The horrific Church scandals dominating the headlines are not just a punch in the gut for Catholics—they're taken as sign by some skeptics, Protestants, and even non-practicing Catholics that they are doing the right thing by steering clear of the Faith.
Still, some of these people may earnestly reach out to you as a faithful Catholic to ask how they can make sense of it all. In those moments where you may have a chance to keep the lines of evangelization open for the future, it’s important to say the right things and avoid the wrong things. Catholic Answers staff weigh in here with some do’s and don’ts for discussing the crisis with them.
Director of Apologetics
Don’t allow yourself to react emotionally. Reason usually takes a hit when the emotions run high.
Don’t compromise the truth. Though it may be painful at times, it will indeed “make you free” in the end.
Do ask yourself, “How can I truly help in this situation?” Sometimes the most help you can give is to pray. Sometimes it involves activism. But all the time it should be about helping others rather than yourself.
Don’t water down or minimize the evils that have been committed. Frankly acknowledge that they are sins against man and God and cry out for justice.
Do point out that God will ultimately provide justice for the victims and the perpetrators, in this life and the next, and that he can bring good out of even the gravest evils—as he did with the death of his own Son, which brought about the salvation of the world. As the Catechism says, “The fact that God permits physical and even moral evil is a mystery that God illuminates by his Son Jesus Christ who died and rose to vanquish evil. Faith gives us the certainty that God would not permit an evil if he did not cause a good to come from that very evil, by ways that we shall fully know only in eternal life” (324).
Host, Catholic Answers Live
Don’t carry the burden of fixing this yourself. Each of us is very small and can only do so much. Let people know that you are firm in trusting Jesus even though this is very hard to bear.
Do share the Good News in season and out. Believe in the sacraments. Draw close to Jesus, and love others with patience and perseverance. Nobody gets to the end of his life and thinks, “Gee, given everything that’s gone on, I wish I had been less joyful about the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Fr. Hugh Barbour
Do pray and do penance as Our Lady has constantly requested us to do to save souls from hell.
Do concede as much truth as possible to your interlocutor's concerns.
Do intend that all you want is that your neighbor not be scandalized, that he is not weakened in faith and love by the sins of others. His perseverance in the Faith is more important than clearing up some misconceptions or false comparisons.
Do recognize that this, at the moment, is not so much a question of apologetics but a matter of the heart, so
Do draw the attention of your neighbor to Jesus and his suffering for us, and his endurance of the betrayals and malice of his ministers.
Do acknowledge that strong measures should be taken for the reform of the clergy.
Do let your neighbor know that his sadness and anger and concern are a good sign of his love for Jesus and his Church, and this already begins to make things better.
Don’t immediately try to shift the focus onto other communities where the same type of abuses occur. Although abuses do occur elsewhere, such an immediate shift will be seen as an attempt to minimize the evils committed.
Do affirm the person in his frustration, and assure him that you share it. Point out that such evils give good reason for righteous anger, and need to be purged.
Do apologize on behalf of the Church and ask for that person’s forgiveness.
Do remind that Christ’s promise to be with his Church doesn’t extend to the holiness of the members of his Church, but to the truth that his Church teaches concerning what we must believe and do to be saved.
Do encourage the person that he is the type of person that we need to be members of Christ’s Church: a person who recognizes evil and is willing to do something about it.
Do actively listen. This means paying attention to the speaker, carefully focusing on what's being said, and committing what was said to memory. When people are speaking about traumatizing events, they need to feel that they've been heard. They're far more likely to listen to you in return if you show that you've heard, understood, and respected what they have to say.
Don't rely on defensive apologetic approaches to the scandal, such as that it's being blown out of proportion or that the Church should be judged by its saints and not its sinners. Those answers may have been useful in the past, and may even contain some truth, but they're now seen by many people as deflections of grave evils.
Do give people (including yourself!) emotional space to vent their anger and frustration. St. Paul said, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). It’s okay to have righteous indignation; it’s just not okay to let anger fester and become a vindictive disdain for Christ’s Church.
Don’t immediately make arguments about how the misdeeds of some clerics do not invalidate the truth of the Church’s teachings or its divine foundation. These arguments are valid and need to be shared, but only when people are ready to receive them. One way to do this is to ask gentle questions like, “I know this whole thing is awful, but do you think it proves Jesus was wrong and that the gates of hell have prevailed against the Church (Matt. 16:18)?”
Do understand that the grave sins committed by members of the Church’s episcopacy and presbyterate locate their origin in a rejection of the Church’s teaching on chastity during the Sexual Revolution. Fifty years ago, Pope Paul VI said no to contraception. Countless theologians, pundits, and clergy defied him, and now anything goes. The Church is suffering today from the fruits of that dissent.
Don’t be too quick to propose (or accept) a merely therapeutic solution. To be sure, persons engaged in disordered behavior can benefit from psychiatric care, but this terrible scandal is an opportunity to discuss with people the reality of the supernatural world; in this case, the action of the devil and his demons, and how the Church calls us to spiritual combat. We need to pray and fast for bishops and priests. Mark 9:29: “And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.’”
Director of Publishing
Don’t tell them that things were even worse during other times in the Church’s history, but the Church still got through them. This may be a consoling point to certain Catholics, but to unbelievers, other Christians, and lukewarm Catholics it will not bring comfort but only confirmation of their suspicions.
Don’t criticize the Church too freely in an attempt to gain sympathy, or let your own anger or cynicism show through excessively. The manner in which we may safely share our frustrations about the Church’s imperfections when we’re among others “in the Catholic family” can be detrimental to those on the outside who we still hope will come to believe in the gospel and the full truth of Catholicism.
Do let them see your example of continued faith and Catholic practice. Sometimes it’s not clever argument but the witness of your perseverance in the truth that convinces best.
Do stay calm.
Do strive to acknowledge their concerns and feelings with empathy. Let them know through your kindness and patience that they are heard and understood.
Do express your own sorrow over these events. But don’t over-apologize.
Do plan out ahead how you’ll respond to the most predictable expressions of negative feelings (1 Pet. 3:15). Thinking of your replies in advance can pave the way to diffusing a lot of problems.