#114: Saint Teresa, Pedophile Priests, and Miracles

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #114, on the subject of Saint Teresa, Pedophile Priests, and Miracles.

You probably have already heard that the woman known to most of us as Mother Teresa is now officially Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

The first I saw it was in an article critical of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Salt Lake Tribune.  My initial glance at the piece noted that it somehow connected the canonization of this world-respected woman to the issue of pedophilia among the priesthood, and I thought it was going to say that an organization which so poorly handled that situation had no business making people saints.  I was musing on that, but I hate it when people criticize my articles without having read them, so I went back to read it completely and discovered that his complaint, while I think just as wrong-headed, was much more subtle.

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It is of course rather easy to criticize the church for its handling of these pedophile cases, but difficult to see from their perspective.  After all, they’re older and larger than most countries, consider their priests something like diplomatic envoys to everywhere in the world, and have a long history of handling their own problems internally.  Add to that the necessity of balancing justice with mercy, the concerns for the sinners as much as for the victims, and the awareness that the quickest way for an ordinary parishoner to remove an unwanted priest is to make sexual allegations against him, and you’ve got a very difficult situation.  It is thus easy to say that they handled it poorly–but not so simple to be certain that any of us would have handled it better.  That, though, was not what the article was addressing.

It is also a mistake to think that the Roman Catholic Church “makes” people Saints.  Canonization is rather more a process of identifying those who are.  There are few people in the world, perhaps of any faith, who would say that Teresa was not a saint.  She certainly fit the standards most Protestants hold:  she loved Jesus so much that she abandoned all possibility for a “normal” comfortable western life in order to bring the love of God to some of the most impoverished and spiritually needy people on earth.  Many ordinary Catholics were pressing for the Vatican to say officially what they believed unofficially.  The problem was that the Roman Catholic canonization process has a requirement that to be recognized officially as a Capital-S Saint an individual must have performed miracles.  At least two must be certified by Vatican investigators.

As one of my Protestant friends said, she should be credited with the miracle of getting funding for so unglamorous a work, and probably also for doing so much with what she had.  Those, though, are not the types of miracles considered; there has to be an undeniable supernatural element involved.  The author of the critical article is unimpressed with the two that they certified, but his argument is rather that miracles do not happen, and the events cited in support of her canonization were not miracles.  He then argues, seemingly, that if miracles really did happen, if God really did intervene in the world, then certainly God Himself would have acted to prevent those priests from abusing those children.  No loving father could have permitted that kind of treatment of his own children; how can the Church assert that God is a loving Father, if that God did not intervene on behalf of these victims?

We could get into a very involved conversation about why the writer supposes the conduct of these priests to have been “wrong”.  Certainly it was wrong by the standards of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, the Marquis de Sade wrote some very compelling arguments in moral philosophy in which he asserted that whatever exists is right.  On that basis he claimed that because men were stronger than women, whatever a man chose to do to a woman was morally right simply because nature made the man capable of doing it.  The same argument would apply to this situation, that because the priests were able by whatever means to rape these children, their ability to do so is sufficient justification for their actions.  I certainly disagree because, like the Roman Catholic Church, I believe that God has called us to a different moral philosophy.  The question is, on what basis does our anti-God critic disagree?  If he asserts, as he does, that there is no God, why does he suppose that it is wrong for adults to engage in sexual acts with children?  It seems to be his personal preference; the Marquis de Sade would have disagreed, as would at least some of the men who do this.  To say that something is morally wrong presupposes that that statement has meaning.  We fall back on “human rights”, but the only reason Jefferson and the founders of America could speak of such rights is that they believed such rights were conferred (endowed) upon every individual by the God who made us.  No, they did not all believe in the Christian God (many were Deists), but they did found their moral philosophy on a divine origin.

However, let us agree that the conduct of those priests was heinous.  We have a solid foundation for holding that position, even if the writer who raises it does not.  The question is, why did God not stop them?

It is said that during the American Civil War someone from Europe visited President Lincoln at the White House.  During his visit, he asked whether it were really true that the American press was completely free of government control–something unimaginable in Europe at that time.  In answer, Lincoln handed his guest that day’s newspaper, whose lead story was denigrating the way the President was handling the war.  It was obvious that such an article could not have been written if the publisher had any thought of the government taking action against his paper for it.

If God is able to work miracles, why does He not miraculously silence critics like the op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune?

Perhaps the writer thinks that even God would not interfere with the freedom of the press in America.  Why not?  There is nothing particular about the choice to write something which is offensive to God that would make it less objectionable than the choice to do something which is offensive to God.  God could perhaps have prevented many atrocities–the development of the atomic bombs that devastated two Japanese cities, the rise of the regime which exterminated nearly six million Jews and even more Poles plus many other peoples, and we could fill the rest of this article with such acts.  Yet these are all choices made by men, and just as God chooses not to prevent one writer from criticizing Him in the Salt Lake Tribune, so too He has not prevented billions of other hurtful actions by everyone in the world.  He allows us to make our own choices, and to hurt and be hurt by those choices.  If he prevented all of them, there would be no freedoms whatsoever.

Two footnotes should be put to this.

The first is that we do not know and indeed cannot know whether God has limited human wickedness and disaster.  We can imagine horrors that never happened.  The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union never “went hot” into a nuclear battle despite the many fictional scenarios describing how it might have happened.  We do not know whether God prevented nuclear war, or indeed whether He will do so in the future; we only know that it did not happen.  Our perspective of the “bad” that happens in this world lacks perspective because, apart from horror stories, we measure it against itself.  Be assured, though, that if the worst thing that ever happened in the world was the occasional hangnail, someone would be asking how God could possibly allow the suffering that is the hangnail.  We complain of the worst wickedness in the world, but do not know what might have been or whether God saved us from something worse than that.

The second is that God, Who is the only possible foundation for any supposed moral law to which we could hold anyone accountable, promises that He is ultimately fair and will judge everyone.  He has made it His responsibility to see to it that everyone who has caused any harm will be recompensed an equal amount of harm, and anyone who has been harmed will be compensated an appropriate amount in reparations, so that all wrongs ultimately are put right.  The writer of the article does not want there to be ultimate justice, but present intervention.  However, I expect were we to ask if what He wants is for God to remove from the world the power to choose what we do and have our choices affect each other, he would object to that as well.  There will be ultimate justice, and may God have mercy on us all.  Meanwhile, we are given freedom to act in ways that are either beneficial (as Saint Teresa) or baneful (as the priests), so that we may then be judged.

How there can be mercy and justice at the same time is something I have addressed elsewhere, and is much more than this article can include.  It is perhaps the problem that the Catholic Church has in handling its errant priests.  The bishops are not God, and neither are we, and we all do the best we can, which often is not as good as we might hope.  We all also fail, hurt others, and need forgiveness and correction.  God offers that, and that is the true miracle.

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