the poetry and beauty of the notion of the Incarnation, even though it is not my theology.
You are my colleagues in the churches in the communities that I have served. You were my neighbors in Rockville Centre, New York, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre, representing more than three million Catholics in Nassau and Suffolk counties. You sat next to me in clergy council meetings. We mourned together in the wake of 9/11. We planned community Thanksgiving services together. You are my neighbors in Hollywood, Florida.
How well I know that anti-Catholicism has been a major thread in American history, that it has been the anti-semitism of the intellectual class, that you were called spics and wops and dagos and micks, that the election of John F. Kennedy was a major event in your lives, and in the life of this country. I never fell prey to that vulgar hatred, even when the anti-Semitic taunting and fists of Catholic-school inspired bullies sent me running.
It occurs to me that religions have many different faces that they offer to their adherents, and to the world.
To echo how Jews speak of the inner life: every religion seems to have its yetzer ha-tov, its good inclination, and its yetzer ha-ra, its evil, or problematic, aspect.
Judaism has its yetzer ha-ra. There is the Judaism of “kill all the Canaanites” in Deuteronomy (though this never really happened); don’t tolerate gay people, based on texts in Leviticus; “the gentiles all hate us, so let’s hate them first!”; the overt ethnocentrism and exclusivity; the rigidity in some Orthodox quarters; the mangled Judaism of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein…
But the Judaism of the yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, wins out.
A Torah of compassion, of justice, of tolerating a multitude of interpretations, of Talmudic debate, of Shabbat and the festivals, of the beauty of our prayers and literature, the sounds of our languages, the smell of our foods, the sidewalks and alleys of Jerusalem…of stellar thinkers, writers and musicians too many to name.
So, too, there is the good side of the Roman Catholic Church. The countless priests and nuns who have taught and shaped and inspired and saved lives. The Catholic hospitals that heal. The church of the saints, of Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Pope John XXIII; Pope John Paul II; the current Pope Francis.
And, yes: hundreds of priests who violated the bodies and souls of children — and, I daresay, in so doing, violated the Body of Christ.
You, my Catholic friends, deserve the good church. So does the world.
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The offenses of the church that he decried were far less grievous offenses than these priests who have subjected children to cruelties so unspeakable as to remind us of the worst depravities of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, perhaps it is time, once again, for a new Reformation. Perhaps a new Martin Luther will arise – perhaps a woman, perhaps a nun.
Forgive my chutzpah: perhaps a new church will emerge – a church with a hierarchy that asks the right questions and entrusts the right leaders, regardless of gender and marital status; a church that is willing to confront the sinners in its midst; a church where silence is left for prayer and meditation, not church business.
As difficult as it is now, as betrayed and as befouled as you might now feel – I urge you to cling to the idea that your faith might yet be more powerful than the malfeasance of those whom you once might have trusted.
God stands above our humanly-created structures. God alone deserves your faith.
Paul said: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Which is to say: all of our religious institutions are earthen vessels, imperfect, broken. There is deep promise in those institutions. They are holding treasures.
But, at this moment, God is weeping.