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The Faith is Better Than We Are
By Chris Sparks (Mar 3, 2017)
Let's talk about sin, shall we? The following is the introduction to our weekly Lenten series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
When I was at college, a number of friends and I would gather on a regular basis to eat and talk. Anything and everything could come up, including politics and religion. One of the recurring subjects was Catholicism, and one question that arose repeatedly was, "How can you still be Catholic when the Church/Catholics have done such awful things?" Among the subjects mentioned: the Crusades, the Inquisition, sexual abuse of children by priests and religious, the cover-up of abuse by some of the bishops, and many, many other sins and transgressions.
How can you still be Catholic in the face of Church history? How can you still be Catholic when the Church is so full of sinners?
I started off with long answers and wound my way down to a short answer. The long answers would usually start by trying to correct the record: The Crusades were wars of defense, not offense, in response to Islamic invasions that had begun in the seventh century, several hundred years before the First Crusade; the Inquisition could not possibly have caused the deaths of millions, since there weren't millions of people in Europe to be killed without causing society to collapse; less than 8 percent of priests abused children during the worst phases of the crisis; the bishops have turned the corner in this country on abuse; and so on. Though there are certainly great sins in the Church's history, the version of history most people accept without question is often legend, not history at all.
I'd also try to point out that for some reason, these conversations usually would circle back again and again to a number of common topics on the sins of the Church, but wouldn't often take into account the saints or the good works of the Church.
These long answers were sometimes helpful, sometimes not. And gradually I came to realize that my first priority didn't need to be correcting the record or bringing up the sanctity of certain members of the Church. I needed to focus on the essentials, on the very reason for the Church's being at all.
The short answer to the question "How can you still be Catholic" is this: The faith is better than we are.
That's it, really. The faith is better than we are — better than every pope who ever lived, better than every bishop or priest, woman or man, every member of the Church save Jesus and Mary. The faith is better than I am who write this, better than every person who speaks of the faith or teaches the faith or seeks to live the faith.
All those sinners and all those saints, all down the life of the Church? A thousand times less than the fullness of the faith. The only two people in the history of the Church to have fully lived the Catholic faith are Jesus and Mary. Everyone else, no matter how holy, falls below the stature of God Incarnate and the Immaculate Conception. Most of us do far worse than that. The faith is better than we are. The Lord is better than we are, greater than all of us, even Mary. Mary is infinitely lower than God, and the least of the kingdom of heaven are dramatically lower than she.
The Catholic faith is better than we are, and Catholicism is true. That is enough, and more than enough of a reason to still be Catholic — indeed, to always be Catholic, to cling to the Church and her faith through thick and thin.
And should the sinfulness of your fellow Catholics give you scandal, ask yourself the question posed by C. S. Lewis: "If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?"
The Church is full of sinners? Then it's doing its job, and we are to bring as many more in as we can persuade to enter. That work of evangelization is especially an obligation for those who love the Divine Mercy message and devotion.
But that openness of the Church to sinners doesn't mean we are to simply remain in our sins. No — we are to repent and become conformed to Jesus. That's our task all our lives, but especially in the penitential season of Lent, which begins this year on March 1, Ash Wednesday. It's a time of special grace to help us combat the Seven Deadly Sins with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. To help us all make an examination of conscience and change our lives, we'll be running a seven-part series on them throughout Lent. Stay tuned!
The Seven Deadly Sins